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

By Tony C. Dreibus

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 [email protected]

11 comments on “Minorities Avoid Cannabis Industry as History of Arrests, Incarceration Drive Fears
  1. Ean Seeb on

    I agree with this article. I would love to see more diversity in this industry. Lakisha is a huge asset and has been involved much longer than many of us. She is well respected among her peers and colleagues and I echo the sentiments she shared above.
    Thank you to MJ Business Daily for bringing more attention to the lack of diversity in the cannabis industry!

    Reply
  2. Paris Holley on

    As a minority entrepreneur in the space, having grew up in rough Chicago neighborhoods where drug arrests were prominent and had a strong impact on my family and friends, this is a reach. Having a career previously in consulting, where blacks and latino’s had virtually no presence, the issue is far more related to socioeconomic issues than fear of cannabis. In fact, many members of my previous communities have expressed interest in coming into the industry, but it is the lack of education or capital that prevents it from happening.

    If you look at the number of entrepreneurs coming in to the space, it is safe to say that a majority of them have applicable experience in other industries. According to 2007 census data, only around 7% of all businesses are owned by blacks, 35% are based on unskilled labor and only 10-20% are large enough to pay employees. We can’t expect minorities to penetrate a new and risky industry without bringing anything to the table. While I don’t discredit the points in this article, social injustice isn’t the only factor in this discussion.

    https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/economic_census/cb10-107.html

    Reply
  3. c.h. smith on

    Racketeerung elements are willful and wanton ugnorance – marijuana tax act passed in spite of AMA recommendation against it, conspiracy has occured over a 75 year period, those involved benefited through growth of pharmacueticals and illegal drug transactions done under color of law, violence and terror inflicted on those who opposed, confiscation of property, etc. I propose that secret oath of 33rd degree Freemasons is to work toward installing and maintaining prohibition in Cannabis. Ultimately, if DNA only expands when relaxed and expansion is necessary for tranafiguration and transmutation, prohibition represents a high level spiritual war against those wishing to transfigure once incoming energies are at higher levels. Melanun provides method of converting sound and light to energy, those with melanin will convert energy faster than those without. Those who do not convert photon energy will perish.

    Reply
  4. Denny on

    Playing the race card is becoming an easy out when people don’t really have a legitimate point to make, but want to stir things up a bit. It’s the easy way out and it does nothing toward clarifying or correcting a legitimate problem or adjusting a process.

    Reply
    • skyhigh on

      Seems like the article spoke truth and facts to me. It seems when that is done these days “certain people” want to yell about pulling the race card….smh.

      Reply
  5. jean on

    KISS is all i have to say. its something that with some practice and insight can develop into a good income while at the same time knowing EXACTLY what your consuming being that you were the caretaker without any middlemen or government interference . problem is it makes NO MONEY for THEM when you can FREELY do it at home .

    Reply
  6. Angie on

    One of the possible reason most Floridians over 65 voted against legalization, is because they haven’t been faced with the dilema of needeing this medicine. They still think that marijuana is the worst drug on earth thanks to Nixon. As long as America continues to be so closed minded and controlled by the lies the poloticians sell, no progress will be done regarding marijuana decriminalization. Also the Millennial generation in Florida seems to Be too bussy at the gym (Not all of us). Nobody cares about reform. I wish I had power, because I would help Hispanics develop their own businesses, since Hispanics are one of the fasting growing market today. Unfortunatelly to the governmemt we are just Minorities. That’s all Blacks and Hispanics are. And I say it because as A student from Colombia, I have never seen anyone stand up for their believes, or against what politicians lie about. And if you do, they will find any way to silence you.
    The only way the Marijuana Business industry will grow, is by actually educating audiences about all the recent studies that are being conducted not only in America, but in the rest of the world including Canada, Germany , Italy and others. We also need to observe Uruguay… A Latin American Country that has legalized marijuana.
    We can get there, with the right advertising.

    Reply
  7. CO 420 Websites on

    The more diversity that is introduced to this growing market, the more its going to expand. The more varieties of lifestyles, experiences and expectations we add to the mix will force businesses to meet more and more specific needs. We need businesses that cater to those needs as well as the big “Walmart” brands for the many!

    Reply
  8. Floyd Sutton on

    You are absolutely right about the condition and mindset of older people in our community especially minorities we have been conditioned to believe it is the devil’s weed and has nothing to do with the devil or weed and is a valuable resource to our community in our lives it’s the healing of the nation I am charged to help the people in the Virgin Islands recognize their place in prosperity as minorities and people of the islands we need to recognize that this is not a bad product but an excellent resource for our industry of tourism

    Reply
  9. Deanna on

    “You don’t necessarily have to be a dispensary owner; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry; your time and talents can be utilized in so many ways,” says Jenkins of the NCIA,
    Ms Jenkins made this statement recently and I applaud her natural insight that there are ways, means and avenues available that aren’t restricted by past forensic injustices. This issue is hotly pertinent and the conversation is young; my hope is that there isn’t too much stagnation in responding to this wake-up call.

    Reply

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