KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The legal marijuana industry is booming, and businesses are cashing in. Dispensaries alone raked in billions of dollars last year. But one group is being shut out of this industry, and it is African-Americans. Amanda Chicago Lewis covers drug policy for BuzzFeed. She's written about this, and she's with us now. Hi, Amanda.
AMANDA CHICAGO LEWIS: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: Spell it out for us, if you could, just really clearly - what did you find in terms of the numbers on the disparity when it comes to who has entry to this industry and who doesn't?
LEWIS: So there are between 3,200 and 3,600 estimated dispensaries nationally. I talked to a lot of people and estimate that there are fewer than three dozen black dispensary owners in the country out of that 32 to 3,600, which is a little bit around 1 percent.
MCEVERS: You have spent six months looking into this story. What made you start investigating it in the first place?
LEWIS: Well, it was very clear there were these laws in every single state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana preventing people who had drug felonies from getting involved in the industry, and it seemed pretty blatant that that was a racist law.
MCEVERS: Well, explain what you mean by that. You mean that people who have been committed for felonies - drug felonies in particular - are disproportionately people of color?
LEWIS: Yeah, I mean, we know that the war on drugs was enforced in a racially biased way. We know that that is not reflective of who's using and selling drugs. People of all races use and sell drugs at the exact same rates. I mean, data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse from every single year since they started measuring it shows that black teenagers are actually less likely to use drugs than people of any other race, but in every single county in America, black people have been between two and 10 times more likely to get arrested for selling or using drugs, you know, since the 1970s. So it seemed pretty clear that the people who had drug felonies on their record disproportionately were black people and also, you know, I spend a lot of time at cannabis conferences, going to dispensaries, talking to people in the industry, and it just seemed very clear that these laws didn't really make sense.
MCEVERS: Right, but lawmakers would say - right? - that somebody who has committed a felony - a drug felony - isn't necessarily somebody you want to be the face of this business, right?
LEWIS: That's true except for the fact that there are lots of people who grew and sold and used marijuana on the black market who were never arrested. So the idea behind the laws is to prevent diversion and to prevent the legal marijuana industry from becoming a front for criminal activity, which, you know, is a real thing. There's like an ongoing Supreme Court case where Nebraska and Oklahoma are actually suing Colorado over all of the legally grown marijuana that's being - flowing through their borders.
MCEVERS: OK, so you're talking about this idea that, you know, drug dealers themselves tend to be people who have the kind of experience that's necessary to do this work. But if you were, you know, somebody who involved in drug activity, and you're a person of color, you are much less likely to have access to this world. Is that a correct way of saying it?
LEWIS: Yeah, I mean, I think the idea is that lawmakers would like to keep drug dealers out, except for the fact that they need drug dealers or marijuana growers to help them get the industry going which is why in a lot of different states you see things like no one with a drug felony can get involved in the industry. But if you're applying for a marijuana business license, it's a big plus if you have experience with cannabis. So how do you have that experience with cannabis if you weren't working with it on a black market? I also found people are shell-shocked because of the war on drugs. A lot of black people are very uncomfortable with the idea of getting involved in legal marijuana both on a consumer side and on a business owner side. I also know several, you know, black cannabis entrepreneurs whose family members are very horrified that they would take the kind of risk that they're taking.
MCEVERS: Amanda Chicago Lewis, thank you so much.
LEWIS: Thank you.
MCEVERS: Amanda Chicago Lewis covers drug policy for BuzzFeed.
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