The United States has a cruel relationship with weed. When pot was illegal everywhere, African Americans were arrested for pot crimes at far higher rates than white people. Now white people are raking in billions of dollars in weed revenue while Black people are largely shut out of the legal pot system.
Nowhere is this cruel reality more true than in Washington State, where Black people were 280 percent more likely to get arrested for pot than a white person during the war on drugs. Black people currently own only 4 percent of the state's weed retailers and 1 percent of the state's pot farms, according to data from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB).
Our state has never tried to tackle this disparity. Rick Garza, director of the WSLCB, recently told a legislative hearing that our state "missed an opportunity to focus on social equity" when we legalized pot.
Now Garza wants to change that. The WSLCB proposed a law that would allow the agency to give its unused retail pot licenses to people who were previously convicted of a misdemeanor pot offense or who come from neighborhoods that were over-policed during the war on drugs. (The agency would not confirm how many licenses are available but estimates range from 13 to less than 40.) The proposed law cannot rely only on the race of the applicants to allocate the retail licenses, because affirmative action is illegal in Washington State.
Garza explicitly said that he wants social equity to help repair some of the harm of the war on drugs.
"By social equity, I mean two things," Garza said. "One, that the new cannabis industry should reflect the diverse population of our state. Second, it challenges us to create economic opportunity in the cannabis industry for people in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition."
The proposed law would also fund a new grant program and create a new task force that can recommend further programs. The grant program—funded with $1 million of pot-tax revenue a year—would provide money for social equity license holders to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare of keeping pot licenses in compliance.
The task force would be composed of 12 members drawn from various boards and commissions, including organizations representing the African American and Latinx communities, which would be charged with making further social equity recommendations by the end of this year. Those recommendations could include calls for more pot licenses.
Joy Hollingsworth, who is Black and owns the pot farm Hollingsworth Cannabis Company with her family, said the task force was one of the reasons she is "fully, 100 percent supporting the bill."
"I have trust that they have the best intentions for the minority community and trying to get more people of color in the industry," Hollingsworth said. "That's why I really like this bill, because it's not just narrowing it down to one thing."
But not everyone is happy. Aaron Bossett, of the Black Cannabis Commission, said that any attempt to fix the harm of the war on drugs needs to include more than just pot licenses.
"For me, it's still a no. It's just not broad enough," Bossett said. "There needs to be more programs outside of just cannabis, because cannabis was used as a weapon. At least allow some of that tax money to go into community development and other programs."
The proposed law passed the state house of representatives on February 16 and is now awaiting a vote in the senate. If it passes, all it will need is a signature from Governor Jay Inslee before the state can start at least trying to use pot legalization to repair the harm of the war on drugs.