In a recent online town-hall meeting, Gov. Tom Wolf tweeted that Pennsylvanians should seriously consider legalizing recreational marijuana, and I rolled my eyes.
It’s not that marijuana is as deadly as cocaine or heroin. It’s not. Nor is marijuana simply a recreational drug. Clearly, it has numerous therapeutic applications.
My issue with the legalization of marijuana — a drug that generates $40 billion annually in legal and illegal sales nationwide — is quite simple. Legalizing marijuana will likely mean the same thing in Pennsylvania it has meant in other states. That is, people of color will get to legally smoke marijuana, but the bulk of the estimated $581 million in annual state marijuana revenue would go to white organizations instead of the black and brown entrepreneurs who made marijuana a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
That’s because legalizing marijuana is the same kind of economic bait and switch that America has always pulled on people of color. Blacks create an industry that has value — whether through legal or illegal means — and white folks change the rules, change the language, and change the perception in order to bring about a change in ownership.
That’s gangster, and it’s frighteningly effective.
In an industry that’s just a few years old, most estimates say just 1 percent of those who hold licenses to legally sell marijuana are black. That’s no accident. The industry is structured that way.
In many of the states where marijuana is now legal, those with felony drug convictions are banned from securing licenses to sell the drug legally. Not coincidentally, most of those with felony drug convictions are black or brown. Also not coincidentally, those with felony drug convictions are also those with the most expertise in selling marijuana.
The remedy for that inequity is to allow a few blacks to gather the crumbs from the master’s table. In cities like Oakland, for example, there are minority set-asides that make it possible for a few black people to break through the state’s ban on giving licenses to those with felony drug convictions. And when Pennsylvania handed out licenses to grow medical marijuana last year, the state said it gave significant weight to whether minorities were part of the companies’ executives or managers.
So why are blacks still frozen out of the industry? Unfortunately, it takes about $250,000 to start a marijuana dispensary, and since opening such a dispensary is still illegal according to federal law, prospective dispensary owners can’t get bank loans to take care of up-front costs. That means you need to have at least a quarter of a million dollars lying around just to get started. Since black families hold about $5.04 in wealth for every $100 held by white families, that’s not realistic for most of us.
But when laws and access to capital don’t get it done, there are those in the industry who are willing to speak up to make sure they don’t have to compete with the mostly black and brown people who have felony drug convictions.
Consider what happened in Massachusetts when changes in the laws were proposed to allow people with former felony drug convictions to get licenses to legally sell marijuana.
Robert Mayerson, CEO of a medical-marijuana provider called Patriot Care, wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Public Health Council urging that the government continue to freeze out those who “demonstrated the interest and willingness to ignore state and federal drug laws.”
Meanwhile, every company currently involved in selling legal marijuana is ignoring the law, since marijuana remains illegal on the federal level.
In essence, I see Pennsylvania doing what’s been done in nearly every state where marijuana has been legalized.
Black and brown people who smoke marijuana recreationally will get the opportunity to do so without fear of being arrested. They will get to forget — if even for a few hours at a time — that we live in an age where racism is on the rise, where racial inequality is widely accepted, and where black lives remain in danger.
But the real economic benefit of marijuana legalization will go to white people, even as black dreams continue to go up in smoke.