Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series that looks at the growing legal marijuana industry and its effect on the black community.
Sue Taylor, 69, is a force of nature. The retired Catholic-school principal and grandmother of three is also one of the first African-American senior citizen owners of a cannabis dispensary. She’s based in California, a state that seems to be on track to legalize recreational marijuana this fall. “You wouldn’t believe the challenges we’ve been going through for over 10 years. There are some [white] dispensaries opening up in L.A. that don’t even have a license, and they’re opening anyway and nothing is done,” says Taylor, whose iCANN Health Center, a medical dispensary, is set to open in Berkeley in January 2017. “We had to do it legally because we’re African American!”
In May, Taylor beat out several other finalists in Berkeley’s competition to award a new permit for a marijuana business. She partnered with growers at the Bay Area marijuana-delivery service CRAFT, and the dispensary will focus on seniors. Some members of the Berkeley City Council said that racial equality was an important part of their decision.
“It’s minority owned, minority supported, in a minority neighborhood. That’s the key for making them No. 1 for me,” Councilman Laurie Capitelli said, according to Berkeleyside.
Taylor says that people of color are still having trouble getting into the legal marijuana market in California, even though for 20 years it has had a highly unregulated, lenient medical-marijuana program.
“Money is No. 1. Usually, big white boys come with money—some have been growing illegally for years and have this money buried or storied someplace else … they have all this excess money, so they can come and have the money to pay for the expensive permits and all of those things,” Taylor explains, adding that her son Jamal got her into the business by asking her to help him open a dispensary.
“You let me and my black son try and open a dispensary anywhere in California—the rules just aren’t the same,” she continues. “I said to somebody, ‘Yeah, we could have opened up along with 1,500 whites, but they would have picked us up! They would have said, ‘There are some black people over there; I’m sure they must be doing something wrong. Let’s go check.’”
But now that voters seem set to approve legalizing recreational marijuana this November, under Proposition 64, Taylor thinks that will change and more people of color will be able to get into the weed business.
“They will feel more free—this is key—people would feel like we’re not about to go to jail for this because it’s legal now,” Taylor says.
She also thinks if California legalizes recreational marijuana, it will be a huge push toward getting weed legalized in other states across the nation.
“It is coming now, I think. Look how many states have legalized already,” Taylor says, referring to the 25 states and Washington, D.C., that have already legalized medical marijuana. “It’s really going to help seniors. With the passing of Proposition 64—many seniors are on from 15 to 26 pills a day. I go in and tell them how cannabis can eliminate half or all of those harmful addictive pills that are really deteriorating their health.”
One of the things in California’s Proposition 64 that excites advocates is that it would make people serving time for activities that would become legal or subject to lesser penalties eligible for resentencing. Not only could resentenced people who are currently in jail get a shot at probation, but those who have already served their time could apply to the courts to have their criminal records changed.
“It defelonizes a lot of minor offenses that heretofore have always been felonies—cultivation, if you grow even one marijuana plant,” says Dale Gieringer, director of the advocacy group California NORML. “Having an ounce in your pocket, possession with intent to sell, would all be kicked down. … It gives felony offenders the chance to clear their records or have them reduced to misdemeanors.”
Basically, Proposition 64 would legalize the growth, possession and use of marijuana for adults 21 or older for nonmedical purposes, with some restrictions. People would be able to smoke weed in private homes and buy it at state-licensed businesses or through delivery services.
People like Nick Kovacevich, co-founder and CEO of California-based Kush Bottles Inc., which provides packaging, branding and labeling for legal cannabis companies, think that passage of the legislation would be a game changer.
“It would be a huge deal if California legalizes. Right now we have a market where it’s thriving in kind of a gray market. There are cities and counties that aren’t sure if they want marijuana in their county or city,” Kovacevich says. “But what we’re looking at with the passage of Proposition 64, you have a market that’s kind of gray that has 3 million medical users, and turning it into a market that has the potential to target the 40 million residents that live in California and the 240 million that visit California every year. It just totally opens up the horizon, and the market opportunity is huge.”
Kush Bottles has served about 5,000 clients and did $4 million in sales last year, but it reinvested all of its money into growth and didn’t make a profit. This year the company is on track to do about $7.5 million in sales, and it expects to make a profit. Kovacevich says that Kush Bottles specializes in child-resistant packaging because it is important for regulators and parents to know that children won’t accidentally ingest cannabis.
Kovacevich thinks that if California passes Proposition 64, it could push the federal government into considering legalizing it, too.
“It will be a big swing state for that. They’re going to look at the numbers. People are kind of wowed by the tax revenue produced in Colorado, but in California it will be more,” he explains. “This is a point in time where lots of things are underfunded. People are worried about Social Security and pension plans … all the public services in cities and counties are struggling financially. Now you’re going to bring in legal cannabis. … What you’re going to do is turn all of that into tax dollars that benefit these programs, and it will catch the attention of other states, but also of the federal government because at the end of the day, they have a very large debt that keeps growing.”
Marijuana advocates including Taylor and Kovacevich think that California’s passage of Proposition 64 would also be good for small weed businesses, since it sets up 19 different kinds of licenses for growing operations, retailers and small-scale businesses. Licenses for the largest cultivators would be banned for five years after legalization, which advocates say would give small farmers a head start.
Polls show that nearly 60 percent of California voters support the legislation. But some advocates, including some in the medical-marijuana industry, have reservations about Proposition 64 because of the level of regulation that it entails.
“On the whole we think it’s a major leap and we hope Californians will vote for it,” says California NORML’s Gieringer, “but there are some shortcomings.”
He says that the taxes on medical patients are “really excessive,” there are restrictions on alternative modes of consumption such as vaporizing, and access to medical marijuana for the truly needy isn’t assured. Gieringer also says that there’s a need to protect the rights to employment and housing for medical-marijuana users, some of whom are still facing discrimination.
“There are various issues we have, but on the whole I think this is an extremely important advance. … In particular, of course, the big-ticket item here is that it makes it legal for adults to have it,” Gieringer says. “That’s a huge step and will greatly expand the market that’s already developed for medical marijuana, which will get better developed and be state-of-the-art worldwide.”
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has other concerns, including how legal marijuana might affect the state in the long term.
“We’re the eighth-largest economy in the world, and we’re going to be the eighth-largest economy in the world legalizing marijuana. What message is that going to send?” Schubert wonders. “Will we see it in more poor neighborhoods? I did a debate a few weeks ago … one woman from Colorado who came from a poor neighborhood said they replaced one set of drug dealers with another. Is this the best way to do it? What’s the good public policy?”
Schubert says that faith-based groups in the county—particularly those of color—are opposed to legalizing marijuana because they worry about the effect it will have on their communities.
But Berkeley dispensary owner Taylor thinks that Proposition 64 will be good for people of color, whether by keeping them from getting arrested at higher numbers than whites over weed or by giving them new business opportunities.
“What it will do is stop the many arrests of African Americans that are happening now. … They stop a young African-American male for whatever reason and search the car and may find … this little pack of weed and pull them in,” says Taylor, who is certified by California to provide medical-marijuana education and continuing education credits to facilities for the elderly. “I’m catering to the needs of seniors, but it will give other black entrepreneurs the chance to say to me, ‘I want to do this. Can you help?’ Black people have money. The Taylors did it. Let’s find out how they did it. Why can’t we get a piece of this gold rush?’”
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Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.