Minorities fight for racial equity, legalization from within the marijuana industry
"This is not a stoner industry," said one dispensary owner.
Nearly a decade ago, Linda Greene was having dinner with some of her friends when she heard that marijuana had been legalized for medicinal use in Washington, D.C. Having lived through the 1960s counterculture, she saw an opportunity.
Greene opened Anacostia Organics in 2019. The push to open the medicinal marijuana dispensary began after Greene saw that of the 15 original cultivator and dispensary licenses issued by the district’s Department of Health, none had been awarded to residents of the U.S. capital, and only two had been awarded to people of color.
Anacostia Organics became the first medical marijuana dispensary east of the Anacostia River, located in a poverty-stricken area that was also home to the majority of the city’s patients registered to buy marijuana for medicinal purposes. Greene, who aims to uplift the community in which her dispensary is located, said the drug has been misunderstood.
“This is not a stoner industry,” she told ABC News. “It’s been misconceived. ... It’s the industry of healing.”
Greene is one of over 320,000 Americans who work in the cannabis industry. The drug, which has been legalized for recreational use in 17 states and Washington, D.C., accounted for $17.5 billion in sales in 2020.
Yet, even as revenues from cannabis continue to grow across the country, the drug remains a federally prohibited Schedule 1 controlled substance -- in the same category as heroin, ecstasy and LSD.
That may change, though. Ninety-one percent of Americans surveyed believed marijuana should be legalized, according to a Pew Research Center survey from last month. Of those participants, 60% said it should be legalized both recreationally and medicinally. Only 8% said it should not be legal for any adult use.
The survey was conducted amid a heightened push by lawmakers to decriminalize the drug at the federal level and provide restorative justice to those who’ve been incarcerated for certain marijuana offenses. The House recently passed the SAFE Banking Act of 2019, which would make it easier for cannabis companies to operate in states where sales of the drug are legal.
During a press briefing on April 20, widely considered to be an unofficial holiday for marijuana users, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that President Joe Biden supports “decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana.”
But while Biden’s position may fall short of full recreational legalization, Andrew Freedman, the former director of cannabis coordination for the state of Colorado, said now may be one of the best chances to legalize the drug.
Freedman was widely known as Colorado’s cannabis czar. He spearheaded the state’s framework for recreational marijuana use legalization -- the first in the country. Since 2014, the industry has amassed $10 billion in sales and over $400 million in tax revenue that has been used in part to fund the state’s school-related projects.
He said the state has had legal marijuana for long enough now that it’s not even taboo anymore.
“If you go to Colorado right now, and you have conversations about cannabis, it’s the most normal thing in the world,” he said. “It stands right alongside alcohol. It stands right alongside the Denver Broncos as just a thing to have a conversation about.”
Freedman, who went on to advise other state governments about how to establish cannabis regulations, is now the executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation. The think tank represents stakeholders including big tobacco, big beer and security companies, among others.
With more states legalizing it, Freedman said the think tank’s goal is to focus on the “hows” of marijuana legalization rather than the “ifs.”
“Our strategy is really to stop focusing on if legalization should go forward, recognizing that legalization has gone forward,” he said. “It’s a reality for almost half of America.”
Virginia became one of the latest states to legalize marijuana for recreational use last month. But while it’s the first state in the South to do so, it’ll take three years for people to be able to sell the drug legally. Gov. Ralph Northam recently pushed the state legislature to speed up the timeframe to legalize simple possession in an effort to limit marijuana-related arrests.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of use.
Shanita Penny was charged with possession nearly a decade ago. She said she believes her encounter with the law is an example of the racial bias often seen in policing minorities who are caught with marijuana.
“It’s personal. I was on [Interstate 95] in Virginia when I was pulled over and arrested for cannabis possession,” she told ABC News. “Born and raised in Virginia, I didn’t think that would happen.”
Penny paid nearly $3,500 to expunge her record after being charged with possession. She said she believes it was only because she was able to get the help of an attorney. It was a difficult process, she said, even “for someone who’s reasonably resourced.”
“But for someone who’s not, this becomes a game-changer in the worst way,” she said.
Penny worked for several Fortune 500 companies as a consultant before founding cannabis consulting firm Budding Solutions. She said she thinks wielding her skills in compliance and business development will not only help cannabis businesses thrive but will also balance the scales of justice for minorities.
“It lit a fire under me to make legalization happen in a way that people who were not interested in consuming this plant or being part of this industry would fully understand why legalization is so important and how equitable legalization can impact your life, whether you’re touching this plant or not,” she said.
Decriminalizing marijuana possession first and foremost is important, she said, because if legalization is “truly going to prioritize racial equity and the harm that’s been done, then we needed to stop the harm as soon as possible.”
Like in Colorado, other states are increasingly seeing the revenue from their cannabis sales as a source of funding to pursue racial equity and economic opportunity, Freedman said.
“A lot of the conversation now is, how do you make sure that the economic opportunities available from a new economy are there for the communities most harmed by the war on drugs?” he said.
A resolution passed in Evanston, Illinois, in March would provide reparations to the communities hit the hardest: A portion of tax revenues from cannabis sales would go toward a $10 million fund over 10 years to help pay for home repairs or down payments for Black residents who’ve faced historically unfair housing practices.
In Virginia, the law to legalize cannabis includes the so-called Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which would direct 30% of tax revenue to communities that have been overpoliced for marijuana-related crimes.
“We have a lot of hopes on the commercial market here, particularly in Virginia,” said activist Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the group Marijuana Justice. “But it is going to be a hard push to truly make that equitable, and we would like to really say that this is a first step forward. This is a progressive step forward.”
In Washington, D.C., Greene says she also feels compelled to reinvest the fruits of her labor into her community. Along with opening Anacostia Organics in her own neighborhood, she also employs people who live there and teaches them the inner workings of the industry so that they, too, can one day build up.