African-Americans largely left out of WA legal cannabis business

TACOMA, Wash. — African-Americans were targeted, prosecuted and jailed disproportionately for marijuana during the war on drugs. Now that marijuana sales are legal, they are largely left out of the lucrative industry.

Emerald Leaves Cannabis will celebrate six years of selling marijuana in Tacoma this February.

Owner Duane Dunn knows there are few African-American owners like him who own 100% of their business.

Which is why he was skeptical of the first reports that Sonics basketball great Shawn Kemp was opening the first Black-owned Seattle cannabis store.

According to the license, Kemp owns just 5% of the business.

“It was misrepresenting the facts, and I kind of thought he was being taken advantage of by them using his name,” said Dunn.

The majority owners later issued a correction.

But why aren’t there more African-American owned stores?

Dunn says it can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 to launch a store. Plus, “There are other instances where some of the rules and regulations systematically eliminate, systematically limit people of color,” Dunn said.

For example, some potential entrepreneurs ended up with disqualifying police records during a war on drugs that targeted Black people.

A 2020 ACLU study reports that Black people in Washington are still at least twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses.

“We were arrested for it. We were imprisoned for it. And now it’s legal and it’s time to do right by us in making us whole in the industry,” said State Representative Melanie Morgan - (D) Parkland.

Representative Morgan is leading a legislative group to write laws making the licensing process more inclusive.

“That’s part of the systemic racism that we look to dismantle in the state of Washington,” she said.

Business executive Ollie Garrett agreed to join the Liquor and Cannabis Board after hearing so many Black entrepreneurs complain of being left out.

“The number one thing that went wrong is we didn’t think, and I wasn’t on the board at the time, but didn’t think of putting together any social equity plan or any social equity program,” said Garrett.

Aaron Barfield leads Black Excellence in Cannabis, owners of medical marijuana shops who were denied licenses for recreational stores.

“We were completely locked out of an industry, which we built,” Barfield said.

They’ve filed a Federal Lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by Liquor and Cannabis Board.

“What they created was a system designed for whites. And that’s what our lawsuit alleges, because you can’t say you’re for the people by the people. If you don’t include all the people,” said Peter Manning.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board is defending against the lawsuit, which has yet to go to trial.

But this week the board also said it’s reviewing the decision to deny a license to Barfield and Manning.

All expressed empathy for Shawn Kemp.

“Maybe what we can do is turn that into something more positive to say what could happen if it was a legit African-American, that’s 100% owner and opening up their first storefront.”

Kemp says he plans to open stores where he will be the majority owner and to help other African-Americans, too.

“Not only am I educating myself right now, we’re going to try to educate people to help them out, to do their own shops,” Kemp said.

Comments on this article