Racial equity and NC’s budding hemp industry

Cannabis plants
GREEN RUSH: While Western North Carolina farmers, hemp processors and CBD product distributors have hurried to get in on the ground floor of the state's newly legalized hemp industry, some in the region are being left behind. People of color and members of other marginalized groups are finding it difficult to capitalize on the hot new business sector. A Jan. 9 panel discussion at The Mothlight will explore the problem and some possible solutions. Photo by Laura Hackett

Since 2015, when industrial hemp first gained limited legal status in North Carolina via a state-administered pilot program, the industry’s prospects have exploded. Despite significant regulatory confusion, hundreds of licensed Tar Heel farmers are now growing hemp. A processing center and milling operation in Spring Hope is said to be the largest such facility in the country. Closer to home, processor Abundant Labs has opened up shop in Canton.

Industrial hemp, a strain of cannabis, has many uses, including rope, paper, textiles, plastics and — perhaps most notably — CBD oil, the surging popularity of which is helping drive the boom. Under federal law, hemp can contain no more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Meanwhile, across the country, the broader cannabis industry (which includes both medical and recreational marijuana in states where they’re legal) has also shown dramatic growth.

Not everyone is reaping the benefits, however. Although hard numbers are in short supply, a 2017 survey by the Marijuana Business Daily, a Colorado-based website, found that 81% of cannabis-related business owners nationwide were white. And while the scope of the overall cannabis sector far outstrips North Carolina’s budding hemp industry, the underlying concern is the same.

“Not only are [people of color] bearing the burden of the war on drugs, but now — as cannabis reform is happening and there are people who are making money and creating careers and a whole industry — these same communities are being left out of this industry,” says Asheville attorney Rod Kight.

Racial equity

Kight, whose area of focus is the cannabis business, will be taking part in an upcoming presentation focused on precisely this issue. “Cannabis Culture: A Paneled Discussion About Equity in the Cannabis & Hemp Industry” will also feature panelists Danielle Adams, Honey Simone and Michael Hayes. Adams is a fellow in the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s All for NC program; Simone owns Different Wrld, an Asheville-based clothing, accessory and lifestyle brand with a sustainability focus. Hayes, a community activist, founded the Urban Arts Institute.

Hosted by Culture Club, a local discussion group, and Tarleton Walmsley, the event will consider the rapidly evolving industry in terms of racial diversity, criminal justice and economic impact. Local blogger and activist Ami Worthen will serve as moderator; Rob Thomas, community liaison with the Racial Justice Coalition, will also speak.

Walmsley says she hopes the event will call attention to the industry’s lack of racial diversity while educating those considering hemp and CBD-related work.

“We wanted to reach out to our industry but also to people that are curious or have an interest in diversifying this industry,” says Walmsley, who is co-owner of Garden Party, a West Asheville boutique that specializes in cannabis-related products. “People who are currently in the CBD industry or want to be in it — whether that’s a person of color or not — I think it’s a really important conversation that we should all be having,” she maintains.

Wiping the slate clean

Kight, who represents clients in all areas of the cannabis business, says the low participation by people of color is due, in part, to policies in the decadeslong war on drugs that have disproportionately targeted communities of color.

A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million people were arrested for cannabis — and people of color were nearly four times as likely to be arrested as whites, despite using marijuana at roughly the same rate. That’s left millions of people with criminal records that can block access to jobs, housing and educational opportunities.

Current federal law, notes Kight, also bars people with prior drug-related felony convictions from participating in the legal hemp industry for 10 years from their conviction date.

A key component of needed cannabis reform, he says, is expunging those criminal records for marijuana-related convictions. Some states that have legalized recreational use, such as Colorado and California, provide varying degrees of relief for those folks.

“The other piece of that is when you have a felony conviction, in most states you can’t vote. I think having a voting push is also really important and should maybe even be in conjunction with expungement,” Kight explains. “Those are the two things that I am personally advocating for.”

Racial barriers

Panelist Hayes, who is executive director of the Umoja Health, Wellness and Justice Collective, ascribes the low participation in the industry by people of color to a variety of complex, overlapping issues. His Asheville-based nonprofit uses group communication and resilience training to address racial trauma. One problem, he says, is that many people of color lack awareness of the rapidly changing laws, which he attributes to opportunity hoarding by majority groups.

“Things that are happening and blossoming for everyone else, we get that information late,” Hayes maintains. “And then after we get the information, it is us not trusting each other to invest with each other to make that type of move.”

Some members of the black community, he continues, discourage their peers from entering even the legal hemp industry because of the lingering stigma associated with marijuana. It’s wrong, they argue, to profit from an industry that, historically, saw disproportionate numbers of people of color serve lengthy prison sentences. Hayes, however, while acknowledging the complexity of these issues, believes the potential economic benefits are vital to overcoming institutionalized racism and poverty.

“We have a lot of gatekeepers who say that us thinking about getting involved in the hemp and marijuana industry is detrimental to our community,” he concedes. But “Being poor and constantly having our hand out is also detrimental to our community.”

Walmsley, meanwhile, says, “As white people, we need to step up and do our part to contribute and even the playing field.”

Social justice

Eleven states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012; 22 more permit medical marijuana. And while North Carolina may still be years away from following suit, Kight says that advocates and legislators alike can use this time to develop comprehensive reform measures that could help those most impacted by the state’s current drug laws.

“You have a lot of people who say, ‘Hey, let’s just legalize it and be done with it,’ and I respect that. People want to grow cannabis like they grow tomatoes, and I agree with that, but what does that mean?” he asks. “Legalize it is just the beginning: What does it mean and what does it look like? And what do you want accomplished when we’re talking about social justice?”

States where marijuana is now legal have approached the social justice component in myriad ways. One is to levy additional taxes on cannabis products and allocate those revenues to the communities that, historically, have been most harmed by enforcement efforts. Another is to ensure that a percentage of growers licenses go to people of color. Many of the current justice-focused initiatives, says Kight, are still being tweaked in hopes of creating the best fit with specific populations and geographic areas.

“I don’t think that any model, unfortunately, is the perfect model. But I definitely believe that we should have some sort of a system where we ensure that people who have been disproportionately affected by the drug war are able to participate,” he explains.

Hayes agrees, noting that social justice in cannabis law is implicitly tied to economic justice in general.

“I think it’s a great idea anytime you can think about giving back to a community of low wealth that has been oppressed, generation after generation,” he says. “We’re just talking about giving us a fair shot. It’s about time right now for us to use the wisdom and knowledge that we’ve learned, use the community in a collective and collaborative way, and let us apply what we know to the opportunities that are out there. That’s all we’re asking for.”

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