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The Dangers of Legalization

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Cannabis industry powerhouse Tahira Rehmatullah speaks out

Cannabis. It’s a word that has become part of our everyday lexicon. Most people have an opinion about it. Many have been impacted by it. And some have been fighting for years to legalize it.

I love cannabis. It’s created an industry that’s a confluence of so many different social forces – history, public health, medical research, economic opportunity, innovation. The list goes on. It crosses gender barriers, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and political views. There are few, if any, other industries that bring together such a diverse group of people and ideas.

But its entry into the mainstream is also dangerous.

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It’s dangerous because it runs the risk of leaving behind the many minorities who have paid a heavy price for their affiliation with the industry over the last century. Cannabis, sometimes more than anything, is about social justice. Each shiny new dispensary that looks like an Apple store or luxury cannabis brand helps us forget the plant’s highly racialized history in the U.S.

Don’t get me wrong – I love shiny. And I firmly believe that each innovation and advancement in normalizing the plant further enhances the vision and goals of the larger cannabis community, old and new. We all want a responsible, high quality cannabis market, and to further develop and sustain a healthy outlook for consumption, lifestyle, and thinking.

But let’s not ignore the facts in our sprint to build empires. Eighty-some years after Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA) was appointed and started using racist rhetoric to associate the supposed harms of cannabis with minorities and immigrants, we’re still seeing the consequences. Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately criminalized for cannabis, even as the swelling tide of social acceptance has pulled the law along and the domino effect of legalization has turned state after state.

In the U.S., over half of all drug arrests are for cannabis, according to the ACLU, and from 2001-2010 nearly 90% of those were simply for possession. Even though whites and blacks use cannabis at around the same rate, blacks are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for it. FOUR TIMES. That number can more than double depending on where you are in the country.

As I write this, countless people of color are serving prison sentences, or are barred from ever receiving federal student loans, or are struggling to find and keep a job. I was annoyed when I couldn’t get a mortgage because of my work in the cannabis industry, but that’s nothing compared to those who face life-altering consequences with no course correction in sight.

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These are not new stats. In fact, they’re likely quoted by anyone who ever talks about these issues, so I’m not saying anything new here. But these points bear repeating over and over again. We must focus on inclusion now before the industry transforms into a monolith and before it becomes part of the establishment. Now is the time to make sure we are bringing marginalized communities into the fold and that they, too, can profit from an industry that has historically been used to oppress them. We must use this newfound economic power to catalyze real change.

It’s of course incumbent on people like me, investors and operators who have a stake in the industry, to push for inclusion and ensure we aren’t reinforcing prohibitive practices of other industries, like tech. We know we must bridge the gap in hiring practices, funding, resources, etc., but sometimes “business” decisions are at odds with the “right” decision. In all honesty, I often struggle with not feeling empowered enough to make decisions that will enact the changes we absolutely need. But just because there aren’t easy fixes shouldn’t deter us from continually having these conversations. If anything, more conversations could help drive change in the right direction.

It’s also crucial that legislation reflects the de-racialization of the industry. With Proposition 64, California’s new laws rightly take steps to correct the price minority populations have had to pay for the failed drug war; the proposition allows cannabis-related offenses to be reduced, reclassified or dismissed. It’s not automatic, but it’s a start.

Cannabis is a curious product as it has the ability to both facilitate the persecution of the unprotected classes and to economically and socially empower those same populations. We can only truly harness its power for good if cannabis legislation not only ends prohibition, but rights our collective wrongs with the War on Drugs and releases communities from draconian drug laws designed to follow them around in perpetuity. As the industry further develops, it has the unique opportunity to become one that creates new norms and promotes progressive social and economic ideals while actively working to correct the not-so-silent racism that has been excused for far too long.

 

Story by Tahira Rehmatullah

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