Growing Marijuana Industry Struggles To Attract Employees Of Color

Feb 21, 2019
Originally published on February 26, 2019 8:31 am

As marijuana becomes legal around the country, blacks and Latinos are often left out of new business opportunities. Advocates say people of color are often reluctant to join the growing legal marijuana economy because they were targeted far more often than whites during the war on drugs. Studies show members of such communities were arrested and jailed for illegal marijuana use far more often than whites.

As Massachusetts developed laws for legal marijuana, officials wrote what they claimed was a first-in-the-nation Social Equity Program explicitly to give members of those communities a leg up.

But this part of the state law isn't working — next to no black or Latino candidates have applied for licenses in Massachusetts.

They're scared of the government. - Sieh Samura

"They're scared of the government, man," said Sieh Samura, an outspoken cannabis activist. "This is still a new thing. And there's taxes, there's the government, there's all kinds of things, you know. Just because people say it's legal ... it's not welcoming for everybody."

Studies show that blacks and Latinos nationwide have been arrested and incarcerated for cannabis and other drug crimes at at least four times the rate of whites. The long-term effects of the war on drugs launched in the 1970s are still evident in many communities of color.

So, the city of Somerville, Mass., passed an ordinance requiring that 50 percent of recreational marijuana licenses go to black and Latino applicants.

"We want to make sure that everyone has a real authentic opportunity to participate in that economy in the future," said Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. "If not, we start to lose the fabric and soul of our community. And then social inequity becomes greater, becomes vaster, and we can't allow that to happen. We're a pro-growth community, but we want to make sure regular folks are able to participate in that."

Samura, an Iraq War veteran, said medical marijuana was a big help for him dealing with the effects of PTSD. As a black man, he sees himself as a marijuana pioneer from a community that has long been targeted. He says this fraught relationship between law enforcement and communities of color is why many black and Latino entrepreneurs are reluctant to start recreational marijuana businesses.

To be a model for others, Samura and his wife Leah created a recreational marijuana business called 612 Studios. For months they've been coming to a massive marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass., to participate in The Sira Accelerator, a 12-week program designed to get more people of color into the industry by doing everything from raising money, to helping with marketing, packaging and distribution.

This program is run by Sira Naturals, which grows marijuana and creates products for its own medical dispensaries and some other recreational businesses. Mike Dundas, Sira Naturals' CEO, said the company wants to help longtime marijuana advocates, like the Samuras, or folks who have been dabbling in the illegal pot market.

"We see our program, the Sira Accelerator, as sort of offering a hand to those who've been operating — and have skill and passion and dedication to cannabis products — in the illicit marketplace, to come to the regulated side, to get on the books and help facilitate the start of their businesses," said Dundas.

In return for the advice and counsel, Sira takes just under a 1o percent stake in the new company.

Sira also hopes the accelerator will help it open a recreational shop in Somerville, where it already runs one of three medical dispensaries. The company can't get a recreational license until black or Latino entrepreneurs do because of the city's ordinance. Dundas, who is white, admits he's scrambling to find and mentor people of color who want to open businesses in Somerville to ensure that his company can open a retail shop of its own.

Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies with the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, said there have been lots of attempts around the country to help candidates from black and Latino communities, but none have worked.

"None of the states have the kind of diversity that we would like to see in the cannabis industry," she said.

Some marijuana business owners have expressed frustration that states are "picking winners and losers" in the marijuana industry. But O'Keefe argued that this industry is different, given the ill effects of the war on drugs. The question remains, though, how best to level the playing field.

"States moving forward are going to look at what happened in Massachusetts," O'Keefe said, "why such good intentions didn't end up bearing as much fruit and as much diversity in the industry as was intended."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's one consequence of strict drug laws in this country. Many African-Americans and Latinos who have past criminal records have trouble starting legitimate businesses. This is a special challenge now that marijuana can be a legitimate business. Massachusetts wrote explicit laws to give black and Latino entrepreneurs a chance. Aaron Schachter of WGBH reports on one town's effort to give a shot to the same people once targeted by drug laws.

AARON SCHACHTER, BYLINE: In Massachusetts, as in most of the U.S., people of color have been at least four times more likely to be convicted for marijuana crimes. And that record can be a real hindrance to finding a job, let alone opening your own business.

JOE CURTATONE: We want to make sure that everyone has a real, authentic opportunity to participate in that economy in the future.

SCHACHTER: Joe Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville, just a stone's throw from Boston. Frustrated by a lack of candidates, Curtatone spearheaded a new city ordinance requiring 50 percent of recreational marijuana licenses go to local black and Latino applicants.

CURTATONE: We believe the war on drugs had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, on vulnerable populations. And it was critical for us to do this.

SCHACHTER: But finding black and Latino entrepreneurs to join the legal marijuana economy hasn't been easy.

SIEH SAMURA: They're scared of the government, man. This is still a new thing, (laughter) you know?

SCHACHTER: Sieh Samura is an Iraq war vet who started using medical marijuana to fight PTSD. As a black man, he sees himself as a marijuana pioneer from a community long targeted by law enforcement.

SAMURA: As real successful models start emerging, then I think you'll start to see a lot more folks say, oh, OK, the environment is ripe now. We can actually participate in this licensed environment, and it's profitable.

SCHACHTER: To be models themselves, Sieh and his wife Leah Samura created a business called 612 Studios. And for months, they've participated in a cannabis business accelerator program. It's designed to get more people of color into the industry by doing everything from raising capital to helping with all aspects of running a business. Mike Dundas is the CEO of Sira Naturals, which runs the program.

MIKE DUNDAS: How might you think about financing your organization? How might you think about hiring your management team? How might you think about expanding your marketplace and developing other products?

SCHACHTER: Sira Naturals grows marijuana and produces products for its own medical dispensaries and some other recreational businesses. As much as Dundas may want to help the little guy, this isn't just an altruistic venture. For starters, Sira gets a nearly 10 percent cut. But more importantly, until Somerville can convince blacks and Latinos to open pot shops, Dundas won't get to open one of his own there.

KAREN O'KEEFE: None of the states have the kind of diversity that we would like to see in the cannabis industry.

SCHACHTER: Karen O'Keeffe with the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project says there have been lots of attempts around the country to help candidates from black and Latino communities, but none have worked. O'Keefe goes around the country offering states ideas on how they can change things.

O'KEEFE: Things like making sure people who are on parole and probation do not have that revoked for testing positive, making sure consuming cannabis in public is a civil, not a criminal offense. Having low enough fees that they're not a barrier to entry for lower-income applicants also can help.

SCHACHTER: Some marijuana business owners contend government shouldn't be deciding winners and losers. But O'Keefe counters that the marijuana market isn't just any business. Given the ill effect of the war on drugs, she says, what Massachusetts and Somerville are doing is just a way to level the playing field. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schachter in Boston.

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