Between the passing of medical and recreational marijuana bills at the state level over the last decade and the Hemp Farm Bill of 2018 at the federal level, cannabis has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Equity is one of the biggest concerns surrounding the “Green Rush”. There are several non-profit groups and advocacy organizations whose mission is to ensure Indigineous tribes, African-Americans, Latinx-Americans have the same access to profit from the industry as white people.

Why is Equity in the Cannabis Industry So Important?

The core problem with the idea that the United States is this wonderful land of opportunity is these opportunities have always favored white European settlers and their descendants.

African people were slaves in the Americas since the 1600’s and were not freed until 1865. During this time period, the 13 colonies morphed into the United States, which started to grow into the economic powerhouse it is today. Unfortunately, that economic growth comes from a horrendous past of exploiting free labor for centuries. To make the matter even worse, African Americans were the victim of blatantly racist laws that kept them from generating wealth, and that didn’t stop when they finally got civil rights over 100 years later.

When it comes to cannabis and inequality, most people’s thoughts instantly go to African-Americans. They are disproportionately arrested and jailed for cannabis possession and distribution, and their sentences are more harsh.

Latinx-Americans have also been unfairly targeted by cannabis laws. In fact, industrial hemp and the cannabis that gets you high were both legal up until the early 1900’s. Some politicians saw cannabis as a demonic plant that was brought here by Mexicans and used to turn people into “violent criminals.” The whole “reefer madness” movement stemmed from a racist ideology meant to keep Mexicans and other Latin-Americans from achieving economic independence.

Indigenous tribes are the folks most people seem to forget when they examine how cannabis laws in the United States were always rooted in racism and bigotry.

According to some Indigenous scholars, the cannabis plant played a huge part in several Native American tribes. The fiber, which we consider to be industrial hemp in today’s age, was used to make things like paper, rope, cord, and clothing. A plant called Dogbane was also used for this purpose.

The psychoactive cannabis, which we call “marijuana” in the United States, was smoked in the sacred rituals of some tribe. It was thought to foster a better connection with the spirits.

When the United States government stole the land of the native tribes, they also dealt a death blow to any crop they could have grown for profit. This was a huge driving force in making hemp illegal.

Now that industrial hemp, which is cannabis that has a THC content of below 0.3%, is federally legal as of 2018, it opens the door for indigneous tribes to re-enter the hemp market.

What Can We Do to Make the Cannabis Industry More Equitable?

The “legal weed” industry is booming in states where both recreational and medical marijuana are legal at the state level. The inherent problem with this industry for historically marginalized groups is that weed is still federally illegal and classified as a schedule 1 substance.

While the federal government has stayed out of this for the most part, there is no legal guarantee that they wouldn’t try and persecute Indigneous tribes who try to enter the legal weed market. This keeps many from even considering the risk in the first place.

Industrial hemp is an entirely different conversation, even though legal weed and industrial hemp are technically the same plant. The only difference is industrial hemp has almost zero THC, which is the psychoactive chemical in what we call weed. This is why industrial hemp was able to be federally legalized in 2018.

Since 2018, the hemp-derived CBD market has exploded, turning into a billion-dollar industry of its own. Oils, balms, tinctures, and everything between are flying off the shelves. There is even CBD flower, which looks, smells, and smokes like weed but doesn’t give the user a “high” due to the lack of THC. One of the most popular strains is Special Sauce CBD flower, but there are dozens and dozens of strains.

The point is that business is booming, and we need to figure out how to make sure discriminatory policies don’t plague the industry the second time around.

Organizations like the Native American Hemp Association are attempting to do just that. They are a non-profit dedicated to awareness and advocacy for Native American hemp farmers and retail hemp sellers.

Oak & Stone Consultants is another company, based in California, dedicated to helping tribes strive towards economic sovereignty through business development opportunities. The hemp industry is one of the most lucrative areas to develop a business, and this company wants to help Native American tribes get a cut.

While organizations like this are a start, there is still a long way to go when it comes to equity in the cannabis business. Hopefully the 2020’s continue the momentum generated at the close of the 2010’s.