Social Justice & Beyond: Where’s the opportunity?
Rasheed Samir Gresham, 45, proudly flashed the 4×6 laminated card certifying him as a licensed medical marijuana patient and cultivator in Missouri. He’s also a licensed “caregiver” who can legally provide small amounts of medical marijuana to approved patients. Gresham’s proudest possession, however, was his adhesive business sticker. It features him in caricature dressed in a leprechaun’s outfit standing next to a black pot filled evergreen cannabis. Balloon lettering introduces: “Sheed with the Weed.”
Gresham’s exuberance is understood once I heard his story. Twenty years ago, while living in New Jersey, he was apprehended with six- and one-half ounces of marijuana. Because he wouldn’t cooperate with police and prosecutors, he says, they made an example of him. He was sentenced to 13 years in New Jersey’s state prison. He was released after serving nine years. And he relocated to St. Louis.
Two decades later and Gresham finds himself in a changed society. The drug that sent him to prison is now legal in the state for medicinal purposes. In 2018, voters overwhelmingly backed Amendment 2 that approved the growing, cultivating, testing, and selling of medical marijuana through dispensaries.
The legal and illegal marijuana business is estimated to generate $40 billion this year alone, with more than a dozen cannabis stocks trading on Wall Street. This robust economic growth will result in new businesses and jobs and millions in tax revenues for participating states.
Gresham is ready to make his mark.
“It’s definitely an opportunity, especially in Missouri,” he said, adding, “We already know how it’s been done in other states, the numbers are there, the opportunities are there. This is happening. You can’t stop it.”
For Grisham, AKA “Sheed with the Weed,” this moment represents a rare opportunity for African Americans to reap the benefits from a trade they know well but where penalized disproportionately in America for decades.
“We’re at the front of a new frontier. But, as someone who spent time in prison for selling weed, I’m also behind the frontier. Now, because it’s legal, it’s about getting your foot in the door, setting up a structure, a brand, standing on that brand, and building wealth.”
The marijuana industry holds tremendous promise for all entrepreneurs. However, evidence suggests that barriers, like lack of capital and systematic economic racism, that have kept many minorities out of other mainstream industries, also exist in the new world of legalized cannabis. Blacks face the familiar challenges of competing in a burgeoning, multi-billion-dollar industry where they are under-resourced, undercapitalized, underrepresented, and, some say, unrecognized in this new frontier.
The nation’s coronavirus pandemic and instances of police brutality, which disproportionately impact people of color, have brought much-need attention to their plight. The new buzzword on the streets, the news, in politics, and in corporate America is “Social justice.” President Donald Trump and his 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, have both pledged to explore new investment opportunities in low-income, minority communities.
The booming US marijuana industry could be the perfect economic jump-off point. The Cannabis Trade Industry states that by 2023, cannabis – both medical and recreational – is on pace to become a $100 billion industry. The US cannabis industry today employs at least 250,000 Americans which is five times as many jobs as the coal industry. Echoing Gresham, “it’s happening!”
There’s a savory sense of poetic justice to the idea of the legalized marijuana industry becoming a new avenue for opportunity and wealth-building for a population that has suffered the most from its illegal usage.
The American Civil Liberties’ (ACLU) recent report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” concluded that “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates.” Between 2010 and 2018 alone, of the six million people arrested for marijuana possession, blacks were more likely than whites to be arrested in every state, including those with legalized marijuana.
The ACLU report also noted that blacks are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts. Almost 80 percent of people serving time for a federal drug offense are black or Latino.
The damage to individuals, families, and communities of color is multiplied exponentially when the ramifications of the 49-year-old “War on Drugs” implemented under the Nixon administration, is factored into the equation.
A person’s arrest for even tiny amounts of marijuana comes with enormous collateral consequences. A drug conviction can forever impact their ability to obtain a decent job or business loan, receive public housing or student financial aid, threaten their immigration status, take away child custody rights, and basically ensured that future generations are locked in poverty.
It’s a reality that Rasheed Gresham has experienced first-hand:
“You don’t do the bid by yourself; you do the bid with your family. When this happens, everybody’s a victim; me, my mother, my father, my grandparents.
The whole country is also the victim of the failed war on drugs. Enforcement of marijuana laws, according to the ACLU, costs about $3.6 billion per year without diminishing the use, desire, or availability of the drug.
By legalizing marijuana, billions of taxpayer dollars that’s been blown to disproportionately target, arrest and incarcerate black people can now be theoretically reinvested into wounded and broken people and communities.
Today, the $64,000 question for states, including Missouri, is whether the growing legalized marijuana industry is ready to step up and be the great social and economic equalizer for populations of color.
Social Justice: The Missing Ingredient in Missouri
Cory Elliott has become an expert of sorts as it pertains to Missouri’s foray into the medicinal marijuana industry. Elliott, as a consultant, helped two firms prepare applications to meet the licensing requirements established by the State of Missouri.
In June, the black-owned firm, West End Cannabis, didn’t win a single license with all dispensaries located in underserved areas in North St. Louis. Elliott was disheartened that West End, with its specific social justice components, won nothing.
“The West End Cannabis team was really focused on providing medical marijuana to low-income communities,” Elliott explained. “They also had a social justice piece aimed at trying to provide positive opportunities for populations negatively impacted when (marijuana) was illegal. All their dispensaries would have been in low-income neighborhoods. For none to be awarded was very disappointing.”
It was “disappointing” because Elliott, a former SSM health care administrator, was drawn to the developing legal marijuana industry precisely because of its potential to uplift low-income communities and individuals. She committed her time and talent to both firms because of their belief and commitment to social justice. She was able to identify trade groups for both firms to train low-income communities in the marijuana industry. She was able to negotiate the reduced cost of marijuana for low-income patients successfully. She was looking forward to marijuana, making a positive change in African American communities.
The CEO of Elliott Holding Company became interested in marijuana as an alternative treatment for illnesses such as anxiety, Alzheimer’s, and Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, and migraines in which she suffers. But, she added, it was “the social justice piece” that resonated and convinced her to use her skills, passions, and experience to enact positive change within the industry.
Missouri, Elliott maintains, has yet to recognize the benefits of social justice endeavors strategically intertwined with its burgeoning cannabis industry. Exhibit A, she says, is that out of the 1,163 applicants for dispensary licenses, few African American groups vying for the meager 192 permits were selected.
It’s a concern shared by James Forbes, part of the Ohio-based Standard Wellness team that was awarded 3 Missouri cultivation licenses, 3 manufacturing licenses for the development of infused products but no dispensary licenses.
Forbes, who is Asian and African American, says he’s one of the few people of color on Standard Wellness’ board. His heart, however, is firmly rooted in the social and economic justice movements. In 2013, he co-founded Good Life Growing, LLC, a St, Louis social enterprise dedicated to combatting food insecurity by creating urban farms on vacant properties and training low-income urban farmers to grow and sell fresh food.
Like it was during the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s, Forbes worries that the legalization of marijuana will exclude felons, like the country did with bootleggers, while rewarding those with wealth, political clout and resources.
“You saw so much new wealth created based on a demand that was always there,” Forbes said. “It’s just that the government regulated who the winners and losers were.”
Black entrepreneurs comprise a bit more than 4 percent of the legalized cannabis business. Whites, according to Marijuana Business Daily, account for 81 percent of marijuana business owners.
To date it’s painfully obvious that the “winners” in the cannabis game are not those from underserved black or brown communities.
Justice By Another Name
The Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association (MoCannTrade) is serious about diversity in trade, according to its Executive Director, Andrew Mullins. Since its inception in 2018, Mullins said ensuring diversity has been one of the association’s core values.
“Our board composition, as well as our industry committees, work to reflect diversity in geography, gender, race, and experience. We, in an ongoing way, continually try to represent these values to our membership and the rest of the industry to ensure equity when and where possible.”
Gresham, Elliott and Forbes don’t dispute Mullins’ claim. When organizations, lobbyists, and potential business owners were working to make marijuana legal in Missouri, they said, there was plenty of talk about diversity and opportunity. Since it’s been legalized, not so much.
Several states and cities have introduced or launched “social equity” programs to increase the participation of minorities in the cannabis industry. These initiatives vary from state-to-state and have various levels of impact, according to a 2020 survey conducted by blunttruthlaw.com.
Ohio’s social equity program set aside 15 percent of its medical marijuana licenses for minority-owned firms. Before it was later deemed unconstitutional, the state awarded more than 16% of its licenses to minority business owners.
Michigan, California and Illinois-where medical and recreational marijuana is legal-were credited for their “robust social equity programs.” Michigan has reduced licensing fees for applicants living in “disproportionately impacted communities.” Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland offer low- or no-interest loans, grants, and technical assistance to cannabis license applicants along with business training in the competitive cannabis industry. Illinois was cited as a state with “one of the most progressive marijuana business licensing frameworks in the country.” The moniker was earned in part because Illinois awards “a significant number of points in its recreational license evaluations to members of disadvantaged communities.”
Even without specific social equity legalization, Oklahoma found a way to address racial disparity by offering an unlimited number of dispensary licenses. In contrast, Missouri received more than 2,200 applications for medical marijuana cultivation, dispensary, and manufacturing facility licenses with plans to award less than 350 actual licenses.
Oklahoma was also credited for low licensing fees. California, for example, according to the Associated Press, requires a $1,000 application fee, a $5,000 surety bond, and an annual license fee ranging from $2,500 to $96,000, depending on projected revenues. In Oklahoma, the article stressed, “a dispensary license costs $2,500, can be filled out online and is approved within two weeks.”
It’s worth noting that, in less than two years, Oklahoma – where only medical cannabis is legal – there are more than 2,300 dispensaries and the industry, in 2019, generated $54 million in tax revenue.
Call it what you will, “social justice” or “social equity,” there are commendable efforts to even the legalized cannabis playfield. Still, critics stress that minorities who were caught up in the illegal marijuana trade will never gain access or opportunities until the industry addresses their predicament.
No Expungement/No Progress
Those advocating for more minority inclusion insist that attention must be given to those scarred by the war on drugs. The “Marijuana Record Expungement Movement” is expanding across the country. The idea is to help people remove marijuana convictions from their records so they, too, can participate in the industry. Missouri, which doesn’t disqualify individuals with previous convictions from obtaining a patient or cultivation license, is among states like New Hampshire and New Jersey that have expungement initiatives pending.
Obie Anthony’s personal experience is the motivation for his interest in the expungement movement. In 1995, at the age of 19, Anthony was accused of robbery and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. With the help of The Innocence Project, Anthony was released in 2011 after serving 17 years in prison. He sued Los Angeles for wrongful imprisonment and won an $8.3 million settlement.
In 2015, Anthony founded Exonerated Nation, a nonprofit based in Oakland, CA, that works with exonerees, like him, to rebuild their lives. Just as Anthony was sent to prison, California in 1996, sparked a national movement by becoming the first state in the country to legalize marijuana for medical use. Since then, other states have legalized the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis.
Anthony, who’s working to spread Exonerated Nation’s mission across the country, recognizes the life-changing potential of a new industry that welcomes exonerees and former marijuana felons into the fold.
“This is that rare opportunity where we can bring – not only money to disadvantaged communities – but programs, jobs, businesses, and so forth. Tax revenues generated from marijuana sales can help build self-reliance through ownership and participation.”
Gresham and Forbes introduced me to Anthony, who applied for a Missouri dispensary license but was denied. Still, he remains hopeful about initiatives aimed at expunging the records of felons who can then transform skills they’ve honed on the streets into legitimate business enterprises.
Surprisingly, several individuals echo Anthony’s sentiments, saying that good, old-fashioned tenacity, creativity, and due diligence will be the keys to unlocking the stubborn doors of systemized resistance within the cannabis trade.
Doing What They Know Best
Because Jim Crow laws forbade black people from participating in mainstream businesses, they did what they had to do for simple survival. Without licenses, they secretly bartered goods and services and created their own underground economies. Many, with few other options, gravitated to the illegal drug trade where they employed street-level supply & demand, marketing, and competitive techniques to generate income.
“Weed has been my whole life since childhood. I come from the underworld, the streets,” Gresham explained. “So, if I learned how to do illegal sales and connect with hundreds of people, what’s stopping me from taking that same energy, same knowledge, the same rules that applied then and doing it now…legally?”
Anthony also expounded on the potential of transforming once illegal skills into legitimate businesses in an industry that is now legal.
“They already know the product, how to budget, what needs to be spent, and what to expect in return. Just to not be concerned about the cops…that awareness alone helps us become more creative, more connected. So now we’re able to bring others in and create something amongst ourselves. It’s transformative; they can set up businesses modeled after what they already understand and build off that.”
Because gaining a dispensary license can be cumbersome and cost-prohibitive in many states, some advocates encourage minorities to focus on ancillary businesses within the weed industry. Opportunities abound they say, in signing up medical marijuana patients, manufacturing cannabis-based products like oil or candles, providing educational and technical services, marketing, public relations, and creating cannabis-related curriculum for universities. Forbes, for example, is also an owner of Tiger Fiber LLC, a hemp business.
Gresham insists the “primary caregiver” category serves as an immediate opportunity for minorities. The Missouri Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) defines a primary caregiver as someone 21 years of age or older who is responsible for managing the well-being of a Qualified Patient. Primary caregivers, who are also patients like Gresham, can obtain identification cards to cultivate medical marijuana plants for their exclusive use or that of their patients. They can be compensated for taking care of patients. Additionally, caregivers can possess legal amounts of cannabis for themselves and/or their qualifying patients.
Elliott doesn’t believe the caregiver route is the most viable avenue to wealth building in black communities:
“If you’re talking about signing people up (as patients and caregivers); yes, but that’s a one-shot thing. It’s a different track and definitely not the path to riches or economic participation.”
It’s abundantly clear that addressing racial inequities in the mushrooming marijuana industry is an ongoing challenge for minority entrepreneurs. Although systematic barriers abound, this article outlines numerous initiatives and opportunities with the potential to positive change. What’s also clear is that Missouri, the “Show-Me State,” has a rare opportunity to demonstrate a progressive pathway to truly inclusive minority participation in the arena of legalized cannabis.
Sylvester Brown, Jr., pictured, above, photo from Facebook, is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth, and author of “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”