Governor Ralph Northam recently enacted marijuana decriminalization into law, a reform that would stop charging people with criminal records for low-level cannabis use.
But don’t confuse this with legalization. It is not.
But before the Commonwealth even has a chance to examine the results of decriminalization, some in the legislature are already calling for the full legalization and commercialization of marijuana on social justice grounds. That would only set us back.
The failures of marijuana commercialization to live up to the promises made in the name of social justice are far and wide. In states that have commercialized marijuana, promises of social justice and equality have routinely proven to be nothing more than pipe dreams.
Black people don’t make money from legal marijuana. Your communities will not be raised.
And the prison inmates? They grow – and do not retreat – in constitutional states.
Legalization has been widely heralded as the next economic boom, with sky-high promises of jobs, opportunities and tax revenues. In reality, the industry is currently experiencing mass layoffs, large corporations are entering the markets and tax revenues are far below expectations.
Also, don’t think that pot taxes are the answer to budget problems. “Marijuana-legal” states face an overall deficit of more than $70 billion, and marijuana revenues account for less than 1% of the total budget.
A member of the San Francisco Cannabis Oversight Committee recently commented that marijuana “isn’t the cash cow that people outside the industry think it is.”
But it’s a cash cow — for the white investors and Wall Street fund managers who are putting money into it. When marijuana is legalized, savvy operators — who typically operate under the state’s medical marijuana regime — rush to acquire the first licenses, arguing that they already have a supply chain, retail stores, etc. Those operators do have usually with large amounts of capital readily available to them and the backing of larger, multi-state, even multinational corporations.
These are the stores that will be ready on the day the “legal” sale begins. These guys are followed by the rest of the applicants who have to wait their turn to get the remaining crumbs of the market.
Additionally, the initial rush and novelty of buying pot legally in a store ends soon after legalization. Then the black market reigns, sales dwindle, licensing lags, small investors wither, and the overwhelmingly white male weed profiteers laugh their way to the bank.
To see how this plays out, take a look at Chicago.
The Illinois legislature rushed through a marijuana commercialization bill last summer. In doing so, they promised to set standards in matters of social justice and justice in the industry. But when sales began in Chicago in January this year, not a single license was held by a minority-owned company. The Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus was outraged and threatened to delay the legal sale, but was reassured by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the sale began without issue.
Now, in the latest tranche of permits, five new licenses have been issued to sell today’s high-potency marijuana in the city. Three of these went to Multi-State/Multi-National Operators: MedMen, Cresco Labs, and Nature’s Care. The other two, MOCA Cannabis and Windy City Cannabis, join the others in boasting a leadership composed primarily of white males .
Virginians should not be fooled. The marijuana industry only cares about social justice and justice while working to convince voters or lawmakers that it should be extended to their state. And data proves it time and time again – nationally, only 2% of the industry is minority-owned.
The marijuana industry is white-owned, has mostly white employees, and is predominantly located in low-income black communities.
We’ve seen this movie before. And it doesn’t end well.
This is social injustice.
dr Kevin Sabet served as a senior drug policy adviser to the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. He is currently President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana in Alexandria.