NAACP Leader Calls For Medical Marijuana Industry to Get a Black Business Owner

California's multibillion-dollar medical cannabis industry is largely a white man's game. It's rare to see a person of color owning a marijuana dispensary or running a major cannabis business; most black and brown people you see in the industry are working security or maybe behind the budtenders' counter. 

The fact that the Green Rush is more of a White Rush is not news. One of the organizers at a marijuana investors' summit last year joked that the event was “the most white and male convention you can go to.” Citing its own research, BuzzFeed reported fewer than 1 percent of the country's estimated 3,200 to 3,600 dispensaries are black-owned. We can name a single black-owned dispensary in Oakland; and according to our own informal count, as many as 22 of San Francisco's 28 dispensaries are owned by whites (though a couple are Russian, so there's that).

At least one black entrepreneur is trying to open up a dispensary in San Francisco, and civil rights leaders are taking notice. The cannabis industry is “another table we are not invited to sit at,” according to Rev. Amos C. Brown, the head of the San Francisco NAACP, who urged city planning officials to approve Tikisha Ong's effort to open up a dispensary in the Outer Mission “without delay.”

[jump] Black people have indeed suffered greatly thanks to the drug war — by design. The officials in the Nixon Administration who cooked up the Controlled Substances Act did so specifically to marginalize people of color and leftists, a Nixon aide told a Harper's writer in 1994 (a fact revealed just last week). The cruel irony is that in many states, as Buzzfeed reported, a nonviolent drug-related offense can prevent a would-be cannabis entrepreneur from receiving a state license for legal commercial cannabis activity. 

The state NAACP has been aware of this some time. Alice Huffman, the leader of the California NAACP, has endorsed legalization initiatives while pushing hard to allow people with marijuana-related minor crimes to participate in the new industry. 

Brown, however, is a new voice in this chorus. Earlier this month, he wrote a letter to the Planning Commission on behalf of Ong, an East Bay-based woman in her 30s who has proposed opening up a medical marijuana dispensary on Sickles Avenue near the Daly City border. This may not be the best place to draw a race-based line in the sand — the planning process in San Francisco gives great power to neighborhood preference, and that neighborhood has made it no secret that it would prefer not to have another dispensary — but Brown uses this situation to make a legitimate point: Black people don't have positions of power in weed.

The full text of his letter is below.

Speaking for myself as president of the San Francisco NAACP and on behalf of the full membership of our
organization, I enthusiastically endorse Ms. Tikisha Ong and urge you to support her efforts to bring much-needed African American community representation to the city’s medical cannabis industry.

Ms. Ong exemplifies the traits of a community and business leader. We are confident the establishment of GGC will do more than revitalize a long-neglected corner in an underdeveloped part of our city. It will also open career pathways for African Americans in a burgeoning industry where we find ourselves woefully underrepresented. 

The California State Conference NAACP has supported legalizing marijuana, since 2010. Our organization sees cannabis prohibition as a civil rights issue, and with good reason. As state NAACP president Alice Huffman, said: “We have empirical proof that the application of the marijuana laws has been unfairly applied to our young people of color.”

The cruel irony is that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana but also excluded from the economic opportunities presented by its decriminalization. Even in a city like San Francisco that prides itself on a governing philosophy of racial equality and inclusion, we see yet another lucrative industry growing without almost no input from our community — another table we are not invited to sit at.

We are pleased to endorse the sincere efforts of Ms. Ong. Not only her efforts to provide cannabis patients access to affordable, high-quality medicine, or her pledges to provide free health & education services to the
neighborhood and support underserved seniors with medicine delivery. We are also proud to endorse her crucial individual effort in the larger fight to reinvigorate the African American business community and reverse the toxic legacy of prohibition in African American neighborhoods.

It’s time for women of color like Ms. Ong to have a voice in this growing industry. We urge you to approve GGC as a licensed MCD without delay. 

Ong's dispensary proposal is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission in July, she told SF Weekly on Monday.

While there are more and more applications to open up new medical cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco almost every day, the Planning Commission has approved only one new storefront dispensary since this time last year (and that dispensary, a second location for Castro-based The Apothecarium planned for Lombard Street in the Marina, has yet to open).

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