Curling up with a glass of wine or a cocktail after a hard day at work is a time-honored ritual, yet many people are quick to think of someone who chooses a joint instead of a drink as a “stoner,” a label which connotes laziness, irresponsibility and a Seth Rogen laugh. Though former President Barack Obama himself proved that it’s possible to go from the “Choom Gang” to the nation’s highest office, marijuana’s legal status throughout most of the country pushes consumption to the margins and forces a level of discretion that prevents users from being honest with even loved ones. A recent study found that many young people still feel pressure to hide their consumption for fear of public scrutiny—despite the fact that more Americans are in favor of cannabis legalization measures now than any other time in history.
Of course, cannabis has much more to offer than a relaxing high (or fuel for a good time at a hip-hop concert.) But for Black women who are constantly at battle with lingering stereotypes and common negative perceptions about their identity, the accompanying stigma may leave them wondering: is marijuana worth the trouble?
We say, emphatically yes. Take a brief look at what a new approach to marijuana has to offer Black women, and why its time for our community to collectively call for legal weed everywhere.
Drug laws in the United States have targeted African Americans disproportionately throughout history. Despite legalization and decriminalization measures that have passed in states across the country, significant racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests still remain. As a result, Black women have a lot at stake when it comes to continued marijuana prohibition.
In California, a state that has passed legislation allowing both medicinal and recreational marijuana use (more on that below), the police can still use suspicion of possession to justify stopping both drivers and pedestrians. In Atlanta, Black women were arrested for weed twice as often as white men, while in San Francisco Black women accounted for 30% of felony marijuana arrests despite comprising just 6% of the population.
The ACLU found that in the period between 2001 and 2010, there were 8.2 million marijuana-related arrests and 88% of those were simply for possession, and even though both groups use the drug at about the same rate, Black people were nearly 4 times as likely as whites to be arrested for related offenses.
Attorney General Jefferson Sessions has made it clear that his office will be tough on drugs, pushing for tougher sentencing in federal cases and increasing funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He’s also a staunch opponent of marijuana, calling for increased enforcement of existing cannabis laws and more funding for federal anti-drug programs. As writer Andrea J. Ritchie pointed out in an essay for the New York Times last year, ‘The War on Drugs” has long left Black women vulnerable to increased harassment and abuse at the hands of police officers who can cite suspected possession as an excuse to conduct even the most dehumanizing search imaginable.
According to a report from the Ella Baker Center, female relatives are most likely to find themselves responsible for court costs when a loved one is arrested or incarcerated, and women are also burdened with taking on financial responsibilities that male partners or relatives are unable to shoulder as a result of trouble with the law. Thus, when Black men and boys are targeted by anti-drug legislation, Black women also find themselves in trouble. In a world where nearly half of Black men are arrested by age 23,
Federal regulations prohibit marijuana users from accessing public housing and housing choice voucher programs,and employers in states across the country are still allowed to require drug screening and terminate employees that test positive for weed–including California, the very place the pioneered so much of the legal marijuana movement in the US.
It is imperative that Black women recognize the grave toll that prohibition takes on our communities and disavow themselves of any support for the continued criminalization of marijuana and the social stigmas surrounding its consumers.
On November 9, 2016, California passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (better known as Proposition 64), making the cannabis industry the fastest-growing emerging market in America almost overnight. The state was the first to pass medical cannabis legislation twenty years prior and expanding access to anyone over the age of 21 is expected to power $5 billion industry in California alone. Colorado, Washington and Oregon have thriving legal cannabis industries, which contributed to the country’s $9 billion in marijuana revenue last year. As new states explore similar measures, that number is sure to increase.
Take a look at the (sorry) state of diversity in the tech industry. The lack of people of color and women (and women of color in particular) is often blamed on a ‘pipeline problem,’ implying that inadequate secondary school and college training is to blame. Now imagine if we had the chance to prevent the marijuana industry from constructing such a narrative by getting in early enough to be among its leaders. The idea of any group of people creating wealth from a substance that has been weaponized against them is both powerful and complex. But how feasible is it for Black women to grab a piece of the cannabis pie?
While the financial barriers to entry to traditional marijuana related businesses like dispensaries and cultivation facilities remain prohibitively high, there is no shortage of opportunities to build ancillary businesses that cater to the growing legal market. If you’re a graphic designer, consider all the new businesses that need logos that go beyond the ubiquitous marijuana leaf. Got a passion for accounting? Entrepreneurs transitioning from the underground economy to the rigorous reporting requirements of the legal business will require the assistance of trained professionals in understanding the steep learning curve between the old and new worlds of weed.
Groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association and The Hood Incubator offer networking, educational and advocacy opportunities for entrepreneurs and consumers, while Oakland, Los Angeles and San Francisco have passed legislation to ensure that entrepreneurs who met certain income requirements from neighborhoods with high incarceration rates have permitting priority and financial assistance for starting cannabis-related businesses, along with workforce development and skilled trade certification programs.
There is legal weed money to be made and for Black women, who are underpaid and undervalued across fields of industry, the possibilities that come with getting in the game relatively early are powerful ones.
HEALTH AND HEALING
Cannabis can be used to treat a variety of physical and mental conditions, and the introduction of medicinal marijuana programs across the United States helped to begin a paradigm shift that opened the door for states to introduce legalization and decriminalization policies. Black women face great health disparities in this country, thanks to socio-economic conditions, lack of access to health care (and institutional discrimination that exists even when they do have access), cultural norms and environmental factors.
Research has found that marijuana is effective in treating ailments and illnesses that disproportionately affect Black women, including heart disease, diabetes, Sickle Cell Anemia and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS.) While cannabis does not cure or entirely alleviate the discomfort of these conditions, it can manage pain and other related symptoms, such as nausea and loss of appetite. Likewise, there is evidence that mental health issues that Black women face like PTSD, stress and anxiety are effectively mitigated by cannabis as well.
The two primary compounds in cannabis are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). The former is believed to be responsible for the classic “high” feeling associated with marijuana consumption, while the latter is commonly used for its medical properties. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, though it is typical to see CBD in higher ratios in medical products. Doctors generally agree that smoking any substance isn’t ideal, and many advocate for other methods for consuming medicinal marijuana. Luckily, cannabis can be consumed through a variety of different methods, including vaporization, pills, edibles and topical application.
For Black women, the medicinal benefits are yet another reason that access to affordable and legal marijuana represents the possibility of an improved quality of life.
JOIN THE CYPHER
There are many Black women (and men!) involved in legalization/decriminalization efforts, among the growing number of cannabis entrepreneurs and employees alike and receiving treatment via medical marijuana programs. However, it is equally important that we clearly and consistently challenge remaining stereotypes, myths and social stigmas surrounding marijuana and the Black women who embrace it like a dark cloud, no pun intended.
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