America’s Whites-Only Weed Boom

When Colorado’s first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in 2009, Unique Henderson was psyched. He’d been smoking weed since he was 15, and he’d even learned how to grow, from his ex-girlfriend’s father. He spent $750 on classes about how to run a cannabis business, and then he and a friend both applied to work at a Denver pot shop.

Then only his friend was hired. Henderson was more than qualified, so why didn’t he get the gig? His friend asked the managers and came back with infuriating news: Henderson was not allowed to work in the legal cannabis industry because he had been caught twice with a joint’s worth of pot as a teenager back in Oklahoma, and as a result he has two drug possession felonies on his record.

For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it’s not that simple. Yes, investors and state governments are eager to hire and license people with expertise in how to cultivate, cure, trim, and process cannabis. But it can’t be someone who got caught. Which for the most part means it can’t be someone who is black.

Even though research shows people of all races are about equally likely to have broken the law by growing, smoking, or selling marijuana, black people are much more likely to have been arrested for it. Black people are much more likely to have ended up with a criminal record because of it. And every state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana bans people with drug felonies from working at, owning, investing in, or sitting on the board of a cannabis business. After having borne the brunt of the « war on drugs, » black Americans are now largely missing out on the economic opportunities created by legalization.

For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it’s not that simple.

« It really does piss me off,” Henderson said. His friend still works at that dispensary, and makes a lot more money than Henderson does. « And to see a lot of people come to Colorado to work in weed, that pisses me off even more. They’re coming here, living comfortable, and it’s like, I could be doing the same thing, but I can’t, because of my past with marijuana.”

Nobody keeps official statistics on race and cannabis business ownership. But based on more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders, and salespeople who interact with a lot of pot shops, it appears that fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people — about 1%.

At this rare and decisive moment in American history, state governments are literally handing control of a multibillion-dollar industry to a chosen few, creating wealth overnight. The pot trade has long been open to anyone with some seeds and some hustle, so there are more than enough cannabis experts out there to form a truly diverse industry — if only the laws weren’t systematically preventing thousands of qualified black people from participating.

Even without a criminal record, black people looking to get involved in legal weed face major obstacles. Sarah Cross, the chief operating officer of Green Rush Consulting, estimated that it takes at least a quarter of a million dollars to start a legal marijuana business. After centuries of systemic discrimination in housing, employment, and education, black Americans are far less likely to have or be able to raise that kind of money. Small business loans are out of the question, because banks are insured by federal agencies, and the federal government still considers cannabis illegal.

Henderson was caught as a teenager with less than an eighth. Now, he is barred from participating in the marijuana industry.

Jessica Sample for BuzzFeed News

Legalizing marijuana sounds revolutionary, but with every day that passes, the same class of rich white men that control all other industries are tightening their grip on this one, snatching up licenses and real estate and preparing for a windfall. First-mover advantage, they call it. That means that anyone who doesn’t make the risky leap to violate federal law and get involved now will miss out, forever. In a few years, when the land grab is over, the cannabis industry may become just another example in America’s never-ending cycle of racially motivated economic injustices.

Legalization is beginning to snowball, pushed forward by popular demand. Twenty-three states now have medical marijuana; four and Washington, D.C., permit recreational use; and an additional 16 allow non-psychoactive forms of the cannabis plant. Public support for marijuana legalization has more than doubled over the past 20 years, hitting a recent high of 58%, while support for keeping nonviolent drug offenders locked up for a long time has been cut in half, to a low of 23%.

In theory, those shifts in public opinion sound connected: Americans no longer consider smoking crack or growing a handful of marijuana plants to be crimes worthy of half a lifetime in prison. But in practice, the legalization of cannabis and the drawdown of the war on drugs are not related. No existing marijuana law tries to account for or acknowledge the harm prohibition has done to communities of color. Cannabis legalization campaign workers are told to never mention race. News anchors talk about pot with a smirk, illustrated by photographs of white college kids getting high, and rarely mention criminal justice reform in the same breath. They are separate policies, carried out by separate laws, with little consideration given to how one might affect the other.

The few black people who have managed to start cannabis businesses or apply for licenses have sometimes found themselves subject to discriminatory law enforcement. They’ve been followed by the stigma that black people who sell pot are dangerous criminals and white people who do the same are goofy hippies.

But until the history of legalization is set in stone, black entrepreneurs still have a shot. Many refuse to be excluded.

Rupert Smissen for BuzzFeed News

The Distributor drives his cash to the pot farms up north in the middle of the night so the California Highway Patrol won’t notice that he is black and pull him over. Every few weeks he’ll rent a car, put his two youngest children to bed, and then slip out of his home in a wealthy suburb of Southern California. Once he merges onto the I-5 freeway, he’s just another isolated pod hurtling forward in the darkness toward the parched farms of the Central Valley.

It’s been over two decades since he started buying and selling pot for a living, but to his neighbors, the Distributor looks like a boring golf dad in his fifties, his nightclub bouncer's frame muted by soft but tailored grays and plaids. Caught standing at the edge of his driveway, he’ll maneuver the conversation into neutral territory: the children, the weather, the weekend. His eyes are attentive, his expression reserved.

He came to Los Angeles from the Caribbean in his twenties. It was the late 1980s, and all of the people he knew from back home were selling crack. The Distributor had never broken a law, had never even smoked pot before, and had wanted to find work as a mechanic. But the more time passed, the harder it became to resist his friends’ promises of easy cash. He worried about returning to the poverty of his childhood. “You watch your parents, and they try to farm this small patch of land, and it still keep them in poverty, so you look at it and you think, if you do the same, your life is not going to change,” he recalled over lunch last fall.

Pretty soon he was selling crack, too. He found a girlfriend, had a daughter, and hoped that if he saved enough money she would have more opportunities than he’d had. Within a few years, he got arrested, and the seriousness of the consequences caught him by surprise. He’d had no idea that the prison sentence for possession or sale of crack cocaine was a hundred times longer than for powder cocaine. It's the same stuff, he remembers thinking. He did some research and changed his strategy.

“When I do the math, I’m like, OK, marijuana is a better business, dollar for dollar, and it’s less harmful,” he said. “Crystal meth, cocaine, rock cocaine, heroin — those are the top priorities for law enforcement. Marijuana, they go after you, but it’s still less, so I decide to choose the lesser evil. »

« The only thing I do is sell marijuana … Other crime? I don't do shit. I try not to even jaywalk. »

When he went to prison on the crack charge, his daughter was starting elementary school, and he worried about whether his girlfriend would push and encourage her enough during his absence.

“When I try to say, 'OK, we gonna make education the main priority, this is what we about,' she couldn't understand it,” he said. The Distributor told his girlfriend that if she was still on welfare when he got out, he would leave her. She was, and he did.

By the mid-'90s, he had settled into the weed trade, buying from the Mexican cartels and shipping pounds all over the country. Over the years he stopped working with guys who were flashy, who liked to spend a lot at the club.

He stopped carrying a gun over a decade ago, and he won’t work with people who do. “Gun have only one purpose, and it’s to kill,” he said. « If you are in a very heated argument and you have a gun, you’ll shoot them, but if you don’t have a gun, the both of you go home. » He’s been living with the same woman for 10 years, and they have two children he hopes to put through Ivy League schools. He is sick of flinching every time he hears a siren or a helicopter.

« I'm not self-righteous,” he said. « The only thing I do is sell marijuana. And how I do it, I don't short people. I don't set up people, trap people. I do stuff straight-up. I try to do the business as best as I can. Other crime? I don't do shit. I try not to even jaywalk. »

When he turns on the TV and sees white businessmen from Colorado or Oregon giving tours of warehouses full of weed, he thinks, Why can’t I be like that? He wants to have a legitimate, legal job, pay taxes, make chitchat at Parent-Teacher Association meetings. He wants desperately to join the Green Rush.


The Distributor first tried going legit five years ago, when he saw on the news that Los Angeles had nearly 1,400 pot shops. Someone put him in touch with a lawyer in Beverly Hills who said for $60,000 he could get a permit to run a dispensary. “Then we found out he took a lot of $60,000 from other people, and basically just ripped them off,” he said.

There was no such thing as a permit. The growers, the pot shop owners — everyone was just seeing what they could get away with, and everyone was on tenuous legal ground. That Beverly Hills lawyer was just taking advantage of the chaos.

Although California was the first state to legalize marijuana, in 1996, the industry there developed without regulations, licenses, or oversight. Getting a doctor’s recommendation for pot is about as easy and as time-consuming as getting a haircut. But all of the moving parts that bring cannabis from seed to bong — farms, delivery services, concentrate processors — have never been protected and regulated under state law. Every single marijuana business in California is taking a legal risk. All of the state's pot entrepreneurs are operating on the gray or black market, constantly looking over their shoulders, just like the Distributor.

At the same time, pot has been only an occasional priority for California cops and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and a few cities have permitted its sale. So now there is a huge and well-funded but unsanctioned marijuana industry in the Golden State. This has amounted to a prolonged period of chaos, with consumers assuming pot is basically legal while everyone who works with weed lives in fear of SWAT team raids, frozen bank accounts, and criminal charges.

Los Angeles, where the Distributor had thought he might be able to buy a permit and start a dispensary, does not have local licensing, but the size, agility, and spending power of the industry there has overwhelmed city officials, making it impossible to shut down every single illegal shop.

After giving up on the lawyer in Beverly Hills, the Distributor still wanted to figure out how to operate legally, but he didn’t know how to find a lawyer he could trust. And in any case, he began to notice that nearly everyone going legit — registering as a marijuana business, filing taxes, and operating out of a storefront — was white, and everyone he worked with on the underground market was black or Mexican. He’d had occasional legal troubles since his felony. As much as he wanted to turn his operation into a real business, he decided that until the rules got clearer, trying to be a law-abiding citizen was just too dangerous.

Gray areas like these have always been ripe for racially biased law enforcement. In Mendocino County, where the Distributor buys most of his pot, black people were 10 times more likely to get arrested for pot crimes than white people in 2014. This is why, when it comes time to move pounds down to Southern California, the Distributor seals the weed into smell-proof containers, labels it like it’s tea, and hires a white driver.

Lauren Vazquez, who spent nearly a decade as a cannabis defense lawyer in California and is now the deputy director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, told BuzzFeed News that because of the legal ambiguities in California, only a certain type of person there — mostly young, white, and male — has felt comfortable conducting marijuana business visible to the public.

He decided that until the rules got clearer, trying to be a law-abiding citizen was just too dangerous.

“It’s the people who push the limits, and those people are privileged people with resources and the ability to take risks,” Vazquez said. « Based on the color of your skin, the risk is exponentially different. Even if you accept the risk of getting caught, if you’re a person of color, the consequences could be so much more severe. »

Although 2.5 million black people live in California — more than in all the states that have legalized recreational marijuana combined — you don’t see many of them sitting on panels at cannabis conferences or weighing in on the latest marijuana court case in the Los Angeles Times.

Over the past few years, the Distributor watched with growing anticipation as a majority of the country came to see the folly of incarcerating addicts and nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time. He watched CNN and Fox News. He listened, breathless, to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech to the American Bar Association in August 2013, when he announced a plan to shift the focus of the criminal justice system away from nonviolent drug crimes.

Colorado and Washington had just legalized recreational weed, and the Distributor took Holder’s speech to mean that marijuana would soon be an acceptable business. “That’s the top lawman!” he said. “I was like, OK, he is not going after the dispensary like that. I want to be a part of that, then.« 

Instead, as the Department of Justice reaffirmed in a memo released later that month, cannabis business owners in states that lacked a well-regulated system — language aimed rather pointedly at California — would still be considered criminals, subject to prosecution and seizure of their property and cash. Even after Congress passed a spending bill in 2014 that said no federal money could be used to target medical marijuana operators, the raids in California continued.

Still, the Distributor tried to do what he could. A year ago, he decided he was fed up with the violence and the greed of the Mexican cartels, and he and an associate, a man with a gold tooth, made a trip to Northern California. He and the man with the gold tooth found a few people who could hook them up with some pot, and even though those farmers were also technically operating illegally, the Distributor felt like keeping his dollars in America constituted progress.

Shortly after he got back from that first drive up north, he found out that his oldest daughter, now a nurse, had eloped. The Distributor has never told her what he does for a living, but he checks in regularly and has high expectations for her life and career. Last April, he went to meet her and her new husband for dinner.

The Distributor’s new son-in-law is also from the Caribbean, and he guessed the Distributor’s occupation immediately. “He appear to be stern and serious, like a rude boy. Like a gangster,” the son-in-law later said. « When he came in, I thought he just had a walk, like a bump, you know. »

The son-in-law is smaller than the Distributor, his body more compact. At some point in the evening, when they were alone for a few moments, the Distributor asked him what he did for a living.

“Marijuana,” the son-in-law said. “I move marijuana.”

The Distributor turned slowly to face his daughter’s new husband. Here was the man who was supposed to represent all of the comfort and stability he wanted for his oldest child. Here, after a quarter century in this country, was the sum total of all he had accomplished. He looked his son-in-law up and down — T-shirt, gold chain, glittering earring — and then he spoke.

“This is bullshit. »

Quasi-legal marijuana dispensaries in Venice, California

Alamy, AP (2)

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