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.”