Growing Marijuana Industry Struggles To Attract Employees Of Color
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's one consequence of strict drug laws in this country. Many African-Americans and Latinos who have past criminal records have trouble starting legitimate businesses. This is a special challenge now that marijuana can be a legitimate business. Massachusetts wrote explicit laws to give black and Latino entrepreneurs a chance. Aaron Schachter of WGBH reports on one town's effort to give a shot to the same people once targeted by drug laws.
AARON SCHACHTER, BYLINE: In Massachusetts, as in most of the U.S., people of color have been at least four times more likely to be convicted for marijuana crimes. And that record can be a real hindrance to finding a job, let alone opening your own business.
JOE CURTATONE: We want to make sure that everyone has a real, authentic opportunity to participate in that economy in the future.
SCHACHTER: Joe Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville, just a stone's throw from Boston. Frustrated by a lack of candidates, Curtatone spearheaded a new city ordinance requiring 50 percent of recreational marijuana licenses go to local black and Latino applicants.
CURTATONE: We believe the war on drugs had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, on vulnerable populations. And it was critical for us to do this.
SCHACHTER: But finding black and Latino entrepreneurs to join the legal marijuana economy hasn't been easy.
SIEH SAMURA: They're scared of the government, man. This is still a new thing, (laughter) you know?
SCHACHTER: Sieh Samura is an Iraq war vet who started using medical marijuana to fight PTSD. As a black man, he sees himself as a marijuana pioneer from a community long targeted by law enforcement.
SAMURA: As real successful models start emerging, then I think you'll start to see a lot more folks say, oh, OK, the environment is ripe now. We can actually participate in this licensed environment, and it's profitable.
SCHACHTER: To be models themselves, Sieh and his wife Leah Samura created a business called 612 Studios. And for months, they've participated in a cannabis business accelerator program. It's designed to get more people of color into the industry by doing everything from raising capital to helping with all aspects of running a business. Mike Dundas is the CEO of Sira Naturals, which runs the program.
MIKE DUNDAS: How might you think about financing your organization? How might you think about hiring your management team? How might you think about expanding your marketplace and developing other products?
SCHACHTER: Sira Naturals grows marijuana and produces products for its own medical dispensaries and some other recreational businesses. As much as Dundas may want to help the little guy, this isn't just an altruistic venture. For starters, Sira gets a nearly 10 percent cut. But more importantly, until Somerville can convince blacks and Latinos to open pot shops, Dundas won't get to open one of his own there.
KAREN O'KEEFE: None of the states have the kind of diversity that we would like to see in the cannabis industry.
SCHACHTER: Karen O'Keeffe with the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project says there have been lots of attempts around the country to help candidates from black and Latino communities, but none have worked. O'Keefe goes around the country offering states ideas on how they can change things.
O'KEEFE: Things like making sure people who are on parole and probation do not have that revoked for testing positive, making sure consuming cannabis in public is a civil, not a criminal offense. Having low enough fees that they're not a barrier to entry for lower-income applicants also can help.
SCHACHTER: Some marijuana business owners contend government shouldn't be deciding winners and losers. But O'Keefe counters that the marijuana market isn't just any business. Given the ill effect of the war on drugs, she says, what Massachusetts and Somerville are doing is just a way to level the playing field. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schachter in Boston.
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