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The Role of Black History in Cannabis

Graphic that says 'Celebrating Black History Month' with black, red, orange, and green stripes on the left

As we celebrate Black History Month, it should be acknowledged that we might not have the successful cannabis industry we have today if not for the work of Black people, beginning in the earliest days of its cultivation up to how the business is being shaped today.

As positive as that impact has been, we’re still dealing with a cultural disparity. Amid the cannabis reforms taking place all over the U.S., American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) analysis shows that due to racial profiling and bias in marijuana enforcement, Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates. Over the past decade, that disparity has worsened in most states.

But as the industry grows, we’re seeing increased opportunities for Black entrepreneurs who are putting themselves in a position to help shape the business and change the narrative going forward.

A History Closely Tied to Cannabis

Starting from the earliest days of the industry, Black people have been a critical part of the growth of the cannabis industry in America.

At one point early in our country’s history, it was illegal not to grow hemp (a non-psychoactive type of cannabis). In 1619, several states, including Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, passed laws making it so. In states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and the Carolinas, where hemp growth wasn’t mandated, government subsidies were used to encourage cannabis cultivation. Although hemp isn’t mentioned as being a “necessary” crop—like tobacco, sugar, flax, and cotton—80 percent of clothing was made from it at the time. The bulk of the cultivation and harvesting of hemp was done by enslaved African people.

By the 1800s, hemp fiber was still being used to make clothes, along with paper, textiles, and rope, but cannabis was being used as an ingredient in many over-the-counter medicines like cough syrup—an early nod to its medicinal properties. Black men and women continued to comprise most of the workforce behind its growth and harvesting.

In the early 1900s, Mexican immigrants introduced the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally, and it didn’t take long to catch on. But, in 1936, the release of the film “Reefer Madness” would change the wide acceptance of marijuana use. Its inaccurate portrayal of first-time users hallucinating and becoming violent led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which taxed cannabis sales for the first time.

The most vocal supporter of the act was Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and among the first to connect supposed violent marijuana-induced crimes to African Americans and Hispanic people. Fueled by racism, the law helped cement inaccurate beliefs about cannabis use and people of color.

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers,” he said. “Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage.”

In 1971, the Nixon administration helped repeal the Marihuana Tax Act and replaced it with the more stringent Controlled Substances Act, the genesis of President Richard Nixon’s infamous War on Drugs.

“The Nixon campaign had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” noted John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic advisor. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

Today, marijuana has become much more socially acceptable, and its negative image has greatly diminished. Yet, studies have found that even though medical and recreational marijuana is legal in much of the country, people of color are still arrested for marijuana-related offenses at almost twice the rate of white people. The U.S. has had—and continues to have—a major problem with mass incarceration and systemic racism within the criminal justice system.

Taking the Entrepreneurial Lead

In terms of shifting the storyline around cannabis and race, Black entrepreneurs are spearheading change, making inroads into the industry across the nation.

That said, issues like a lack of access to funding for Black-owned businesses have made growth slower than it otherwise might have been. Right now, some 2% of cannabis businesses are Black-owned, although recent numbers show increasing promise: According to MJBizDaily survey data, non-white ownership of cannabis businesses grew in 2023 to almost 19%, up from 15% in 2022.

In addition, the industry as a whole is on a healthy growth trajectory, which represents a rising tide that can lift all entrepreneurial boats. First, there is the consistently increasing market size. Adult-use cannabis is now legal in 24 states (and counting) and medical marijuana is legal in 40 states, which will help fuel already robust growth. And, according to projections from Statista, cannabis market revenue is expected to reach $39.85 billion in 2024 and $67.15 billion by the end of 2028.

While Black-owned cannabis businesses have flourished on the East and West Coasts—where legalization occurred earlier than in the rest of the country—they are also starting to take root in middle America.

For example, New York City boasts Smacked Village, which started as a pop-up store and opened as a permanent location in February 2023. Located in the city’s hip Bleecker Street area, it’s the first black-owned, licensed cannabis shop in Manhattan, helping to blaze a trail for others in the state’s emerging cannabis industry. Michigan is home to more than 20 Black-owned cannabis companies, including Primativ and women-owned Calyxeum in Detroit, Premiere Provisions in Big Rapids, and 1st Quality Medz in River Rouge.

And there’s Diddy, who last year spent $185 million to acquire several licensed cannabis operations. Aiming to become the country’s first minority-owned and operated vertically integrated multi-state operator, Diddy plans to grow and manufacture cannabis products and sell through retail stores in places like New York City, Boston, and Chicago.

“My mission has always been to create opportunities for Black entrepreneurs in industries where we’ve traditionally been denied access, and this acquisition provides the immediate scale and impact needed to create a more equitable future in cannabis,” he noted in a statement. “Owning the entire process—from growing and manufacturing to marketing, retail, and wholesale distribution—is a historic win for the culture that will allow us to empower diverse leaders throughout the ecosystem and be bold advocates for inclusion.”

How Fine Fettle Takes a Stand

In celebrating Black History Month, Fine Fettle celebrates the role of Black people in creating our industry and in helping move it forward today and in the future.

We also recognize the need for inclusion and opportunity. Our Equity Joint Venture partnerships help us promote equitable ownership and employment opportunities where we work and live, and return funds to communities that were disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.

As discussed above, Fine Fettle is dedicated to righting the wrongs caused by the War on Drugs and we believe that social equity and justice must be at the forefront of the industry’s focus. In addition to our Equity Joint Venture partnerships, Fine Fettle focuses on community engagement, educational initiatives, and support for Black-owned businesses.

Examples include our donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for marijuana law reforms and our support for The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform.

Check out the links above and take action with us!

Sources:

“Extreme Racial Disparities Persist in Marijuana Arrests,” ACLU, 2020.

“Ranks of women, minority cannabis execs rebound to pre-pandemic levels,” MJBiz Daily, October 25, 2023.

“The Link Between Cannabis History and Black History,” Leafwell.

“Cannabis—United States,” Statista, 2023

“Smacked Village: Inside New York’s second legal weed dispensary,” Leafly, January 24, 2023

“20 Black-owned Michigan cannabis companies you should support,” Detroit MetroTimes, April 15, 2022

“Diddy Creates Largest Black-Owned Cannabis Company,” Hypebeast, November 6, 2022

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