SEATTLE — Washington state’s retail cannabis program shut out minority business owners and now Black business owners are demanding change.
The vast majority of cannabis retailers in Washington state aren’t owned by people of color, and just 4% are Black-owned, according to 2021 data from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB).
However, the racial disparity goes back further than legalized marijuana.
In 1971, the U.S. declared war on drugs and then-President Richard Nixon called drug abuse “America’s public enemy number one.” In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan coined the phrase perhaps most synonymous with the war on drugs: “Just say no.”
The battlefield for this war was inner cities across the country, and the targets were predominantly poor people of color.
“I know that we use the war on drugs to go after Black and Brown people,” said Peter Manning, an entrepreneur who grew up in Seattle.
Decades later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out the lasting impact of the war on drugs. Black and white citizens use marijuana at similar rates, yet in every state with legalized marijuana, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU. In some states, Black people are up to 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
“You guys punish us for years for cannabis,” Manning said. “And now it’s okay. Now you’re doing it. Now it’s okay.”
Manning and fellow entrepreneur Mike Asai lived through the fallout.
“Growing up in Seattle, in the ‘80s, just simply had a joint you would get five years in prison,” said Asai with Emerald City Collective, one of the first medical cannabis retailers in the city of Seattle. “[I’ve] seen that happen with family and friends and acquaintances, you know, for just that.”
In 1998, Washington legalized medical cannabis and Asai and Manning saw it as a chance to get into the industry. In the early 2000s, Manning joined a medical cannabis collective that included growers and retailers based in Seattle.
“To be on the bad end, when it comes to cannabis and then revert to be on the good end was very empowering,” said Asai. “Because of growing up and just seeing the war on drugs was really the war on African Americans, the war on Black men and Black women in this country.”
Between 2015 and 2016, Manning, Asai and countless others were forced to shut down their existing cannabis dispensaries while they applied and waited for new licenses. Asai said closing the doors on his thriving business changed the course of his family’s life and future.
“To be legitimate and then all of a sudden now being criminalized…It’s been very traumatizing,” Asai said. “It’s been very depressing and painful to see, especially to see all the money that’s been made since the last six years since we’ve been closed. I’ve had to figure things out. I had to do Uber for about a year, just to stay afloat.”
Both Asai and Manning consider themselves among the first cannabis entrapments in Seattle.
Documentation shows they paid state and city business taxes and had all appropriate licenses to operate. Because they were among the first and had followed the rules in legitimizing their businesses, they both believed it would only be a matter of time before they could open their doors again. But that’s not what happened.
This is where minority business people felt shut out of the process, saying they couldn’t compete with the white-owned, well-established cannabis companies that flooded in.
The result: Black people lost out. Of the state’s 558 recreational pot licenses, only 19 went to Black applicants, according to LCB data.
“There is zero African American ownership in the city of Seattle, and to be supposedly this progressive state, this liberal state, it’s not showing,” said Manning.
The Black, Indigenous and people of color community immediately fought back, demanding answers and action from LCB during public meetings.
“We feel disrespected; we’re not listened to,” said Jim Buchanan, president of the Washington State African American Cannabis Association, in a July 2021 public meeting.
Between 2016 and 2019, the state commissioned two independent reports to audit LCB’s enforcement program and investigate allegations of discrimination from licensees.
The LCB had been accused of handing “over a billion-dollar industry to white licensees,” failing to provide educational resources for applicants and giving out inconsistent interpretations of the law to candidates that left some, like Manning, with rejected applications.
LCB Board Member Ollie Garrett said she can see why people of color feel like they can’t catch a break.
“Yes. I mean…what’s the saying? A day late, and a dollar short,” Garrett said. “Now the community is screaming, ‘What about us? What about us?’ We go, ‘Oh, we need to fix this.’”
Garrett is also one of the only LCB members on the state’s newly formed Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force, which was created through legislation to bring equity to the state’s cannabis program. Garrett said she considers it a failure of the task force that there are currently no Black-owned cannabis dispensaries in the city of Seattle.
“I would call that a failure, a missed opportunity,” Garrett said. “Could it have been done different in the beginning? Yes. But this was a new industry. Who knew, who thought about inclusion and blacks being left out.”
The people left out, like Manning and Asai, face an uphill battle breaking into a competitive market they’ve been locked out of for the past six years.
“We can’t go backwards,” said Garrett. “We just have to go forward.”
So far, the plan to go forward is stumbling. The task force recommended setting aside 38 marijuana business licenses specifically for people of color. But state records show more than half of those licenses are in areas where pot sales are currently banned, essentially making them useless.
“What are you giving me?” Manning said. “A license that says I have the right to sell cannabis? But I can’t sell cannabis because I can’t open up in this location because it’s banned. How’s that equity?”
Garrett said she understands why Manning and Asai feel like they’re being given scraps they can’t use.
“Where we’re at right now, the LCB cannot move licenses out of the areas that they’re in or create new license without legislation,” Garrett said. “We are going to introduce (that) in this upcoming session.”
A recent recommendation by the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force has some entrepreneurs optimistic. The task force has discussed giving licensing priority to those who previously owned medical dispensaries like Manning and Asai.
“It’ll mean a tremendous amount to me and my family to get back to what we lost out on generational wealth,” said Asai.
The task force must submit its final report and equity recommendations to the legislature and governor by Dec. 9.
Until that happens, Manning and Asai want the public to be more conscious about where the money they spend on cannabis really ends up.
“There’s white-owned stores in our Black neighborhoods,” Manning said. “Ten years ago, you were locking us up for the same thing. White people were making millions of dollars. You’re taking that money out of our community, and they’re putting it in the white community. We want our Black-owned stores in our communities.”