For many consumers in US states where cannabis is legal, consumption of the plant sits squarely in the realm of luxury. In Los Angeles, for example, there are dispensaries where store associates wielding iPads assist customers in finding just the flower, tincture, topical, or edible to strike their fancies or ease their ailments. High-end shoppers have access to beautifully labelled jars and pre-rolled joints of organically grown buds, Sativa extracts in rose gold-tone vaporizers, and sugar-dusted CBD-enhanced gum-drops in Hermès-worthy boxes.
Many young consumers have come to expect that the companies selling them luxury products, whether artisan-made accessories or fair-trade coffee, have ethical standards that account for the social costs of the good they’re selling. This is one area where the cannabis industry has a great deal of catching up to do—and it’s starting from a troubled place.
After all, the same plant that’s now behind a $9.7 billion legal business in the US has been weaponized as a tool of racial discrimination against Latino and African-Americans for decades—and arguably still is. The original architects of the US War on Drugs, a program of anti-drug enforcement starting in the 1960s, have admitted the policy was specifically designed to undermine black communities and fragment the political left.
The same plant that’s now behind the $9.7 billion US Green Boom has been weaponized as a tool of racial discrimination against Latino and African-Americans for decades—and arguably still is.
And it was highly effective in doing so. The federal initiative demonized drugs, including marijuana, and those who used them, and has given the US the world’s highest incarceration rate. Between 1980 and 1989, the arrest rate for drug possession and use nearly doubled. And although surveys show that whites use drugs as much or more than blacks in the US, black people were arrested for drug-related offenses at five times the rate of whites in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not much has changed: In 2018, some 90% of those arrested for smoking cannabis in New York City were either black or Latino.
“We have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well-off, and one for everyone else,” said New York governor Andrew Cuomo in December, when he moved to legalize recreational cannabis within 100 days.
As the US teeters at the tipping point for marijuana going mainstream, it’s increasingly apparent that people and communities that were disproportionally punished for its criminalization were wronged. It’s a cruel footnote to the story of the plant’s legalization that punishment for past involvement with cannabis can remain a bar to entry in the lucrative, newly legal, and overwhelmingly white industry.
“The recreational cannabis consumer is sort of a new category that’s just emerged,” said Adam Vine, the founder of Cage Free Cannabis, an organization that pushes for “drug war reparations” in the form of criminal record expungement, job fairs, voter registration, health care, and social equity programs. “It needs to begin to define itself and demand of this industry a certain amount of responsibility.”
So what’s a conscious cannabis consumer to do?
“The recreational cannabis consumer needs to begin to define itself and demand of this industry a certain amount of responsibility.”
Conscious consumerism has gone from being a fringe movement to one of the driving forces in today’s global economy. For many shoppers, the definition of luxury has expanded beyond aesthetics to encompass values such as environmental and social awareness. And for a rising generation of wealthy elites, status symbols say as much about their owners’ ethics as they do about their bank accounts. See: NPR tote bags, cruelty-free cosmetics, and fabulously expensive electric cars. And yet, in the realm of legal cannabis—despite its many progressive advocates—ethical considerations have yet to enter the consciousness of many mainstream consumers.
“As white people exploit the changing tide on marijuana, the racism that drove its prohibition is ignored,” wrote Vincent M. Southerland, a former public defender and NAACP lawyer who runs a think-tank on racial bias, inequality, and the law at New York University, in a 2018 New York Times op-ed. “So are the consequences for black communities, where the war on drugs is most heavily waged.”
It’s reasonable, Southerland explained over the phone, to expect that the successful founders in this burgeoning new industry should build social responsibility and racial justice into their business plans: ”If you’re making billions or millions of dollars a year, then what is some small percentage of your profits to remedy this terrible evil that preceded your rise to wealth and riches?” he asked. “If you’re profiting off something that at some point was illegal and led to masses of black and brown people being incarcerated, being deported, having their children taken away, losing employment opportunities, all these types of things, then yes, I think you have a responsibility to repair that, and try and fix that situation.”
But what about if you’re just a consumer of legal cannabis? What responsibilities do you have, and how can you help?
Be a demanding shopper
Now that many shoppers pay as much attention to the origin stories of their goods as the quality, it’s easy to imagine a Whole-Foods-like ethical labeling scale or a Patagonia-ish 1% for the Planet badge on products sold by cannabis companies taking responsibility for social justice. But that’s still far from a reality.
In the meantime, it’s up to consumers to tell cannabis companies they care about these issues. However awkward it might seem to ask the manager of a dispensary if their business is sponsoring job fairs or expungement clinics, or making efforts to hire from communities affected by racist policing, these are not unreasonable questions—just as it wouldn’t be outlandish to ask a grocer why they don’t carry free-range eggs, or fair-trade coffee.
“We all have some modicum or measure of privilege that we can take advantage of … and use that to help somebody in a less fortunate situation,” said Southerland.
And it goes beyond shopping. If you know someone who owns a small business—cannabis-related or not—”talk to them about their hiring practices,” Southerland said. “Maybe they should not automatically foreclose a job opportunity to someone who has a prior criminal conviction for some nonviolent drug offense.”
“Even small things like that can go a long way,” said Southerland.
In order to make political progress, we also need to address the negative stereotypes around the plant itself—many of which are rooted in racism. It’s a simple thing, but Southerland suggested that law-abiding people of all races can help remove the stigma by owning up to their own past or present cannabis use. It helps counter negative stereotypes when a mom says she enjoys hitting a vape pen once the kids are in bed, with the same shameless enthusiasm a wine-lover might express for her weeknight glass of Pinot Noir.
Also, try saying this aloud: Cannabis was used as a tool of racism and discrimination in the US, and people of color suffered mightily because of it. ”Once you’re able to confront that and acknowledge that, then I think you can move forward to trying to figure out how can you help other people,” said Southerland.
“The first part of any type of any effort to make somebody whole, repair someone’s life, or repair an injustice is to be very audacious and clear and exacting about the truth,” he said. “Be honest about what happened in the past.” To learn more about this history, check out Quartz’s recent feature about the War on Drugs’ continued impact.
Volunteer your services, or donate to those who do
Consider how your skill set—or dollars—could support those working toward social justice. Speak Spanish? Patient with paperwork? Have a legal degree?
The Equity First Alliance is a collective of grassroots groups tackling the issues surrounding racial inequity in the cannabis business, many of which could benefit from supporters’ time, money, and expertise. In Los Angeles, for example, organizations including Cage Free Repair and the Youth Justice Coalition organize expungement clinics, where people with prior cannabis convictions can find support working through the paperwork to scrub their records of actions that are no longer considered crimes, or petition to have felonies reduced to misdemeanors. In the Bay Area, the Hood Incubator works to improve access to the legal cannabis industry for people of color with mentorship programs and business training. And the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council advocates for a diverse, equitable industry and regularly posts local events on its website.
Get involved politically
“Participating in the political process is really probably the most important thing that the everyday consumer can do,” said Southerland. Citizens can use organizations such as local branches of NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance to find easy ways to contact elected officials about opposing, for example, harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses or supporting federal decriminalization of cannabis.
Southerland emphasized the importance of thinking locally, adding that we often underestimate the outsize power of local prosecutors, judges, and sheriffs, who frequently determine how laws are carried out and enforced.
“Elections allow communities to hold those officials accountable … Everything from community board meetings, city council meetings, to local elections for what may seem to be small-time roles, but actually have a broad impact on people’s lives,” he said. “The political process itself is all about creating change, and building change over time. Hopefully that will lead to more and more people jumping on the bandwagon and joining the fight to really restore and make whole folks who have been laboring under these laws for so long.”