Civil rights activist Martin Luther King III, Maryland State Senator Cory McCray, cannabis industry insiders, and other weed-interested folks gathered at Coppin University February 28 to discuss what weed legalization means for people of color.
“This is a ground-floor opportunity,” King told the small crowd in James Weldon Johnson Auditorium. “Several states have gotten the opportunity to pass legislation, but none of them have gotten it right yet. I think that Maryland is on the precipice… of getting it right.” King noted that he’d spent the previous day in Annapolis, meeting with state leaders about the possibilities pot presents.
Back in November, Maryland voters gave the OK for this state to move forward with the legalization of recreational cannabis for people 21 and over. The change goes into effect in July. Lawmakers in Annapolis are now laying out the legal framework for the recreational consumption of a drug for the use of which thousands of Marylanders have previously been penalized.
The large panel, titled Equity, Representation, and Opportunities for Cannabis Workers was made up entirely of people of color and focused on a few issues: addressing the needs of people who are currently incarcerated because of weed, making sure people of color can economically benefit from weed, and providing communities of color with as much information as possible about cannabis.
“When I talk about social equity, I don’t start with the ownership part of that equation,” said Hope Wiseman, the youngest Black woman to own a dispensary in the United States. “When we think about social equity, I think the first thing we have to talk about is criminal justice reform. That’s not always at the forefront.”
According to a study conducted by the ACLU that tracked arrests made between 2010 and 2018, Black people were more likely to be arrested for possession of weed than white people in every state, including states that had legalized it. That means there are a lot of Black people sitting in prisons or with convictions hanging over their heads because of something that is legal to sell and consume for many in this country.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant organization group CASA, said that more than half of Latinx people who are behind bars right now are there because of the failed war on drugs. He said that these convictions shut people out of the cannabis industry forever.
“The majority of people who are in jail are men, but Black and Latina women are suffering tremendously because of that. On some occasions, they lose their kids,” Torres said.
Panelists were also adamant that workers’ rights must be at the forefront as lawmakers craft a future that includes legal access to cannabis. The panel’s moderators, Tamia Booker and Caroline Phillips, asked McCray several times whether Maryland law would include language ensuring the rights of workers to collectively organize on their behalf without interference from their bosses. The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union organized the panel. The group had a table set up outside the auditorium with a selection of matches, rolling papers, and pins that read “UFCW Cannabis Workers Union.”
McCray, who came into office with a strong union background, said that he is in favor of the language and felt confident that it would be addressed in Annapolis. “I feel like we are going to get it done,” he said.
Norbert Pickett, who owns a dispensary in Washington, D.C., said that the industry is much tougher on Black owners, and it’s often more difficult for them to get the licenses they need.
“We lost out on the dot-com industry, we lost out on cable television, here comes a new emerging market, and we are being held out of it again,” he said. “It’s important in our community that we get involved in this industry because this industry isn’t going anywhere. However… now they want to deny us ownership.”
All panelists agreed it would take a coalition effort to make sure that communities of color are at the table when it comes to the economic benefits that further legalization will bring.
“This moment is pregnant with possibility,” said nationally known activist Tamika Mallory. “At this moment, we find ourselves in a space where we can actually create and design something that looks different from other industries that exist within society. But I think it will take being intentional.”