Cannabis industry in Colorado takes on social justice

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Few industries embody the successes and ongoing struggles in the fight for social justice, legal reform and inclusion more than Colorado’s cannabis industry.

The pot industry is one that champions individual freedom and progressive values. It’s one whose pioneers, in many cases people of color, operated on the wrong side of the law prior to 2014 and who say now that they have been left out of the conversation as the industry has matured into a lucrative, socially acceptable and completely legal business sector. It’s an industry with customers of all races and ethnicities, all classes and creeds. But it’s one where consumers, particularly Black and Hispanic users, are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement in states where a legal market doesn’t yet exist.

This summer, as the Black Lives Matter protest movement has marched across the nation, a spotlight has been shone on the issues of systemic racism in law enforcement, along with disparities in economic opportunities for people of color. The cannabis industry in Colorado is listening and local groups are collaborating to make the business more equitable, more inclusive and more aggressive in taking a stand against prejudice in the justice system.

“We’re at a tipping point right now when it comes to social justice and criminal justice in our country,” The Color of Cannabis executive director Sarah Woodson said. “The reason why there’s a direct connection [between the BLM movement and the cannabis industry] is because people of color have been negatively impacted by the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition. Right now, there are places in the United States where people are spending 15, 20 years in prison for cannabis possession.”

According to a 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates.” The analysis found that “in every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested.”

Colorado groups, including kindColorado, Cannabis Doing Good and Sensible Colorado, are partnering on a new Cannabis Impact Fund effort to raise money in support of social and criminal justice organizations such as Black Futures Lab, The Bail Project, Color of Change and the Minority Cannabis Business Association.

“Our goal is to get cannabis companies to pledge 1% of sales, product or equity to the impact fund,” Cannabis Doing Good co-founder Courtney Mathis said. “The goal is also to build a larger narrative that demonstrates that the cannabis industry has shown up in support of justice.”

University of Colorado Boulder athletes, students and community members march down the street holding signs during a Black Lives Matter protest and march on June 5 in Boulder. Black Lives Matter protests have spurred some in Colorado’s cannabis industry to work to change issues of racial equity and inclusion and to take an aggressive stand against prejudice in the justice system that has kept many who operated in the industry before legalization on the sidelines now. (Jeremy Papasso/File photo)

Marijuana arrests, and the corresponding incarcerations, spurred on by the war on drugs have left lasting scars on communities even in states where cannabis is now legal.

“Communities were damaged by the weaponization of cannabis,” kindColorado president Kelly Perez said. “Individuals paid the personal price criminally and legally, but whole community infrastructures were damaged.”

Perez said law enforcement’s decades-long war on drugs has succeeded, but only because “it’s a mechanism designed to take away power from people.”

Groups such as The Color of Cannabis are working to right past wrongs by helping people targeted in cannabis arrests get their records sealed or expunged.

“It’s morally wrong, and it’s fundamentally ethically wrong to allow one group of people to sell marijuana while other people are being punished for marijuana,” Woodson said.

The impacts of a marijuana conviction can often be compounding. Not only are people hit with fines and jail time, they can be excluded from participating in the legal pot market.

“If there were more African-Americans and Hispanics part of the original conversation around building out retail [cannabis sales in Colorado], there would have been someone in that room who said … if you [prohibit those with cannabis convictions from selling legal marijuana], you’re going to stop all the people who participated prior [to legalization in 2014],” Woodson said.

Colorado has recently taken steps to address the issue with the passage this year of House Bill 20-1424.

The bill allows the governor to pardon people with certain marijuana-related offenses without input from local district attorneys, freeing up those offenders to potentially hold positions in the legal industry.

According to Denver’s Cannabis Business and Employment Opportunity Study Report, which surveyed hundreds of city cannabis industry employees and owners and was released earlier this summer, “75% of owners are white, as compared with 68% of employees. Black or African American respondents represented about 6% of both owners and employees. Hispanic, Latino or Spanish respondents represented about 13% of owners and 12% of employees. This is in comparison to the 2017 Census that shows about 9.5% of the city’s residents are Black or African American and 30.5% are Hispanic or Latino.”

Lack of access to capital is a major factor in restricting Black people’s access to the industry.

Denver’s study found that nearly 77% of survey respondents said struggles accessing capital are the biggest barrier to owning a business in the pot industry.

“We need to start talking about money,” Woodson said. “That’s another piece of why you don’t see as much diversity.”

Colorado is attempting to step up to address the issue by “developing an accelerator program that brings interested individuals from designated economic opportunity zones into the industry,” Denver’s report said. “Under the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s working rules, ‘an existing marijuana grower or manufacturer would be paired with a new licensee to offer mentorship, as well as technical and capital support.’ Eligibility for this program is limited by geography and limited to manufacturing and cultivation licenses.”

Colorado cannabis firms are stepping up to develop mentorship programs of their own designed to open the industry up to historically underrepresented communities.

Charisse Harris, compliance vice president at the Lightshade dispensary chain, is developing a program called the Seed Effort that identifies promising young people of color and provides them with mentorship opportunities aimed at giving them a boost finding employment in the cannabis industry.

The Lightshade dispensary chain is developing a program called Seed Effort that connects promising young people of color with mentorship opportunities aimed at helping them find employment in the cannabis industry. (Vince Chandler / The Denver Post file)

“There’s so much more that we could be doing,” she said. “There are so many kids who want to be involved in the industry but they don’t have the tools they need to learn to become part of it.”

How will consumers know if they’re shopping at a dispensary that’s committed to equity, inclusion and racial justice? KindColorado is developing a Cannabis Social Responsibility framework that will certify companies’ commitment. Think the B Corp. model, but for cannabis firms.

Members have to sign the “Cannabis Code,” which holds companies accountable to values related to equity, racial justice and sustainability.

Those members would then be included on a platform that connects shoppers with retailers and brands.

“Consumers do have values, and they do choose products based on business practices,” Perez said.

While progress is being made, there’s a long way to go toward creating a society and a cannabis industry that’s inclusive and responsive to the needs and goals of social and racial movements like Black Lives Matter.

“Colorado has an opportunity to do something historic,” Woodson said. “… We just need to keep up the commitment.”

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