Weed stigmas are changing, but people of color are still paying the price

Late last year, former NBA commissioner David Stern appeared in The Concept of Cannabis, a documentary by former NBA star Al Harrington, to voice his changed views on cannabis. When Stern was commissioner, he instituted and enforced strict testing and harsh punishments for players who were caught using the drug, which was, and still is, on the NBA’s list of banned substances.

Stern defended himself by saying that, back then, players were coming into the games high, and that the concept of cannabis as a gateway drug was a widely held belief. His stance against weed in his commissioner days was part of an effort to clean up the league, because stars like Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby were getting in trouble. The infamous dress code was also part of that effort.

In the documentary, he said: “I’m now at the point where, personally, I think [cannabis] probably should be removed from the ban list ... I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”

Stern added that the NBA should allow players to use cannabis recreationally if it’s legal in their state.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, who had been against the legalization of cannabis for most of his career, is among those who, like Stern, have had a change of heart, saying recently: “Over the last 10 or 15 years, the American people’s attitudes have changed dramatically. I find myself in that same position.”

Boehner’s newfound progressive stance comes at a convenient time — he’s joining the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a cannabis investment company that claims to have “the most diverse portfolio of any company in the American cannabis industry.”

Now that legalization of cannabis is big business, it is mostly white people who are profiting from it.

There is nothing wrong with people changing their minds, especially if it’s the result of individual learning and growth. But it’s hard not to be cynical about Stern and Boehner suddenly becoming enlightened about the legalization of cannabis, especially considering how adamant they were in enforcing its illegality when they were in power. Stern’s efforts at the NBA and Boehner’s at the federal level helped pushed the idea of weed as a gateway drug, painting those who used cannabis as criminals.

By doing so, they reinforced the ideas that were being propagated by federal policy, which was heavily influenced by the War on Drugs movement. Cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug by the Controlled Substances Act, the harshest of five government classifications.

Real human beings lost (and are still losing) money and playing time in the NBA because of Stern’s original stance on cannabis, just as real people are in jail and are still being arrested because of the dangerous policies Boehner supported. The human cost can’t be divorced from their evolving views.

And that human cost has historically been paid by people of color. Stern’s ideas for cleaning up the league, from the drug policy to the dress code, seemed aimed at black culture. Similarly, the War on Drugs disproportionately targets minorities. It’s not entirely a secret that the prohibition of cannabis in the 60s was racially motivated.

In an April 2016 Harper’s Magazine feature, “Legalize It All,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told writer Dan Baum:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

To no surprise, the legal cannabis boom that both Boehner and Stern now support is still playing out along racial lines. Now that legalization of cannabis is big business, it is mostly white people who are profiting from it.

As VICE News recently reported, nearly all of the 45 federally licensed marijuana producers in Canada are run by white males. Of the 20 licensed producers who provided information about the diversity of their businesses, VICE found only six minorities in executive positions.

The same issue exists in the United States. According to an investigative report from Buzzfeed, out of 3,600 legal marijuana dispensaries in the U.S., only one percent of them are black-owned.

The War on Drugs and the legal cannabis business exist in a vicious and reinforcing circle. In states where the drug has been legalized and arrests have decreased dramatically, black people are still disproportionately arrested more than their white counterparts. This is true even in places famous for their lax drug laws, like Colorado. This disparity is important, because a stipulation for being licensed to sell legal cannabis is that the person in question can’t have a drug conviction.

Then there’s the cost of opening a legal dispensary. Sarah Cross, the chief operating officer of Green Rush Consulting, estimated for Buzzfeed that it takes around $250,000 to open a legal weed business. Wealth inequality is well-documented, and follows the same racial lines as drug convictions, all of which results in black people being punished harshly for using the drug, while simultaneously being shut out from profiting off of it.

As nice as it is to believe that sports exist in a bubble removed from the real world, that has never been true. The sports world’s willingness to play along with the demonization of cannabis and the minorities that used it was in lock-step with the barely concealed motives behind the government’s drug policies. Those racist ideas still persist today in both sports and government. This new era of progressive thinking around cannabis, then, can’t be removed from the divides within the burgeoning industry itself.

While it’s fine to celebrate the legalization and positive effects of cannabis, and to laud those pushing for a more lenient stance toward those who use and sell it, we can’t ignore that there are still minorities who are being ostracized by it. Until those grievances are addressed, America’s stance toward cannabis will always feel like an insult to people of color.

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