As a young man, I honed my basketball skills in city parks, where then-illicit marijuana deals pervaded the atmosphere. They never interrupted the game, but always existed in the background.
The energy of hustle, ingenuity, and street capitalism was palpable, even exciting. But decades of the war on drugs targeted mostly Black participants and squashed the hopes of many budding entrepreneurs. Families were ripped apart, felonies were handed down, and an entire generation of African Americans filled prisons for marijuana-related crimes.
In a country where African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at nearly four times the rate of Whites, despite comparable levels of consumption, the Black community has paid a disproportionate price for its involvement with the storied plant.
Fast forward 30 years
Legalization of marijuana has been introduced in some states. Medical marijuana has become legal in others. The rise of cannabis entrepreneurs in these states recalls my days on the court, but it is no longer reminiscent of the grassroots enterprise that I remember.
The medical marijuana industry in Florida is currently the domain of moneyed special-interests and traditional power brokers, shutting out the participation of historically disadvantaged persons who lack political clout or far-reaching capital.
Can’t get in
For instance, Florida’s existing structure stipulates that those who qualify for licensing must have operated as a registered nursery in the state for 30 consecutive years – a criterion that precludes a majority of smaller operators. Further, this represents a standard that many, if not all, Black businesses farmers in the state can’t meet, effectively obstructing Black participation in this enterprise.
Farmers of color say that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s history of discriminatory practices, from denying farming loans to newly freed slaves to seizing land through eminent domain, have made it difficult for them to thrive in the industry and meet this 30-year requirement.
The current structure in Florida is additionally burdensome in that it essentially requires that such nurseries facilitate multiple phases of the supply chain. Naturally, the scale demanded of an operation that manages cultivation and retail –rather than a single level of the supply chain – represent a significant barrier to participation for smaller companies, again limiting the participation of Black-owned nurseries.
Oppressive system as usual
The irony is that now that the perils of participation are minimized, and the moral hazards have expired, Florida’s structure reeks of a familiar, systemic oppression. A judge recently ruled that the vertical integration model was blatantly unconstitutional and runs afoul of what voters intended when they elected to legalize medical cannabis.
Restructuring Florida’s medical marijuana model could present an opportunity to broaden participation in the enterprise, particularly by righting the wrong of excluding a population that has been inordinately harmed by policies surrounding cannabis.
Florida should adopt measures, like proposed legislation in New Jersey, that requires 25 percent of licenses to be issued to minority-owned businesses. That would allow more people of color to enter this emerging market, even going a step further by including individuals with a history of marijuana-related offenses.
Regulations must be fair
It’s imperative that we disrupt ‘business as usual’ when it entails categorical omission of whole populations. This is especially true when those populations have disproportionately suffered in the name of its signature commodity.
I urge my colleagues in the Florida Legislature to create a medical marijuana model that is fair, and gives minorities sufficient opportunities for past injustices.
Randolph Bracy represents central and northwest Orange County in the Florida Senate.