Minorities Avoid Cannabis Industry as History of Arrests, Incarceration Drive Fears

Very few minorities work in the cannabis industry in any capacity, let alone hold executive positions at dispensaries, grows, edibles companies or even ancillary firms.

Diversity is so scarce that Lakisha Jenkins said it sometimes seems as if she’s the only African American in the marijuana industry. “I feel like I’m representing the entire black community,” Jenkins said, describing her attendance at industry conferences and events.

There’s a “common consensus” that minorities are woefully underrepresented in the legal cannabis industry, said Jenkins, the owner of Kiona’s Farm’acy, the president of the California Cannabis Industry Association and a board member at the National Cannabis Industry Association.

While a number of factors play into the lack of minority business owners including the high cost of starting a company and other socio-economic factors, many are scared to have anything to do with marijuana thanks to the large number of arrests and unduly harsh sentences handed down to people of color for what many feel are petty violations, according to African Americans in the industry and social scientists.

Blacks and Latinos in the three largest U.S. cities are more than seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana infractions even though young whites have higher rates of consumption, according to data gathered by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. Nationally, federal data show blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Because of that, many minorities are afraid to enter the cannabis industry out of fear of jail time.

The knock-on effect, Jenkins said, is that African Americans and Latinos have thus far been unable to capitalize on the economic benefits of the nascent legal cannabis space.

“We’re on the ground floor where a brand new industry is emerging, a lucrative one, and (minorities) would otherwise be involved if not for that fear of persecution,” she said. “Whether we like or not, some socio-economic advantages aren’t always available to black Americans.”

Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine, said many African and Latino Americans likely have been or know someone who has been negatively affected by the government’s enforcement of drug prohibition. Patterns of arrest and sentencing have created a stigma in those communities that have people of color scared to even want to mention marijuana, much less start a business within the industry. Even as states legalize cannabis, it’s still federally illegal, and that may be enough to keep minorities away.

“The federal government still has the power to prosecute, and I can see that having a chilling effect on minorities getting into the industry because a shockingly disproportionate number get dragged into federal court on drug charges, and that’s where heavy sentences come from,” Lynch said. “They can get you on conspiracy, and that means you can get decades for what looks like a minor issue.”

It’s not just young blacks who will likely be shy about making inroads to the industry – Latinos will likely have just as hard a time getting into the legal cannabis industry, Lynch said.

Latinos comprise the largest group of federally convicted drug defendants, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. From 1992-2012, 40% of federally sentenced drug trafficking defendants were Latino, 31% were African-American and about 26% were white. In 2013, 48% of federally sentenced drug trafficking defendants were Latino.

Alex Rodriguez, the owner of the Tacoma rec shop Rainier on Pine, is of Cuban descent. He said that in Washington State and Oregon it may be uncommon to see a Latino business owner, but in Florida, where he’s originally from, it’s not as unusual. Still, he said, some Latinos in the industry may not be quick to tell people what they do for a living because marijuana “has a stigma (attached to it), so some people are not as open.”

Born and raised in Miami, Rodriguez said he closely watched as a Florida medical marijuana initiative in November fell 2 percentage points short of passage. Among the reasons, he said, is the promoters of the law didn’t do a good enough job of reaching out to Latino voters. If they had, the initiative would’ve garnered the extra number of votes needed to pass.

Ben Polara, the director of United for Care, an advocacy group that worked on getting the 2014 initiative passed in Florida, said the group spent money on getting all Floridians to vote yes on the bill. It wasn’t the lack of Latino votes, he said, rather it was the large number of voters aged 65 and older who voted no that sunk the measure.

While the prospect of going to jail even in a legal state market will keep many African Americans –- even those who are affluent — from entering the industry, it goes beyond race, said Shawn Coleman, the president of 36 Solutions, a lobbying firm based in Denver.

“There’s a whole issue of getting in (because of) the money needed to pay the start-up costs,” said Coleman. “That may be the constraining factor on who can get in.”

To enter the industry, a would-be cannabis business owner must often come up with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for start-up fees including licensing and security, Coleman said. Blacks and Latinos have long lived in a “generational” cycle of poverty, he said, one that’s difficult to break.

One example: the debate currently ongoing in Florida about who should qualify to win cultivation licenses for the state’s MMJ program. Not a single black farmer qualifies under the existing rules, in part due to discriminatory lending practices dating back decades.

The key to overcoming the obstacles and getting more minorities involved in the legal marijuana market will be education. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and other minorities already in the industry must do their part to encourage others to get involved.

The good news, Jenkins said, is people within the industry recognize the dearth of minorities and some are making an effort to make the legal cannabis space more inclusive. The National Cannabis Industry Association, for example, has formed a committee to find ways of getting more people of color involved.

“We need to do a better job educating our community as a whole on the medical benefits of cannabis and how you can use cannabis as a wellness product,” Jenkins said. “Changing people’s minds is not easily done – we have to take a grassroots approach. There’s no way we’re going to change that social stigma, and no way we’re going to have participation by minorities without education.

“It took decades of mental conditioning to get to this point, where we have this social stigma around cannabis and it’s going to take a lot of time for that to change.”

Tony C. Dreibus can be reached at tonyd@mjbizmedia.com.