If the marijuana industry is consolidating among large corporations, while Black and Brown people continue to be shut out and arrested for drugs, should we even legalize at all? Comedian Hasan Minhaj asks this question on the latest segment of his Netflix show, Patriot Act (above). Amid some outrageous jokes, he points out serious problems in how the US marijuana industry has been built over the past decade.
Minhaj starts by talking about how the pandemic has affected both existing marijuana businesses and political efforts to legalize. Thirty-one states with dispensaries, medical or otherwise, have allowed them to stay open during the crisis as “essential businesses.” (A notable exception is Massachusetts, which closed non-medical dispensaries for a couple months.) Consumers across the US have responded by stocking up.
“So according to the government, weed is illegal but necessary?” Minhaj says. “It’s the waterboarding of drugs!”
The pandemic hasn’t significantly dented the industry’s prospects. According to Forbes, the US industry is projected to be worth $30 billion by 2023—a number Minhaj describes as large enough to buy the Mets 13 times, “or buy enough weed to make baseball entertaining.”
Minhaj briefly explains the racist origins of marijuana prohibition in the early 20th century, continuing through Nixon’s War on Drugs and decades of arrests that have heavily targeted Black and Brown Americans. Because of this history, he argues, marijuana legalization should inherently be rooted in racial justice and civil rights. Of course, the reality is very different.
“We’re obviously way past the idea of if we should legalize weed—it is here,” Minhaj says. “But we haven’t talked enough about how to legalize it. Because we are messing it up. Legal marijuana is rigged.”
The overall industry is benefiting neither people of color nor the “little guy,” Minhaj explains. Instead, thanks to lobbying efforts, many state governments have set up highly restrictive licensing schemes that suit large companies with millions of dollars in startup capital. Data from 2017 show that marijuana business executives and owners are 81 percent white; fewer than 6 percent are Hispanic and under 5 percent are Black.
Smaller businesses that don’t have the resources to comply with onerous regulations—like those that require they control all of their own growing, manufacturing, distribution and retail—lose out on licenses. “This isn’t just capitalism and the invisible hand,” Minhaj says. “This is a demented thumb saying if you can’t afford to do every single step, you can’t even play the game.”
Besides the regulatory structure of the cannabis industry, marijuana reforms of the past decade are also failing to address the harm done to people who were arrested or incarcerated for weed. Many states are selling product faster than they are expunging, clearing or sealing people’s marijuana convictions, or releasing those still incarcerated.
Filter has reported on the efforts to expunge marijuana convictions in places like California, Illinois and Pennsylvania, among others. Although more states are now allowing a pathway for people to expunge criminal records for marijuana, the process is often painfully slow and difficult, requiring individuals to figure it out themselves with the local courts and prosecutors’ offices. In the meantime, people with criminal records are subject to legalized discrimination in housing, education and jobs.
Minhaj also discusses cannabis social equity programs, which states like Massachusetts and Illinois have implemented to create opportunities for people who are targeted by the War on Drugs. He sits down with Kobie Evans and Kevin Hart, founders of the first Black-owned dispensary on the East Coast, who benefited from the Massachusetts equity program.
Evans and Hart explain that while these programs have good intentions, their implementation is not living up to the promise. Governments need to offer much more support for small businesses trying to get licensed, they say. That includes training in taxes and regulations, and business funding.
Otherwise, the equity programs themselves can be exploited by large companies or wealthy individuals looking to profit from Black and Brown businesses. “Out-of-state investors wanted control of our company,” Hart says. “They wanted to loan us money to build the operation. It felt very predatory: It was clear they wanted to take our company and make us employees. It was insulting.”
Of course, many in the cannabis movement are thinking critically about legalization. Minhaj mentions the years-long legalization fight in New York state, which was knocked back in 2019—in part over conflicts about how far the law should go to repair the injustices of the War on Drugs. With the pandemic disrupting both lawmaking and voter ballot initiatives, a second push in New York again failed this year, as did legalization efforts in numerous other states.
Minhaj sees this as an opportunity for us to pause and reflect on what we want legalization to look like. “Support for legalization shouldn’t be automatic,” he concludes. “We have to look at how it works and who it works for.”