Overpoliced, Underrepresented: Racial Inequality And Cannabis Capitalism


Publish Date:
May 19, 2019
Harvard Political Review
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Marijuana legalization in states like California, Colorado, and Washington represented more than a shift in American drug culture: For the black and brown communities that have been targeted and stigmatized, and particularly for the millions of people of color who have gone to jail on marijuana charges, it heralded the beginning of the end of America’s disastrous, racist War on Drugs. But an emerging cannabis market is abandoning the values of racial justice that in large part motivated those initial calls for legalization. White entrepreneurs are crowding out black and brown ones, with legislation in many parts of the country failing to provide for an inclusive, representative legal cannabis industry.

With more than 80 percent of legal cannabis companies under white ownership, black and brown Americans are struggling to break in. And while the exclusion and underrepresentation of people of color are certainly characteristic of the American economy more broadly, marijuana’s historical significance makes this inequality particularly troublesome.

Unfortunately, in places without advocates like Senter and Hawkins, the whiteness of this emerging market has often gone unchallenged. Racial justice “has not been a major topic at the national level, or in most of the states that have legalized cannabis,” according to Rob MacCoun, a professor at Stanford Law School whose work focuses on social psychology and drug policy. “An issue like this needs ‘issue entrepreneurs’” — people like Senter, Lencho, and Parks — “to frame the problem and call attention to it, and that’s what activists did during the California rollout,” he explained in an interview with the HPR.

According to MacCoun, “while cannabis legalization has reduced the number of people arrested and incarcerated for cannabis offenses, among those who still get arrested, most states are still finding that people of color are overrepresented. So legalization is only partially effective at solving problems of racial injustice.” For Hawkins, legalization is the first step in a longer process of criminal justice reform: “Police are still going to harass brown and black people on the streets, but [legalization] will hopefully force American policing to change in some ways and remove this arsenal within the police’s discretion.”

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