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The Legal Business Of Marijuana Is Growing But The Industry Lacks Diversity


The marijuana industry is growing fast as the drug is legalized in more states. Sales of pot - legal sales - could reach $3 billion this year. But there may be something missing. From NPR's Code Switch team, Dan Weissmann reports on the lack of diversity in the business of legal marijuana.

DAN WEISSMANN, BYLINE: First person I meet at the Cannabusiness conference in Chicago is Casey Brown - buzz cut, close-trimmed beard, sweatshirt.

Casey, your name tag says, oh, I just grow pot.

CASEY BROWN: Yeah, that's exactly what I do.

WEISSMANN: He's 27 - graduated from UCLA, saved up some money doing work he hated, called a friend who had gotten rich by age 23 and asked, how can I turn this cash into a business of my own?

BROWN: And he goes, dude, get involved in weed.

WEISSMANN: Casey doesn't have a big recreational interest in pot anymore. Although, these days, he does sample his crop for quality control. But, Casey had a high school stoner period where he smoked every day for two and a half years. So did he ever get busted?

BROWN: Yeah, but, you know, when you're a minor and it's small amounts, it's kind of like a slap on the wrist, right?

WEISSMANN: Maybe not for everybody. Government figures show that blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for pot. That's according to the "War On Marijuana In Black And White," a report from the American Civil Liberties Union. In her book, "The New Jim Crow," Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs has perpetuated the worst aspects of racial segregation. Millions of young black people have been imprisoned. Here's Alexander in an interview with the Drug Policy Alliance, talking about what happens after they're released.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: They can be discriminated against employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, and they're locked into a second-class status for life.

WEISSMANN: That's the injury. Here's the insult.


ALEXANDER: After 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time selling weed and their families and futures destroyed, now white men are planning to get rich in doing precisely the same thing.

WEISSMANN: Lakisha Jenkins sits on the board of the National Cannabis Industry Association. She says African-American business owners are a distinct minority in her field.

LAKISHA JENKINS: There's maybe a handful more than a dozen of us within the industry.

WEISSMANN: She was the only African-American speaker in the three-day Cannabusiness conference. Back at the event, the crowd is not a hundred percent white, especially not at a preconference crash course for prospective ganja-preneurs. I count more than 250 people in the room. Maybe 20 of them are African-American. Michael Lawson, a psychotherapist from Atlanta, isn't surprised to see just a few black faces here. He thinks that's directly related to the disproportionate arrests and harsh punishments African-Americans have faced under the war on drugs.

MICHAEL LAWSON: Members of the African-American community are just scared to get into the legal business. We've been scared out of it. We've been arrested out of it.

WEISSMANN: Kris Krane, one of the conference speakers, is a consultant who started as a policy wonk. He is quick to acknowledge the irony that opportunities in legal marijuana seem to leave out the people who have suffered the most under the war on drugs.

KRIS KRANE: When you look at the way that this industry is rolling out, it's really set up to exclude those folks.

WEISSMANN: He claims it's not intentional, but two key parts of the application process function that way.

KRANE: You can't even submit an application in most states for under $100,000. The other big factor is that most of these laws and regulations exclude anybody with a drug conviction.

WEISSMANN: Michael Lawson adds that law enforcement disparities also have a chilling effect on black people with clean records.

LAWSON: I can't even count how many times I've been stopped and asked, are you in possession of cannabis? Can I search your vehicle? Do you have any cannabis?

WEISSMANN: I asked other people at the conference whether they had experiences like this. All the white people responded pretty much the same way. For instance, here's William Lauth, a doctor for Chicago suburbs.

WILLIAM LAUTH: No. No, never. Never ever (laughter).

WEISSMANN: But the answers from black people varied. Some said, not really. Others said, yup. And here's Gerald Williams, a real estate broker from Chicago.

GERALD WILLIAMS: No, when they pull me over, they're usually asking about guns.

WEISSMANN: Oh, OK, then. For NPR News, I'm Dan Weissmann in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Weissmann