The lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement need to be kept alive as legalization advances
On January 18, during the week in which we celebrated the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I had the opportunity to participate in the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission’s public hearing on cannabis tax revenue for the Social Equity Excise Fund (SEEF). When I realized each speaker only had 3 minutes, I had to quickly cut down the length of my talking points, eliminating many important historical connections between the past and present.
As the founder and CEO of CannaCoverage Insurance Services and New Jersey state co-director of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), I know firsthand the challenges new entrepreneurs face in this industry. And I think it is critically important to draw parallels between the journey of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to how we can in 2023 attempt to right the wrongs of the failed War on Drugs that irreparably damaged Black and Brown communities.
But will New Jersey’s attempt at social equity be effective? Or will SEEF write a check that will be returned for “insufficient funds”?
The CRC created the SEEF to help address restorative justice in the cannabis industry, imposing a fee when any cannabis cultivator sells product to another cannabis business. The fee equates to one-third of 1% of the state’s average retail price per ounce. In 2022, the 20 dispensaries now selling recreational cannabis generated tax revenue of nearly $12 million, while the SEEF collected is $444,076.
But many would argue the SEEF is much too low for social equity programs to be effective.
Influence of the Past
Several factors play into the inequity that exists in the cannabis industry, the largest of which is access to capital. I understand the power and the change that can come from public forums with the CRC, and from the creation of policy from legislators, with the revenue required to impact outcomes we intended. How the cannabis industry achieves diversity, equity and inclusion will be up to all of us. The creation of public and private partnerships, alignment of strategies and execution are critically important to improve outcomes for sustainability of the industry.
The War on Drugs was used as a weapon to target and destroy Black and Brown communities, where there was already an intentional lack of resources invested. Lack of housing, lack of education and lack of health care were just the beginning. Food deserts, poisoned water, militaristic policing and private prisons, among so many other intentional injustices, meant there was no way to build wealth. Mandatory minimum prison sentences meant low-level drug convictions carried long prison terms to the point where there were more Black men and women imprisoned in this country than there were ever kidnapped and enslaved.
We now know that disgraced former President Richard Nixon utilized marijuana as a weapon against Black and Latin communities.
But the War on Drugs didn’t just affect individuals or ruin single lives; it had a tremendous ripple effect that led to the breakup of families, mental health problems and the destruction of the education system, all leading to economic hardships, police brutality and the destruction of communities for generations to come.
We can see how social injustice has led to disparities between Blacks and whites. According to the Economic Policy Institute in 2017, the median for white wealth is 12 times higher than Black wealth. The wealth gap is so great between Black and white families that it would take 228 years for Blacks to catch up. The pandemic exacerbated the gap even more.
I believe it’s time we take deliberate action to start to right some of the wrongs.
Looking at the Future
As I reflected on the purpose of the CRC hearing, the wisdom and words of MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” came back to me.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” King continued. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Cannabis is now legal for medical or recreational use in 37 states, but racial and gender diversity is very much lacking, especially in ownership and executive positions, often exacerbated by the lack of personal capital needed to fund an industry that is still federally illegal and lacking professional banking services that other industries take for granted.
We want to see a safe and legal industry, but it must be inclusive to all, otherwise the fear of the illicit market will continue to exist. California serves as example. California’s Department of Cannabis Control, now in its second year of operations, assisted in 208 search warrants as of July 2022 and seized more than $1 billion worth of illegal cannabis products, aiming to eliminate “unfair competition” against licensed operators. In this case, a social justice problem is, and should be seen as, an economic problem.
By the year 2030, cannabis sales are expected to reach to $50 billion annually, leaving a clear path to build generational wealth for what appears to be more white men, with little regard for inclusion.
Dr. King’s speech also reminded the nation of the “fierce urgency of now,” and I believe now is the time for transformative change within the emerging cannabis industry, one that should be diverse and inclusive through the use of cannabis tax revenue. The use of these funds can be allocated to fill the deliberate insufficiencies of the past, to lift the institutional and generational curse of racism by building a fair and equitable industry.
Not only is it the right thing to do morally, but it’s also good business.