The War on Weed Decimated My Community—Will There Be Restitution?

The War on Weed Decimated My Community—Will There Be Restitution?

The War on Weed Decimated My Community—Will There Be Restitution?

Legalization offers a chance to restore a fragment of what was lost by Black and Afro-Latinx communities pummeled by prohibition, but so far, white business are claiming the spoils.


I’m a Black high school student who goes to Brooklyn Tech. I’m from Harlem. School is interesting, with lots of different people from what I’m used to. I found a group of guys I think are my friends. We smoke at Fort Greene Park after school. I started selling weed when a white lady said we smelled good and was wondering if any of us could supply her with some. Now I buy a dub uptown to smoke half and sell the other half for a dub at school. I’ve never had my own money, so it’s cool.

I’m a Black twentysomething from the Bay in Cali. Being an actor on Broadway is what motivated me to move to New York City. I’m taking free acting gigs but hopefully I’ll get lucky and find one paying on Craigslist. It’s hard to be in the city alone, but I am gaining a network and found some people I can actually kick it with—through a means I had never imagined. My cousin got work, ridiculous amounts of work, and I’m a point of contact on the East Coast. So I’ve been making ends meet and meeting new people. It’s scary, but I have to live my dream.

All my life, I’ve seen Black faces making my city move like the people flickering past on a subway as it leaves the station. The bustling at the surface rides the undercurrent of the hustle right below it. Taking the 3 train from Rockaway Avenue to my first job, I’d watch all these Black people huddle, the look of the grind on their faces. I’d wonder where all of us would get off and what we’d do, no doubt in the posture of service. As we slid toward Manhattan, the car would begin to empty—a track worker at Atlantic Avenue, a 911 operator at Nevins Street, a nurse at Borough Hall, a janitor at Wall Street, a barista at 34th Street. I got off at 42nd Street—security guard.

As we scrambled to make our way in the city, many of us did other jobs too. On the books, off the books, some legal, some not, but no less legitimate for it. These jobs weren’t just the ones that white people didn’t want; they were the ones that white people had deemed illegal but whose benefits they were still happy to reap. You know the ones I’m talking about. They took different forms for different people, but for me, it always meant cannabis.

Weed has always been the purest of passions for me. It’s been different things at different junctures in my life—hobby, vocation, income—but it has always been my thing. In high school, I smoked with my buddy in Fort Greene Park. I met my first “Cali connect” answering a Craigslist ad. As far back as the early aughts, I remember taking the two-hour trips from Brownsville, deep in Brooklyn, up to Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights at the tip of Manhattan. At that time, Dominicans up there had the best haze in the city. The long trips didn’t stop there. I covered the country, and sometimes beyond, always in my search for the best.

Still, pure as my passion was, the fact of weed’s black-market status followed me. While anyone who spends time in a criminalized world faces some danger, that danger has always been magnified for Black people, warped out of all proportion by the racism of the American justice system. From the anti-”marihuana” craze of the 1930s to the brutality of the War on Drugs, Black and Afro-Latinx people have been harassed, frisked, arrested, and jailed for their association with cannabis. In my own home city, Black people have been arrested for low-level marijuana offenses at eight times the rate of their white counterparts.

At long last, however, some of that has begun to change as the call for legalization has grown from a rising chorus, lifted up largely by Black voices, to something big and loud and national. Marijuana distribution and use are now, for the most part, considered to be innocuous. Plenty would say that weed is a net-positive consumer product, economically and socially. It has long been a powerful medicine, and it is relatively safe compared with other recreational narcotics. It should be legal—legal to use, grow, and sell—and, slowly, that’s what’s happening.

Thirty-seven states have now approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and 18 of these states—from California to Maine, as well as Guam and Washington, D.C.—have legalized marijuana completely. Last year, New York State made marijuana legal for adults over 21, throwing open the gates to what could become a $4.2 billion industry. There’s even been movement at the federal level: In 2020, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.

But as legalization takes place, the makeup of the industry has begun shifting, from a majority Black and Afro-Latinx space—direct to consumer, mass distribution, mom-and-pop shops, and everything downstream from production—to an almost entirely white enterprise. “Legal Cannabis Is Almost Entirely White,” blared a headline in Forbes, and they weren’t exaggerating. When I go to Colorado and Washington, always in my search for the best, it is white faces I see in dispensary after dispensary.

So where do all those Black and Afro-Latinx faces go? The cannabis market has supported the economic well-being of families, neighborhoods, and small businesses. Numerous informal mom-and-pop cannabis shops already exist, and in some states have been serving marijuana smokers with great care and safety. A significant number of these small businesses can be found in Black and Afro-Latinx communities. If nothing changes, those communities face two scenarios, neither of them happy: They risk losing an important source of income as an entire economy shifts into the hands of a predominantly white ownership and white workforce, or they risk getting stuck in a parallel unlicensed and illegal market, in which they’ll keep being criminalized for doing the same things white people do in wide-open freedom.

And there’s more than that. Black and Afro-Latinx people from the legacy cannabis market have a wealth of knowledge that can and should be tapped to develop the legal marijuana industry. Cannabis was an established and robust billion-dollar economy well before legalization, and much of the credit goes to us. We know our local markets better than anyone and have the user base. And when the time comes that cannabis is legal federally, there is an existing national distribution network poised to help grow the sector. The new titans of the industry might think they can forge ahead without this knowledge, but what will be lost in the process? What will the industry be without us?

* * *

I’m a Black queer woman from New Orleans. My soul moves with the ease of the South, but my heart keeps firing like the high hats of a trap beat. I love music. I love the scene—jamming, writing, working with all the other brilliant artists—and so I have to make a space in this city. Music is a grind, so I’m grinding. I like to curate an experience. Have only the finest and some flare: packaging, marketing, parties, and performance. Build a brand and don’t compromise the product, damn the numbers. That is how I’ve met some of the most down to earth brothers and sisters in this game. I can’t help but create. Weed has been a way for me to reach and teach in the spaces I need to be.

There are a host of reasons why someone participated in the legacy cannabis market. I can only speak from my experience, but almost all the people I came across weren’t looking to be drug kingpins. If anything, they were just doing capitalism to make ends meet. I think about my homegirl who moved here from the South, following her passion for music, or an elder I know who fell victim to the criminal justice system when he was younger for “trafficking” weed. He’s free now and making a life for himself, but there isn’t a great pension plan for an ex-con, so he does what he knows.

As for me, my reasons have changed over the years, shifting as I’ve matured. Today I work 9 to 5, 40 hours a week. I’m a dad or a personal assistant. My son’s itinerary dictates my time more than my own—ask my wife as she pencils in our next date night. Cannabis is still a passion as well as a vice. It’s also a meditation, a medicine, and a habit.

I know what cannabis has meant to me, meant to my friends, but unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good data to validate our years in the industry—the families supported, rents paid, communities sustained. Since the cannabis market has long been an informal one, it has been hard to accurately depict consumption and expenditures compared with a regulated substance like alcohol, and all the more so in the case of Black and Afro-Latinx communities. Nonetheless, research done by the RAND Corporation found that the black market for cannabis generated some $40.6 billion in 2010. That’s just an estimate, and it comes from more than a decade ago, but it gets the message across: Marijuana is big money.

And it’s getting bigger. Nearly a decade after Colorado and Washington became the first two states to give their blessing to recreational marijuana, the country is in the grips of a full-blown green rush. Today, cannabis is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country, with a robust job market. By the end of 2021, it employed some 428,000 people full-time. And the economic churn of all this newly legal labor is impressive, reaching $25 billion in sales last year. By 2028, the legal marijuana market is projected to pull in $70.6 billion, according to Grand View Research.

My friends, my community, should be able to access some of this abundance, but getting in on the green rush isn’t easy. Sure, we’ve kept the industry spinning for years, but most of us don’t have the credentials—no MBA, no “certificate in weed distribution”—or the resources to navigate the onerous licensing process. Plus it’s expensive—more expensive than many mom-and-pop entrepreneurs can afford—and thanks to our long exclusion from the banking system, most of us can’t access the financial institutions that guard the capital that could help us get our businesses going. The fact is, licenses have remained too far out of reach for all but the biggest, whitest, most corporate operators.

And so, as I look at this vast new landscape—one that is increasingly populated by a new breed of Big Weed bros—I have to wonder: Where do I fit in? I have dreams of starting my own business, and I’m working toward that now, but the oddsmakers will tell you that the number of Black-owned legal cannabis businesses is blindingly small. In 2017, a survey by Marijuana Business Daily found that only 4.3 percent of legal marijuana business owners were Black, while 81 percent were white, with the remaining 15 percent Hispanic, Asian, or other (and yeah, Marijuana Business Daily thought these figures weren’t actually that bad). More recently, Leafly, an online cannabis marketplace with a research wing, put the number of Black-owned legal cannabis companies at 2 percent.

So, after all this time—after all the dangers faced, the lives ruined—is this what our brave new cannabis world will look like?

* * *

I’m a Black man. I’ve been out for two years now. Met the love of my life. I’m so thankful for love and freedom. I went up on weed charges. Possession with the intent to sell. Sentenced to seven years. Crazy. Could have made more money selling crack for all that time. I got out with no skills, no education, and no pathway to being a law-abiding citizen. So I made do the only way I knew how. That put me back in. Life is good now, though. I’m over 60 and creating the best life I could have imagined from my bunk bed those years ago. I still make weed deliveries for this young cat who has a hyper-focused business mind. I’m hoping to save some money to actually own my own home. Who’d have thunk it? I know the risk, but my life opportunities were limited from the day I got locked for an ounce of weed.

I’m a Black man driving down I-95. Blaring music, I go down an empty road with tears streaming down my face. I work, but I had kids young, and it’s not amicable with the moms—one of them. I have to pay child support for three kids, they’re my legacy. Even with a well-paying job, I take pennies home. So here I am, riding down I-95 with 25 pounds of weed in my trunk, heading down south. Rent in the city and child support is such a financial burden, and I just feel stuck. In the meantime, I see all these white people “getting into the cannabis industry.” I’m in the marijuana business, and if I’m pulled over, I’ll be in it. Wish me luck.

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the dangers faced by Black people in the weed industry. As I said, weed has been different things to me at different points in my life, and from my various perches, I’ve witnessed all the moving parts of the underground marijuana industry in the US and even abroad.

When I was younger, it was my luck that I met dealers, or as I prefer to call them, small business owners, who didn’t smoke and needed someone who did. Here is where I came in—who else was going to taste test their weed for them? Over the years, I had refined my pallet and could accurately taste subtle differences between strains or growers, identify and articulate terpenes and effects as well as profile clientele to pair with cannabis amidst the endless options. I got to see the inner workings of the marijuana industry from a vantage point most consumers would only see in films. Rooms with copious amounts of reefer, trips to penthouse parties, and the thrills of danger. And what became clear to me early on is that Black and Afro-Latinx men did the dirty work of distributing marijuana for decades, taking on the risk to their life and liberty.

Two years ago, I went to Barcelona. I’d heard good things about the city’s cannabis clubs, so I was eager to see how their weed stacked up. But it didn’t take long for me to spot a familiar sight in a bower-like open-air eatery: a Black dude saying, “Coffee shop! Coffee shop!” It took me right back to my old neighborhood, seeing a Black dude serenading the block with “Sour! Got that Sour!” The only difference was this Black man was African, not African American. As I phased back into the present, I thought about how familiar this encounter was. In Barcelona, I saw a Black man doing the same job as usual: the one with the risk.

Throughout the history of the modern weed industry, Black and Afro-Latinx men have been relegated to the most unsavory assignments, and often suffered the consequences. Although Black and white people use cannabis at nearly identical rates, a recent ACLU study for the years 2010 to 2018 found that Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people—and that in one Georgia county, Black people were almost 100 times more likely to be arrested than their white peers.

The Black community didn’t need these studies to tell us that we’ve had a target on our backs. The long arm of the law has always been reaching for us. In contrast, the white people I knew in the industry had it easier. In my experience, it was mostly white men who grew marijuana, and this labor was not assigned the same criminality as trafficking or selling a dime bag. In the regions where marijuana was grown domestically, like Northern California, law enforcement would let producers cut their crop and just wave a finger, according to the stories I heard. Even white dealers have not incurred the same systemic risk as Black dealers. I knew them too: a laid-back Jewish skateboarder kid—he would kick and push from Midtown to downtown in the city; a cool-ass white girl born and raised in the East Village—she hustled out of her apartment right across the street from a police precinct; a part-time model living in the West Village—he would stroll around with his gym bag filled with pounds of marijuana and not a care in the world. Their lives were different.

A few years ago, I was walking up Eighth Avenue in Midtown when suddenly I was stopped by the police for “fitting the description” of some suspect. I asked what the description was and learned that not only was I wearing a different-colored shirt but also different-colored jeans from the person they were hunting. I didn’t “fit” the description. I protested the stop and was allowed to go. But being let off does not lessen the indignity of a stop-and-frisk or ease the constant fear Black and Afro-Latinx people suffer because of law enforcement. According to the US Sentencing Commission, 84 percent of the more than 2,000 cannabis offenders federally sentenced in 2018 were Black or Afro-Latinx. In contrast, only 11 percent were white. Yeah, those white dealers’ lives were different.

* * *

I am a Black man with 25 years of experience in the legacy market and no ”credentials” to speak of. With the passage of cannabis legalization in my hometown, I want to make the most of my passion and expertise, but I can’t simply update my résumé. There is no way for me to own my knowledge. My 25 years were spent under the enormous pressure of the law and the streets. I’ve been held at gunpoint by the police and by another Black person just trying to get ahead. It’s ironic because cannabis has always been an innocent joy. I’ve never heard of an “angry” high. Having my own business—moving into a space I can relieve the pressure and just breathe in—is a dream, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a chance to right the multiple wrongs of the “War on Drugs.”

By now it’s obvious that we’re still a long way from the golden age of cannabis so many of us have dreamed of. But there is a way to get there, an alternative approach that recognizes that legalization isn’t just about chic dispensaries and legal highs; it’s about restitution—about recognizing the long history of Black and Afro-Latinx people in the cannabis trade and the steep price we’ve paid.

So far, we’re not seeing a ton of this, but in an attempt to right old wrongs, a number of legislatures have started creating “social equity” programs that, among other things, set aside a certain number of licenses for “marginalized” communities. In California, a number of cities and counties have launched such programs, funded with grants from the state. New Jersey has created “impact zones.” New York has gone biggest of all, with a goal of allocating 50 percent of cannabis licenses to social equity applicants—“minorities,” women, disabled veterans, financially strapped farmers—while reinvesting 40 percent of the tax revenue in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. It’s also tried to structure the process to avoid the kind of corporate infiltration that’s quashed mom-and-pop ventures in other states.

This all sounds nice, but beyond the fact that these kinds of efforts are far from universal, there’s a big difference between talking a good equity game and playing one, and early reports suggest there’s a lot more talk than action. In California, the Los Angeles Times recently reported, “a lack of funding, shifting requirements and severe delays in processing applications” have stalled equity efforts, “often creating additional hardships and roadblocks instead of removing them.” In Colorado, the head of the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative recently accused the state of creating a program that’s “only really helping white people qualify.” As for New York, it’s starting strong, with Governor Kathy Hochul recently announcing that the state’s first 100 licenses will go to applicants who’ve been convicted of a marijuana-related offense or whose relatives have. But even so, I’ve got my concerns.

For instance, who will make sure the state doesn’t stop at those first 100 licenses? Who will make sure the very idea of a “social equity” applicant isn’t diluted to mean any category of “minority,” regardless of how seriously their community was targeted? Who will insist that Black and Afro-Latinx communities are made whole?

A few months back, I attended a webinar for cannabis entrepreneurs hoping to get a license in the state. The seminar, which was hosted by a new-business incubator in partnership with a university, focused on best practices for fundraising and financing. It offered some great information and expertise. But as I listened to the experts—all white, all from the legally existing cannabis market—I wondered if this was a sign of what “equity and inclusion” would look like in New York. Here were a bunch of well-positioned white folks, split-screened on my tablet, all of whom had stepped out of other fields into the legal cannabis market with absolutely no cannabis experience. Each introduction went something like this: “So you were a successful [input white-collar occupation] and you risked it all to go into legal cannabis. What made you want to do it?” The answer: They were able to parlay their “credentials” as doctors, venture capitalists, or CPAs to capture highly competitive licenses or cannabis industry dollars.

Then there was me, the social equity applicant. I’ve lived the War on Drugs; I’ve earned my stripes in the cannabis field. But the all-white panelists couldn’t speak to my situation. The lead facilitator did do a nice jig about the ugly history that informed the need for social equity licenses, but he didn’t offer any advice on how to navigate the process. That didn’t stop another panelist from sharing this bright suggestion: Perhaps the white webinar participants could pair with a Black or Afro-Latinx entrepreneur as a way to win one of the coveted equity licenses. Yep, she said the quiet part out loud.

I don’t know precisely how New York can achieve the equity goals it’s set—or even better, blast past them—but I do know what equity will look like. Let me remind you of some statistics: In New York City, Black and Latinx people made up more than 92 percent of those arrested on marijuana-related charges in 2020. I believe equity will be achieved when we see the establishment of a comparable number of small Black and Afro-Latinx-owned businesses, including licenses to grow marijuana.

The North Star is economic justice. Economic justice for the Black and Afro-Latinx communities that were the chief casualties of the War on Drugs. We should not overlook the wealth that could be generated by the marijuana industry. We should also acknowledge that this industry has not appeared as a result of innovation, as the dot-com sector did. If we want to claim to be making progress, then we need to take this opportunity to build wealth in long-targeted communities. We need to do the action of anti-racism instead of reproducing anti-Blackness. This would be poetic in its justice. If this makes you uncomfortable… think of your weed guy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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