By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

The American Civil Liberties (ALCU) estimates that between 2001 and 2010, there were over eight million marijuana arrests across the U.S., and 88 percent of those arrests were for simply having the drug. 

Although marijuana use is almost equal among Blacks and Whites, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. 

In 2012, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana and since then, 17 more states have followed, with several more considering legislation this year. 

The U.S. legal marijuana industry is projected to earn $43 billion by 2025, according to cannabis industry researcher New Frontier Data, which begs the question: how much of that wealth will African Americans have access to? 

In Maryland, cannabis is only legal for medical use, and most are owned and operated by White Americans. However, in Washington, D.C. voters approved Initiative 71 in 2014, which legalized the possession of minimal amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The initiative made way for “gifting shops”, also known as I-71 businesses, which get around the ban on the sale of recreational marijuana by selling other items like art and clothing and including a free “gift” of marijuana. 

Recently, the D.C. Council considered an emergency bill that would advance the city’s few medical marijuana dispensaries, which have complained about losing business to I-71 shops, while forcing dozens of gifting shops—many of which are owned by African Americans— to close their doors, leaving their owners and their employees without jobs. The council narrowly rejected the bill. 

The Generational Equity Movement (GEM), a coalition of five Black-owned cannabis businesses in D.C., has been working to provide a voice for African Americans in the local cannabis industry. The hope is to persuade the D.C. Council to collaborate with Black I-71 shops in conversations surrounding marijuana legislation, and GEM has demanded that a pathway be created to licensing for these Black-owned gifting shops. 

After decades of enduring a disproportionate war on drugs, cries are growing louder for Black entrepreneurs to have equitable access and opportunity in the ever-growing legal marijuana business. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“Two percent of legal [marijuana] businesses are owned by Black people- and that’s not in D.C., but nationwide. It’s projected to be a billion-dollar industry,” said Nia Barge, documentarian for GEM. “It’s definitely white people who are profiting off of this while Black people have been penalized and are being penalized still.” 

Barge along with GEM created a documentary called,  “Young, Gifting, and Black: D.C.’s Loudest Secret,” to raise awareness about the Black gifting businesses and the good they have done for their communities. 

In many of Barge’s interviews for the film, she recalled that most of the employees and owners rarely spoke about the actual drug. Intead, employees talked about how they’ve been inspired by witnessing success stories of Black entrepreneurship and supported by the positive work environment. 

One woman that Barge interviewed mentioned that her boss helped her to open her first bank account. Other employees said that the gifting shops held workshops and discussions surrounding financial literacy and wellness. 

Barge said African Americans were prevented from accessing the cotton and alcohol industry, which changed generations of wealth outcomes. Cannabis can provide a path for Black people to achieve generational wealth, but they first must be afforded ownership in the industry. 

“It’s not about cannabis. It’s about equity, and it’s about using cannabis as a vehicle for change,” said Barge. “We have to get this right or we’ll miss out again, and this is going to change generations. Black people deserve a piece of that, especially because of things like the war on drugs and gentrification in D.C.”

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