Marijuana laws have disproportionately impacted African-Americans going back decades. Last year the ACLU issued a report that found, “on average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.”
The report added, “[S]uch racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations.”
Unequal enforcement of pot laws and other issues are explored in the timely BET documentary Smoke: Marijuana + Black America, directed by Erik Parker.
“That was one of the key things that stands out as far as the treatment and the disparities is how much we are over-policed, over-sentenced for marijuana usage,” Parker said during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season panel. “It was very important that we drilled that point home and let people understand it, or at least illustrate it in some way.”
The marijuana business is booming, spurred by legalization of personal as well as medical use in a growing number of states. White entrepreneurs with easy access to capital have come to dominate the nascent industry, most Black entrepreneurs have been left on the sidelines.
Denver-based couple Wanda James and Scott Durrah, founders of Simply Pure Dispensary, appear in the documentary. They became the first African-Americans in the country to obtain a license to cultivate and sell marijuana, but had to overcome numerous obstacles to do it.
“We had the resources between ourselves…We had our own house, etc., we were able to come up with the first million dollars that you needed just to be able to get in,” Durrah said, noting the difficulty they faced as Black business owners to obtain loans. “We busted our ass and built ourselves wealth and we had to fund ourselves.”
“What Black America missed out on was ‘first mover advantage,’ ” James said, adding that a moratorium on new dispensaries where they live means, “You can’t get a new license. You have to buy one. Therefore, a…dispensary in Denver will cost you anywhere from, on the low, low end, $1.5 million to $148 million—how many do you want to buy, right?”
James said efforts to level the playing field have come a little late.
“Now we’re seeing social equity trying to right that wrong,” she said, “but after the ship has left the station and the money is flowing and [dispensary owners] have their market share and they’ve created their brand and their name and now we’re saying to Black people, ‘Well, yeah, jump on in. The water’s fine,’ when there’s no more room for new people to enter the industry even if they had the money.”
Parker says action needs to be taken to free people incarcerated for marijuana possession, and to allow them to enter the marijuana market as a form of “restorative justice.” The state of Illinois has a program like that.
“It’s that kind of a [model],” Parker said, “for how other states should at least start to begin to think about this.”
Check out the panel video above.
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