Minorities, Once Wary of Drug Stigma, Now Seek Bigger Cut of Burgeoning Marijuana Industry

PHOTO: The Minority Cannabis Business Association was founded in Oct. 2015.PlayJeannette Ward
WATCH Medical Marijuana: A Timeline

When cannabis business owner Jesce Horton began attending trade conferences and events, he quickly realized the lack of diversity in the marijuana growing industry.

So, Horton, owner of Panacea Valley Gardens/Edibles in Portland, Oregon, started the Marijuana Cannabis Business Association in October 2015 with two other friends with newly formed cannabis businesses. The hesitation by many minorities to even consider entering the emerging cannabis industry, including Horton's friends and family, also drove him to organize the group.

"We mostly got over our hesitancy," Horton said, "but many are scared to get involved because of the fear of being the first to get arrested if things went wrong, or the worry that a prior drug offense would ruin an opportunity to even work in this industry, or the sheer reality that they can’t afford a $100,000 license fee, and they don't know anyone who does."

This week, Pennsylvania became the 24th state to legalize a comprehensive medical marijuana program.

Cannabis sales nationwide jumped 17 percent last year to $5.4 billion, according to ArcView Market Research, and they are expected to reach $6.7 billion this year.

Horton said the group fears minorities will be "missing the boat from an economic standpoint."

"There are many minorities who feel disgruntled about the shaping of the industry and would rather not support it at all," Horton said. Meanwhile, there are many minorities who could benefit from cannabis use for health purposes, but they still choose not to participate due to their perception of the "war on drugs" or failing to see the benefit of cannabis legislation in their local communities.

Horton was voted chairman at the group's second board meeting last month in San Francisco. The new group has only six companies as members and the membership drive for individuals and new companies began today.

In addition to connecting with other business owners, the group is working to educate communities on their potential involvement and policy issues, including tackling what he calls "insensible" barriers to entry, such as "subjective" license policies and "ridiculous fees."

Horton said he expects new members to have diverse backgrounds.

"This includes young and more seasoned," he said, adding that the group's board members represent growers, retail operators, marketing directors, comedians, activists, lawyers, doctors and educators.

"Cannabis has a huge demographic of patients or consumers and the industry should be representative of this fact," Horton said.

There aren't any reliable numbers estimating the percentage of cannabis business owners who are people of color, Horton said, as most states don't track the application and acceptance rates of minority license applicants. The group's board members have advocated tracking this in states like Massachusetts and Oregon. The group is working with U.C. Berkeley for a demographic study of the cannabis industry this summer, including analyzing the level of minority ownership and employment.

Cyrus Dioun, a doctoral candidate with U.C. Berkeley's sociology department who is leading the study, told ABC News they hope to conduct the survey annually.

“We’re studying the relationship between state policies regulating marijuana and the degree of diversity and inclusion in the industry," Dioun said.

The lack of diversity in the industry creates a problem that goes deeper than just "perception," Horton said.

"This industry is being birthed from a plague that is finally getting coverage in the country: mass incarceration as a result of the war on drugs. Cannabis possession and cannabis intent to distribute were a large portion of these arrests," Horton said, adding that many of those arrests targeted communities of color.

Despite the challenges, Horton calls the field "an amazing industry."

"It is full of activists and great people who also believe in this mission, regardless of their background our culture," Horton said. "Everyone is working hard to make sure this becomes an better industry, not just another industry and we see this as our way to help do so."

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