Make Cannabis Industry Reparations by Favoring Criminal Marijuana Convictions


There is an informative piece on BuzzFeed entitled “How Black People Are Being Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom” that is a must-read for the marijuana movement. If it is a subject that interests you (and it should) you can also check out to learn more.

The gist is that the legal marijuana world is a rich white man’s playground, after decades of the illegal marijuana world being the domain of black and brown people who bore the brunt of racist prohibition enforcement. As Michelle Alexander put it, “White Men Get Rich from Legal Pot, Black Men Stay in Prison.

One major hurdle for minority involvement in the newly legal cannabis industry is the high cost of getting licensed for cultivation operations and dispensaries. States may require outrageously high demonstrations of secured capital – like being able to show one has a $2 million letter of credit – before even applying for a license. Then there are non-refundable application fees in the tens of thousands of dollars.

These kinds of requirements obviously favor white capitalists who are able to amass such fortunes in an economy that disfavors building minority wealth through historic practices such as real-estate redlining and the legacy of slavery through Jim Crow that has left black families with virtually no wealth.

But the monetary hurdles are secondary barriers more indicative of systemic racism in general than anything particular to the marijuana movement. As Dr. Carl Hart put it, “We can’t expect one fledgling, developing industry alone to solve this major problem in the United States, which the republic has ignored since we came out of slavery. That’s not even logical.”

Yes, we could write marijuana laws so that there aren’t such enormous monetary barriers to entry, but that’s not going to fix the black/white wealth gap, in other words.

Another hurdle that is specific to the newly legal cannabis industry, however, is the practice of disqualifying for licensure anybody who has had a conviction for being a part of the previously illegal cannabis industry.

Not only is this in effect racist, since black and brown growers and dealers were four times more likely to be busted in the illegal cannabis industry, but it is also counter-productive. Why would we want to shut out from the legal industry those who gained the requisite experience illegally? Why would we want to favor operators who are less likely to have real-world knowledge of how cannabis production, supply, marketing, and demand actually work?

Lawmakers, I believe, like these “no drug felons” restrictions because of a mistaken understanding of what drug dealers are. They are not evil criminal masterminds looking to harm the public for their personal gain – they are entrepreneurs no different from any other, aside from their product being illegal. If they have a chance to become legal entrepreneurs, they will abandon the illegal side, and isn’t that what we want to happen? Why would we incentivize those who’ve been criminal marijuana dealers to remain criminal marijuana dealers?

Obviously, then, we need to write marijuana laws so that one’s non-violent marijuana conviction isn’t a barrier to getting licensure. We can also ensure that our laws don’t contain vague coded references to judging an applicant’s “character”, something that can work against a minority applicant without being overtly racist enough to be called out. We can do more like my home state of Oregon and provide easy pathways and assistance to expunging criminal records of marijuana violations that are no longer illegal.

But if I may offer a radical suggestion, we should take the concept further.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic the excellent piece called “The Case for Reparations”, detailing how and why America owes African-Americans payback on that “40 acres and a mule” promise to make up for the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Solving that large a problem is beyond my pay grade, but in my little slice of marijuana activism, may I offer a case for reparations in our domain?

Make an affirmative action program for marijuana licensing that gives bonus points for licensure to applicants with prior non-violent marijuana convictions.

This program would then favor minority applicants indirectly, since they will be four times more likely than white applicants, generally speaking, to be able to accrue those bonus points. But it wouldn’t be racially unfair, as a white applicant who’d been busted could get those points, too.

Critics would say that such a system rewards past lawbreaking. But isn’t the point of legalization a recognition that calling those past behaviors “lawbreaking” was wrong? By promoting the previously convicted for licensure, we’d be incentivizing people previously and currently involved in the illegal market to become legal operators who follow regulations and pay taxes. We’d be draining the best horticultural and sales talent from the illegal side of the ledger.

Some might say that such a system unfairly penalizes the savvy growers and dealers who avoided getting caught. But since that avoidance of law enforcement also has a racially-favorable bias toward whiteness, it’s not a complaint that will garner much sympathy. Yes, sorry you grew illegally for twenty years and scored lower than the two-year grower who got caught – your consolation prize is that you did no prison time and got to enjoy your prohibition profits on the outside.

Such a system would begin to create an engine of wealth for communities of color, addressing a small piece of Coates’ call for reparations. It could succeed without angering regressive whites by being a program that explicitly favors black and brown people. Prohibitionists who play the “more liquor stores in the ‘hood” card to fearmonger about legal pot shops would have less traction with minority voters if the people in the ‘hood were owning and benefitting from those shops.

Russ Belville

"Radical" Russ Belville is a blogger, podcaster, and host of The Russ Belville Show, a daily two-hour talk radio show focused on the evolution of the legal marijuana industry in the United States. The program is airing live at 3pm Pacific Time from Portland, Oregon, on, with podcast available on iTunes and Stitcher Radio. Russ began his marijuana activism in 2005 with Oregon NORML, then in 2009 went on to work for National NORML, and found and direct Portland 2015.