According to the last Census, Black people make up just under 5% of Washington’s population. When it comes to Washington’s prison population, Black people make up 17.6%, according to Washington’s Department of Corrections.

This even though there is no credible data to support the fact that Black people commit crimes at a significantly higher rate than white people, particularly when it comes to drug use. 

Unfortunately, this is far from the only racial disparity in Washington.

Inequity in the Industry

One place Black people are not overrepresented is in Washington’s cannabis industry. There is a shocking lack of Black people in Washington’s weed business. Washington is home to only one majority Black-owned cannabis producer, The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company

According to data from the Liquor and Cannabis Board, 1% of marijuana producers and processors in the state self-identified as Black in 2019. Cannabis retailers are a little closer to matching the state demographics, with 3% of total licenses being majority-owned by Black people.

The War on Drugs Unjustly Targeted BIPOC

The lack of diversity in Washington’s cannabis industry is troubling as it is. When you consider that Black people were disproportionately arrested for cannabis-related offenses, it’s even more problematic.

“Possession of Marijuana charges prosecuted in Seattle Municipal Court between 1996 and 2010 disproportionally impacted persons of color in general, and the African American community in particular,” The Preliminary Findings of Fact Re: City’s Motion to Dismiss Possession of Marijuana Charges reads. “Of the over 500 cases involved in this motion, the racial demographics of defendants were: 3% Asian, 46% black, 46% white, 3% Native American, 2% unknown.”

So what is Washington doing to fix this? Some say not enough.

Washington’s First Cannabis Social Equity Bill a Failure

Washington lawmakers attempted to rectify this blatant inequality with legislation.

First, legislators vacated all cannabis-related misdemeanor convictions from Seattle, and then throughout Washington. This was a good start but didn’t address felony convictions, and the lack of BIPOC in the cannabis industry. 

HB 2263 was introduced to the house in January and never made it out of committee.

The bill, among other things, hoped to open the cannabis market to out-of-state investors. While lawmakers and the WSLCB liked it, most Black entrepreneurs and cannabis business owners did not.

Legislators Not Listening

The bill, among other things, hoped to open the cannabis market to out-of-state investors. While lawmakers and the WSLCB liked it, most Black entrepreneurs and cannabis business owners did not.

Aaron Bossett, executive director of the Black Cannabis Coalition, was quoted in Crosscut as saying the bill was “a joke and a slap in the face to the Black community.” 

One glaring issue with the bill was that it only opened up retail licenses for minority-owned cannabis businesses, not any producer/processor licenses.

“Why would you pigeonhole the Black community into one-third of the industry?” Bossett asked.

Washington’s first attempt at legislation to create social equity in cannabis failed. Without more Black leadership, social equity legislation will undoubtedly continue to fall flat.

Second Times a Charm

Fortunately, legislators came back to the table with HB 2870. HB 2870 did pass and was signed into law by Governor Inslee in late March, and became effective June, 11.

The law established a social equity program for Washington’s cannabis industry and opened up forfeited and other lost cannabis retail licenses for applicants who meet specific criteria, including being from communities most negatively impacted by the War on Drugs and being from high poverty areas.

There are 34 licenses available, and they will cost applicants $1,480 with an application fee of $250. Available licenses will be open from Dec. 1, 2020 through July 1, 2028.

While this doesn’t address all of the issues surrounding Washington’s cannabis industry’s lack of inclusion and diversity, it is a good start.

What Do Black People In Cannabis Need to Succeed?

So what will it take to help the communities most harmed by racist drug policies thrive in Washington’s cannabis industry? 

Jeff Freeman, Co-Founder of MFused spoke with The Sesh about his experience as a biracial black man in the cannabis industry, and what BIPOC need to enter and succeed in Washington’s cannabis market. 

“I’m biracial. So when people see me, they don’t see a black man first,” Freeman explained. “When I got into this I burdened myself with a really big responsibility. I felt it is my obligation to do as well as possible, so I can ensure that people like me get an opportunity in cannabis. That is essential. It’s a huge driving force for me.”

Additional Barriers

Freeman also opened up about the challenges MFused faced as an all minority-owned business.

“We faced similar challenges to other businesses, but there were additional layers,” Freeman shared. “We’re completely self-funded, we’ve had to earn our respect versus having liquidity and being able to purchase marketing campaigns. We’ve had to over-deliver to make it.”

The biggest challenge identified by Freeman is access to capital. Additionally, minority candidates are more likely to come from difficult circumstances, and less likely to have access to professional opportunities to help them build their resumes than their white counterparts.

This is due to the systemic inequality that has impacted Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities in particular. 

Working for a Better Industry

When it comes to paying it forward, Freeman explains how having diverse ownership, has led MFused to make more ethical hiring decisions.

“There’s just so few minorities in cannabis,” Freeman laments. “As far as black men like myself, there are almost none. My partner is Mexican-native, and my other is Chinese. We really are diverse. Our whole thing has been focusing on hiring within the minority community. We’re actively living that lifestyle in terms of creating opportunities for our team.”

Freeman is proud of his diverse staff, which is exceptionally unique for the cannabis industry. 

Freeman, whose surname comes from freed slaves, knows the toll the War on Drugs took on black families. Cannabis played a role in the murder of Freeman’s father. So his decision to enter the cannabis market wasn’t an easy one, but ultimately, Freeman claiming space in the cannabis industry is a self-made form of restorative justice. 

Changing the Industry for the Better

Washington’s cannabis industry may be as white as the Tahoma’s glacier now, but hopefully, things will improve. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum every day, and there is a definite consumer push for more BIPOC-owned cannabis options.

It’s on cannabis investors and lawmakers alike to heed the call and begin to adequately address inequity in the industry.