The Unbearable Whiteness of the Marijuana Industry


Wanda James is the only black legal cannabis dispensary owner in the state of Colorado and she has held that distinction for a long time.

While being black makes her the exception in the nation’s most robust legal cannabis economy, James is beyond exceptional for any industry—she is a former Navy Lieutenant who was appointed to work on President Obama’s National Finance Committee as well as Colorado Governor Hickenlooper’s Amendment 64 Task Force. She and her husband have owned popular restaurants in the Los Angeles and Denver areas for nearly two decades and she has headed a handful of successful ventures in the cannabis industry.

“Unfortunately the black business community is not getting the message that it’s missing the boat,” says James. “So while some of this is definitely based in fear and racism, a lot of it is based in the fact that people of color are not even attempting to get into the industry on the ownership side, which is completely upsetting.”

Legal sales of marijuana in Colorado totaled $700 million in the first year, making the industry an economic force in the state on par with the lucrative agricultural export industry, which totals $718 million annually. According to Arcview Market Research, in 2014 the legal cannabis industry grew at a rate of 74 percent, from $1.5 billion to $2.7 billion, making it the fastest growing industry in America.

But as the industry continues to grow, women, people of color and people of different gender identities are noticeably absent from a lot of the success driving the historic national headlines. Despite being the groups to bear the damaging judicial brunt of the War on Drugs—particularly people of color—they are seemingly the last to be experiencing the windfalls of the evolving legal landscape.

In a sample of 50 top dispensaries operating in the Denver-metropolitan area, determined by volume and frequency of advertising crossed with public online profiles and media, the gender and racial breakdown of dispensary ownership is predominately male and white. Despite making up just 35 percent of Colorado’s total population, white males make up nearly two-thirds (58 percent) of dispensary license holders. Overall, whites made up a total of 84 percent of dispensary ownership and female dispensary owners comprised an abysmal 24 percent of the total—and every single one of the women in the sample is white. Gender identities couldn’t be determined in the survey.

And the demographic makeup doesn’t change radically when looking beyond simple dispensary ownership into the areas of investment and activism. Sixteen of 19 members of the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) are white males. The influential Marijuana Policy Project counts white males as six of its nine key staff. The breakdown of the two 2014 Arcview Investor meetings in Las Vegas and San Francisco—the biggest venture capital collective operating in the cannabis industry today—favored white males by more than 90 percent at both events.

James says that with over 600,000 arrests made a year for possession of drugs—85 percent of those for people of color—minority communities have been decimated by the enforcement of marijuana laws the most, yet are benefiting from legalization the least. She cites an ACLU report released last year, The War in Marijuana in Black and White, which concluded that although blacks use and possess marijuana at about equivalent rates as their white counterparts, they are 3.87 times more likely to be arrested. For that, she places some of the blame on influencers within the black community. She points specifically to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other black legislators in the state for pushing back against legalized cannabis in an attempt to “protect the children” and not to look “soft on crime.”

“It seems our black leadership is more than willing to hand over our young people to law enforcement over simple possession,” James says. “When in fact they are not protecting the children they are putting the children in a legal system that will destroy their lives.”

The sentiment is echoed and explored in great detail by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book looks at the implementation of drug laws during the dismantling of Jim Crow and the impact mass incarceration has had on American society as a whole and specifically in communities of color—there are more black people in America under correctional control today than were enslaved before the Civil War. Alexander explains this seemingly illogical support for drug war policies by community leaders of color:

“Yet another notable difference between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is that many African Americans seem to support the current system of control, while most believe the same could not be said of Jim Crow. It is frequently argued in defense of mass incarceration that African Americans want more police and more prisons because crime is so bad in some ghetto communities. It is wrong, these defenders claim, for the tactics of mass incarceration—such as the concentration of law enforcement in poor communities of color, the stop-and-frisk programs that have proliferated nationwide, the eviction of drug offenders and their families from public housing, and the drug sweeps in ghetto neighborhoods—to be characterized as racially discriminatory, because those programs and policies have been adopted for the benefit of African American communities and are supported by many ghetto residents. Ignoring rampant crime in ghetto communities would be racially discriminatory, they say; responding forcefully to it is not.”

Wanda James says the issue of mass incarceration is actually what brought her to cannabis business and advocacy. James’s brother was arrested in 1996 for possession of 4.5 ounces of cannabis, at the time he was just 17-years-old. He did a total of 10 years in the criminal justice system, including 3.5 years as an inmate in a private prison in Texas where he worked for free picking cotton.

“That incensed me,” James says.

Her brother is now free, done with the Texas penal system and works for James in her legal cannabis businesses. Most returned prisoners are lucky to find any employment at all—being branded a felon excludes a person from many of the rights granted under the U.S. Constitution—including voting rights—and prevents them from getting jobs or receiving college loans.

Both the racial disparities in marijuana arrests and the threat of child removal have largely intimidated many women and people of color from stepping up and entering the industry. Because white men were the least likely to get arrested or weren’t the primary caregiver to their children, they have assumed most of the business and legal risks of entering the industry during full prohibition and even now as it becomes legal.

“When you start to look at the amount of people who are not afraid to jump into industries as they begin, right now unfortunately it is white males,” says James. “Because we are seeing a lot of financing done by white males, they are obviously not looking for people of color…. It is really upsetting to see how many people have gone to jail for this drug and are now fearful of being a part of the business process while we [people of color] were definitely part of the prison process.”

Comparative to communities of color, the broader community of women are starting to get on board, although only a handful of (mainly white) women are involved at the top levels of lucrative cannabis businesses.

“Hopefully we keep inspiring women to move forward with this and hopefully black and brown people will join also,” says James.

Beyond activism, dispensary ownership and investment, women and people of color don’t fare as well in cannabis-specific media either. In issues of gender and racial equality, media portrayal is paramount to public opinion and dialogue.

Rae Lland is a self-identified feminist who recently assumed the title of editor-in-chief at the popular online cannabis magazine, making her one of the only women in the cannabis media space to hold a the title. She got involved in cannabis media after being arrested in 2012 for a used pipe found in her car during a routine traffic stop. She has transferred her feminist and anti-drug war ideals into the media she influences, and says she hopes to see a change in these communities’ representation.

“At least for most of cannabis culture’s history, women have been portrayed as decorative—they were consumption in the same way the buds were,” Lland says.

Upon assuming her new title, she has laid out plans to change their ongoing “Weedist Women” series simply to a “Featured Weedist” series, saying she sees that sort of appeal to women and minority communities as pandering. The new series will include significant representation from women, people of color and the LGBTQIA community. She says by specifically featuring minority communities in the context of being a minority rather than as part of the broader discussion they are being set up to compete against one another.

“It is less inclusive because it feels fluffier, it doesn’t feel organic,” Lland says. “Instead of measuring women up against the whole general population or the broader industry, it pits women simply against each other, measuring women against other women. It makes them feel like they are being left out of the general conversation and I suppose in some instances that could create feelings of competition.”

Lland says minority groups should be measured against and included in the broader conversation on cannabis industry and activism, not featured as a side-product or niche of it.

“Right now the default is white male because they dominate the industry. Women and all minority groups should be heard and have their issues discussed in a general way,” she says.

Lland points to the Huffington Post as an example of media pandering. She says that although HuffPo maintains sections of its site exclusively to “voices” from people of color, women and different gender identities, the conversations featured within those sections rarely become part of the broader front-page discussion.

“That’s segregation and it takes away from the general discussion. It assumes it is not a conversation all people want to or should be having. That’s just wrong,” she says.

Still, she says it is important to realize sexism, racism and homophobia are not exclusive to the cannabis industry, but that it is the responsibility of the entire cannabis community to make sure everyone is included.

“Sexism, racism and homophobia are in every industry out there, but cannabis has always been a culture I believe really welcomes people from the fringes of society. I think we all belong in the industry and we need to go after our space in it,” Lland concludes.

Wanda James says she is still optimistic that more women and people of color will go after their space in the industry, but that President Obama—specifically as a black man who has admitted to using cannabis—needs to be pushed to step up and speak out on the issue and make meaningful changes in marijuana policy. She says that since the passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado, fewer people (and thus many fewer members of the black community) have been put into the prison system for violating marijuana laws.

According to a report released in late March by the Drug Policy Alliance, one year of legal adult use cannabis sales in Colorado has had a major impact on the state’s criminal justice system. Marijuana arrests fell from over 30,000 in 2013 to less than 2,000 in 2014. The rate of charges for distribution of cannabis lobbied against young men of color fell from 87 per 100,000 to 25 per 100,000. And, although DPA says racial disparities still definitely exist in drug charges, the legalization of cannabis put less people of color beyond bars in Colorado.

“This is why I get so upset when I hear our governor to tell other governors to go slow [changing marijuana policies],” James says. “Colorado is an example of good social justice by changing the cannabis laws. We have to start to talk about cannabis in ways that make sense and get away from reefer madness.”

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