Lessons the Cannabis Industry should take from the WNBA

By Eliana Green, Root & Rebound’s Equal Justice Works Fellow, whose work is sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Morgan Lewis and Bockius.

New York Liberty players standing in unity for the #SayHerName campaign. (Source)

On Saturday, July 26, 2020, the WNBA tipped off the season with a message all businesses and industries should add to their playbooks, especially the Cannabis Industry, given its relationship to the war on drugs and police violence. The Seattle Storm and New York Liberty left the court prior to the playing of the national anthem, in peaceful protest. The players also observed a moment of silence in memory of Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman and EMT, murdered by police in her home during a no-knock drug raid on March 13, 2020. Breonna’s killers have still not been brought to justice. Therefore, the league has dedicated the entire season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign, a campaign which brings visibility to the countless Black women who are victims of state-sanctioned violence, but often overlooked in racial justice and social change narratives.

In early July, the league also announced the creation of the Social Justice Council (SJC), an unprecedented and bold new commitment. The league describes the SJC as “a driving force of necessary and continuing conversations about race, voting rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and gun control amongst other important societal issues.”

The Council is led by majority black women, and this representation matters because 100% of the league’s players are women, 83% are women of color, and 67% are Black. Players like Layshia Clarendon, Sydney Colson, Breanna Stewart, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, A’ja Wilson, and Satou Sabally are members of the SJC. Creating a Social Justice Council and ensuring it is led by Black women shows that the league understands that systemic racism is an issue it must root out, and to do so effectively, they must put the experts in charge. Black women — Black players — know explicitly the impacts of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence. They know it in practice — through lived experiences that most White players only read about. Black and BIPOC players understand exactly what needs to be done to take action and effect change — not through theoretical frameworks but through lived experience — and the WNBA understands this. The Cannabis industry would benefit from a similar model of intentional and lived social justice leadership, where the voices most impacted and most proximate lead the charge. Black women.

Most people see the War on Drugs (WOD) as a direct assault on Black men, and largely it has been. Black men have long been impacted by mass incarceration as the state found creative ways to evade the 13th amendment which abolished slavery. However, the WOD and crack epidemic took a different approach, for the first time intentionally targeting Black women as a way to undermine social control in the Black community.

Dr. Marilyn Jones, founder of Because Black is Still Beautiful. (Source)

Dr. Marilyn Jones, the founder of the non-profit Because Black is Still Beautiful, argues that the crack epidemic and its harsh WOD criminal (in)justice response intentionally targeted Black women as an entry point to disrupt the entire Black community.

In a recent interview, Dr. Jones explains, during the crack epidemic, women were arrested for the first time and removed from the community at alarming rates, which led to the loss of community social control.

Data compiled by the Sentencing Project underscores Dr. Jones’ assertion that Black women have been severely impacted by the WOD. The Sentencing Project explains that “though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980,” with the female prison population being disproportionately Black. Additionally, women in state prisons are about twice as likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug offense.

Over 60% of women in state prisons have children who are under the age of 18. Thus, it is no surprise that the societal removal of Black women has had a detrimental cumulative impact on their community. This begins at the familial level, by negatively impacting those who rely on Black women for financial and interpersonal support; and extends to the larger community, by stripping Black women of their voting rights and damaging their ability to find stable housing, education, and employment opportunities.

Additionally, Tracey Meares explains in her 1998 article, Social Organization and Drug Law Enforcement,” “socially organized or cohesive communities are better able to engage in informal social control that can lead to lower levels of crime than communities that are not cohesive.” The removal of large sums of adults from a neighborhood makes it difficult for community-based social institutions to foster shared values or social control.

In her doctoral dissertation, “The Come Back Queens: Understanding Black Women’s Transition From Incarceration to Higher Education,” Dr. Jones argues that Black women are the gatekeepers of urban areas of concentrated poverty. As such, she asserts, they are the holders of social control of Black communities. She highlights examples of Black women’s authority to mediate community disputes, their ability to referee physical altercations to maintain fairness, and even their power to control the speed of traffic so the community’s children can play. Black women have long held the wisdom and the answers for the Black community. Their wisdom comes from powerful lived experiences and insights. Having been hit the hardest by the issue, Black women are experts, and thus must be equipped to be in positions of leadership to effectively address the harms and create solutions that are equitable and just.

Dr. Jones, who earned her doctorate in educational leadership from San Francisco State University, describes her work as ‘Streacademics,’ using academia only to support the much more valuable lessons learned from collectively-lived experience in the streets. Since pursuing her bachelor’s degree, her area of focus has been the correlation between education and incarceration. This is because she felt there has been an erasure of the narratives of women like her: Black women who happened to be formerly incarcerated and pursue higher education.

Noticing this erasure and understanding gap amongst primarily white female social service providers she developed and published the Araminta Approach. The Araminta Approach, named after Harriet Tubman, is a theoretical framework designed for practitioners to facilitate a deeper understanding of the intersection of cultural and gender responsiveness when attempting to find solutions to systemic racism.

Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and political activist. (Source)

In a recent Zoom interview, Dr. Jones suggested that when the cannabis industry organizes to look for solutions to redress the harms done to the Black community, those who are the “hardest hit” by the harms need to be in charge and taking the lead of directing efforts. She argues that Black women are “hardest hit,” but don’t have the privilege of making any of the rules, and yet society, despite its unwillingness to put Black women in leadership, continues to be surprised when things don’t work out. She argues the matriarchal hierarchy of low-income Black communities and Black women’s centralized stronghold on the general Black community points to them for answers. She asserts that without the support of Black women, the Black community withers. The Black community also withers when White allies attempt to lead.

White allyship is critical in the global movement towards racial justice but, as Dr. Jones emphasizes, the experts who must lead the movement are the people with the lived experience. This cannot be accomplished by elevating and centering Black voices through a White lens. This can only be done when White people step back, step to the side, and open doors of opportunity to their Black peers.

This sentiment is shared across race and gender lines, by progressive White allies who truly have an understanding of power dynamics and that institutional racism is a concept bigger than them, their individual actions, or intentions.

People like educator Andrew Saturno, a man of Jewish and Italian descent, who was interviewed for this piece. Andrew is a Diverse Learning teaching and grade chair at a KIPP charter, a predominantly Black school on the West Side of Chicago.

Andrew is conscious about his leadership. Although he enjoys his school and would love to be an administrator, he would never feel comfortable being the Principal at a school made up of a 95% Black student-body. Instead, Andrew says he would love to share his ideas as Vice Principal and support a principal of color in leading. He challenges other white leaders to do the same. He asks “if you can’t take perspective from those you want to serve, how can you dictate what is best for them?”

Andrew believes that society cannot place the burden and labor of solving racism on Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) but that the space must be made for BIPOC to access positions of power and influence where they are adequately paid, allowed to delegate work to those who want to contribute to the movement, and encouraged to act in pursuit of the bigger long-term goals of all that needs to be done.

Andrew believes that the inherent privileges he holds in society as a White man won’t disappear because he uses these privileges to create space and opportunity for Black people. Andrew’s leadership style, framework, and perspective is a model for allyship in the cannabis industry could adapt. The report, Awake, to Woke, to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture, also speaks to the importance of examining our roles in the continuation of structural racism, saying, “The attainment of race equity requires us to examine all four levels on which racism operates (personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural), recognize our role in enduring inequities, and commit ourselves to change.” The report offers an equity-framework the Cannabis Industry could leverage. (Equity in the Center, 2019)

81% of cannabis business owners or founders are White, 5.7% are Latinx, 4.3% are Black, 2.4% are Asian, and 6.7% identify as other. (Marijuana Business Daily, Sept. 2017) Yet, according to the ACLU’s report, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, “Marijuana arrests made up 43% of all drug arrests in 2018, more than any other drug category.” Additionally, “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates. The increasing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana has not reduced national trends in racial disparities, which remain unchanged since 2010.” (ACLU, 2020)

The cannabis industry was built on the backs and blood of Black people, many of whom remain behind bars today, or were killed in experiencing police brutality. The majority of entrepreneurs in this space, young Black cannabis entrepreneurs, were penalized for their genius. Therefore, the industry has a responsibility to address the systemic and structural racism that continues to taint the industry, especially if it wants to address the persistent harms done by the War on Drugs.

Between Memorial day and the 4th of July, the 13 billion-dollar, seemingly recession-proof, overwhelmingly white Cannabis Industry started to see the tale of two Americas first-hand. While modern drug policies have “freed” certain groups from criminalization, the War on Drugs continues in the other America.

For the last 50 years, in the War on Drugs, marijuana was labeled a Schedule 1 drug in an attempt to fight what former U.S. President Nixon called public enemy number one: drug abuse. In a 1994 interview, former President Nixon’s Policy Chief, John Ehrlichman admitted the War on Drugs was indeed intentionally racist:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

In the midst of the current opioid epidemic, there is a new-found American sympathy for opioid users as suburban victims of drug abuse, rather than urban criminals. Given this shift in sympathy, some may see the War on Drugs as a thing of the past. The truth is that the War on Drugs continues today and that Cannabis Industry tax dollars are, in fact, used to fuel and pay for it. As highlighted in a recent Forbes article, 20% of Cannabis taxes from California’s multi-billion dollar industry is allocated to “public safety” to fund policing. In fact, just as recently as June 2020, California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control requested state funding to create a specialized police force to fight the Cannabis black market.

There are examples of the industry stepping up in this moment to recognize this hypocrisy and to do the right thing. For example, the Oregon Cannabis Association (OCA) called upon Portland Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler to stop supplying funds derived from cannabis tax revenue to the Portland police budget. The next day, Wheeler announced that $12 million from the city’s police department would instead be invested in supporting communities of color. While the OCA should be applauded for its realization that its dollars and resources must contribute to repairing the space that it leisurely and comfortably occupies, there must be bigger changes within the industry in order for the industry to meet the needs and desires of the Black Community, and to see this kind of change across the country.

In the age of marijuana legalization (for some) and ongoing unrest, the cannabis industry may finally have growing awareness that policies enforcing the WOD are largely to blame for the mass incarceration and continuous state-sanctioned murders of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor.

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was killed in a no-knock drug raid in March. (Source)

Breonna Taylor, just shy of 27, was a young woman of the same age, race, and gender as me — a woman who was killed in her bed during a no-knock drug raid that took place while police searched for a man whom they already had in custody. Yet, Black women continue to be erased from the War on Drugs narrative. The industry may also be growing its awareness about the historic erasure of Black women and the ways white patriarchy works. Black feminist scholar, Bell Hooks, names the legacy of this erasure in her book, Ain’t I a Woman, saying, “As far back as slavery, white people established a social hierarchy based on race and sex that ranked white men first, white women second, though sometimes equal to black men, who are ranked third, and black women last.” Thus in most recountings of history, “Black people” only encapsulates the experience of Black men and “women” only tells the stories of white women

Black women are the matriarchs of the Black community and have been equally harmed by the War on Drugs.

If the industry really wants to stop perpetuating harms, which continue to adversely impact the Black Community, the industry would be wise to create spaces like the WNBA’s Social Justice Council that elevate Black women in power and leadership.

We are the experts because of our lived experiences. Put Black women in charge. Let us lead.

About the author: Root and Rebound’s cannabis justice work is led by reentry attorney Eliana Green.

Root & Rebound, is a national legal non-profit whose mission is to restore power and resources to the families and communities most harmed by mass incarceration through legal advocacy, public education, policy reform and litigation — a model rooted in the needs and expertise of people who are directly impacted.

As an Equal Justice Fellow at Root & Rebound, Eliana’s project focuses on using this model to help repair the harms the War on Drugs has on communities of color. She also focuses on collaborating with the cannabis community to help corporate partners develop equitable hiring practices as well as relevant philanthropic initiatives that illustrate their understanding that corporate social responsibility should center those most harmed by cannabis prohibition.

Editor: Damali Robertson (Director of Strategic Partnerships, Root & Rebound)

Restoring power & resources to the communities most harmed by mass incarceration through legal advocacy, public education, policy reform & litigation.

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