Communities of color, long targets of drug war, seek place in marijuana industry

A new report from a state panel recommends recreational marijuana be legalized in New York. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

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It’s no secret the legal marijuana industry is lily white.

It’s also no secret African-Americans bore the brunt of the war on pot.

On Saturday, a panel of speakers at Medaille College urged New York State to do more to diversify a multi-billion dollar business on the verge of becoming legal here.

“We were the ones going to jail,” said Ebele Ifedigbo, co-founder of the Hood Incubator, an Oakland, Calif. group dedicated to increasing minority participation in the cannabis industry. “We know our communities have been negatively impacted.” Ifedigbo, speaking to a standing room-only crowd of 125 people, said the legal marijuana industry has a “moral obligation” to include people of color, whether it be as entrepreneurs or employees.

The Drug Policy Alliance says blacks and Hispanics make up less than 1 percent of the owners and operators in the legal marijuana industry in the United States. The group also notes that people of color suffered more than most when pot was prohibited, and pointed to data showing 70 to 80 percent of all marijuana possession arrests occur in black or Hispanic communities.

“While we talk about opening businesses, people are still being arrested,” Ifedigbo told the crowd Saturday.

Organized by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, an advocate for legalization, the panel discussion centered around the steps New York can take to advance the role of blacks and Hispanics in the industry.

Peoples-Stokes wants the legalization of marijuana to lead to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for people of color, including those already serving the underground pot community.

“New York State needs to provide opportunities to bring them above ground,” she said.

Peoples-Stokes said the opportunities extend beyond new jobs to a wide range of start-up businesses, everything from small, “micro” growing operations to mom and pop bake shops.

To make sure those opportunities come about, she wants the state to provide small business loans and job training to individuals and companies eager to join the cannabis industry. While lawmakers push for legalization, a group of local doctors is cautioning state officials to think long and hard before moving toward legalization.

Dr. Thomas Madejski, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, said the experiences of other states suggest that legalized recreational marijuana poses a public health risk.

“Our concern is that the state, for many understandable reasons, is feeling pressure to fully legalize recreational marijuana, which we don’t think is in the interest of patients and our society,” Madejski told the Buffalo News editorial board last week.

While the data is still scant, Madejski and other doctors insist legalizing marijuana will create great harm. He pointed to data from Colorado showing an increase in traffic accidents and impaired driving. Even more important, perhaps, is the concern that, once pot becomes widely available, more children will have access to it.

“There is pretty good evidence that, up to age 25, that marijuana usage does change brain development and probably not in a positive way,” Madejski added. Madejski and Dr. Willie Underwood, immediate past president of the Erie County Medical Society, said they would, however, support decriminalization.

“We are in support of minimizing harms to some of our disparate communities, which may be selectively enforced or suffer more from enforcement, perhaps inappropriately,” Madejski said. “We’re very open to doing things to change that but, again, the state having easily accessible recreational use we think would expand use more and create more of those harms.”

Underwood added that, “as a father, I already have to worry about alcohol, smoking and I don’t want to have to add freely available marijuana on to that.” Regarding marijuana and mental health, Madejski said there was clear evidence that marijuana use, particularly in people with pre-existing mental health disorders, has lifetime implications.

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