Why Black Entrepreneurs are Having Such a Tough Time Entering the Marijuana Industry

Darryl Hill (left) and business partner Rhett Jordan have plans to open a marijuana training facility in Philadelphia for prospective growers. (Photo by Oliver Contreras / For The Washington Post)

Hailed for integrating the world of college football nearly 50 years ago, former football star Darryl Hill thought he’d be the perfect candidate to apply for a license to grow cannabis in the state of Maryland. As a successful businessman with no prior convictions and plenty of capital, Hill figured he was a shoe-in to join the nearly $7-billion industry.

Imagine his surprise when his application was denied on the first try, along with nearly a dozen other Black applicants seeking Maryland licenses. He, nor the others, were ever given an explanation why, The Washington Post reported.

Down, but not out, the 73-year-old devised a new game plan aimed at getting his foot in the door, just as several jurisdictions are offering breaks to nonwhite entrepreneurs in an effort to diversify the cannabis industry. Thus far, legalization has largely stood to benefit only white, male growers and dispensers.

Now, Hill is using his history of helping nonwhite firms get financing, resources and federal contracts to ensure African-American business owners like himself are not shut out of the lucrative industry.

“Here’s a drug that for years has been the bane of the minority community, sending young people to jail by the boatloads,” Hill told the newspaper, referring to the fact that Black Americans were disproportionately arrested and jailed for nonviolent possession of marijuana during the failed war on drugs. “Now, it could be a boon to these communities, but minorities have been left out.”

The ex-University of Maryland footballer has since teamed up with an unlikely ally to help him and other minorities break into the world of cannabis cultivation and sales. Meet Hill’s new business partner, Rhett Jordan, a 33-year-old white Colorado industry pioneer who established one of the largest legal marijuana operations in the U.S., The Washington Post reported.

“The way minorities get into the game is they need top management, technical expertise and money,” Hill said. “If Jordan is involved, there’s automatic respect and credibility when it comes to raising money.”

African-Americans looking to enter the industry already face a number of hurdles, including lack of access to capital and laws preventing those with prior drug convictions from obtaining a license, NBC News reported. In some states, getting a license to sell pot requires years of experience in applying for federal licenses and negotiating with federal regulators.

“When you’re looking at the way that [marijuana] businesses are being licensed and rolled out in various states, the process is not overwhelmingly transparent and open, nor is the process easy to navigate.” Dr. Malik Burnett, a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance told NBC News.

“You have to have a well-established political relationship with the people who are writing the rules,” Burnett continued. “You either have the relationships yourself or you can pay lobbyists to develop the relationships for you.

“At the end of the day, it boils back down to money and influence.”

With that said, could forming partnerships with powerful white business owners be the key to Black entrepreneurs finally getting a piece of the “Mary Jane” pie?

Hill seems to think so. The Washington Post reported that he and Jordan plan to test their new partnership in Pennsylvania, where they’re applying for one of the state’s first marijuana licenses. Unlike in Maryland, Black applicants like Hill may have an advantage, as cannabis licenses in Pennsylvania award points for diversity and community impact. Massachusetts, West Virginia and California have similar incentives to entice nonwhite business owners into the industry.

The duo’s upcoming plans also include efforts to lobby other jurisdictions for inclusive regulations like the aforementioned states, as well as goals to start a marijuana training facility in Southwest Philadelphia aimed at helping nonwhite entrepreneurs from New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania gain the skills they need to successfully apply for a cannabis license.

Jordan, who opened his first dispensary in 2010, said he saw an opportunity to increase his potential customer base by aiding in the diversification of growers and sellers. The cannabis pioneer is expected to hold around a 15-percent interest in Hill’s dispensary.

“Ultimately, old or young, Black or white, it’s an entrepreneur’s game,” said Jordan, who got his start by growing marijuana in his Denver basement.

“Cannabis only knows green.”

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