Righting the Wrongs: The Cannabis Industry’s Social Justice Legacy

Willow Noelle
TraceTrust — A True Dose
11 min readDec 24, 2020


Cannabis has been called a catalyst for better health, but it is also a catalyst for change. As legalization continues to generate mainstream acceptance, more people are examining the industry’s legacy for social justice.

The majority agrees it is wrong to preclude cannabis convicts from participating in the legal industry or to leave them incarcerated for actions that are now committed legally on a daily basis. Furthermore, the cannabis industry has a responsibility to right the wrongs created by prohibition and the war on drugs. The evidence is clear ­– systemic abuse of the 13th Amendment due to racially biased police profiling and the industrial prison complex has created an era of modern slavery characterized by generational incarceration and poverty.

It is no longer a question of if our country should legalize — it should. But will legalization right these wrongs? While the recent passage of the historic Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, Expungement Act has social justice advocates hopeful for the future, cannabis legalization will not solve America’s race problem — at least not how it is operating now.

Despite Progress with Legalization, Social Justice Efforts Struggle to Keep Up

To date, all states (with the exception of Idaho) have dialed back prohibition laws. Thirty-five states allow medical marijuana, 15 allow adult-use, and 16 are decriminalized. However, despite evolving state laws, there is an incredible amount of work left to redeem the individuals and communities most adversely affected by the war on drugs.

Data Reveals an Ongoing Issue

In 2013, the ACLU released The War on Marijuana in Black and White, which showed how black people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis, despite consuming it at similar rates to white people. Their 2020 update shows us the racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates have not improved since 2010.

Data collected between 2010 and 2018 demonstrates that legalization has not reduced marijuana arrests or racial disparities. Marijuana arrests make up 43% of all drug arrests — of which there have been 6.1 million arrests since 2010. Of those arrests, 98% were for possession. Legal states did have significantly lower arrests compared to decriminalized states, though fully illegal states increased or remained unchained. In every state, black people are still arrested at higher rates. The disparities exist down to individual counties that arrest black people 3–5 times more than whites.

Image of African-American hands in handcuffs behind jail bars.

Furthermore, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting where the ACLU collected data from does not distinguish between Latinx races or even include the option to register as multi-racial or Middle Eastern. Not only does this create potential data disparities but proves how easy it is for non-white Americans to fall through the cracks.

Something Must be Done, and the Cannabis Industry is the Ideal Candidate

At the beginning of the decade, when the first states began legalizing, the industry distanced itself from any association with the black market or cannabis convicts in an attempt to legitimize. However, now that racial disparities have become even more apparent — most recently through the Black Lives Matter demonstrations on racism in law enforcement and criminal justice — more people are speaking out about the industry’s shared responsibility to right these wrongs. Considering how the industry deals with the substance used by law enforcement to criminalize black people, it is the ideal candidate to reverse the tide.

States new to legalization like Michigan, Illinois, and Arizona are taking action and including more social equity laws in their cannabis reform. But what exactly is being done, and is it working?

Social Justice is a Complex, Multi-Tiered Approach that Must be Addressed Holistically

There are two sides to righting these wrongs — social justice and social equity. Equity concerns fair participation in the industry, while justice deals with records and sentencing. Both are lengthy, complicated processes that differ case by case, state by state, federally, and can be confusing even to legal experts like Chiara Juster.

Juster is a social justice advocate raised to advocate for what she believes in. After studying the war on drugs, particularly in Miami, where she went to law school and worked at the state attorney’s office and witnessed the continual persecution of low-level marijuana offenses, she believes that if laws are wrong, we need to change them. Juster currently volunteers on pro-bono cases for the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to pardoning and expunging cannabis crimes. She also represents Richard Delisi, the longest-serving cannabis convict in the United States.

In Juster’s opinion, the most successful social justice initiative she has seen is in Oakland, California — specifically the case of Tucky Blunt of Blunts and Moore.

Oaklands cannabis equity system requires half of any new marijuana licenses to be set aside for people who either have low income, have a marijuana conviction, or have lived in certain neighborhoods most impacted by the war on drugs for the past ten years. The city also prioritizes other applicants if they partner with equity applicants by giving them a free space to operate a competing business. Tucky Blunt was Oakland’s first equity applicant and now owns a store blocks from where he was arrested for marijuana possession and sent to prison.

Juster advocates for top-down federal policy, such as the recently passed MORE Act, as the best way to enact successful social programs. However, considering how Oakland operates separately from the State of California, if it is not top-down, then local, grassroots efforts are the most effective way to enact change.

The Best — and Worst — Examples of Social Justice We Can Learn from Legal States

Among some of the most promising state cannabis programs are Illinois and Arizona. In Illinois, eligible applicants can apply for a business loan. Eligibility is determined by their community, how they have been affected by marijuana policing, and whom they will employ. Furthermore, 25% of the state’s tax revenue will go towards improving economic development in hard-hit areas.

Arizona plans to use 7% of its cannabis tax revenue to a Justice Investment Fund for grants and programs concerning public health, technology to identify eligible expungement qualifiers, nonprofits, and expanding industry participation. In July of 2021, eligible convictions can petition for expungement, with 26 licenses designated for qualified social equity applicants. Time will tell if they are effective or not.

By far the most admirable social justice approach is New York’s.

Image of the Manhattan, New York, skyline.

In early 2020, Governor Cuomo stated it was only a matter of when the state would legalize adult-use cannabis. But instead of rushing into it, New York is taking a careful approach and is cognizant of the need not only to include social justice and equity programs but to do it right.

The state has the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), proposed by Cuomo, and the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). Both included similar provisions for mandated social equity plans like business loans and training, incentives for larger companies to incorporate social justice initiatives into their business plan, and reinvestment into communities.

Most excitingly, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) approved the Cannabis Law Report endorsement of adult-use cannabis — but only with the appropriate safeguards to ensure an effective social equity program.

The state must analyze six recently legalized states with social equity provisions to see which has been the most effective. The NYSBA also recommends that the state commission an outside research entity to look critically at other legal states to guide public policy decisions. This type of foresight is precisely what should be applied on the federal level when the time comes — a worthwhile wait considering the implications.

In contrast, states with established legal markets like Washington are only now catching up. Washington’s House Bill 2870 is their first attempt to create an equitable industry. Activists and aspiring black cannabis entrepreneurs called the bluff on Shawn Kemp Cannabis as the first black-owned dispensary in Seattle. Shawn Kemp, a public figure in Seattle, whom the dispensary was named after, will only have 5% ownership after the license is approved.

The Black Excellence in Cannabis organization appropriately called this action “ethically reprehensible.”

Challenges Impeding Social Justice Efforts

Of course, the challenges of delivering people justice exceed getting legislation passed. Carrying them out is a whole other piece to the problem. First, there is a lengthy and complicated legal process. Then there is the challenge of reentering people into society, a tough job without a global pandemic going on.

People may not even be aware they can apply for expungement. In 2017, California only received 1,506 applications though nearly half a million people were arrested for marijuana in the last decade. Oregon estimated that 78,000 convictions were eligible, yet courts only received 435 requests in 2016, suggesting limited impact.

Challenges with Enacting Policy

In an interview with Roz McCarthy, the founder and CEO of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) by Cannabis Business Times, their organization’s most considerable challenge is creating a policy that will stand the test of time with litigation. When states create a social equity carveout, it can end up challenging the state’s constitution and preventing equity applicants from obtaining a license.

Other challenges that deserve attention are funding and defining who exactly an applicant is. Is it someone who has been incarcerated themselves, or someone whose family has been incarcerated for cannabis crimes? Furthermore, with all the complexities in social equity, how can it be framed into bills and amendments?

M4MM calls their approach to social equity “release and repair.” First, release everyone currently incarcerated for cannabis crimes, based on the level of offense, and then provide ‘wraparound services’ to help integrate them back into society and have a better quality of life. Having felonies makes it difficult for these individuals to apply for housing and employment and as a result, they often fall back into the criminal justice system.

Challenges from within the Cannabis Industry

Racial inequality is deeply rooted in cannabis. Yet, it is merely representative of the racism that has deeply penetrated the very fabric of American society, causing distrust and stereotypes to be placed on black-owned businesses, such as the conception that white people are peace-loving hippies while black people are criminals. It will likely take several more years before we can see widespread effects of social equity programs, considering how new the legal industry is. In the meantime, social equity applicants face a significant barrier to entry as 99% of the cannabis industry is owned by white people.

Considering that statistic, Juster’s answer to the most significant challenge preventing social justice initiatives came as no surprise:

The biggest challenge is that this industry seems to care more about the capitalization and commodification of a plant than the people who this plant best serves and the people who work in honor of the plant. Some people just care about making their own success, not about helping others.”

With its rampant explosion of capitalism and corporatism, the industry itself is a major roadblock. While there are altruistic individuals and companies, there are also those loaded with deep pockets and lobbyists who view cannabis as another commodity to exploit for personal gain.

Image of cannabis buds on twenty-dollar bills.

Recommendations for the Future

The work has only just begun, on both the advocacy, business, and policy sides. Fortunately, those in the industry with the vision in mind have several ideas on proceeding forward.

One of the action courses is to quantify social equity so it can be implemented and measured accordingly. Thaira Rehmatullah, president of Cannabis Consulting firm T3 Ventures told Benzinga that the best way to evaluate if a business is socially responsible or not is its management mission purpose.

This evaluation includes examining their corporate structure, governance, and inclusion policy. Who is the company hiring and serving? Since these are hard to quantify, the best approach is to design a toolkit. Some metrics include who certifies a company if they are open to hiring released cannabis prisoners and their management intention — all of which will require an in-depth look into everything.

“I think for any company to be truly successful, they need to be investing in nonprofits they believe in,” Juster said, “maybe even investing in people they believe in.”

Policy and Local Advocacy is Key

But before we can expect business audits to occur, there need to be policies that allow and frame this. To achieve this, M4MM has some recommendations. First, we need to dial back the position that people cannot have ownership or work in the cannabis industry if they have a cannabis-related felony. To get a cannabis business license, all companies — no matter if they are white or black — should demonstrate their capacity to create a diversity plan in the workforce, ownership, and relationships with suppliers and contractors.

Image of an African-American hand signing paperwork.

And since policy is key, advocates need to get in front of the legislators and people who are not friendly to their position. The goal is to get everyone to see that we need to be freeing prisoners. From Juster’s perspective, “It is immoral to have people incarcerated for things that people do every day. I think we need to absolutely change our criminal justice system. It’s long overdue.”

Cannabis consumers can show their support by buying from minority-owned businesses and businesses with clear social responsibilities. There also needs to be more outreach to black and Latino communities and police reform support to end racist profiling. Using voting power to vote in sympathetic candidates and rally community support for increased social equity programs.

Juster also implores everyone to advocate in their local community,I urge everybody to be involved locally and stand up for what they believe in, whether it’s cannabis matters or other. You can really make a difference on the local level.”

The Tides are Turning

As consumer trends continue towards social responsibility, customers will voice their disapproval through their spending habits. Now that a majority of states have a legal market, the legacy they leave behind is being reevaluated, not only because it is the right thing to do and in line with the plant, but because the effects of racism and imprisonment are felt economically. Incarcerating a fourth of the world’s population in American prisons creates a toll on taxpayers. It eliminates people deemed criminals from partaking in the economy because they made a mistake.

Overall, it is hard to say if the initiatives are working. Success is a case by case basis of individual stories buried in local newspapers. There is no consolidated funnel to enact these changes and see widespread success — at least not yet. Nevertheless, having more awareness and conversations around this subject is a considerable step forward.

Image of BLM protestors kneeling with fists raised.

Cannabis is a catalyst for change, and the efforts extend beyond the industry. “We need to we need to invest in our communities even when it has nothing to do with cannabis,” Juster said. “We need to invest in the people who have been devastated by one hundred years of prohibition, as well as four hundred years of racism, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the plant.”

To determine if your cannabis business is taking a holistic approach to social justice, check out the B Impact Assessment.



Willow Noelle
TraceTrust — A True Dose

I write about cannabis professionally, and short stories in my spare time.