The Booming Marijuana Industry Is Still Too White

A man talking with Wanda James next to a marijuana plant

Legal cannabis is now growing faster than any other industry in the U.S. The enterprise deemed the "next great American industry" by the ArcView Group, a California-based investment and research firm, has grown from $1.5 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion in 2014, the Huffington Post reported. This emerging market, however, seems to be benefitting all but the people who have been most impacted by draconian anti-drug laws in the United States.

Marijuana legalization efforts reveal the ways entrenched ideas about race and class impact the public's perception of users and sellers, and the state and federal policies established to criminalize them. Take, for example, the ways "drug dealing" is often talked about in public — especially when the dealer is imagined as black or Latino — but cannabis pushing has now been recast as a hip and lucrative business endeavor and no longer a sign of degenerative morals.


The faces behind the policies: The facts are telling. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have ratified laws legalizing cannabis in some form. In four of those states and the District of Columbia, recreational use of cannabis is legal.

Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S. in 2013, accounting for 19.8 million people who reported using in the month before they were surveyed, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The Washington Post reported comparable usage among black and white people between 2001 and 2010. Yet, the Post reported, black people were arrested for marijuana possession at rates disproportionately higher than their white counterparts during the same time period.

The consequences of the longstanding "war on drugs" are complex. Those who are able to join the burgeoning marijuana boom are benefiting while the economic and social deficits left from decades of overpolicing and marijuana criminalization impacting black and Latino communities remain. The second episode of Mic's original series The Movement examines this tension. 

Addressing forms of racial, socio-economic and gender inequity present in the cannabis industry is a core aspect of the work of one black woman, business owner and marijuana advocate: Wanda James.


In the episode, I interview James — who, along with her husband, Scott Durrah — is a co-owner of Simply Pure, which is the only black woman-run cannabis dispensary in Colorado — a state where marijuana has been legal since Dec. 10, 2012, when the voter-sanctioned Amendment 64 was approved. Since ratification, Colorado has been a major epicenter of the "green rush" sweeping the country. James has been a vocal proponent along the way.

The limitations of the marijuana economy: There's money to be made in the cannabis business. In 2014 medical and recreational marijuana brought in $63 million in tax revenue for Colorado, according to the Washington Post. The projected worth of the retail market for 2016 is $1 billion, with a tax revenue set to hit $94 million. In Colorado, $386 million of medical marijuana was sold, and the recreational industry sold $313 million in 2014, the Post reported. The increased revenue is a clear sign a consumer base exists.

Between 2012 and 2013, the period marijuana was legalized in Colorado, monthly marijuana use increased to 12.7%, up from 10.4% between 2011 and 2012, according to the Denver Post. Despite the seemingly progressive moves to decriminalize marijuana use and distribution, the arrest rate for marijuana charges remained 2.4 times higher for black people than the arrest rates for white people in both 2010, before the laws changed, and 2014, after the laws took effect, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading national drug policy organization.

If marijuana legalization presents the possibility of economic relief — or dare I say, reparations — to those overcriminalized over the years for marijuana use and sale, like black Coloradans, that possibility is far from a realization. Colorado issued 833 recreational licenses (322 for stores) and 1,416 medical licenses (505 for medical marijuana dispensaries) as of December 2014. Yet, James is the only black woman in the game. Clearly, the "green rush" is still too white.


"Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big — big money, big businesses selling weed — after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed," Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, shared with Drug Policy Alliance's Asha Bandele during a talk published on the DPA's website. "Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?"

James is attempting to reverse the cycle of inequity Alexander called out. Her work is vital. At its heart it is committed to bringing attention to the routes that public policy can take — depending on the imagined winners and losers. What was once a war on marijuana largely impacting black communities is now a race to the mighty dollar. And black people still don't figure as winners. 

Watch the latest episode of The Movement below: