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Published on
July 9, 2020

Racial Injustice in the Cannabis Industry

A resource guide to fighting for social justice in the cannabis industry.

With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill (which legalized the sale of hemp-based CBD products) and an ever-increasing list of states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana, the legal cannabis market has quickly grown into a billion dollar industry. To paint the picture, Acreage Holdings, one of the largest cannabis companies in America, will sell for $3.4 Billion as soon as marijuana becomes fully legal in the US. Even staunch opponents of legalization—like former Speaker of the House John Boehner—have changed their tune. Boehner is now a board member of Acreage and stands to make up to $20 million from the sale. Along with Acreage Holdings, a few large marijuana enterprises own a disproportionate share of the cannabis industry and benefit from laws and regulations that make it very difficult for grassroots businesses to enter the ring. 

Meanwhile, more than 40,000 people (including a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx people) are still incarcerated for cannabis-related charges. In 2018 alone, there were over 600,000 cannabis-related arrests and there have been more than 6 million such arrests over the last 8 years. According to the ACLU, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than a white person (in some states 8 to 10 times more likely), even though Black and white people use cannabis at similar rates. 

As Ava DuVernay explores in her documentary, 13th, mass incarceration in the United States has been used as a tool to perpetuate the enslavement of Black Americans since the abolition of slavery. One of the biggest tools in this endeavor was the federal prohibition of marijuana in 1937, which paved the way for Nixon’s “War on Drugs” in the ’70s and ’80s and resulted in rampant racial profiling, over-policing and incarceration of communities of color. In the ’90s, mandatory sentencing policies supported by both Democrats and Republicans further contributed to grossly excessive prison sentences for simple marijuana possession convictions. Even now that cannabis is becoming increasingly legal and politicians like the Clintons are apologizing for supporting policies that caused damage to communities of color, those affected by marijuana incarceration are still bearing the consequences.   

People with criminal records face enormous difficulty finding jobs and housing, establishing credit and getting an education. Those with former marijuana convictions are even barred from working in the legal marijuana industry. While there are some record-expungement provisions in states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, the reality is that many of these options involve complex applications, necessitate hiring an attorney and place the administrative burden of expungement on the defendant, rather than the legal system. This leaves predominantly white-owned enterprises reaping the benefits of marijuana legalization and Black and brown men remaining incarcerated or incapacitated by former marijuana convictions.    

To help educate ourselves and our customers, reflect on how we are benefiting from this system of oppression and provide resources for action, we have compiled a resource guide to help understand and fight for Marijuana Social Justice.  


Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj (Netflix) - Season 6, Episode 2: The Legal Marijuana Industry Is Rigged - Hasan Minhaj breaks down who is really benefiting from marijuana legalization.

13th (Netflix) - Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation's prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans *now available to all for free on YouTube. 

The Laura Flanders Show - Can Marijuana Create a Path to Justice? - A conversation on the need for restorative justice alongside marijuana legalization with Kassandra Frederique (Drug Policy Alliance's NY State Director), Raybblin Vargas (Greenworker Cooperatives' Communications Director) and Mary Pryor (Cannaclusive's Founder and CEO).


A Tale of Two Countries; racially targeted arrests in the era of marijuana reform - ACLU report analyzing data from the last 10 years of marijuana arrests

Cannabis & Racial Justice - Marijuana Policy Project 

Marijuana Legalization is a Racial Justice Issue - ACLU

Cannabis Industry Shouldn’t Expand Until We Fix Marijuana’s Racial Injustices, Inequities USAToday Op-Ed by Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law 

Hashing out Inequality in the Legal Cannabis Industry - Maya Rawanji, Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business *see p.344 - 348, in particular

Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic - The New York Times


Last Prisoner Project - Dedicated to freeing the 40,000+ people still incarcerated for marijuana charges in the US despite its growing legalization by focusing on prisoner release, record clearing through clemency and expungement and reentry programs.

Marijuana Policy Project - Seeking to maximize criminal justice reform through changing cannabis laws, including the removal of punitive criminal cannabis laws that can be used as a tool of oppression, and supporting automatic expungements and sentence reductions.

The Sentencing Project - Working for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Equal Justice Initiative - Committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. 

Take Action  

  • Contact your local representatives - The ACLU website helps you find the initiatives relevant to your state and district. You can also browse action items based on the amount of time you have to spend at the moment and your location.
  • Volunteer online for LPP - Help with letter-writing, advocacy, organizing and more.
  • Sign this petition to urge the President and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take the necessary steps to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on our incarcerated communities.
  • Donate to the above organizations.
  • Support Black-owned cannabis companies and dispensaries.

More to read

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