Out in the Open

The role of race and class in the legalization of weed

BuzzFeed writer Amanda Chicago Lewis talks about why black Americans are being shut out of the legal weed boom.
Amanda Chicago Lewis says people of colour are disproportionately excluded from the legal sales of medical or recreational marijuana because of previous related convictions. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

U.S. states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana could serve as models for new regulations in Canada. But as it turns out, many American citizens of colour are unable to participate in the legal weed boom.

Journalist Amanda Chicago Lewis wrote an article for BuzzFeed that discusses why visible minorities are being shut out of the marijuana cash crop. She said that every state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana has restrictions on participation in the industry for people convicted of drug felonies.

"Even though white people and black people use and sell drugs at the same rates, the laws have been enforced in such a way that black people are convicted and arrested between two and 10 times of drug crimes more frequently than white people," Chicago Lewis explained. Because of a larger number of convictions, people of colour are disproportionately excluded from the legal sales of medical or recreational marijuana.

Chicago Lewis says that government agencies in the U.S. are nervous about legalizing marijuana and keeping the industry as safe and business-friendly as possible. "In their attempt to keep out criminals or drug dealers, they decided the easiest way was to keep out people who have been convicted for selling or using drugs."

But marijuana is still a crop, and you need some level of expertise to grow and harvest it successfully. In order for the crops to be successful, the government agencies overlooking the weed industry need knowledgeable specialists to handle the crops. Since the convictions largely affect Americans of colour, the majority of the experts come from white, upper-class backgrounds.  

According to Chicago Lewis, in the Colorado market, which has been a good model of the post-legalization marijuana industry, people who didn't make the jump to legal weed sales were often unsuccessful, and their illegal businesses had failed within a couple of years. In a regulated market, people no longer take the risk of illegal sales. 

"It doesn't make sense to punish certain people for doing something that you are essentially rewarding other people for doing. That just isn't quite fair."