Cannabis certainly has an interesting, evolving backstory in America, and around the world. From being labeled as an unsafe, gateway drug, to the racist War on Drugs that disproportionately harmed the Black community, to now being legalized in some form in 36 states, and counting, the projected $30 billion U.S. cannabis industry has undeniably advanced in our society. While this is great progress for the plant at large, there’s still a huge barrier in cannabis, and it starts at the root. Literally.
There is no magic wand that can undo centuries of compounding societal injustice. But what we must recognize is that racist policies have brought us to this moment in time and so we must urge our legislators to address this issue as they write policies meant to make this emerging market equitable.
My team and I at Curaleaf work to identify and disrupt systems. Each day we are asked to identify what the role of industry should be in building the aspirational cannabis marketplace that we all want. From technical assistance and supplier diversity to hiring practices and criminal justice advocacy, we are working both inside our company and in coalition with the industry at large to supplant these systems of injustice.
Prior to its criminalization, cannabis was a mandatory part of crop rotation to ensure good soil health. It is a plant with practical and medicinal applications from fabrics to construction materials. Its history is traced through the soil, and its legacy touches every major city across America. Since the inception of this nation, Black people have worked the land, and we have almost never reaped the benefit of that labor. To be frank, this should be our moment. We have seen the historic looting of black wealth in places like Tulsa, we have seen the racist application of the GI bill that locked out Black homeownership. We have experienced “trickle-down economics” not trickling down.
Black farmers have been historically underfunded and underserved. In Florida, the application fee to cultivate cannabis is $146,000, and the money isn’t refunded if the application is denied. On top of that initial investment, a $5 million performance bond also must be posted. I think we can all agree that these prices are out of this world “high.” Now, consider African-American farmers, who have been discriminated against for decades, causing a lack of generational wealth and a decline of Black farm ownership. Funding issues run deep and like many systems in this country, have racist pasts. In fact, many scholars and stakeholder groups have identified prolonged discrimination by the USDA, lending institutions and landowners as a factor in the decline in farms owned and operated by farmers of color.
A framework built on top of a racist foundation enables racism if it does not work to equitably address the barriers to entry that may be caused by historic injustice. With that in mind, this Black History Month, we at Curaleaf have partnered with the Black Farmer Fund, who works to ensure that Black farmers, land stewards and business owners are benefiting equitably from financing, intellectual capital, technical assistance, networking and public policies. All month long, Curaleaf customers at stores across the nation will have the ability to round up on purchases, donating the changes towards the Black Farmer Fund.
We’re excited about this important partnership during Black History Month but of course the work doesn’t stop here. Curaleaf, more specifically our Rooted in Good program, of which I’m proud to serve as director, is committed to racial and social equity work in cannabis year-round. We’ve committed to doing business with 420 diverse businesses and brands by 2025, of which we’ve already exceeded more than one-third of that goal. Partners range from African-American and minority-owned dispensaries to ancillary businesses and advocacy organizations. For example, we launched a product partnership in 2021 with the B NOBLE brand.
The product includes two pre-rolls, the same amount of cannabis that Bernard Noble was sentenced to 13 years behind bars for in Louisiana. While only serving seven, Bernard’s story is similar to far too many African Americans in this country and is a call-to-action for cannabis reform. Whenever a customer purchases a B NOBLE product in a Curaleaf store, proceeds go directly towards local cannabis activism organizations.
We’ve come a long way in cannabis. But, we still have a tremendous journey ahead. We can’t just talk about equity and diversity in the industry, we must ensure that it is instilled as part of the industry. The 1970s drug war not only disproportionately impacted Black Americans but continues to have negative repercussions on generations of Black Americans today. Communities were destroyed, families were broken, people were killed and incarcerated – because of cannabis.
Today, Black people are incarcerated at nearly four times the rate of white people for possession of marijuana. To this day, hundreds of thousands of individuals remain behind bars for marijuana charges during the drug war, many associated with amounts of cannabis that are legal all around the country, and the world, today. The Black community is owed a guaranteed seat at the modern-day, billion-dollar cannabis industry table. An important first step is for established companies to recognize this not just as a challenge but an opportunity – to do the right thing, and to do well by doing good.
Raheem Uqdah is a storyteller, creator and communications pro who brings insight and talent to Curaleaf’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program. In 2022, he was recognized by MG Magazine as one of the Most Influential People of Color in Cannabis.