To navigate the evolving role cannabis plays in society, we must operate through a healing lens. American racism, bore from the imperial pursuits of Western Europe and enshrined by an economy built upon chattel slavery, is inextricably woven into the criminalization of cannabis. As the legal industry continues to grow in value, we must always remember who made it possible for cannabis businesses to thrive. The cannabis industry is built on the labor of the Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community, who endured decades of unjust violence under the guise of the war on drugs.
Prohibition was an intentionally racist policy instituted by the United States government and continues to disproportionately harm BIPOC citizens across the country. Prohibition policies, described by author Michelle Alexander as the New Jim Crow, are a glaring example of structural racism in the nation. The legal cannabis industry has a responsibility to help dismantle the injustice perpetuated by these policies.
Juneteenth is a historically monumental day on which the Black community celebrates the right to freedom in the United States. The day serves as a reminder that Black people have a right to the reclamation of spaces traditionally dominated by White people. In 2021, Whitney Economics reported that more than 13 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Black, yet only 1.2 to 1.7 percent of cannabis business owners are Black. All industry operators understand how difficult it is to obtain capital, maintain compliance with shifting regulations, and stay profitable in a federally illegal market. Black entrepreneurs face all of these challenges on top of daunting racial discrimination. The cannabis community has the power to shape a culture that dismantles racism and uplifts Black leadership in all sectors of the market.
Juneteenth and generational wealth
On June 19, 1865, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read the order declaring all enslaved people in the United States free. One year later, the Black community in Texas organized the first of many annual celebrations to commemorate their freedom. The day became colloquially known as Juneteenth, or Freedom Day.
Slavery had been abolished, but racism remained a pillar of dominant culture. Segregation policies maintained discriminatory dynamics in the community, and Black people were not legally permitted to celebrate in public spaces used by White people. The Black community, resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable racism, found a way to celebrate. In 1872, as a collective, they purchased ten acres of land in Houston where they could gather freely on Juneteenth and dubbed the property Emancipation Park. More than a century later, it remains an iconic location for Juneteenth celebrations.
Emancipation Park demonstrates the way in which traditions of racism remain a formidable force in post-Civil-War society. The abolition of slavery did little to repair the damage inflicted by centuries of maltreatment. Today, Black people continue to experience institutional violence at disproportionate rates.
Jim Crow laws technically were eliminated, but many of those policies were covertly sewn into the legal fabric under which we operate today. The U.S. war on drugs has exacerbated adverse conditions for Black communities across the country by targeting predominantly Black neighborhoods for drug enforcement. Today, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely than a White person to be arrested for cannabis-related charges. Prohibition enforcement, which unjustly stains the records of working-class Black people with criminal drug charges, also helped exacerbate the racial wealth gap. The current net worth of a typical White family is nearly eight times greater than that of a Black family.
For these reasons, Juneteenth holds critical contemporary significance. The holiday is a celebration and assertion of the Black community’s financial freedom, as well as their right to generational wealth. The cannabis industry has the ability to offer Black entrepreneurs an opportunity to build generational wealth and heal generational trauma.
Black-owned businesses making their mark
Entrepreneurs like Wanda James, Hope Wiseman, and Tucky Blunt are paving the way in the cannabis industry. These Black leaders have asserted their space in the market, each striving to establish racial justice as a pillar of the legal industry.
Wanda James and her husband Scott Durrah launched Simply Pure edibles shortly after Colorado legalized recreational cannabis, and in 2015 they became the first Black entrepreneurs to receive a license to open a dispensary. James and Durrah hold the title of the first Black executives in the country to own a dispensary, a cultivation facility, and an edibles brand. James, a long-time political activist, also serves as the managing partner at the Cannabis Global Initiative (CGI), a marketing and consulting firm that specializes in diversity development, regulatory framework, and marketing. Through education, advocacy, and network building, CGI empowers people of color to become self-sufficient shareholders in the cannabis industry.
In 2018, Hope Wiseman became the youngest Black woman in U.S. history to own a dispensary when she opened Mary and Main in Capitol Heights, Maryland, a primarily Black community. Wiseman works to provide medical patients with compassionate service, engaging in social action and cannabis education with the community. The same year, Tucky Blunt Jr and his partner Brittany Moore opened Blunts and Moore, the first equity-owned cannabis retail facility in Oakland, California. Blunt, who started in the legacy industry at the age of 16, opened the doors to Blunts and Moore in the same zip code where he was arrested for selling cannabis illegally in 2004.
Cannabis Doing Good (CDG), a Black- and woman-owned organization, works to build a culture that empowers the leadership of trailblazers like Wiseman and Blunt. In 2017, CDG began fostering a cannabis community that sets the standard for environmental and racial justice. The organization creates pathways for consumers to support Black-owned businesses, provides antiracism training for cannabis companies, and offers resources for businesses to recenter communities. In 2020, CDG launched the Cannabis Impact Fund, a nonprofit that allows companies to pledge 1 percent of sales to support racial justice organizations.
Best practices for inclusive businesses
Leaders in the industry realize the responsibility to develop best practices and shape an inclusive culture has fallen largely on their shoulders. While legalization strategies almost always feature environmental standards and social-equity provisions, their implementation has been minimally effective. Experts in cannabis, especially those from the legacy market, must guide the ethical evolution of the industry in accessibility, racial justice, and environmental protection. Cannabis entrepreneurs have the opportunity to build a culture that dismantles the stigma around the plant and educates the community about its racialized criminalization.
Celebrating BIPOC entrepreneurs achieving “firsts” in the industry is vital, and doing business with BIPOC-owned companies is a key part of creating an inclusive and just cannabis community. However, BIPOC-owned businesses should be a standard, not an anomaly. Government programs continuously fail to provide appropriate support to entrepreneurs of color and those transitioning out of the legacy market, but cannabis has a long tradition of uniting people and there is room for everyone in the industry. Socially ethical businesses are always asking themselves how they can help entrepreneurs of color build a foundation for long-term success.
Those with power in the industry have a responsibility to promote BIPOC leadership and agency. This work must begin internally, shaping an inclusive workplace culture and developing a shared understanding of cannabis justice. Black-owned organizations like Cannabis Doing Good and the Cannabis Global Initiative can help businesses build an organizational culture that thrives in racial diversity and leads the industry in ethical practices. Diversity in the workplace becomes a powerful catalyst for innovation and growth only when businesses are able to establish culturally responsive teams.
It is important for businesses to address racial justice with a continuous strategy. In a rapidly evolving industry, we are already accustomed to perpetual learning and continuous improvement. The cannabis community is primed to take sustainable and effective action against the violence of prohibition. Now is the time to build an inclusive culture committed to learning, teaching, and sharing in the success.