The South’s Marijuana ‘Green Rush’ Failing People of Color

p> From all appearances, it has been a very good month for cannabis legalization in the southern United States. Full medical marijuana rights are moving quickly through South Carolina’s legislature and Georgia recently legalized medical marijuana in the form of low-potency oils. A landmark Alabama bill decriminalizing possession and expunging past convictions cruised unanimously through a state Senate committee.

These are small steps, yet the South conspicuously has the fewest legal cannabis states of any region in the country. Recreational marijuana is illegal in all southern states and just three states (Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana) allow for the sale of medical marijuana in any form other than those low-dose Cannabidiol (CBD) and hemp products. The South also has the highest concentration of African Americans of any US region and, just as the national medical marijuana movement is primarily a white, higher-income phenomenon, the growth of the cannabis industry in the South offers little opportunity for Black Americans. This is most noticeable in agriculture. The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline noted that there are almost no Black hemp farmers, despite the low risk of that non-narcotic form of cannabis that is now federally legal.

Stateline talked to the very few Black hemp farmers they could find to ask why. “There was still so much skepticism associated with it, and everyone was worried,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture candidate Joe Trigg. “You start growing marijuana on your farm and you’re Black?”

Despite uplifting stories of cannabis equity programs that benefit people of color and drug war victims in certain US cities, these programs are not common nationwide. “No one is doing that with hemp,” North Carolina farmer Clarenda Stanley-Anderson told Stateline.

In Kentucky, for instance, a past cannabis conviction prohibits farmers from growing hemp. Even a low-paid hemp farmhand must pass a criminal background check, for which a mere misdemeanor possession charge, even from years back, could prove disqualifying. This creates a sort of double jeopardy for those with prior convictions, as a disproportionate number of Black and Brown people were targeted during marijuana prohibition.

This targeted policing created a legal justification for denying opportunities to people of color, despite many in those communities having the precise skill set needed to cultivate, handle, and distribute a plant that is now off the black market and making investors millions.

Stateline made an encouraging point that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are developing hemp agriculture courses and programs in an attempt to reverse these disparities. But legalization is happening faster than universities can graduate students, and many Republican-controlled southern state houses have little interest in addressing racial inequity.

The Kansas City Star reported that in Missouri, a state currently setting up its medical marijuana framework, the Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly rejected any attempts to give preference to minority- or women-owned cannabis companies.

“They’re more looking at that free market situation as opposed to having any type of equity for minorities,” aquaponics shop owner Dre Taylor told the Star. “You can’t rewrite the wrongs, but you can start with some sort of programs.” As commonsense as it seems to eliminate racial disparities in the cannabis industry, in some states lawsuits have been filed for trying to implement such programs. That could send a chill toward other statehouses considering equity and racial justice in their cannabis laws.

In Georgia, equity is being considered. The lack of minority opportunity has been one of the sticking points of that state’s medical marijuana bill, so legislators tweaked it to add two minority members to the state oversight board that will award licenses. That does not exactly guarantee opportunity for entrepreneurs of color, but it’s one step in the right direction.

“We also made it a point for each licensee to demonstrate a significant effort to include minorities, whether it be co-owners for businesses, officers of the businesses or contracting with minority-owned as they deliver the product,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Micah Gravely, told Georgia Public Broadcasting.

But some medical marijuana advocates in the South aren’t happy that racial equity efforts are causing delays for legalization in their respective states. “We’ve had folks trying to block these bills because there is no social equity,” Tom McCain, executive director of Peachtree NORML, Georgia’s state chapter of the nationwide advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, complained to the Christian Science Monitor. “My opinion is, let’s get something on the books and then work with it.”

Peachtree NORML’s board of directors is entirely white, despite the population of Georgia being more than 30 percent African American. Similarly, April Simpson noted in Stateline that the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission, which regulates the new industry, “is all male. Eight members are white. Two are from law enforcement. None are African American.”

The overwhelming whiteness of cannabis leadership, both in government and advocacy, portends a trickle-down racial disparity that can leave blind spots toward African American business owners and medical marijuana patients.

A separate Stateline article on the exclusion of minorities in southern legalization notes that in Arkansas and Florida, as well as in a bill advancing in Kentucky, certain health conditions that disproportionately affect African Americans are specifically not included among qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.

“We know that such diseases as hypertension, sickle cell, neuropathy and so on are more predominant in blacks,” said Arkansas cannabis advocate Casey Caldwell. None of these are addressed in those states’ legislation.

Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Carolina have approved full-fledged medical marijuana use, and their legislatures are expected to hammer out the regulatory details within the next year or so. But it won’t be “full-fledged” medical marijuana if it ignores Black patients’ medical needs, or offers negligible business opportunities for people of color. A handful of advocates fighting for these opportunities are working to ensure short-sighted legislation doesn’t make them disappear in a cloud of smoke.

About the Author

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice for The North Star and SF Weekly. His work has previously appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot, and you can follow him on Twitter @ExercisingDrunk.