December 9, 2022

politics of law

Politics and Law

Legal Cannabis Opens a Pandora’s Box of Equity Issues

11 min read

This story is first in a four-part series about cannabis equity in America. The USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 National Fellowship supported reporting for this project.


 
Full Disclosure: I am so thoroughly in the tank for cannabis that I believe negative “stoner behavior” can be chalked up to dosing issues. In my experience, cannabis is medicine and too much of anything is bad for you.

This four-part series is scrolling beneath your fingers because the legal weed market opening that some still call a Green Rush isn’t returning to Black cannabis a fraction of what we have given it.

That’s right, I’m snitching on legal cannabis.

Starting with the case of Howard Gunn, a farmer who won’t be mistaken for cultivator Virgil Grant or dispensary owner Wanda James or the handful of others keeping Black America from being shut out of land ownership in the legal weed business. Dude walks around central Florida looking not like a cannabis pioneer, but a cowtown extra from Netflix’s The Harder They Fall.

Gunn raises cattle up by Tampa, in Brooksville, but this ag man is a farmer first, second and third. At nine, he opened his landscaping business. Now he grows magnolia trees and crape myrtles in his Florida and Mississippi nurseries. In Ocala, Florida, he also raises horses and resides.
 


Until recently the $1 billion Florida medical marijuana market has been in the clutches of a half-dozen companies, essentially an oligopoly.


 
Gunn leads a congregation at Clearwater Missionary Baptist Church in Ocklawaha. A retired teacher, he served as president of the Florida chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) from 2009, when he co-founded the organization, until 2018.

And this 61-year-old has been the face of growers grappling with the Sunshine State for its first and only license to cultivate and sell medical marijuana. Until recently the $1 billion Florida market has been in the clutches of a half-dozen companies, essentially an oligopoly.

But Gunn’s father was part of the billion-dollar settlements in Pigford v. Glickman and In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation (the so-called Pigford II), the landmark class-action suits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which it was established that systemic harm had been done to Black growers through federal loan discrimination.

The elder Gunn died waiting to be paid back by the government.

In 2017, Florida’s cannabis-hostile Senate and House of Representatives carved out a prohibition exception for medical pot, permitting 600,000 residents — of 21.5 million — Floridians to purchase and possess the stuff without breaking state, county, or municipal law.

The legislators planned to make available one $60,000 license to a Black farmer.

*   *   *

What’s happening in the state that’s America’s biggest medical-marijuana-only market merely caricatures the legal weed leadership’s commitment to social equity. Once you move past storefront workers and delivery people and dig into who really owns cannabis companies, you’ll find slightly more Black representation than you saw in the Jan. 6 riot.

More than generating service gigs for the historically overpoliced, equity in cannabis must mean ownership options for the formerly owned and a beginning of the end to the nation’s Black exploitation narrative.

As new legislation out of Virginia shows, even as equity is still finding its foothold in an emerging, far from stable industry, Republicans have begun fighting equity-associated programs.

This series asks a lot. Today and tomorrow’s cannabis overview examines fairness in Florida. Wednesday’s installment examines the relationship between unlicensed cannabis and social equity. It features results from the traditional market questionnaire that I circulated this summer. Thursday’s conclusion examines how the issues of Black growers and expungement — the clearing of marijuana convictions — coincide.

*   *   *

Howard Gunn is coy about his past with cannabis. He maintains he’s never grown commercially, but might he have cultivated a tiny bit of pot while studying at Tuskegee?

“I’ve dabbled in a lot of different plants” is as far as Gunn will take it. Cool-ass farmer basically born to study at the George Washington Carver institution.

But the politicians in Tallahassee are testing Gunn’s faith. A statehouse promise of one cannabis license has been dangled before Gunn and members of the Florida BFAA for five years now.
 


The hard truth is that the concept of cannabis equity and the desperate need for it are poorly understood, even in the nation’s most weed-friendly states.


 
Compared to established adult use states like Colorado or even legal weed onboarders such as New Jersey and New York, Florida is estranged from its rampant and — West Coast imports aside — mediocre traditional bud market.

So, its legislators are directing Black industry access to a nontraditional — in the literal plant cultivator sense — weed man like Gunn.

Florida’s far from alone in constructing its new industry on a foundation of ill-gotten privilege, cultural theft and ongoing condescension. It’s just audacious enough to dangle a single license before one Black business and consider that racial justice.

*   *   *

For Mary Jane folk peering upon America from a Westside perspective, dunking on Florida is easy and fun, if only because the state’s historically known for bathing the South in mediocre product that Canadians call “mid.”

The hard truth is that the concept of cannabis equity — an access, training and capitalization concept born in Oakland’s city hall five years ago — and the desperate need for it are poorly understood, even in the nation’s most weed-friendly states.

Ask your local cannabis big-mouth if he knows that cannabis workforce development exists — that in some places there are cash inducements for diverse upper management hiring — and see if he’s not dumbfounded.

This inside ignorance is super-problematic, specifically because the legal cannabis industry — projections for annual U.S. sales run as high as $64 billion by 2030 —  is right now in intense negotiations over who gets to be a part of the industry’s ownership class.

Just 1.2%-1.7% of legal ownership is Black, according to Leafly’s 2021 jobs report. That was in 2021, the third straight year of consolidations and mergers.

Whether you are Black or brown, whether you were overpoliced from Day One or you toke happy, white and rural: If you aren’t involved in substantial cannabis ownership in the near future, resign yourself to customer status.
 


Just 1.2%-1.7% of legal cannabis company ownership is Black, according to Leafly’s 2021 jobs report.


 
Or, move to Missouri, or the next domino state to fall out of prohibitionism. If you’re in Florida, maybe one of the multistate operators dominating the place will give you a job.

Social equity is expressed differently around North America. A 25-year-old ballot initiative in California prevents race from being a consideration. The nation is quite segregated, so the Golden State tactic of checking neighborhood cannabis arrest records very neatly works to narrow down possible program participants.

In New York, New Jersey and the other states set to come online, racial considerations have been made part of their legalization statutes.

In short, cannabis equity is a heightened opportunity for entrepreneurs victimized by the country’s drug war and can range from grants to tax breaks for businesses that reach diversity benchmarks. Darlene Flynn, director of Oakland’s Race and Equity Department, took an unenforceable City Council proposal and shaped it into the touchstone for economic fairness in legal weed.

Where is equity now, as the ground floor ownership participation window begins to close?

  • Having gone from strictly underground to an expected $45 billion domestically by 2025, cannabusiness is in its infant stage of mentoring and showcasing, and sometimes partnering, with Black-owned brands.
  • Most of cannabusiness supports with their mouths, not their hands. And then only when they have to.
  • Tangible results, slim though they may be, tend to happen in California. But for every Blunts + Moore dispensary success story, you’ll find multiple equity applicants stuck in a moribund licensing process.
  • State and local governments disperse grants, administer training and scour their jurisdictions for applicants with a chance of complying with government standards.

If you say social equity to someone in Florida, they probably won’t know what you mean.

“Social equity and Florida,” Cannabis Action Project co-founder Michael Minardi told me, “there’s no such thing as it. Social equity doesn’t exist in this state.”

*   *   *

Gunn certainly didn’t know the term when the legislators made their promise in 2016. He  may have known only a bit about commercial cannabis. Gunn knew for sure that he wanted that license to go to a Black grower.

But the market participation requirements — 30 years of nursery experience, 400,000 plants grown — were so onerous as to shut out virtually all Black Floridians. The ownership requirements ignored the challenges of Blacks attempting to buy local land over so many decades, as though the Pigford decision never happened.

Gunn took his association’s board members with him to the state Senate floor in Tallahassee, where they argued for a license.

“Thirty years ago,” Gunn told me, “we were there fighting discrimination cases with the USDA, and we won.”

He tells me that then-Gov. Rick Scott planned for Black farmers to receive three of the coveted licenses. The ball began to move. After months and then years, Gunn and his fellow Black growers had come to believe that a Black man in Florida could get a medical marijuana license, and soon.

“Then they went into their secret closet and began formulating ways in which we couldn’t get the license,” Gunn said.
 


Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger promoted the use of the term “marijuana” to make cannabis sound more Mexican and more threatening.


 
A lawsuit, Columbus Smith v. The Florida Dept. of Health, was filed in which the plaintiff, a Black Florida farmer, argued that he had been unfairly excluded from the Florida BFAA and thus kept from consideration for the medical weed-growing license.

According to Gunn, once the state’s first five licenses were awarded, state regulators shut down the process and wouldn’t accept his application. The three licenses shrank into a single license. Gunn insists that political figures have tried to make certain that a license doesn’t end in Black ag hands.

“We have an idea how it’s been dwindled down to one license,” he said, “which everyone, Black and white, is competing for now.”

Gunn told me he knows Pigford litigants who’ve died since the Florida negotiations began, two of them members of the BFAA.

*   *   *

Had the stuff that’s so enriching so many Green Rush investors right now not been so viciously and consistently criminalized, I might be explaining to you exactly how many lives Mary Jane has saved in a nation hellbent to go out on some alcoholic Don Draper shit.

But we won’t have those numbers. The federal government has severely limited research on the drug. In large part that’s thanks to Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, most recently seen harassing a mid-20th-century singer to the point of self-destruction in the 2021 film The United States vs. Billie Holliday. Anslinger also promoted the use of the term “marijuana” to make cannabis sound more Mexican and more threatening. The infamous propaganda film Reefer Madness was part of an anti-weed media offensive masterminded by Anslinger and his allies in the federal government and received government funding along with other, similar films.

Harry Anslinger is the bedrock of American cannabis policy, and here is his money quote:

Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.

It’s 2022, and I’ve been, er, working on my self-esteem. I can confidently tell you that Black America all but built the client base for legal cannabis:

  • In post-war America, when cannabis arrived primarily from Mexico and California, it was disproportionately Black dealers who hooked up consumers.
  • Cab Calloway introduced untold beatniks to the idea that their contraband “marijuana” could be coded as “weed.”
  • Before rappers were promoting worldwide weed via language, jazzmen and, yes, NBA ballers provided other, more sensory, demonstrations of weed’s positive attributes.
  • When recent entrants to cannabusiness like John Boehner (the former Republican House speaker who became a consultant to the marijuana industry) and Trump cabinet member Tom Price (who is on the board of a medical marijuana business in Georgia) were gleefully voting to jail weed’s star brokers and distributors, hip-hop was spreading the glories of Mary Jane in explicit detail.

And for their efforts, America policed the shit out of Black people. Between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million people were arrested for possession alone. Today still, more than 40,000 people, many of whom are Black and brown, remain locked up for nonviolent, weed related violations.

Consider those national numbers once more, then factor in that despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.

*   *   *

It’s been less than a year since Jay-Z launched a $10 million Social Equity Ventures Fund. Chris Webber followed with $100 million for Michigan entrepreneurs. In October, a group of BIPOC women emerged with the $50 million The People’s Fund.

Cannabis equity programs are popping up in jurisdictions from San Diego to Maine.

Brands like Farmer and the Felon wear their relationship to the historic underground or, traditional, market on their sleeves.

And iconic names, from the California delivery company Eaze to Canadian Seth Rogen’s California delivery company Houseplant, have partnered to uplift entrepreneurs from backgrounds impacted by overpolicing.
 


Today, more than 40,000 people, many of whom are Black and brown, remain locked up for nonviolent, weed related violations.


 
On the surface, it appears that companies in concert with the government have banded together to do the right thing in the self-described “different kind of industry.” But is the idea to rely on celebrities and responsible companies to mitigate a profound one-sidedness? State equity programs are underfunded to a tragicomic degree, creating an appearance that celebs and goodwill are the tonic.

According to the Working Group’s Social Equity Handbook:

  • California — perceived as a leader in social equity — allotted $55 million for its grant program in 2021. The Golden State’s market projection for this year is $5 billion.
  • Colorado, which brought in $2.2 billion in cannabis revenue last year, spent $4 million on social equity programs in 2021.
  • Despite a price drop that reverberated up and down the West Coast, Oregon is still on track to beat 2024 revenue projections of $1 billion. Programs involved in providing fair access to overpoliced communities were granted $1.8 million.

The money’s there to share.

There’s a classic Chris Rock bit in which he mocks the late Jerry Lewis’ decades-running telethon to end muscular dystrophy, a project that some critics accused of giving off scam vibes.

Rock quipped, “Who’s the last person you know who’s had muscular dystrophy?”

I feel that way about the effort to enact cannabis equity, like 90 percent of the time.

After summer 2020’s racial alarm clock went off, the multistate cannabis operators — the legal pot era’s most empowered creation — began issuing statements such as this one from Trulieve — essentially a nondiscrimination plan that’s eaten its vegetables.

“Just lie to me, Jerry!” Rock begs Lewis.

A lie would be less insulting.


 
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