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California, Florida Among States Offering Breaks to Nonwhite Marijuana Business Owners

In West Virginia, a new law includes a provision that requires regulators to encourage minority-owned business owners to apply for growing licenses. (Photo by Heath Korvola/ Digital Vision/Getty Images)

In some states that have legalized marijuana, officials are trying to entice nonwhite citizens to join the cannabis industry with breaks aimed at making up for the toll unequal drug enforcement has taken on Black and brown communities.

So far, the booming industry has overwhelmingly line the pockets of white cannabis sellers.

In 2007, Oakland, Calif., resident Andre Shavers was sentenced to five years’ felony probation after authorities raided his home in one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods and found a quarter ounce of marijuana, the Associated Press reported. The raid left Shavers unable to leave the state without permission and made him subject to police searches at any time.

Meanwhile, marijuana dispensaries flourished in the city and other parts of the state where medicinal marijuana was legalized in the mid-90s.

Now, a handful of states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington and others, are working to give Blacks and Latinos a fair shot at joining the pot industry. The Associated Press noted that 83 percent of marijuana arrests in Oakland the year Shavers was arrested involved African-American citizens.

“I was kind of robbed of a lot for five years,” Shavers, owner of a pot delivery service, told the wire service. “It’s almost like, what do they call that? Reparations. That’s how I look at it. If this is what they’re offering, I’m going to go ahead and use the services.”

Recreational pot is currently legal in eight states — Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, Colorado, Maine and the nation’s capital — while 29 other states have approved the drug for medical use, according to “The Cannabist.” While there is no hard data on how many minorities own cannabis businesses in the U.S., diversity experts say the industry remains overwhelmingly white.

“It’s a problem that has been recognized but has proven to be relatively intractable,” Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who studies marijuana regulation, told AP.

For years, laws disqualifying people with prior convictions from operating weed dispensaries and lack of access to capital to open such a business have kept nonwhite people from entering the industry, hence the problem with diversity. A 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that Blacks were nearly four times as likely to be arrested for pot possession, despite the fact that the drug is used at comparable rates by both Blacks and whites. The report also found that states spent more that $3.6 billion on marijuana enforcement in 2010.

“The people who got locked up should not get locked out of this industry,” said Tito Jackson, a city councilman and mayoral candidate in Boston.

Here are some efforts states are now taking to help level the playing field:

The Associated Press reported that officials in Oakland have approved a program that initially sets aside half the city’s marijuana licenses for low-income residents who have a prior pot-related conviction or who live in a specified area where drug enforcement efforts have been unduly harsh. Advocates are now pushing for similar programs statewide in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Lawmakers in the Sunshine State approved a bill last year that included provisions in favor of Black farmers. The recent provisions ensure that once Florida’s medicinal marijuana patient registry hits 250,000, one of three additional cultivation licenses will be designated for a member of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association.

Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley has drafted a proposed bill that would funnel 20 percent of unspent revenue from state and local marijuana taxes toward programs to ensure racial equity, the Associated Press report. The legislation includes efforts to reduce financial barriers to business ownership.

West Virginia
In April, West Virginia became the 29th state to legalize pot for certain medical conditions. Under the new law, state regulators are required to seek out ways to encourage nonwhite business owners to apply for growing licenses.

Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, told AP that the board is working to diversify licensees and is considering targeted outreach to nonwhite communities if it decides to license more people in the future. It should be noted that close to 3 percent of the state’s retail license holders are Black; 3.5 percent of Washington’s population also is Black.

Colorado, Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania also are among the state offering breaks to nonwhite marijuana business owners.

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