A Weed Boom, But For Whom? The history of cannabis in the U.S. ― and its criminalization ― is deeply interwoven with race. As the legal cannabis market gains traction, people of color who were targeted by the drug war could be left out of the green rush.
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A Weed Boom, But For Whom?

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A Weed Boom, But For Whom?

A Weed Boom, But For Whom?

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Thanks for listening to CODE SWITCH. More than 40 million Americans speak Spanish and millions more are learning. For all of you, I'd like to recommend NPR's Radio Ambulante. It's the podcast to hear incredible stories from all over Latin America and across the U.S., hosted by novelist Daniel Alarcon. Radio Ambulante covers the region like no one else, reporting and storytelling in Espanol. Radio Ambulante is on NPR One or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Linda Grant (ph) has been in the weed game in Oakland for a long time, like practically her whole life.

LINDA GRANT: At the end of elementary, 6th grade, I started selling weed at 11 years old. So, like, we didn't go to school. We sold weed. We stayed on the football field all day selling dollar joints, selling $5 bags of weed.

MERAJI: Since Linda's been selling weed for so long - she's middle-aged now - she's had a lot of run-ins with the law. Her story comes to us, by the way, through Alyssa Jeong Perry's reporting for KQED. Now, the first time Linda was arrested she was a teenager. But there have been so many more arrests over the decades. There is that one time in the early '90s.

GRANT: I sold him the weed, and then the police pulled up or something. They started flashing the light on me and stuff. And I'm like, what is going on? They grabbed me. They took my weed. They took the bag out my hand.

MERAJI: There was another time in 1997.

GRANT: I didn't have but maybe a half a blunt. And I got arrested for that.

MERAJI: And this other time in 2000.

GRANT: When I got arrested for an ounce. I went to jail for a week for that.

DEMBY: So Linda has a criminal record. And she's black, which is probably not surprising because, in Oakland, where about a third of the city's population is black, black people make up 80 percent of the people who've been arrested for cannabis-related offenses. But now Linda, like a lot of folks around the country, wants to go legit.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We are still here at the cann-amazing (ph) event, the Marijuana Business Conference Expo in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

DEMBY: That's from a video at the convention that was held not very far from the NPR headquarters called the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo. That was earlier this spring. It's for people who - and this is according to the official business program - want to, quote, "tap into the huge emerging markets in the cannabis business."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's been a really great show. These East Coast markets are developing so quickly. And we've seen so much entrepreneurial spirit coming in.

DEMBY: So, you know, if you've been to a professional conference, you know this whole scene. There's people milling about in front of booths, chatting up other attendees, networking and that whole thing. There were panel sessions at this thing with names like, quote, "Exclusive Industry Projections And Benchmark Data." People were hawking everything from, like, insurance to pesticides.

MERAJI: And this conference could be for people like Linda Grant from Oakland. She has years of experience and wants to sell weed or weed products legally. But - surprise - the attendees of the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo are mostly white.

DEMBY: And that's what we're talking about this week on CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. He's Gene Demby. And we're going to talk about the huge gap between these two cannabis economies - one underground, one legit - one where black people and Latinos are more likely to be punished and the other where white people are more likely to profit.

DEMBY: And we're going to talk about some of the reasons for that gap. We want to get into the history of cannabis in this country and how the way that Americans think about that plant has always, always been tied to race and how that is not an accident.

MERAJI: We're going to talk to cannabis entrepreneurs who say that getting black and brown people into the booming $7 billion a year and growing industry is a matter of racial justice. And Linda says time's running out.

GRANT: Seeing all these cannabis clubs popping up in Oakland and just realizing that we black people, people of color, don't get in now, it's going to be too late.

MERAJI: And we promise y'all we'll try to keep the weed puns to a minimum as we hash this out.

DEMBY: Boo.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Just can't help yourself.

MERAJI: That's for my husband. He loves puns. And before we go on, we have to say, consuming cannabis could affect your health. NPR's reported that it might stunt development in the adolescent brain, although, the scientific evidence around that is mixed.

And we all know that smoking anything isn't good for your lungs. There's still more research to be done on its long-term health consequences. But as we'll hear in this episode, for the most part, the fear around weed in the U.S. is based on other things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, young America. We need to talk. You may think this is uncool. You may even think it is bogus. But I want to tell you about something that has everyone buzzing - something called grass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The trippers all gathered in secrecy and flying high as a kite. This must be avoided at all costs, for discovery brings with it the penalties of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MR. T: It stops you from living up to your potential. It holds you back. It hurts this family. And it hurts his friends.

DEMBY: Yeah, I know. Those PSAs sound cheesy AF. But anti-cannabis sentiment has not really changed all that much at the highest levels of government. Take this from last year. It was from Jeff Sessions, who was then a senator from Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: This drug is dangerous. You cannot play with it. It's not funny. It's not something to laugh about. Good people don't smoke marijuana.

DEMBY: Now, as we all know, Jeff Sessions is the attorney general of the United States - the most powerful prosecutor in the land. And there's a lot of speculation that he's going to step up weed busts and prosecutions. But here's the thing - American police already arrest more people for weed-related offenses than all violent crimes combined.

MERAJI: How did weed become so vilified? Because at the turn of the 20th century, most Americans barely knew what it was. And if they did, they weren't scared.

JOHN HUDAK: Cannabis was a product that was used medicinally. But for the most part, the plant was actually grown for the use of hemp.

MERAJI: That's John Hudak. He wrote "Marijuana: A Short History." And he says the vilification of weed started at the end of the Spanish-American War around 1898.

HUDAK: After the war, there was quite a bit of Mexican migration into the United States, into American territories in the West. But what also came with that immigration was serious racial resentment. And people began to worry about out-groups - worry about what immigrants were going to do to communities, what problems they would pose for jobs.

And the easiest thing for government, for groups in society who resented immigrants and for media to do was to create these narratives about the bad that was coming across the border. And marijuana was part of that narrative.

DEMBY: Marijuana.

MERAJI: Marijuana.

DEMBY: Up until this point, the plant had been known, to the extent that anyone even thought about it, as cannabis.

HUDAK: This was the term that became widespread. And it was easy to scare white Americans by talking to them about marijuana that sounds foreign than it is to scare them about cannabis, which at that time, sounded far less harmful.

DEMBY: So you've got to remember, this was the height of the yellow press. So these papers were selling salacious stories about crime to sell copies and to influence public policy - not a small thing. One of the press's big issues at the time was immigrants - those dangerous people streaming over the border, bringing crime and threatening to change the culture of America.

MERAJI: Sounds very familiar.

HUDAK: They knew that it made people kill people. It made people psychotic. It made people rape people. It was something that was doled out to children, that it was something that was highly addictive, that it was tearing apart communities and families. And that is what people were being fed for decades.

MERAJI: It worked and had huge ramifications for crime and punishment for decades to come.

HUDAK: Not because of science, not because of research, not because of reality, but because of propaganda and rhetoric. And that's a really sad way to form public policy in the U.S. But not often is policy, particularly around issues of race and other issues like that, based on reality. Instead, they're based on emotion and terror and propaganda.

MERAJI: Enter Harry J. Anslinger. He's one of the most important government officials that most people have never heard of. Early in his career in government, in the 1920s, he worked in the Bureau of Prohibition. And later, he took over the Bureau of Narcotics, which we now called the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency.

HUDAK: And he used that position to scare America about all drugs, but especially marijuana. And he did this through some of the darkest, openly racist rhetoric that we've seen in the 20th century.

DEMBY: So Harry J. Anslinger was, by many accounts, an open unabashed racist. And he used all his contacts in the press to help propagate that name - marijuana. And he tried to link marijuana to jazz in the public imagination and implicitly to black people.

MERAJI: At one point, joints were called jazz cigarettes.

DEMBY: That sounds so old-timey, jazz cigarettes.

MERAJI: Puff, puff, pass that jazz cigarette.

DEMBY: Anslinger is alleged to have said, quote, "reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: I think the more kind of common understanding is that the war on drugs began with Richard Nixon. But, in fact, it goes back before that. And Anslinger is how we got there.

MERAJI: That's Alexandra Chasin. She's a professor at The New School and author of "Assassin Of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History Of Harry J. Anslinger's War On Drugs."

CHASIN: He drives home the picture of nonwhite cannabis consumers doing violence to white people, white women in particular, and degrading the social fabric more generally.

MERAJI: He does this in a number of ways, Chasin says. He co-authors an article that runs in The American Magazine and Reader's Digest. He calls it a "Assassin Of Youth."

CHASIN: Marijuana is the assassin of youth. And the story opens with a white woman lying sprawled on the ground in Chicago. She's dead. She's gone out the window of a marijuana party upstairs. This, again, is the recirculation of that trope of the white woman who is at risk of death by drugs purveyed by nonwhite people.

DEMBY: This kind of hyperbole is just how he got down. He claimed that marijuana caused insanity, criminality and death and called it, quote, "the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind." And Anslinger buried government studies and reports that found that weed wasn't nearly that bad - that it wasn't as dangerous as he said it was.

CHASIN: He's in office until 1962. That's when he retires. Thirty-one years is why he is so influential and so important in terms of the consolidation of the prohibitionist approach and the three important tenets that are associated with the war on drugs, which are mandatory minimum sentencing, harsh penalties and compound penalties for repeat offenders, which are imagined as deterrents and are still today the linchpins, so to speak, of our policy.

MERAJI: After he leaves his position as the drug czar, Anslinger heads to the United Nations to represent the U.S. at a major international commission on drugs. That commission passes an international agreement to deal with the problem of narcotics. The U.S. government takes that international agreement as a guideline and, in 1970, passes the Controlled Substances Act. That law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

DEMBY: The DEA defines Schedule 1 controlled substances as drugs with, quote, "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." So that's the highest level of regulation for narcotics. Marijuana is on that list along with heroin and peyote, which are two other drugs that at the time were highly racialized.

It's also worth remembering that the president in 1970 when all this was happening was Richard Nixon. And he felt that marijuana was a very useful political tool. Here's John Hudak.

HUDAK: Nixon didn't start the war on drugs, but he really brought it to a new level. He saw, with marijuana, an opportunity to vilify not just hippies in the '60s, but African-Americans and others who he found would be effective targets to form a political coalition against. And so his rhetoric really changed the way in which presidents and other elected officials talked about marijuana.

It was no longer this specifically racist worry. This was something that the United States government would unofficially declare a war against and begin spending, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars over decades to prosecute.

MERAJI: But Hudak goes on to say the AIDS crisis started to change the national conversation around marijuana a decade later.

HUDAK: As the AIDS virus became a scourge particularly in cities but throughout the United States, people found that if you used marijuana, it would help with some of the symptoms of AIDS wasting syndrome. It would boost hunger. It would help with nausea. And it could help people live a little bit longer.

And starting in the Bay Area, in the 1980s and early 1990s, this was something that became a political movement. Ultimately, after a couple of tries, California passed the nation's first medical marijuana ballot initiative in 1996. It really was the first major policy change toward marijuana reform in the United States.

MERAJI: That was the domino that set off the political momentum across the country to reform marijuana policies. Today, 29 states and D.C. currently have laws legalizing cannabis in some form.

DEMBY: So you might think with all these local and state governments that are decriminalizing or legalizing weed outright, that that might go a long way to eliminating the racial inequality we see in the way law enforcement agencies go after marijuana-related arrests, right? Yeah. It's really not that simple. We'll talk about that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. Back in 2013, the ACLU put out a national report on race and marijuana arrests across the country. It found that even though black and white people use marijuana at about the same rates, African-Americans were nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

In some states, like Iowa, if you're black, you're eight times as likely to be arrested for weed. And according to that report, from 2001 to 2011, law enforcement officers across the U.S. were making more arrests from marijuana than any other offense in the country.

DEMBY: Right. So we spoke to was Ezekiel Edwards of the ACLU. He coauthored that study "Marijuana In Black And White." And they found that in places where weed had been made legal or decriminalized at least, there was this really confounding trend.

EZEKIEL EDWARDS: When you look at disparities, which is comparing the rates of arrests of, let's say, whites versus blacks, it generally has very little effect on that so that you see that disparities either remain the same or actually will increase. If you look, for instance, at Massachusetts, which in 2008 decriminalized marijuana possession, the number of arrests did drop dramatically, including for people of color. But the disparities in the arrests that were still made went up.

Just because you remove criminal penalties for one offense, you are not removing the police from certain communities. And so neighborhoods are still saturated by law enforcement that were saturated before. I just think that the concentration of the arrests that are being made becomes even more focused in communities of color.

DEMBY: Obviously, the public opinion on cannabis has changed so much in the last, maybe, 20 years or so, right? Where have the sites of opposition to marijuana legalization and, like, where has the fuel for the old drug warrior ethos - where does that still remain today?

EDWARDS: Well, one of the fascinating dichotomies that we see now, particularly around marijuana, public opinion now favors legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and overwhelmingly favors legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. And yet, at the same time, you have several places and states where, not only is marijuana still criminal, but people are getting arrested for it in really jaw-dropping numbers and in some places getting sent to prison for it.

And then in a place like Louisiana, you still have people like Corey Ladd who received a 17-year sentence for possessing half an ounce of marijuana. You still have someone like Fate Winslow who acted as a go-between in a sale of two small bags of marijuana worth $10, who received a sentence because of recidivist statutes of life without parole.

And so it's really a split screen in this country where you have states like Colorado and in Washington where people are possessing marijuana lawfully under state law. And so it's a strange and, I would say, certainly kind of inconsistent and hypocritical picture that that we see.

DEMBY: In a lot of places - in a lot of ways, marijuana functions like a broken taillight, right? It is just a pretext for sort of a larger series of interactions with the criminal justice system. Is that a fair characterization?

EDWARDS: I think marijuana in a lot of places - criminalization of marijuana is a tool that the police rely on and use to justify stopping and searching and arresting people. There are places or police departments that may be making those arrests at times because they are concerned about marijuana use. But I think overwhelmingly that is not their priority. Their priority is to control and exert influence and gain intelligence in certain communities, particularly communities of color. And marijuana is a vehicle that allows them to do that.

DEMBY: Thank you so much for joining us today, Ezekiel.

EDWARDS: Thank you so much for having me.

DEMBY: So, of course, we reached out to the Justice Department for this piece to ask them a bunch of questions around whether they had any plans to address racial inequities or if they were prioritizing the way that they enforce marijuana laws.

MERAJI: They responded with this statement from an official. Quote, "the scheduling scheme for marijuana and other drugs was created by Congress. It's solely about and has always been about public health and safety."

GRANT: They saying, yeah, you're going to jail for a long time for this weed. And I'm like, what? It's only a $5 bag of weed, $10 maybe. And I just remember them threatening my whole life freedom over that.

MERAJI: So y'all remember Linda Grant who we heard from earlier? She was born and raised in East Oakland, Calif. Now that weed is legal for recreational use there, Linda's trying to go legit. And she has plenty of real world experience.

GRANT: Because I have been in the cannabis club business. So illegal or not illegal, I still know what to do.

DEMBY: But, yeah, so, you know, knowing how to sell weed - that's only really part of it. So in Oakland right now, even though Linda Grant has a criminal record, she can, in theory, start a legal weed business. In a lot of other places, though, that's not true. Like in Illinois, you can't even get a medical patient card to buy cannabis if you have a felony drug conviction on your record.

MERAJI: But back to Linda in Oakland. Let's talk about what else she needs besides her years of experience to start a business.

DEMBY: Lots of money, Shereen, like a lot. It could cost over a half a million dollars to start a weed dispensary depending on where you live. And that's a big chunk of change you already have to have or you have to raise because banks don't typically offer business loans to folks who want to get into the weed business. It's still a federal crime, and banks are federally regulated.

MERAJI: Andrea Unsworth jumped through all these hoops and started her own cannabis delivery service in the Bay called StashTwist a few years ago. She says coming up with the startup money alone keeps most black people from getting in on the green rush.

ANDREA UNSWORTH: When you're talking about a venture where, primarily, the number one source of financing comes either internally from savings, from friends and from family, we're pretty much at the back of that bus. You know, we haven't had hundreds of years to amass capital in that way, especially if you were in the cannabis industry.

DEMBY: Andrea works closely with another woman named Amber Senter. She's also black. And she works in the cannabis industry, too. She makes cannabis products. She actually used to run a dispensary. And she says you need to know the right people, too.

AMBER SENTER: You have to have political connections. You have to have community connections. You've got to have a ton of security. And then also taxes - you know, there's all kinds of taxes that fall on you when you mention cannabis. And then also, you know, this is still federally illegal. So you're dealing with all that, too. You've got the feds - just all kinds of liabilities around you. So it might sound glamorous, but it's a grind. That's for sure.

MERAJI: A few years ago, Andrea and Amber founded an organization called Supernova Women. They help people network. They answer legal questions. And they've created a safe space for people of color in an industry that's overwhelmingly white and male.

SENTER: There's certain kinds of challenges, being black and being a woman, that you face in the industry. For instance, I'm a manufacturer. We make cannabis products that we turn around and sell to dispensaries. And oftentimes, going into the dispensary, I have to deal with people that do not look like me - typically, white males. And I've got to convince them to, first, hear me out and then try my product, and then, if they think the product is good enough, to get it on their shelves. And with the cultural differences and everything, these things are a fine dance.

DEMBY: And Amber said, at the very first Supernova Women event, a white dude in the industry dropped by, and he was really not trying to hear them talk about race in the cannabis industry.

SENTER: He stood up and said, you guys need to get rid of this us-versus-them mentality. You minorities - this is what he said - you minorities need to change the way you're thinking. It - because it's not like that. And this is a big, tall white guy saying these things, you know, in a room full of brown and black people.

DEMBY: I am shocked.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: What was the response from other people in the room?

SENTER: Outrage. He left right after he said that, you know? I mean...

MERAJI: And I would say that those are the type of conversations that preempted things like the Oakland equity program. The Oakland equity program - it's an initiative by the city of Oakland to try to make sure that as the legal weed industry gets going, it factors in the history of racial inequalities that we've been discussing this entire episode.

DEMBY: So here's what Oakland wants to do. It wants to give out permits to sell cannabis to people from the neighborhoods that had the most weed-related arrests going all the way back to 1996. Eligible applicants had to make at or less than 80 percent of the average median income there, adjusted for household size. To qualify, you also have to have been arrested and convicted in Oakland on a cannabis-related offense in the last 20 years. It is an attempt to help some of the people who caught the very worst of the drug war.

MERAJI: And it sounds good, but it's still complicated, right? It doesn't help prospective weed entrepreneurs who are just above that income threshold. And so many people who are below it have other barriers to contend with, like, you know, you have to have a state I.D. and proof of residence, which as we know, poor people are less likely to have. They also have to have proof of income, and that's a problem for people like Linda Grant, who spent years selling weed in the underground economy.

GRANT: Because of the documents that they're requiring to ask for - like, people, they want tax returns and stuff like that. I don't have no receipts from selling weed. I haven't worked legally like that. So that's not realistic for a lot of equity applicants in the hood.

DEMBY: If you want to get into the legal weed business, the time to do so is essentially right now because on January 1, 2023, the state of California will start handing out a new kind of license for weed growers. It's called a Type 5 license. And Type 5 licenses place no limits on the size of the cannabis farms that people can own and operate. And a lot of people in the cannabis industry are bracing for that day when they worry that the really big fish are going to start swimming into the market.

MERAJI: We're talking about huge companies, maybe multinational companies, industrial ag producers, big drug companies. They could crowd out the smaller players in the game who paid the steepest cost for being in this market long before it was legal, like Linda Grant.

GRANT: I've always had this kind of power within myself to, like - I want to be somebody better, and I want to do good things. And I think now is the time that I can really change things for my future and my kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACID RAINDROPS")

PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS: (Rapping) Out on the porch.

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. You should definitely holler at us. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. You can tweet us. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. And subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. If you're on iTunes, please leave us a review. It helps people find the podcast.

MERAJI: And a big shoutout to Maria Paz Gutierrez, who produced this episode and did so much of the reporting. What you're hearing now is the song that gives her life. It's called "Acid Raindrops" by People Under The Stairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACID RAINDROPS")

PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS: (Rapping) I'm outro, call me if you want to blaze one up. When this stress burns my brain just like acid raindrops, Mary Jane is the only thing that makes the pain stop. I let the music...

DEMBY: There are so many good songs about weed, Shereen.

MERAJI: ...Especially from the best coast. We know our weed songs.

DEMBY: Man, we got weed songs over here. We got Redman from over here. It's - I mean, it's just so many songs. Literally all East Coast hip-hop in the '90s was about weed.

MERAJI: Yeah. That - like, all music in the '90s was about weed.

DEMBY: This is also pretty true.

MERAJI: Wasn't it?

DEMBY: Yeah, all of it.

MERAJI: All right, we had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Leah Donnella, Karen Grigsby Bates and Kat Chow. Our intern is Nana Boateng (ph).

MERAJI: A special thanks to Alyssa Jeong Perry, who helped us find Linda's story. Thanks, Alyssa. She's working on a series with KQED that'll come out next month. Keep an eye out. Sami Yenigun edited this episode.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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