Diversity Could be Coming to Denver’s Legal Cannabis Industry

Written by Rita Thompson


Since President Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971, our country has been fighting a racially charged battle. 

Legalizing cannabis is one way to combat disproportionate policing in communities of color. However, in states like Colorado, where cannabis is legal for adult-use, Black Americans have yet to gain equity in the booming billion-dollar legal market.

Despite Legalization, Black Americans Remain More Likely to Be Arrested for Cannabis Use

Not only are Black Americans arrested at disproportionate rates, there is a massive lack of diversity in ownership and employment of cannabis businesses. 

According to a 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Due to racial profiling and bias in marijuana enforcement, Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates.” 

Blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession in all 50 states. In fact, in some states, it’s six, eight, or almost ten times more likely.  

This disparity has not improved but actually worsened in most states over the last decade. In 31 states, racial disparities were larger in 2018 than they were in 2010, reports NORML.

Further, the New York Times reported that in the first three months of 2018, roughly 4,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession; 89% of them were Black or Hispanic.

Denver’s Cannabis Industry

While law enforcement continues to disproportionately criminalize minorities for cannabis, between 80% to 90% of the legal industry is run by white owners, according to Insider

A study focused on Denver, Colorado, where recreational cannabis measures were passed in 2012, found that 74.6% of owners of licensed cannabis businesses are white, as are 68% of employees.  

According to the 2019 census, however, about 30% of Denver County’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and about 10% is Black. 

New Chance for Diversity 

Since legalization, pressure has been on Colorado leaders to create social equity programs for communities continuously victimized by the War on Drugs. Such equity programs would include record expungement for cannabis crimes and funding and licensing opportunities for minority applicants. 

Now, a bill has arrived in the Colorado House of Representatives that would create just that. Known as HB20-1424 or the Social Equity Licensees In Regulated Marijuana bill, it would alter qualifications and create an accelerated social equity license program. 

According to a summary from the Colorado General Assembly, the bill would allow, “social equity licensees [to] participate in accelerator programs on the premises of a retail cannabis license which receives assistance from an experienced retail cannabis licensee.” 

Further, “A retail marijuana licensee participating in the accelerator program and a social equity licensee may be entitled to incentives from the department of revenue or the office of economic development and international trade,” the summary reads. 

Rep. James Coleman, D-CO, who introduced the bill on June 9th, told Westword, however, that with the 2020 legislative session quickly coming to a close, the push is more important than ever. 

“My concern is whether we have enough time. I know this isn’t the priority right now. We have to get the school finance bill passed and the overall budget taken care of,” Coleman explained to Westword. 

While legislators may not get a chance at change this time around, it’s more important than ever to step up and become a conscious cannabis consumer. Stay tuned for the Emerald’s list of 100 Black-owend cannabis businesses to support right now. 


Emerald contributor since June 2019


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