Understanding the Crucial Role of Social Equity in Cannabis

Understanding the Crucial Role of Social Equity in Cannabis

In the last 10 years, 16 states in the U.S. have legalized cannabis for adults over the age of 21, with even more on board for medical marijuana use. With more states poised to legalize cannabis in the near future — and a growing number of brands and dispensaries to purchase from — it’s never been more important to look at the shifting landscape of cannabis decriminalization and examine the role of social equity in what has become a staggering multibillion-dollar industry. 

Here, we’ll touch on the long and painful history of racism and discrimination since the early days of the cannabis movement, then offer some ways that you can support businesses that are giving back to communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Racial Disparities in the Cannabis Industry

According to
Leafly’s 2021 Jobs Report, legal cannabis now supports more than 321,000 full-time jobs — a 32 percent year-over-year growth since 2019 — and has become an $18.3 billion industry. While these numbers signal an exciting time for businesses and consumers alike, it’s important to remember that the flush opportunities and economic promise haven’t come completely clean. 

For decades now, American drug policy — most notably in the form of Nixon’s

war on drugs — has disproportionately targeted black and brown individuals for possessing, consuming or selling cannabis. Whether it was painted as a dangerous psychoactive from south of the border or a “jazz drug” (Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau, once decried jazz as “satanic voodoo” music), cannabis has seen a level of institutionalized racial targeting that persists today. 

In fact,

recent statistics indicate that black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession of weed, and a report earlier this year revealed that people of color made up 94 percent of marijuana-related arrests in New York City’s five boroughs in 2020.

Why It’s Important to Support Social Equity in Cannabis

People of color face excessive hurdles when they try to launch their own brands and dispensaries. In addition to the high economic barriers to entry (even a small cannabis operation may cost anywhere between $250,000 and $2 million to maintain), most American states
bar anyone with any kind of criminal record from starting their own business — which disproportionately affects people of color. In fact, in
2017 only six percent of cannabis business owners identified as Hispanic/Latino, four percent as black and two percent as Asian, despite a long history among many communities of color of traditional cannabis use for healing and horticultural purposes. 

With so few people of color at the forefront of the flourishing cannabis economy (and even fewer women of color), it’s time for consumers to make purchasing choices that push the industry toward a more diverse and equitable space. After all, social equity measures in cannabis regulation can only do so much — though they may set a progressive precedent, it’s still up to adult users to leverage the power of their dollar and support POC-owned businesses or brands that are giving back to black and brown communities.

Examples of Social Equity Programs in Cannabis

Some cannabis brands and dispensaries are resisting a blindly capitalist pursuit of growth and opting to build a more socially equitable ecosystem of businesses by directly supporting programs that work with those who have been jailed for cannabis possession or use. At Garden Remedies, we are firmly committed to social equity in cannabis and to doing what it takes to give back. We’ve partnered with the following incredible programs that are making a lasting impact on criminal justice in the U.S.

  • The Last Prisoner Project: The
    Last Prisoner Project seeks to redress the past and consequences of criminal injustice through a combination of intervention, advocacy and awareness campaigns, as well as to reimagine drug policy and reforms that will ensure safe, just and equitable communities.
  • MASS CultivatED: Garden Remedies is one of the main sponsors of the MASS
    CultivatED Program, which is driven by a public-private partnership between several Massachusetts community colleges, legal services and the state’s leading cannabis industry members to create a groundbreaking jail-to-jobs program. Fellows will receive a robust education in the cannabis industry, free legal services, workforce preparedness training, and cannabis externships with livable wages and benefits.
  • The Innocence Project: Founded in 1992, the
    Innocence Project is on a mission to exonerate innocent people who remain incarcerated, improve case law through targeted legal work, and pass laws and policies that prevent wrongful conviction.

There’s a long way to go before we can create a socially equitable cannabis industry, but supporting businesses that are committed to making a direct impact on the lives of those who have been wrongfully or unfairly imprisoned is an important first step to actualizing a new vision — and reality — for the future of legalized weed.

James Han is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not deep in a Google Doc, you can find him reading, watching films and taking long walks.


Leafly — The US cannabis industry now supports 321,000 full-time jobs

Brookings — Marijuana’s racist history shows the need for comprehensive drug reform

Music Therapy Today — Jazz, improvisation and a social pharmacology of music

NORML — Racial Disparity In Marijuana Arrests

Self — What Will It Take to Build a Truly Equitable Cannabis Industry? 

The Zoe Report — These Women Are Changing The Face Of The Modern Cannabis Entrepreneur

The Last Prisoner Project — The Last Prisoner Project

MASS CultivatED — The CultivatED Program

The Innocence Project —
The Innocence Project

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