It would be hyperbolic to say that a disproportionate criminal justice system stems solely from cannabis. However, it would be accurate to say that marijuana continues to play a significant part in the unjust system. Only in recent years have efforts been made to curtail such activity. Still, much is left to be addressed.
Marginalized communities, particularly Black people, have perpetually been the targets of laws. Overt examples are found in the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries. Others, like marijuana laws, claim to target all offenders equally. However, the earliest proponents of the ban in America used racist fear-mongering propaganda to pass legislation.
Harry J. Anslinger, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was an ardent prohibitionist. To get the United States to ban marijuana, Anslinger relied on the first wave of cannabis propaganda. Racism was often the center of the false media, portraying Black and Mexican cannabis users as threats to White America. While difficult to verify original sources, Anslinger is often cited with misinformation and statements that advanced racist narratives.
Cannabis’ racist agenda continued as President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs catalyzed a prison population spike. Roz McCarthy, founder and CEO of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), explained that "There was a deliberate push to incarcerate, arrest, and target individuals from a certain community." It would take decades before a Nixon administration official would admit the program was advanced to suppress Black, minority, and hippy communities.
The drug war played its part in seeing the prison population increase 600% in 40 years, from 218,466 in 1974 to roughly 1.5 million in 2014.
Saki Fenderson is an author, cannabis educator, and community activist with nearly a decade of experience working with plant-based medicines. The TLBK co-founder told Green Flower that since the war on drugs, officers often use the smell of marijuana as their justifiable cause to conduct stop-and-search procedures, which primarily affects Black and minority communities.
“The presence or suspected presence of cannabis has the inference and acceptance that Black folks are at best criminal or at worst, life-threatening,” explained Fenderson.
The multi-hyphenate activist named several instances where cannabis has been cited as the reason police officers took part in action that resulted in the deaths or vicious beatings of Black individuals over the years. Such instances mentioned include Rodney King, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile.
Fenderson cited state actions as well, including New York's 1977 decriminalization effort. “Cannabis was decriminalized specifically in response to the activism of suburban White parents who fought to protect their children from possession charges stemming from multiple arrests at a Grateful Dead concert,” said Fenderson.
In a 2019 Buffalo News article by reporter Tom Precious, the 1977 bill's Assembly sponsor, Richard Gottfried, recalled the Parent Teacher Association's constant presence at his office as arrests started reaching the doorsteps of White households. “Their motivation was that it was a lot of their kids who were getting arrested. It was very much a middle class and even suburban issue," explained Gottfried in Precious’ article.
It has become common to see cannabis companies and groups announcing efforts to support inclusion, diversity, entrepreneurship, and other key areas aimed at supporting substantive reform. While many are making strides, many others fall short for several reasons.
It has been no industry secret that industry inclusion is critical. However, too many teams and executive boards can remain all-White or having just one minority in an otherwise homogeneous group.
Business ownership is just as much a problem. For example, Massachusetts' 2019 marketplace data found that only 3.6 percent of 449 business applications came from minority applicants. Another statistic revealed that the combined Black and Hispanic workforce population failed to reach 10%.
Numerous cannabis brands do make good-faith efforts to promote social and prison justice reform, as well as inclusive efforts. Examples include cannabis cultivator and extracts producer Viola Brands, a Black-owned venture from former NBA star Al Harrington. Over its 10 years of existence, the brand has done its part to assist Black-owned ventures in getting off the ground. Such efforts include helping Los Angeles-area business hopefuls during the application process.
Other efforts include ventures led by legacy operators like Steve and Andrew DeAngelo’s Harborside, which advocates for several causes, namely the Last Prisoner Project.
However, some of the space's largest companies tend to lag on taking action to support social justice reform. These multi-state operators (MSOs) are massive brands with a presence that stretches across numerous state marketplaces. While not sure to become a major cannabis industry powerhouse in the end, MSOs currently represent the brands most likely to establish a national presence if federal legalization occurs anytime soon. Yet, for most, they remain in the background on the matter.
Overall, M4MM’s McCarthy is one who feels the industry can and should do more. "When you have trade organizations spending over $1.5 million in lobbying efforts at the state level, at the federal level, for the banking act, we want to see that type of expenditures for expunging records.”
She added, "We want to see resources put into place that actually show support and action."
“The cannabis industry has a responsibility to help address some of the wrongs from the 1970s all the way now to 2020,” said M4MM’s McCarthy. She added, "The industry...should take up this issue and do a strong push for policy change state by state.”
Evan Nison, a cannabis activist, lobbyist and entrepreneur, agrees, noting the influence of the modern industry in reshaping all drug policy. "We have more political influence and resources than ever before. Being true to our roots and seeing this through as a criminal justice issue can impact society more than legalizing cannabis alone ever could," said Nison.
TLBK’s Fenderson believes that cannabis must break the chain of taking from Black industries and replacing it with empty promises of job creation and tokenism in the workplace. Highlighting past instances, like with the lottery, Fenderson said lawsuits, petitions, and lobbies against social equity must end.
"Success-driven models have to be enacted and supported by the entire industry." The entrepreneur and advocate called for benefits and incentives to be accessible to those most affected by the drug war.
Fenderson explained, "Those tax incentives and rewards need to be available to repair the communities hardest hit by the imbalanced marihuana arrests which have impaired communities hardest hit for over forty years."