America's Whites-Only Weed Boom
Black Americans were disproportionately targeted in the "war on drugs." Now state laws and steep regulatory costs have left them far more likely to be shut out of America's profitable marijuana boom.
When Colorado’s first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in 2009, Unique Henderson was psyched. He’d been smoking weed since he was 15, and he’d even learned how to grow, from his ex-girlfriend’s father. He spent $750 on classes about how to run a cannabis business, and then he and a friend both applied to work at a Denver pot shop.
Then only his friend was hired. Henderson was more than qualified, so why didn’t he get the gig? His friend asked the managers and came back with infuriating news: Henderson was not allowed to work in the legal cannabis industry because he had been caught twice with a joint’s worth of pot as a teenager back in Oklahoma, and as a result he has two drug possession felonies on his record.
For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it’s not that simple. Yes, investors and state governments are eager to hire and license people with expertise in how to cultivate, cure, trim, and process cannabis. But it can’t be someone who got caught. Which for the most part means it can’t be someone who is black.
Even though research shows people of all races are about equally likely to have broken the law by growing, smoking, or selling marijuana, black people are much more likely to have been arrested for it. Black people are much more likely to have ended up with a criminal record because of it. And every state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana bans people with drug felonies from working at, owning, investing in, or sitting on the board of a cannabis business. After having borne the brunt of the "war on drugs," black Americans are now largely missing out on the economic opportunities created by legalization.
For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it’s not that simple.
"It really does piss me off,” Henderson said. His friend still works at that dispensary, and makes a lot more money than Henderson does. "And to see a lot of people come to Colorado to work in weed, that pisses me off even more. They’re coming here, living comfortable, and it’s like, I could be doing the same thing, but I can’t, because of my past with marijuana.”
Nobody keeps official statistics on race and cannabis business ownership. But based on more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders, and salespeople who interact with a lot of pot shops, it appears that fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people — about 1%.
At this rare and decisive moment in American history, state governments are literally handing control of a multibillion-dollar industry to a chosen few, creating wealth overnight. The pot trade has long been open to anyone with some seeds and some hustle, so there are more than enough cannabis experts out there to form a truly diverse industry — if only the laws weren’t systematically preventing thousands of qualified black people from participating.
Even without a criminal record, black people looking to get involved in legal weed face major obstacles. Sarah Cross, the chief operating officer of Green Rush Consulting, estimated that it takes at least a quarter of a million dollars to start a legal marijuana business. After centuries of systemic discrimination in housing, employment, and education, black Americans are far less likely to have or be able to raise that kind of money. Small business loans are out of the question, because banks are insured by federal agencies, and the federal government still considers cannabis illegal.
Legalizing marijuana sounds revolutionary, but with every day that passes, the same class of rich white men that control all other industries are tightening their grip on this one, snatching up licenses and real estate and preparing for a windfall. First-mover advantage, they call it. That means that anyone who doesn’t make the risky leap to violate federal law and get involved now will miss out, forever. In a few years, when the land grab is over, the cannabis industry may become just another example in America’s never-ending cycle of racially motivated economic injustices.
Legalization is beginning to snowball, pushed forward by popular demand. Twenty-three states now have medical marijuana; four and Washington, D.C., permit recreational use; and an additional 16 allow non-psychoactive forms of the cannabis plant. Public support for marijuana legalization has more than doubled over the past 20 years, hitting a recent high of 58%, while support for keeping nonviolent drug offenders locked up for a long time has been cut in half, to a low of 23%.
In theory, those shifts in public opinion sound connected: Americans no longer consider smoking crack or growing a handful of marijuana plants to be crimes worthy of half a lifetime in prison. But in practice, the legalization of cannabis and the drawdown of the war on drugs are not related. No existing marijuana law tries to account for or acknowledge the harm prohibition has done to communities of color. Cannabis legalization campaign workers are told to never mention race. News anchors talk about pot with a smirk, illustrated by photographs of white college kids getting high, and rarely mention criminal justice reform in the same breath. They are separate policies, carried out by separate laws, with little consideration given to how one might affect the other.
The few black people who have managed to start cannabis businesses or apply for licenses have sometimes found themselves subject to discriminatory law enforcement. They’ve been followed by the stigma that black people who sell pot are dangerous criminals and white people who do the same are goofy hippies.
But until the history of legalization is set in stone, black entrepreneurs still have a shot. Many refuse to be excluded.
The Distributor drives his cash to the pot farms up north in the middle of the night so the California Highway Patrol won’t notice that he is black and pull him over. Every few weeks he’ll rent a car, put his two youngest children to bed, and then slip out of his home in a wealthy suburb of Southern California. Once he merges onto the I-5 freeway, he’s just another isolated pod hurtling forward in the darkness toward the parched farms of the Central Valley.
It’s been over two decades since he started buying and selling pot for a living, but to his neighbors, the Distributor looks like a boring golf dad in his fifties, his nightclub bouncer's frame muted by soft but tailored grays and plaids. Caught standing at the edge of his driveway, he’ll maneuver the conversation into neutral territory: the children, the weather, the weekend. His eyes are attentive, his expression reserved.
He came to Los Angeles from the Caribbean in his twenties. It was the late 1980s, and all of the people he knew from back home were selling crack. The Distributor had never broken a law, had never even smoked pot before, and had wanted to find work as a mechanic. But the more time passed, the harder it became to resist his friends’ promises of easy cash. He worried about returning to the poverty of his childhood. “You watch your parents, and they try to farm this small patch of land, and it still keep them in poverty, so you look at it and you think, if you do the same, your life is not going to change,” he recalled over lunch last fall.
Pretty soon he was selling crack, too. He found a girlfriend, had a daughter, and hoped that if he saved enough money she would have more opportunities than he’d had. Within a few years, he got arrested, and the seriousness of the consequences caught him by surprise. He’d had no idea that the prison sentence for possession or sale of crack cocaine was a hundred times longer than for powder cocaine. It's the same stuff, he remembers thinking. He did some research and changed his strategy.
“When I do the math, I’m like, OK, marijuana is a better business, dollar for dollar, and it’s less harmful,” he said. “Crystal meth, cocaine, rock cocaine, heroin — those are the top priorities for law enforcement. Marijuana, they go after you, but it’s still less, so I decide to choose the lesser evil."
"The only thing I do is sell marijuana ... Other crime? I don't do shit. I try not to even jaywalk."
When he went to prison on the crack charge, his daughter was starting elementary school, and he worried about whether his girlfriend would push and encourage her enough during his absence.
“When I try to say, 'OK, we gonna make education the main priority, this is what we about,' she couldn't understand it,” he said. The Distributor told his girlfriend that if she was still on welfare when he got out, he would leave her. She was, and he did.
By the mid-'90s, he had settled into the weed trade, buying from the Mexican cartels and shipping pounds all over the country. Over the years he stopped working with guys who were flashy, who liked to spend a lot at the club.
He stopped carrying a gun over a decade ago, and he won’t work with people who do. “Gun have only one purpose, and it’s to kill,” he said. "If you are in a very heated argument and you have a gun, you’ll shoot them, but if you don’t have a gun, the both of you go home." He’s been living with the same woman for 10 years, and they have two children he hopes to put through Ivy League schools. He is sick of flinching every time he hears a siren or a helicopter.
"I'm not self-righteous,” he said. "The only thing I do is sell marijuana. And how I do it, I don't short people. I don't set up people, trap people. I do stuff straight-up. I try to do the business as best as I can. Other crime? I don't do shit. I try not to even jaywalk."
When he turns on the TV and sees white businessmen from Colorado or Oregon giving tours of warehouses full of weed, he thinks, Why can’t I be like that? He wants to have a legitimate, legal job, pay taxes, make chitchat at Parent-Teacher Association meetings. He wants desperately to join the Green Rush.
The Distributor first tried going legit five years ago, when he saw on the news that Los Angeles had nearly 1,400 pot shops. Someone put him in touch with a lawyer in Beverly Hills who said for $60,000 he could get a permit to run a dispensary. “Then we found out he took a lot of $60,000 from other people, and basically just ripped them off,” he said.
There was no such thing as a permit. The growers, the pot shop owners — everyone was just seeing what they could get away with, and everyone was on tenuous legal ground. That Beverly Hills lawyer was just taking advantage of the chaos.
Although California was the first state to legalize marijuana, in 1996, the industry there developed without regulations, licenses, or oversight. Getting a doctor’s recommendation for pot is about as easy and as time-consuming as getting a haircut. But all of the moving parts that bring cannabis from seed to bong — farms, delivery services, concentrate processors — have never been protected and regulated under state law. Every single marijuana business in California is taking a legal risk. All of the state's pot entrepreneurs are operating on the gray or black market, constantly looking over their shoulders, just like the Distributor.
At the same time, pot has been only an occasional priority for California cops and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and a few cities have permitted its sale. So now there is a huge and well-funded but unsanctioned marijuana industry in the Golden State. This has amounted to a prolonged period of chaos, with consumers assuming pot is basically legal while everyone who works with weed lives in fear of SWAT team raids, frozen bank accounts, and criminal charges.
Los Angeles, where the Distributor had thought he might be able to buy a permit and start a dispensary, does not have local licensing, but the size, agility, and spending power of the industry there has overwhelmed city officials, making it impossible to shut down every single illegal shop.
After giving up on the lawyer in Beverly Hills, the Distributor still wanted to figure out how to operate legally, but he didn’t know how to find a lawyer he could trust. And in any case, he began to notice that nearly everyone going legit — registering as a marijuana business, filing taxes, and operating out of a storefront — was white, and everyone he worked with on the underground market was black or Mexican. He’d had occasional legal troubles since his felony. As much as he wanted to turn his operation into a real business, he decided that until the rules got clearer, trying to be a law-abiding citizen was just too dangerous.
Gray areas like these have always been ripe for racially biased law enforcement. In Mendocino County, where the Distributor buys most of his pot, black people were 10 times more likely to get arrested for pot crimes than white people in 2014. This is why, when it comes time to move pounds down to Southern California, the Distributor seals the weed into smell-proof containers, labels it like it’s tea, and hires a white driver.
Lauren Vazquez, who spent nearly a decade as a cannabis defense lawyer in California and is now the deputy director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, told BuzzFeed News that because of the legal ambiguities in California, only a certain type of person there — mostly young, white, and male — has felt comfortable conducting marijuana business visible to the public.
He decided that until the rules got clearer, trying to be a law-abiding citizen was just too dangerous.
“It’s the people who push the limits, and those people are privileged people with resources and the ability to take risks,” Vazquez said. "Based on the color of your skin, the risk is exponentially different. Even if you accept the risk of getting caught, if you’re a person of color, the consequences could be so much more severe."
Although 2.5 million black people live in California — more than in all the states that have legalized recreational marijuana combined — you don’t see many of them sitting on panels at cannabis conferences or weighing in on the latest marijuana court case in the Los Angeles Times.
Over the past few years, the Distributor watched with growing anticipation as a majority of the country came to see the folly of incarcerating addicts and nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time. He watched CNN and Fox News. He listened, breathless, to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech to the American Bar Association in August 2013, when he announced a plan to shift the focus of the criminal justice system away from nonviolent drug crimes.
Colorado and Washington had just legalized recreational weed, and the Distributor took Holder’s speech to mean that marijuana would soon be an acceptable business. “That’s the top lawman!” he said. “I was like, OK, he is not going after the dispensary like that. I want to be a part of that, then."
Instead, as the Department of Justice reaffirmed in a memo released later that month, cannabis business owners in states that lacked a well-regulated system — language aimed rather pointedly at California — would still be considered criminals, subject to prosecution and seizure of their property and cash. Even after Congress passed a spending bill in 2014 that said no federal money could be used to target medical marijuana operators, the raids in California continued.
Still, the Distributor tried to do what he could. A year ago, he decided he was fed up with the violence and the greed of the Mexican cartels, and he and an associate, a man with a gold tooth, made a trip to Northern California. He and the man with the gold tooth found a few people who could hook them up with some pot, and even though those farmers were also technically operating illegally, the Distributor felt like keeping his dollars in America constituted progress.
Shortly after he got back from that first drive up north, he found out that his oldest daughter, now a nurse, had eloped. The Distributor has never told her what he does for a living, but he checks in regularly and has high expectations for her life and career. Last April, he went to meet her and her new husband for dinner.
The Distributor’s new son-in-law is also from the Caribbean, and he guessed the Distributor’s occupation immediately. “He appear to be stern and serious, like a rude boy. Like a gangster,” the son-in-law later said. "When he came in, I thought he just had a walk, like a bump, you know."
The son-in-law is smaller than the Distributor, his body more compact. At some point in the evening, when they were alone for a few moments, the Distributor asked him what he did for a living.
“Marijuana,” the son-in-law said. “I move marijuana.”
The Distributor turned slowly to face his daughter’s new husband. Here was the man who was supposed to represent all of the comfort and stability he wanted for his oldest child. Here, after a quarter century in this country, was the sum total of all he had accomplished. He looked his son-in-law up and down — T-shirt, gold chain, glittering earring — and then he spoke.
“This is bullshit."
In September, everything changed. The Distributor remembers exactly where he was when it happened: smoking a joint in his friend’s car, shortly before midnight on a Friday. They’d been listening to the radio, waiting to see how the California legislature would vote on a landmark set of bills regulating the medical cannabis industry. He took another hit, adjusted the volume, and suddenly his world shifted. The bills had passed. Licenses and regulations were coming to California. He would now be able to leave the life of a criminal behind.
Gov. Jerry Brown hadn’t even signed the legislation yet, and the radio had said the rules wouldn’t go into effect until 2018, but the Distributor was flush with excitement. This was his moment. The next morning, he went online looking for what he should do next and discovered there was going to be a cannabis industry party that week in Los Angeles.
But he couldn’t get any of the 25 or so guys he works with to go with him. They were all too scared. “Even when you're going to say, 'OK, everyone can go legal,' do blacks really believe that?” he said. "Do Hispanics really believe that? When they criminalize people, and especially when you go through that fight of being a criminal so long, you telling me they just going to wave a wand and the transition just come and we accept it and trust you? You put fear in these people for hundreds of years. It going to take time."
Persistent racial disparities in marijuana arrests, convictions, and sentencing are no accident. In the 1930s, Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger petitioned Congress to make cannabis illegal by saying things like “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men” and claiming most users were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers.”
Ever since, smoking pot, like loitering or neglecting to use a turn signal, has become yet another crime that black and brown people are far more likely to be caught and punished for than white people.
Since emancipation, white supremacists have portrayed black people as inherently criminal in order to justify unequal protection under the law, police and mob-led brutality, prison labor, and racially biased discrimination in housing, education, and employment. As soon as race-based crime statistics became available at the end of the 19th century, they were misinterpreted as reflecting the reality of who actually committed more crimes rather than who was being arrested.
In this racist worldview, black people were akin to animals, and therefore unable to control their impulses, especially when it came to sex, violence, and intoxication. Leaders of the Prohibition movement argued that alcohol caused black men to rape white women and therefore should be illegal. The media amplified incidents that tied marijuana not only to blacks and Latinos but also to crime, homicide, and insanity. “Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife,” blared one 1925 headline in the New York Times. “A marijuana-crazed Negro went berserk in a crowded express train,” began another story, from 1939.
People tend to think it was the crack epidemic of the late 1980s that launched the war on drugs. But as the lawyer and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the initial drive for a more punitive drug policy came from white segregationists, who began shifting their anti–civil rights rhetoric in the 1950s and 1960s from direct appeals about the inferiority of black people to racially motivated calls for the need to crack down on drugs and crime.
“Most blacks don't trust the system. The system never helped them. By the time this irons itself out, you're going to have like 94% of it owned by whites.”
Both the beginnings of the war on drugs in the early 1970s and the increasingly harsh narcotics penalties passed in the 1980s and 1990s galvanized a strange confluence of groups with differing motivations: conservatives, who argued for a harsh response to drug addiction and crime; liberals, who were eager to show that government could cure violence and addiction; and many black people, who were disproportionately suffering from the violence of the drug trade, thanks in part to the discriminatory housing policies that forced all of the black people in a city to share the same space.
Black leaders who backed the war on drugs also worried that all of the television specials and newspaper articles focusing on black addicts, specifically, would endanger the advances of the civil rights movement. But as it turned out, strict drug-sentencing laws would lead to more black people being in the carceral system in 2008 than were enslaved in 1850. At every stage of marijuana’s history in the United States, from reefer madness scares to the war on drugs, and now even piecemeal legalization, black Americans have suffered disproportionately: stereotyped as justifications for prohibition, targeted for arrest, and now, finally, excluded in many ways from the Green Rush.
For the Distributor, this history is a taunt, daring him to succeed. He understood why his friends didn’t want to come with him to the cannabis industry party in Los Angeles after the new legislation passed in September, but he also knew why he had to be there. “Most blacks don't trust the system, because the system never helped them,” he said. “But by the time all of this irons itself out, you're going to have like 94% of it owned by whites.”
Only one person was bold enough to go to the industry event with him: his son-in-law. A month after they’d met, the Distributor called his daughter’s new husband and said, “If you’re gonna be doing this, best we work together.” Over the summer, the two made regular trips up north, giving the Distributor plenty of time in the car to try to convince his son-in-law to go back to school. By September, they had reached a tentative friendship, and they arrived at the party eager to learn together.
The place was packed. A lot of major players were there, in town for one of dozens of marijuana business conferences that sprang up in the past two years to cater to those looking to make money off of marijuana legalization. The Distributor and his son-in-law made their way past a white lobbyist in a suit passing a joint to a white dispensary owner in a hoodie. White guys in stained T-shirts tried to avoid bumping their bellies against white Hollywood bros and white women in blazers. The Distributor and his son-in-law sized people up and tried to make friends while remaining elusive. They said they were visiting from the Caribbean, that they were father and son, that they were uncle and nephew.
“They were extremely closed-mouthed,” said Cara Luhring, a cheerful entrepreneur who had driven up from San Diego. "It was pretty much me giving them all of my information. My impression was they could not believe there was a cannabis conference going on in downtown L.A. They seemed so flabbergasted."
Finally, after a few more drinks, the Distributor told a white partygoer a little more about who he was and why he had come, and asked what exactly he was supposed to be doing now that the bills had passed.
“The first thing is you need to get yourself a lawyer,” the white partygoer said. "I know a good one, in Beverly Hills."
A few weeks after the party, the Distributor told his son-in-law to meet him in Santa Monica on a Saturday morning for a meeting of the L.A. chapter of the California Growers Association. The son-in-law got there first, a friend in tow. The Distributor and the man with the gold tooth arrived 30 minutes later to find about 50 people in metal chairs listening to a third-generation white pot farmer named Hezekiah Allen reviewing the 17 types of licenses offered by the new laws.
Allen, who is tall and thick with hair the color of a camel, had helped negotiate the new legislation in Sacramento, on behalf of cannabis businesses. His group was down in L.A. offering this free seminar on the details of the bills in the hopes of showing people like the Distributor how to transition. To make the new system work, the state has about three years to convince as many gray and black market operators as possible — about 100,000 people — to apply for licenses, follow the rules, submit to inspections, and stop sending cannabis out of state.
Most of the people on the cultivation and transportation side of California’s marijuana industry have at some point sent or are currently sending marijuana to other parts of the country, because the price of a pound is much higher on the black market (about $2,000) than on the dispensary market (as low as $900). A few cannabis farmers told BuzzFeed News that they estimate conforming to the new regulations will involve giving up 30–50% of their profits. Many won’t be able to afford the up-front expenses of getting up to code, and many remain wary of the government.
The key question, then, is how many operators will, like the Distributor, do everything in their power to make the transition, and how many will be allowed to: A lot of marijuana business owners have criminal records. At the California Growers Association meeting, one of the first questions was about what will happen to people with drug felonies.
“This was the trickiest subject,” Allen said. "We could not agree with law enforcement." For now, he explained, California plans to decide whether drug felons like the Distributor can participate in the medical market on a case-by-case basis. Only those deemed “rehabilitated” will be able to get a license.
The Distributor’s face didn't move.
“White males tend to do better when it's subjective,” Allen continued, “so we would like to see a 10-year sunset on any conviction.” That’s what a few other states do: let drug felons who finished the supervised release period after their sentences over 10 years ago work in the cannabis industry. A few others allow those with cannabis felonies the chance to convince the licensing board their conviction was for a “reasonable” amount of pot used only for medical purposes.
California plans to decide whether drug felons like the Distributor can participate in the medical market on a case-by-case basis. Only those deemed “rehabilitated” will be able to get a license.
Last year, Oregon made it easier to get past cannabis convictions expunged from people’s criminal records, partly with the goal of helping more people of color become eligible to participate in the recreational industry there. But attempts at giving anyone a leg up in the licensing process to account for past disparities have largely been unsuccessful. In Illinois, where people with drug felonies are not even allowed to be medical marijuana patients, the state gave a tiny boost to the licensing applications of minorities and women. But officials declined to say whether any of the applications that received the boost resulted in a license, as the records are not subject to disclosure laws. The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland fought for a much more significant boost, but the state attorney general struck it from the law, saying it could be justified only in an existing industry with documented disparities.
The most promising legal attempts to acknowledge the disproportionate effects of marijuana prohibition are written into the 2016 recreational-use ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and California, which allow all cannabis felons to participate in the industry. In a groundbreaking turn, both initiatives also offer the closest thing possible to reparations for the war on drugs: earmarking tax dollars from the industry for job training and other programs in the communities that have been most affected by past narcotics policies — language designed to avoid the legal complications of explicitly mentioning race.
But even if California’s recreational-use initiative passes in November, the medical market there will still exclude most drug felons, a situation that frustrates California NAACP President Alice Huffman.
“There are not many jobs out there for black folks,” she said. "There is an underground market for marijuana and a large part of our community participates in it. A lot of people in the inner city live on those drugs, and we don’t like to admit that.” Legalization, she said, “might be an opportunity for economic development for everyone in the community with a business mind."
And yet many of the black people “with a business mind” who have tried to get involved in marijuana have already encountered the same racism and disproportionate policing as before pot became legal. BuzzFeed News spoke with over two dozen black cannabis entrepreneurs across the country and heard the same frustrations again and again: the secret decision-making that drives local politics, the unsavory euphemisms and selective application of existing law, and the maddening inability to distinguish bias from circumstance.
In Los Angeles, in 2008, when hundreds of dispensaries were being raided but reopening the following day, Virgil Grant was one of very few pot shop owners arrested by the DEA, charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, and incarcerated for several years. One of his dispensaries was in Compton, where he had gotten his start selling weed.
“On the black market, you can make way more than in the shop,” Grant said. "No taxes. No overhead. It took a lot to walk away from what I was making. I turned away from a lot of illegal business to do it right. I was staying legit and not breaking none of these rules because I don’t need no problems, and what do I get for following the rules? Seventy-two months in prison.”
In Berkeley, California, Chris Smith spent years fighting and failing to get local officials to recognize that his cannabis collective, Forty Acres, was just as legitimate as the three dispensaries that the city formally recognizes. “We’d go up there with a permit, and we’d slide it across the table, and they’d slide it right back at us,” Smith said.
In Olympia, Washington, in 2013, a boisterous dispensary owner and former gang member named Louis Johnson bought a building that had been operating as a medical marijuana farmers market. When Johnson proposed plans to add a smoking room, glass-blowing gallery, and performance space, the city council abruptly condemned the building and passed a one-year moratorium on pot businesses.
It was the fear of ending up like Grant, like Smith, like Johnson, that kept the Distributor underground for so long and made him half expect the police would break up the California Growers Association meeting and arrest everyone present.
No cops showed up, though, and after the meeting ended, the Distributor’s son-in-law started chatting with a white guy who said he could sell them some pounds. He and his friend and the Distributor and the man with the gold tooth all hopped into their cars and went to an apartment in Hollywood, where they found the white guy, five Mexican guys, and a giant bag of pot. Each Mexican was blocking an exit. The Distributor noticed one had a 9 mm tucked into his waistband.
“You know what, I’m leaving,” he said to his son-in-law, and he and the man with the gold tooth walked out. The son-in-law and his friend stayed.
It was around this time that the Distributor and his son-in-law stopped driving up north together.
Like the Distributor, Clark Metcalfe is in his mid-fifties and has been brokering black market drug deals for much of his life. He started selling pot in high school and, other than a few breaks, has been doing some version of that ever since. Fastidious and focused, in his black pants and black turtleneck, he resembles Steve Jobs, without the temper.
Metcalfe also doesn’t like guns. He also used to sell cocaine. He also holds himself to a high standard when doing business. And in 2015, he also decided to go legal. “Who wants to be underground and hiding?” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time."
The difference is that Clark Metcalfe is white. And he’s not afraid. He has little reason to be. He’s never experienced any serious legal consequences for what he does. As a teen, he had to pay a $50 ticket for possession in Oregon. In his twenties, he got caught with 12 ounces of pot in New Mexico, but the judge said, “If you want, you could just go home tomorrow, and I won’t come look for you.” And then five years ago, in California, he got pulled over with five pounds on him. As soon as his lawyers got a chance to speak to the district attorney, they dropped the charges.
In the past year, Metcalfe has spent $100,000 marketing himself and his company, Cannabis Buyer, at trade show after trade show, where investors have swarmed because he has actual experience working with pot. For white people who have worked illegally with marijuana, this kind of attention from investors is typical. Several people told BuzzFeed News that collaboration between finance-minded people and people with experience on the black market can be key.
“The best teams are the ones that have both, that have somebody that really knows cannabis and somebody who really knows business and knows how to talk to investors,” said Troy Dayton, CEO of The ArcView Group, which holds forums where entrepreneurs with weed-related business ideas pitch wealthy individuals. Last year, ArcView investors gave $45 million to pot-related companies, most of which avoid legal risk by making apps or packaging or growing equipment. Of the 21 businesses ArcView has funded that work directly with marijuana, only seven will allow their names to be public. All of those seven are run by white people.
Metcalfe isn’t looking for investors, but he enjoys the privilege of speaking openly about the details of his operation. He is on LinkedIn as Cannabis Buyer. He gave a frank interview to the Wall Street Journal about pot back in 2009. And he has no qualms about telling BuzzFeed News that he regularly sends hash oil–filled vape pens to an employee in Chicago. “I just ship them to him. I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not worried about it.”
Metcalfe demands to be treated just like any other businessman. When Enterprise, the car rental company, abruptly changed his rates and asked him to return his vehicle, he assumed it was because of the word cannabis in his email signature. Few car rental companies would want their property used to traffic a Schedule I drug, but Metcalfe was outraged and called it discrimination. “That’s against the law!” he railed. (A spokesperson for Enterprise disputed Metcalfe’s version of events, saying, “We're not sitting there evaluating people's email addresses.”)
The overwhelming whiteness of the legal pot industry is even greater outside of states with relatively open markets, such as California and Michigan. In most states that allow the medical use of marijuana, a small, unelected commission determines who will receive a limited number of business licenses. With almost no oversight or transparency, the licensing has been rife with accusations of cronyism. At least six states and Washington, D.C., emphasize vague and coded qualifications like “character.”
If anything, these gatekeepers are enabling white people to easily transition from man on the corner to mogul in the corner office. At least six medical states restrict applications from people with drug felonies yet list cannabis expertise as a criterion for getting a license.
“I'd say a fair portion of the industry on the legal side, the guys that are really running what's happening in cannabis now, started off on the dark side,” said Rob Hunt, a partner at Tuatara Capital, the private equity firm that manages Willie Nelson’s pot brand.
David Bruno, an architect of the failed 2015 legalization initiative in Ohio, told BuzzFeed News last fall that he had recently hired, for a cannabis-related company, someone who has a clean record but 20 years of experience growing weed illegally. Both Bruno and the man he hired are white. As for the many black marijuana growers who — in part because of discriminatory policing — did not escape that era with a clean record, Bruno has little sympathy.
"We're not a nice society, and there's not going to be reparations."
“There’s not going to be a clean bill of health for anyone that was active and got caught,” Bruno said. "Those things are not going to happen. There's a cost of reform and revolution. We're not a nice society, and there's not going to be reparations."
Although Bruno’s group lost their bid to legalize pot in Ohio, many in the cannabis world consider their “ResponsibleOhio” campaign a watershed moment — the point at which the people who care about the civil rights implications of ending the war on drugs were overtaken by those who care about making money. ResponsibleOhio’s $25 million campaign was funded by private investors who would have, if the initiative had passed, controlled all of the pot cultivation in the state.
That kind of profit-driven plan would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when the legalization movement was run by activists. But last year, control of California’s 2016 recreational-use ballot initiative was wrested from the advocacy organizations by tech billionaire Sean Parker. Amanda Reiman, the manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, recently complained on Facebook about how all of the cannabis events she goes to these days are “old white businessmen orgies.”
That lack of diversity is evident in everything from the companies they choose to fund to the way they evaluate celebrity brands. "Rappers in particular, there's a sort of stigma, and I don't think that that carries much value,” said Gregg Schreiber, who left Wall Street last year to start Dune Road Group, which connects investors and private equity firms with cannabis companies.
“It’s probably a step up for some of these rappers to be associated with weed," added his partner, David Baker.
For Metcalfe, who hopes to build an international cannabis distribution network, it’s simply a matter of whose operation deserves to survive the transition and whose does not. “Everybody wants protection from hoodlums and bad people, so if you can be vetted, that's best,” he said.
He’s had some brushes with bad people in California’s unregulated market. A few years ago he got a call from a dispensary in L.A., looking for him to make a drop. When Metcalfe got there, a guy coldcocked him, broke his car window, grabbed a bag with two pounds of pot, and ran. Metcalfe’s head was bleeding, but he got in his car, knowing that the cops would be there soon.
“I got about two blocks and all hell broke lose. Helicopters, squad cars. When they started swooping in, I was at the freeway exit,” he said. Almost a week later, a cop left him a voicemail. They had surveillance footage. His panic had subsided, so he decided he was willing to talk.
“I called them back,” he said, “and they never returned the call.”
By the middle of November, when the Distributor took a trip up north to check in with his main supplier, things were looking up. He had taken several steps to show California that he is ready to comply with the new medical regulations, once they go into effect in 2018. He had filed for a business tax certificate. He was closing in on renting a warehouse space. He had finally persuaded the last of his friends that they, too, needed to prepare to apply for licenses. But he hadn’t been able to convince his son-in-law to go legal with him, let alone commit to going back to school.
The son-in-law, like many gray-area operators in California, decided that he was going to do as much business as possible in the next two years, and then most likely move on. “I don’t see marijuana becoming legal benefiting me, you know?” he said. He is working on using a white frontman to open a few dispensaries for him in Los Angeles, and will try apply for a license, but he doesn’t quite expect that to work out. “Open for a couple months, then close it,” he said. “Make what we make and then that’s that. I just want some fast money and then probably invest it in something."
The Distributor was on the opposite track, seeking a sustainable, transparent business. On his way up to Mendocino, he decided to stop by Sacramento for a Cannabis Transportation Stakeholders meeting, hosted by the public agency that has been most enthusiastic about regulating marijuana: the Board of Equalization (BOE), which collects taxes. He wanted to see what the people in power were talking about when they talked about people like him.
"If you want your industry, help us keep the bad guys out.”
There were about 75 legislative staffers, lobbyists, and cannabis business owners in the room, almost all of whom were white. The question of the day was how to regulate the people who move weed around the state, and it didn’t take long for a theme to emerge.
“I talk to my law enforcement guys, and they say, 'We need to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys.' And to me, that's what this is about,” said George Runner, the vice chair of the BOE.
“We can pass whatever regulation we want or don’t want to, but that won’t stop the trafficking, so if you want your industry, help us keep the bad guys out,” said Diane Harkey, another member of the BOE.
“Despite the best efforts by a lot of people that are here today to do this in a legitimate manner, there still are quite a few people out there who are, for lack of a better term, drug dealers,” said Capt. Kevin Davis, of the California Highway Patrol.
The Distributor crossed his arms over his chest. He couldn’t shake the feeling that, considering there were no rules governing how cannabis should be moved around the state, the distinction between “good guy” and “bad guy” had more to do with skin color than with an ability to follow the law.
Then, a pugnacious man in high-waisted jeans strode down the center aisle. It was Barry Broad, the influential Teamsters lobbyist. The tone grew tense. Addressing someone who complained about the cost of following federal regulations for commercial drivers, Broad said, “You don’t want people’s loads hijacked, driving around the middle of the night … These drivers, they’re not going to be people who smoke marijuana.”
Once he was a few blocks away, the Distributor let his calm facade drop.
“Oh my god, are they serious?” he said. “Are those Teamster union for real serious? Like, they want a piece of this? Everybody want a part of this. Regulation, regulation, regulation, and more regulation, huh?”
He shook his head, overwhelmed, and lit a joint. He had come so far, and yet it would be at least two years before he could say he ran a legal business. He had so much left to do.
The Distributor got back in his car and drove a few more hours north. As soon as he got off the freeway, he was in pot country. Trails wove in and out of the base of the mountains. He took a side road, then another, and another. Finally he slowed down and pulled onto his supplier’s property, down what appeared to be a normal driveway but soon turned into a winding, slushy dirt road he shifted into manual to navigate. Up and down, around and around, over creeks and under sycamore trees and through gates, skidding past pickup trucks and luxury sedans and a collapsed shack. Half an hour later, he came to a clearing on a hilltop with a small hut surrounded by pine, oak, and piles of trash.
Two blonde children were playing in the trees. Weed was hanging from clotheslines, scattered on the ground, sitting out on card tables, heaped in plastic bags.
"Where’s your dad?” the Distributor said. The older child, a girl, hopped down from the branches, leading him to where her father, a white man in his thirties, was using a chainsaw to break up a fallen tree. The Supplier wore a dirty T-shirt and smelled like he didn’t believe in showers. Like many of the estimated 60,000 cannabis farmers living in Northern California's Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties, his parents were homesteaders who chased the dream of a simpler life into the mountains in the late 1970s.
“I’ve been around pot for my whole life pretty much,” he said. “We have our kids around it, and as far as what’s going on around here right now, I mean, the herb is super primo, and I think it’s, like, consistent and good in the market, but it’s not my best.”
Two mastiffs followed him back to the hut, patrolling a maze of black buckets, overturned mattresses, camping chairs, coolers, and other garbage. A few steps behind, the daughter said that she does a lot to help out. It’s her job to turn the generator on every night. A hundred feet away there was a trampoline, the kind surrounded by a wall of mesh, covered in sleeping bags.
The Supplier walked off to get something to smoke, and the Distributor quietly said, “If the blacks have their kids working in the marijuana industry from that type of age, you know what type of condemnation would come down on them?” He pursed his lips. "My kids, they never see me smoke. They never see me with money or marijuana."
The Supplier came back with two kinds of pot, and the Distributor started rolling a joint. “Yeah, I went to Sacramento, went to this meeting, talking about transportation. How we gonna move this marijuana, how they gonna regulate it,” he said.
The Supplier was unimpressed. The Distributor had made an attempt to explain the new laws to him, but he had no interest in getting a license, which means the Distributor will ultimately need to stop working with him. He likes and trusts the Distributor, though, and often goes to other farms to pick up a variety of product for him. "If you’re black, and you go up to Humboldt, it’s just not a good idea,” the Supplier said. “There’s a kind of a Gestapo sort of vibe with the corrupt local sheriff’s departments. That’s just the way it is, for fucking ever."
Nearby, a Latino guy wearing a leather tool belt snipped the leaves and stems off branches of cannabis with small scissors. He was a trimmer, part of a temporary underclass of vagrants and nomads who drift into town at the end of each summer looking to get high and prune pot for $20 an hour. Cannabis farmers tend to look down on trimmers. Most get treated like shit.
Spotting the lit joint, the Trimmer walked over.
“How is it?” he asked. “Not there?"
“It really sticky,” the Distributor said, passing it to him. "Let’s roll a bigger one."
“I’ll see what I can find,” the Supplier said, walking off. He came back with a freshly picked bud. The Distributor brought it to his nose, inhaled, and then picked up another pair of scissors to remove the leaves.
“How you think about me trimming?” he asked the Trimmer, smiling.
“I don't want to sound racist, but you fit the picture,” the Trimmer responded.
A few more leaves cascaded onto the ground. The Distributor kept smiling.
“Thank you,” he said. “That's what I was working for, you know."
It was nearly 5 p.m., and the sun was sending streaks of orange into the sky. The Trimmer started whistling “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” The Distributor took a big hit of the joint, and then turned to pass it, looking the Trimmer up and down. For a few moments, he stared. Then, with a sigh, he turned away. On the Trimmer’s leather tool belt, tucked into a side holster, was a revolver. ●