Legal marijuana has become big business. Thanks to recent ballot initiatives, 28 states and the District of Columbia now permit medical marijuana use, and eight of those have passed measures legalizing it recreationally – a number that is expected to grow in the near future. As a result, we are witnessing the explosive growth of an industry projected to surpass $40 billion by 2020.
But not everyone is benefitting from the marijuana boom. As more and more people race to cash in, it's becoming apparent that African-Americans in particular are being left behind. According a BuzzFeed report last March, just one percent of America's 3,200 to 3,600 marijuana dispensaries are black-owned. Although there are number of barriers to entry, one of the most concerning is that people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes are often disqualified from participation in the marijuana industry altogether – something that states like California have begun to address with their marijuana reform initiatives.
More states need to follow suit. Given the history of marijuana prohibition in the United States – a history rooted in the deliberate demonization and criminalization of black and Hispanic men – it's clear that barring access to people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes ends up reproducing many of the same racial inequalities that have characterized marijuana laws for decades.
Rewind to 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively banning marijuana at the federal level. At the time, one of the most vociferous anti-marijuana crusaders was Harry Anslinger, head of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (an early predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Agency).
To garner public support, Anslinger blatantly exaggerated the dangers of marijuana use – to include murder, suicide and "deeds of maniacal insanity" – and linked them to "degenerate races," particularly black and Hispanic men. Among his more colorful claims was that "reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men" and that it causes "white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
Anslinger's strategy of tapping into racial anxieties anticipated a war on marijuana that would continue in the decades to come. For example, in the early 1970s, President Nixon, the founding father of America's contemporary drug war, took a hardline stance on marijuana, ignoring mounting evidence for its medical applications and its low potential for abuse.
Nixon's position was less about public health than it was about settling political scores. As Nixon aid John Ehrlichman put it, criminalizing drugs like marijuana allowed the administration to go after the groups Nixon detested the most: antiwar activists and black people. "We could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum. "We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news."
Under Nixon, marijuana arrests skyrocketed, part of a broader drug war that has resulted in staggering numbers of incarcerated Americans, most of them people of color. For arrests involving marijuana – roughly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. – the racial disparities today are stark. According to a 2013 report by the ACLU, black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though marijuana use among white and black people is essentially equal.
The current movement to legalize marijuana offers a small but important opportunity to dismantle these inequalities. And yet the people most likely to be victims of marijuana prohibition are the least likely to profit in its aftermath.
This is often due to state regulations that prohibit convicted felons, including those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, from operating, or even working in, a dispensary. In Washington state, for example, where recreational use of marijuana is legal, anyone convicted of a felony in the past decade is generally ineligible for a license to operate a dispensary (although there is a process by which people convicted of a marijuana offense can petition for licensure). Colorado, which also legalized recreational marijuana use, has similar rules, and people who have only marijuana-related convictions may be eligible for a license, if what they were convicted of wouldn't be illegal today.
Other states, such as Massachusetts and Maine, are more explicitly forgiving when it comes to marijuana-related offenses. The recently-approved Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative, for example, is written to "promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement." One way the initiative seeks to accomplish this is by ensuring that people convicted solely of a marijuana-related offense (unless it involved distribution to a minor) remain eligible for employment and licensure in the state's legal marijuana industry.
But no state goes as far as California. Under Proposition 64, which voters passed last month, many people with marijuana-related convictions are eligible to have their records wiped clean, and those convicted of most nonviolent drug crimes are still eligible to operate marijuana dispensaries.
This is the right approach, one that acknowledges the full scope of the damage caused by our discriminatory drug policies. Indeed, thanks in large part to these policies, more than 25 percent of non-incarcerated black men now have a felony conviction on their record, a stigma that helps push unemployment among African-American men to levels twice as high as their white counterparts.
As marijuana reform begins to de-escalate the drug war, creating new opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship in the process, it is imperative that the people most in need of a second chance actually get one. The price they have already paid for our failed drug policy is steep enough.
Michael Render (a.k.a. Killer Mike) is a Grammy-winning rapper and activist from Atlanta, Georgia. He has been a vocal proponent of marijuana reform. His latest album, Run the Jewels 3, will be released on January 13th. Erik Nielson is associate professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond. He is the co-author of Rap on Trial, forthcoming from the New Press.