The future of marijuana legalization
Here's what you need to know about the future of marijuana legalization in the United States, from its racist early days to today.
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When Enid Parham was a kid growing up in Detroit, she remembers her friends and family going to prison for marijuana-related crimes and taking in their families. Now a cannabis chef works in Michigan's legal recreational cannabis industry.
Parham, who also runs Chef Sunflower and owns Detroit-based Lucky Pistil Catering, is one of the few black women in the state to have worked in the recreational marijuana industry for the past three years.
"When they came out (with the legal marijuana industry) it was very disappointing how everyone was running for money and (leaders of state) didn't think about the people who were already being punished for it," Parham said. “How can we fix it with them? They don't mean it.
There is no comprehensive data on the number of minorities or women working in Michigan's marijuana industry. A recent survey by the Michigan Cannabis Regulatory Agency found that 15 out of 460 medical marijuana licensees identified as Black or African American and 19 out of 485 recreational marijuana licensees identified as Black or African American.
According to a 2021 survey by cannabis publication Marijuana Business Daily, which looks at minority representation in leadership positions at cannabis companies across the country, about 13% of leadership positions in cannabis companies are held by minorities.
As Michigan's recreational marijuana industry continues to grow, people across the country continue to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes. Even in 2020, blacks in Michigan were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ashley Parks, co-founder of Michigan-based CBD tea company BLK Sapote, says it's the "elephant in the house" that people are still in prison for marijuana-related crimes while others are benefiting from the industry.
"When it comes to marijuana, we're at the forefront right now, there are people who have been incarcerated for years and generations of families who have been directly affected by the drug war," he said. "This problem must be solved."
The USA TODAY Network reached out to several black marijuana business owners to get their thoughts on the challenges facing black entrepreneurs and what needs to change to represent more black people in the industry.
High barriers to entry into the cannabis industry
Rebecca Collette, co-founder of Detroit-based company Calixium, cited the expensive and time-consuming licensing process as one reason minorities are underrepresented in the cannabis industry. Prospective licensees must obtain a state prequalification license, a license from the municipality where the facility is located, and then a state license.
Collette said the process could take a year or two. Potential entrepreneurs must first find a suitable location. For example, in cities like Detroit, they face strict zoning regulations that make it difficult to find property, and when they find a suitable location, prices are often high because so few properties are available. The start of recreational marijuana sales in Detroit has also been significantly delayed after the city went back to the drawing board and created a new law that means some entrepreneurs could sit on real estate for years. For sale for business entertainment.
One of the ways Collette is trying to help is through the Detroit Cannabis Project, an incubation program that gives social justice entrepreneurs the tools and skills to start a cannabis business. The state defines social justice entrepreneurs as people in communities disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.
The program has been running for two years, and nearly 350 social justice candidates from across Michigan have taken courses on building best practices, scaling businesses, and raising capital.
"I didn't know it was going to be this big, but there's definitely a need in our community," Collette said.
Starting a business requires a lot of investment.
Such upfront investments make it unaffordable for entrepreneurs, since marijuana business loans are hard to come by since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
This means entrepreneurs need to raise funds from investors or fund their business.
"Black people haven't had a lot of financial success in the last 200 years," said Calvin Johnson, a former Detroit Lions quarterback and inductee in 2021 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Johnson founded the cannabis company Primitive with former bandmate Rob Sims and now has a dispensary and a growing facility and will soon be launching a line of chewing gum.
"It takes a lot of financial stability and a lot of money to get into this industry," Johnson said.
Johnson and Sims faced challenges of their own in their early days in the industry. First, he was denied a medical marijuana license in Michigan because Johnson had more than 10 outstanding tickets in Atlanta at the time. Then they are approved for the license.
Black entrepreneurs often face prejudice
Even as a former professional athlete, Johnson was told upon entering the industry that black entrepreneurs could not run their own businesses.
"Why are they saying that because we're athletic or black?" Johnson said. “There is no point in saying that to someone who is so successful on the pitch. I doubt they would say that to someone who isn't (black)."
Jess Jackson, co-founder of Copper House, a marijuana-friendly bed and breakfast in Detroit, said that stereotypes and stigma surrounding marijuana stem from racism.
"A lot of the problem [with the way the industry is perceived] really stems from a lack of knowledge about the underlying stigma of racism," he said. "We have to challenge ourselves to be more open to opportunities here, otherwise our people will not benefit and will always be left behind."
Contact Adrienne Roberts at [email protected]