Cannabis and race go hand-in-hand. They are impossibly intertwined, and the connection isn’t positive. According to a study completed by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, in 1990, half of California’s cannabis possession arrestees were nonwhite. In 2010, the ratio raised to 64% nonwhite. Looking at it another way, cannabis possession arrests for teenagers of color rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,400 in 2010—an arrest surge 300% greater than the population growth of nonwhites.
You might be thinking, “Well, more nonwhites must use cannabis,” but cannabis use is equally distributed between the white and nonwhite population (14% and 12% respectively). The unfortunate truth is that California’s black population is 10x more likely to be imprisoned for cannabis—12x more likely to be imprisoned for a cannabis felony and 3x more likely to be imprisoned for cannabis possession.
And it’s not just facts and figures. Wanda James, the President of the Cannabis Global Initiative, owner of Simply Pure, and a black woman leading the industry, has personally dealt with the disparity in cannabis arrests. It’s one of the main reasons she entered the industry.
“I’m in the industry because when I met my brother in 1999, and he told me that he was doing ten years for possession of cannabis, I didn’t believe him,” Wanda says. “All my friends got high, and I had never known anybody to get arrested. That being said, my friends were upper, middle-class to wealthy. We would be sitting on the front steps of the dormitory rolling joints and the Colorado University police would walk by and say, ‘Hey guys, put that away.’ Nobody got arrested.”
When Wanda heard her brother’s story, she knew it was worth investigating, but when she talked to a few attorneys, they revealed that her brother’s experience was far from extraordinary. In fact, it was and still is the norm. In 2012, almost 750,000 people were arrested for cannabis—nearly half of all drug arrests—yet 23 states have passed medicinal cannabis use and 4 states and the District of Columbia allow for the legal sale of cannabis. “Depending on where you live, depending on your zip code,” Wanda says, “that decides whether you’re going to be a millionaire or whether you’re going to do hard time for cannabis. And that’s ridiculous.”
When it comes to race, Wanda says, “it isn’t just arbitrary. We’re targeting a race of people. We’re targeting poor neighborhoods that happen to be black and brown.” The statistics back her up. The NAACP reveals that while African Americans represent only 12% of the total population of drug users in the US, they represent 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.
It’s no wonder that blacks have been fearful to enter the industry as owners and leaders. In Colorado, beyond Wanda and her husband who own Simply Pure, there is only one other licensed black cannabis business owner. “Everyone else who owns happens to be white, and they’re making millions and millions of dollars,” Wanda says. She continues saying that “there’s this feeling that what works for white people won’t work for us.” And based on the statistics, they have a right to feel afraid—1 in 15 African American children will have a parent in prison compared to 1 in 111 white children.
So how can things change? First, it starts with elected officials. “I really want black and Latino elected officials to understand that if you support the continuation of cannabis prohibition,” Wanda says, “you are supporting the most racist law in American history. What you’re doing is sending your children to prison. You’re putting children that look like you in prison. There’s no other way to slice that, and it’s wrong on every level.”
Beyond elected officials, Wanda sees women in the industry as the place where the power lies. “Because it’s women that are going to change this industry,” Wanda states. “We’re the mothers of babies with epilepsy; the mothers of sons who are arrested. I think that female-led lobbying efforts are extremely powerful because elected officials have a hard time looking at moms and saying, ‘Well, you just want to get high. That’s why you’re fighting for this.’ Mothers can say, ‘No, I want my baby to grow up. I’d like to see my child with epilepsy have a life that’s not so drugged up that they’re walking through life like a zombie.’”
When it comes down to it, the budding legal cannabis industry presents an excellent opportunity for women and minorities to change the relationship between race and cannabis for future generations. “This is a brand new industry,” Wanda reveals. “It’s an amazing industry for women and minorities to take hold of. It’s time for us to come around and understand that we need to own the product and not just use it. You don’t have to grow weed to be a part of the industry. There are writers. There are designers. The face of cannabis looks like me. It looks like my husband. It looks like you. Anything you can do in any other industry, you can do in cannabis. Jump on board. Let’s do it.”
Although the intent of a the War on Drugs may have been to target drug smugglers and ‘King Pins,’ according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports, of the 1,552,432 arrests for drug law violations in 2012, 82.2% (1,276,099) were for mere possession of a controlled substance and only 17.8% (276,333) were for the sale or manufacturing of a drug. Additionally, African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offence (58.7 months) as whites doe for a violent offense (61.7 months) according to the Sentencing Project.