By Samuel Tucker
Black and brown people have felt the impact of a failed, disproportionately waged war on marijuana over the past 50 years. Today, with states across the country lifting restrictions, many business people of color are pushing for equitable representation in the legal marijuana industry.
The economic success of the marijuana market has been seen, but when it comes to bringing diversity and racial equity to Michigan’s marijuana market, work still needs to be done.
“The marijuana industry on a regulated side is really cost prohibitive, and there’s just a huge wealth gap between the black and brown community and the wealth we see a lot of other demographics holding,” said Denavvia Mojét, Executive Director of the Black and Brown Cannabis Guild (BBCG).
The BBCG is a community group that advocates for social equity in the marijuana market along with providing guidance and programming for those who wish to get into the market.
Mojét explained that what state officials are doing to level the playing field hasn’t been enough to bridge the divide between demographics and bring about the racial equity that’s lacking right now.
“The Social Equity Program was one of the state’s aspirations to encourage people from communities that were most harmed disproportionately by the War on Drugs, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily produced the kind of racial equity we would hope to see,” Mojét said. “I think ideally, more in line with justice and fairness, the bulk of the people that were criminalized disproportionately for marijuana should be able to partake in roughly that ratio of licenses, and that’s just not what we see.”
Michigan has been implementing Social Equity Programs to repair the disparity between the majority white-owned marijuana licenses and the small number of black and brown license holders, but so far, little has changed.
In Dec. 2020, the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency(MRA) found that only 3.8% of recreational businesses were owned by Black or African American individuals and just 1.5% are Hispanic or Latino owned.
So the market is still not diverse; what can be done?
“I think people of color need funding,” Mojét said. “We don’t need a million incubators and accelerators. We typically just need funding.”
In January of this year, the state funded MRA convened a racial equity workgroup to give recommendations on how to bring racial equity to Michigan’s marijuana market. Mojét served on that workgroup and is confident in their recommendations, but the actual implementation is left to lawmakers.
Mojét explained real change and real support for black and brown people in the marijuana market looks like strategic funding and licensing.
“We need the implementation of the racial equity recommendations from the workgroup, and we need to be really intentional about making sure we don’t just define social equity as a broad stroke demographic, but really specifically and pointedly practice racial equity,” Mojét said.
In Mojét’s eyes, this is how systemic support can be given to the systematically oppressed in the Mitten state’s marijuana market. “That would move the needle the furthest, the fastest.”
Barton Morris, Principal Attorney and founder of the Cannabis Legal Group, a law firm that specializes in marijuana industry, has had first hand experience in the progression of marijuana reform in Michigan.
In over 10 years of experience as a marijuana lawyer, Morris has been involved in the first ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan, having served in state funded social and racial equity workgroups, and was involved in the founding of the state’s MRA.
Morris also served on the Racial Equity Workgroup and specialized in an important part of the issue: lack of education in municipalities.
“In Michigan our law provides a lot of discretion to municipalities, meaning that every city gets to decide how many facilities, what type of facilities, and the rules surrounding them,” Morris said. “So, therefore, these municipalities are each in a unique situation to be supporting goals of social equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
Municipalities have the power to bring support to communities that are still healing from marijuana prohibition. For Morris, educating municipalities on this support they can give is a key part to bringing meaningful participation in the market to all Michiganders.
“The problem is that a lot of these things have never been done before,” Morris said. “So we don’t know how they’ll be received or what type of response they’ll get, or even know how effective they are. With other state’s and their initiatives, it’s still super early to determine whether they’ll be effective either. We just don’t know yet.”
Michigan has a long road ahead of it before racial equity is seen throughout the market, but what’s important is that we try.
“This is new to the industry, this is new to everybody, and I think ultimately we just gotta try and then adjust it, depending on what type of response, and then try again,” Morris said.
Implementation is a difficult task, but once the racial equity recommendations are brought to fruition, Michigan will be able to see if the solutions are enough to diversify the market and improve the minority participation.
“Marijuana prohibition has really been a very racist and segregated program of social injustice, and so what we’re doing now, we have the opportunity to fix and change that, and I hope that we continue to move forward with that,” Morris said.