A Deeper Look at Cannabis Entrepreneurs Trying to Go Legit

Medical marijuana is shown in a jar at The Joint Cooperative in Seattle, Washington January 27, 2012. Efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use are gaining momentum in Washington state and Colorado, despite fierce opposition from the federal government and a decades-long cultural battle over America's most commonly used illicit drug.   Photo taken January 27, 2012   REUTERS/Cliff DesPeaux (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) ORG XMIT: LOA03

Article published by Vice.com
Written by Krishna Andavolu
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On tonight’s episode of Weediquette, host Krishna Andavolu takes a look at the structural roadblocks that underground cannabis growers and sellers face when trying to legitimize their business. Andavolu talked to VICE about what to expect in this episode; an edited and condensed version of his comments is below.

For this episode, “Going Legit,” we follow former underground weed growers and sellers as they try to make the transition into the legal market. The story emerged from my personal experience reporting on the weed industry these last few years, and a recent survey‘s shocking statistic—specifically, that less (or fewer) than 1% of all US dispensaries are owned by African Americans. There’s a gaping racial disparity in the weed industry happening right now, and at this key moment in the history of legalization when people are planting their flags in what will become a multi-billion dollar industry, a lot of the original players are being cut out, which seems like an affront to the spirit of legalization.

What we found in following these growers and sellers who are people of color is that there are specific roadblocks to getting legal status: access to capital, and the exclusion of former felons from legitimate weed trade. Many states have statutes that bar people who have felonies from participating in legal weed economies. If you look at the legitimate weed market—who’s investing in it and wants to get into it—it doesn’t reflect the richness of cannabis culture, legal and otherwise. That’s a shame, and it’s something that should be identified and fought against.

We interviewed Desley Brooks, a councilwoman from Oakland who passed an affirmative action-like legislation through city council that would give dispensary licenses in areas that were over-prosecuted during the war on drugs. That effort is a corrective, but what’s intriguing about this moment in the cannabis industry is that it offers a clear view of institutional racism—of the long-term effects of people being over-prosecuted for drugs, and of the lack of access to institutional capital that many African American and minority communities face.

We spent time with this one grower, Kingston, who has been operating in Atlanta for decades. He has amazing weed, but he’s also a part of cannabis culture that isn’t necessarily thought of as legitimate primarily because it’s a black culture. That’s fucked up, and if you try to view legalization as a counter to the racism that took place in the war on drugs, then it’s failing in that sense. This episode is trying to point out that failure and highlight how people are fighting to correct it—how they’re banding together and using the resources at their disposal.

The criminalization of cannabis has affected the black population in disproportionate and tragic ways, but people are really going out on a limb to correct those injustices. We talked to an Atlanta nightclub owner named Felix who’s funding former black market weed growers and moving them to Oregon to start legitimate businesses—getting the licences, buying the property, and fronting the cost. It’s a great business opportunity, and he’s also seen the lack of opportunity for people in his community in this space.

People like Felix are exploring whether something can be done about this, as well as how to fight back against that institutional barrier. They put a lot on the line, and it’s inspiring to see that.
With regards to issues like these, you could say, “Oh, we’re just talking about weed here”—but in talking about weed, we’re also talking about some of the deepest problems we have as a society, and we’re trying to follow the stories of people fighting back against these problems.

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