Skip to content Skip to footer

Pot Industry Owes Reparations to Those Criminalized for Drug Use

Three leading thinkers and activists in cannabis economic justice discuss strategies with Laura Flanders.

Marijuana samples at the Welcome to Cannacity - "She's Smokin'" Event on April 20, 2019, in Los Angeles, California.

Pot, grass, marijuana, cannabis — call it what you will, its recreational use is already legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, with many more soon to follow. Among other things, that means big bucks are at stake. Here in New York, Governor Cuomo is now pushing the Democratic-controlled legislature to move forward on legislation. The market is estimated at more than $3 billion. New York City alone could see more than $300 million in taxes on top of an additional $400 million for the state. But who will benefit from this windfall? Will legislation legalization lead to corporate control and profit for a few? Or can we seize the opportunity to create a more equitable economy and even provide reparations to those largely Black and Brown people who were previously criminalized by the “war on drugs”?

Here to help us avoid getting lost in the weeds are three leading thinkers and doers in the fight for cannabis economic justice: Kassandra Frederique is the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance; Raybblin Vargas is a grassroots organizer on social justice campaigns and board member of the Green Worker Cooperative; and Mary Pryor is co-founder of Cannaclusive, created to facilitate fair representation of marginalized cannabis consumers.

Laura Flanders: So the latest news, as we are recording this, is that African American legislatures at the state level here in New York are threatening to block legalization because they’re not getting what they want. Cassandra, what’s going on and why? Could they actually block Governor Cuomo’s legislation getting this in the budget? What comes next?

Kassandra Frederique: Yeah. I think what you are seeing right now is that it’s actually been advocates in communities of color telling their legislators this is what we need for this to move forward. That we can’t go to a place where we legalize recreational, or adult use for marijuana, and then get to a place where communities that have the most impacted don’t have access to being a part of the business. We have to get to a place where, if everyone’s acknowledging that marijuana criminalization was bad for communities, then they need to reinvest in those same communities.

Let’s not be euphemistic here. They say that [nearly] four times as many African Americans got arrested — and I think incarcerated or at least prosecuted — for marijuana use even though use is almost the same in every population.

Frederique: Yeah. I think the biggest thing about talking about this particular issue is that oftentimes, people make light, they make puns. But what has happened has had real consequences on communities of color in particular. Black and Latino New Yorkers were getting arrested more than everyone else, even though data consistently shows that white people are using and possessing at the same rates. It’s not just people getting arrested, it’s people getting kicked out of their homes, people being deported, people losing custody of their kids, people not being able to pass background checks for jobs, people being on the State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment until 10 years after their last kid turns 28. So, these are the consequences that have happened. Rightly so, communities of color are demanding that the government can’t come to the table and say, “We have decided that we did this wrong and now we’re just going to move forward.” You actually have to address all the things that happened to us. This money that is put forward should be a part of that equation.

Is there any historic precedence for a situation like this? I’m thinking post-prohibition, legalize alcohol and suddenly you have rapacious white liquor stores exploiting low-income communities. Do we have any models?

Mary Pryor: Well, honestly, there’s models that haven’t really been formed within the current cannabis situation within the United States….

We already judge the formerly incarcerated and anybody who has a record on their item anyway in terms of a job. So there’s that and it’s an issue. Secondly, there’s not a real understanding as to talking about models that have worked: Community reinvestment, equity day one, full restorative justice, a full expungement plan that involves incubators and jobs and pathways into the industry — that hasn’t rolled out in any state. When you talk about Colorado, people are like, “Oh, there’s so much money. There’s a billion that’s been generated in tax revenue.” None of that has gone to communities affected by the war on drugs. California doesn’t have that provision. Massachusetts doesn’t have that. Michigan doesn’t have that. There’s no equity program that started day one with this. As far as restorative justice and expungement, that’s all fine, but what’s the release plan for those that are currently in prison? Will they be able to get out? Will they be able to have access to job training? Will that job training link to pathways in the industry? None of that has segmented in any type, way, shape or form in the United States.

Where do co-ops come into this?

Raybblin Vargas: Well, if you really want to bring the social economic equity into this bill, you have to think about worker co-ops…. I think about all the people in my neighborhood … that have been impacted by this unfair war on drugs. If they wanted to enter into the market, one, because of these past arrests, they’re not going to qualify for loans from any bank. They’re not going to have the background or the education and training to start their own business. The barriers to … enter into this market are so heavy and so hard that worker co-ops are a solution because it allows people to pool their resources together, create their own bylaws and be able to govern for themselves. They can choose to hire formerly incarcerated people, because it’s up to the workers.

So the bad news is there’s no great model out there. The good news is New York gets to be a great model.

Frederique: That’s right. New York gets to get this right, because New York was one of the first states to realize that we shouldn’t criminalize marijuana in the first place. In 1977, we decriminalized marijuana ahead of all the other states…. So, the ideal thing for us would be three things. We are all a part of a statewide coalition called Start Smart New York, which is really addressing all the collateral consequences. So not just focusing solely on sealing records, but also dealing with the child welfare, immigration, housing and employment issues that are at stake. So that includes sealing, vacating whatever the record is, and then also dealing with all the other collateral consequences. Two, we need to earmark the money that comes out of — that is generated here for communities most impacted. There’s a very clear map of which communities should have access to those funds, because there’s a clear map of which communities were criminalized for this substance. Those communities should have access and the decision-making power to what they want their communities to have based on this funding. Three, this conversation around equity is: How do we make sure that this market that we create is not overrun by out-of-state, heavily capitalized people coming into place? How do we position small business owners and farmers in New York to also be a part of this conversation?

Well, how do we?

Vargas: Well, one of the greatest features of cooperatives is it could be in every part of the supply chain. It could be processing, distribution, marketing. What’s more important about worker co-ops is that the money is made by New Yorkers and it stays in New York. So more taxes are generated by New Yorkers, it stays in New York State, so it gets reinvested. So the money stays in the community and so we’re able to continue to reinvest back into our businesses.

Because co-op owners, a group of owners, don’t tend to flip the business to somebody outside.

Vargas: Exactly. They don’t put the money in offshore funds.

Flanders: Mary?

Pryor: Just to be even more direct about this, New York has to get this right. There are several major states just waiting to see what we do. Pennsylvania, Florida, a lot of the amendments that are happening in Michigan right now. Michigan just made its LARA board, which is the licensing and entire provisioning of just creating what those provisions look like. There are a lot of states that have just elected to even go recreational that don’t even have the frameworks in place yet. New York is a conversation in a lot of different state houses across this nation. So when we’re talking about New York getting this right and why it’s important, this will be the domino that sets off the trigger for anyone else to adopt any type of policy shaping the creation of adult use and making it a fair and equitable space for everybody to have a chance. So that’s why this is a very important matter and all eyes are essentially on us right now.

One thing we haven’t mentioned is, are we talking state change? We’ll talk more about it, but there’s also the federal backdrop. You’ve got Sen. Cory Booker, who has a Marijuana Justice Act that he’s put forward. He’s running for president. A lot of other potential presidential candidates, and people that are running in the primary, have signed on to Booker’s plan. What’s the role of federal [government] here, and is there any likelihood that we could see any movement?

Pryor: For a federal level, when it comes to banking and finance, there’s already been conversations in the house and bills being created to talk about removing the provision of 280E, which is on a Schedule 1 drug. There’s a 40 to 70 percent tax on profit from what you receive within a cannabis and plant-touching business. For example, there are people that have to make payments of $1 million to even $15 million, all cash, to the IRS. You cannot put it in a bank…. So that’s a big hindrance for a lot of folks in this business. Especially if you do have a co-op. Or especially if you’re a small business. Big businesses, they have to make that pay and it even shutters a lot of plans for that business.

So that could be changed at the federal level. It’s banking legislation that’s federal?

Pryor: Potential for this year, yes. However, New York, again, is a key state and a lot of what happens…. If you even think about it, a lot of the top people that are noticed — AOC, Schumer, Gillibrand — they’re New Yorkers. These are people that are mentioned in our news funnel almost every day from a federal level. A lot of these people are in D.C. So, New York is a state that’s being weighed so much because it brings in so much capital and so much money into the entire nation in general…. People are starting to use this as a way to run and promote federal decriminalization and to make it federally legal right now.

Frederique: I think when we think about the Marijuana Justice Act, so much of it is shaping the conversation and the debate of what cannabis regulation needs to look like…. You know, people can talk about legalizing it, but we can’t legalize it without expunging it. We can’t legalize it without restorative justice or reinvestment. [Senator Booker is] really taking the tenets that are clearly anchored in New York and bringing it to a federal level and forcing the debate to address that.

Well let’s talk about that, because what I’m hearing from you is, “Wait, we want to do legislation that’s a whole lot more than legislation.” That in fact, this is an opportunity to model a kind of planning, a kind of commitment to … reparative economics that we haven’t seen in years.

Frederique: I think this conversation around cannabis regulation calls to question a lot of societal economic issues; a lot of what we have invested in around criminalization. This conversation around cannabis, if we are moving to a place where we’re removing something away as a tool of criminalization, the conversation is, “What do we put in its place?” Not just by, “We are no longer criminalizing these people,” but this activity that was made illicit was also an economic engine, an economic underpinning for communities that have been shut out of traditional markets. So if we’re taking that away as well, that’s a destabilizing force. So this question that is being called is a larger societal issue. So it’s less about a big role for government and more about how do we actually want to create sustainable economies that are not built on the capture and criminalization of communities of color.

I mean, it’s not too much if you read Angela Davis, if you read Michelle Alexander…. There’s a continuity through post-reconstruction to this very moment of mass incarceration. Continuation of a sort of incarceration state. Could this be a continuation of a kind of reconstruction that we might get right? Do better? Is that going too far?

Pryor: Well first of all, when you talk about single digits, less than 6 percent of all businesses are owned by Black [people] and people of color. So that includes women as well. Women in general, Black women, receive less than 0.02 percent of established funding and capital within startups (cannabis removed). So it’s not like there’s a level playing field already, at all…. Big cannabis runs, essentially, the industry in the United States. Small businesses, everyday citizens, do not have a real chance of being able to enter this industry unless they’re aware of the capital items that hinder everyone, essentially. So this isn’t just a matter of, Yes this needs to be repaired, this needs to be restored, this needs to focus on investment, this needs to focus decriminalizing the plant. But as far as business, this affects the economy for people to be able to even generate and … give into a tax system.

But again, it is requiring us to do some planning around the economy. We’ve had decades of saying, “We don’t plan the economy. That’s socialism.”

Vargas: Well … one of the best things that we can hope for to come out of this is that if we even get a portion of what we get in legalizing cannabis, it sets a model for all types of other businesses to also have the same type of principles to include more people of color, to include more women, to have more access to finances and capital in the economy. So we’re not just fighting for cannabis legalization or social equity. We’re fighting for an equitable field so that everybody gets to eat from the food that they raise.

Frederique: And I think the conversation is a big one. How do we want to create an economy? The thing is, it’s really important to say that legalizing cannabis is not going to cure the ills of capitalism. Legalizing cannabis is not going to end racism. This is one way to reduce the harms of structures that are harming communities. But we can’t put on huge ideas on this substance and think that it will save all societal ills. It means that we have more space to be innovative to do different things….

Well, I’m all in favor of talking about the economy. I’m just asking, “How do we shift the imaging, or the story, around this discussion?” As powerful as our show is, I’m not sure that we’ll do it in this half-hour.

Pryor: … What we think about what plant use is, is racist, stigmatized and stereotyped off the jump. That’s due to the fact that we have the drug war, which started with Nixon, where mostly it was a way to criminalize Black and Brown folks. It was a way to create an imbalance in the fact that civil rights allowed for people to actually have a potential chance in this economy…. Then in 1937, just making the plant illegal, that was a material science and racism issue, again, due to the influx of Mexican immigrants coming into country, and the racialized propaganda created around “reefer madness,” where people would say that Black and Brown [people] were going to rape white women. So, I just say all that to say we can’t ignore that. All of this in terms of why things are prohibited are due to very stigmatized, not factual, identities or ideas of what people are actually doing with the plant. It was a medicine, it was used in all types of pharmacy items back in the 1800s, 1700s and 1900s…. What we’ve lost, and what we’re just even trying to do at Cannaclusive, is show that everyday people that look like them, that look like you, consume this plant. This isn’t an item that should be scoped in fear, or wrapped in stereotype, because we’ve allowed that to happen for almost 100 years. It’s an unlearning that everybody has to do. What it can’t be, though, is this whitewashed presentation of nobody that is of color using the plant….

It didn’t work to try to tell people that affirmative action was not about Black people…. So this won’t work either.

Frederique: But also, I think that when you ask about the narrative, the narrative is already shifting…. Black elected officials are saying, “We will block this if this doesn’t benefit our community….” The conversation is being shifted to this conversation where everyone is like, “We can’t spend decades criminalizing communities, then learn how to profit off this particular behavior, and then leave that community out.” Everyone is having that conversation. They’re having it at the federal legislations stage, which is why you see the Marijuana Justice Act being framed that way. Having Sen. Cory Booker talking about that. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is talking about it. The framing of the conversation is shifting. You have Governor Cuomo, who’s saying, “We have to do this in a way that does not enrich corporations, and actually empowers poor communities.”

So, if you go back to where we began, about what this looks like if we get it right, in terms of opportunity, what people can do or be able to do?

Vargas: Well, the role of co-ops in cannabis is still being discussed because it’s new to the legislature…. We’re doing a lot of teaching and education about how worker co-ops actually function because the bill originally just talks about farmer cooperatives, and they did not understand that there was a whole other array of co-ops that you can participate in…. The important thing about co-ops is that we have a principle statement that we have to also give back directly into the community…. So the ideal world is that in cannabis legalization, everybody is working in some sort of cooperative, in my dream, contributing, making money and bringing wealth back into the community. I just want to also just touch on the fact that the dialogue is not just happening amongst the legislature. There’s tons of community forums happening all throughout New York State, and people should really look them up and go to those meetings to really find out what’s going on and talk directly to the people who are involved in this campaign.

So, Mary and Kassandra, if we get this right, what’s the story that we tell the future about what happened in this moment? What do you tell someone 50 years from now what we did?

Frederique: Fifty years from now, if we got this right, I think we say we did not shy away from the role that race played in where we were starting from. That we actually centered people that were most harmed by criminalization … people that had been arrested for marijuana, people that have lost their kids, people that have been deported. We built the legislation and the conversation around those things and educated the legislators to buy into what was important. So that people could remember that it was people that we were fighting for, as opposed to profits.

Pryor: I would say that we can say that we were the first to actually formulate a pathway. That hasn’t happened elsewhere. Globally or nationwide. The pathway is the biggest thing that people need across the board to be able to even tap into the wealth that is in cannabis, and it’s big. It’s very, very big.

Vargas: I’d like to add that this was done by people-based evidence. By actual communication, not reports and studies that are mostly biased against us. They usually extract information to be used and manipulated in their own particular ways. That it was people-centric, community-centered, coming from our experts in the community. That’s something that I think is unique; that the people are informing this.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $40,000 in the next 6 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.