Ronald Reagan entered the presidential office in 1981. In response to the economic, political and cultural difficulties that went on during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Reagan, an actor-turned-politician, entered the Oval Office. A cultural shift was happening in America following the rise of the hippie movement in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan pushed back against it. Reagan brought hope to disaffected liberals across America, emphasizing a tough-on-crime stance– just as the crime rate was also beginning to rise. Conservatism was embraced, once again. As Reagan doubled down on Nixon’s War On Drugs, he also cut funding for Great Society programs meant to benefit disenfranchised groups, and more ambitiously, eradicate poverty and racial inequity. And this remains one of the most impactful moves in Reagan’s career. To this day, we’ve seen how his effort to combat drug use in general led to increased incarceration rates of Black and Brown people. Blacks and Latin communities were targets in the eyes of mainstream America who had already associated the “evils” of society with marginalized communities. The stigma from the War on Drugs still lingers today, and it’s not limited to crack, cocaine, or heroin — it’s reflected in day-to-day life for many such as NYC’s controversial stop-and-frisk practice.
A portrait of President Ronald Reagan in 1985 – Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In 1973, the same year DJ Kool Herc hosted hip-hop’s first block party, President Nixon launched the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) replacing the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants became the norm as Nixon attempted to combat the rise of crime and heroin. But even something like cannabis possession was being harshly penalized. A simple possession charge, under Nixon’s newly devised plan, could land someone in jail for 2-10 years. During this time, cannabis was categorized as a Schedule I drug, thus rubbing shoulders with cocaine, heroin, and other hard drugs. Even with several states, most recently Virginia, legalizing cannabis, it is still considered a drug with no medical benefit to it, per the federal government’s classification.
A Schedule I drug is classified as a substance with little-to-no medicinal value– despite the fact that cannabis has proven to have medical value and aids in treatment of many conditions from physical body pains to mental health problems such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.
America soon declared the use of illicit substances as public enemy number one, although the undertones would suggest otherwise.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the 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,” revealed John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s top aide on domestic affairs.
A 2018 report from American Progress discovered that by 2015, drug possession arrests went up three times as much than the rate in 1980, averaging 1.3M arrests per year. This is six times as high as the average rate of drug trafficking arrests. When you focus on the numbers, the racial disparity in the war on drugs policy becomes clear. Roughly 80 percent of those incarcerated on federal drug convictions are Black or Latino. This study also points out the inequity when it comes to sentencing. The average sentencing for a non-violent drug offense among Black Americans is nearly the same amount as a white defendant would get for a violent crime. On an economic standpoint, the same study reveals that an estimated $1 trillion was spent on the war on drugs.
Snoop Dogg arrested on charges of suspicion of marijuana possession, circa 1995 – Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Drugs that were defined as Schedule I with no medicinal value were, at one point, used for medicinal purposes in other countries and introduced to the U.S. by American doctors. Cannabis had already been introduced to America by the time the 20th Century rolled around, while opiates were being frequently prescribed throughout the 1800s. Cocaine was introduced to the States by American doctors who learned from the European explorers, who saw how Indiginous communities in South America used it. It was considered a quick pick-me-up for workers, but it’s association with the Black community in the South marked a shift in narrative. The New York Times published an article headlined “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are A New Southern Menace” on Feb. 8th. 1914, which helped sparked this myth surrounding cocaine and Black Americans in the South. This particular article written by Edward Huntington Williams, M.D. described the “effects” that cocaine had on Black Americans. “[The Negro fiend] imagines that he hears people taunting and abusing him, and this often incites homicidal attacks upon innocent and unsuspecting victims,” the article reads. It sounds absurd, but these headlines weren’t uncommon. Williams added that cocaine essentially gave Black men Superman-like abilities such as “a resistance to the ‘knock down’ effects of fatal wounds. Bullets fired into vital parts that would drop a sane man in his tracks, fail to check the ‘fiend.’” Spurred by these types of reports, in 1914 a new law emerged, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, that regulated and taxed all coca products.
The prohibition of cannabis followed a similar path as cocaine and heroin and it’s mostly due to Harry J. Anslinger, the man who vehemently campaigned to criminalize cannabis. Anslinger is to blame for the high levels of incarceration surrounding cannabis-related offenses, even today. He helped create the narrative that cannabis was a drug used by Black musicians to lure White women. Just as cocaine was used to paint Black men as a threat to white women in the South, the perception of weed was that it made people of color violent and sexually aggressive towards white women after consumption.
There’s a history of Black musicians becoming public targets in the eyes of the government. In the last 30 years since the War On Drugs began, hip-hop artists have become the newest target. This unjust tradition has been passed down through generations, dating back to jazz music. In fact, if you look at some of the earliest references of cannabis in music, they come from jazz artists. Jazz music was bringing the world together ahead of Anslinger’s induction as the head of the Bureau Of Narcotics. As more reports emerged of Black and Latin communities consuming cannabis in areas like El Paso, TX and New Orleans, as well as the migrations of African-Americans into Northern states, xenophobia became stronger and stronger. African-Americans, Mexicans and jazz culture as a whole became the main targets, because, while segregation was still the norm in the South, jazz music was beginning to break down these racial barriers. Men and women, both Black and White, occupied jazz clubs in harmony, where they would enjoy music, dance, and partake in the consumption of cannabis. Much like cocaine, the use of cannabis in these jazz clubs struck a chord among middle Americans and politicians alike. A growing fear that Black men would use this “mysterious” plant to seduce and “prey” on white teenagers ran rampant due to propaganda, such as Reefer Madness. The 1936 film meant to warn people about the effects of cannabis spewed nonsensical dangers of the plant.
A “Reefer Madness” poster, 1936 – Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind. Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana usage,” Anslinger said.
Jazz musicians became the cultural targets of this xenophobia on a wider scale as many of them also became vocal advocates for cannabis. Louis Armstrong, for instance, can be regarded as one of the pioneers of cannabis culture in music. Outside of Culver City, CA’s Cotton Club in 1930, Louis Armstrong was arrested after police spotted him smoking a joint during breaks before a set, making him the first celebrity to ever get arrested for the use of cannabis. Armstrong was sentenced to six months in prison and forced to pay a $1000 fine, but even after his release, he demanded that he have a permit to smoke cannabis anywhere he went. Armstrong was far from the last to get arrested, though. Anslinger directed authorities to keep a close eye on acts like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway — credited for being the first to reference cannabis in music on “Reefer Man” — Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and more based on the belief they were converting young White kids into budsmokers.
The Cotton Club in Harlem, 1925 – Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The rebellious nature of the youth prevailed, with cannabis becoming far more popular in the decades to come, largely due to jazz. One major player in the scene was Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish Harlem jazz musician hailing from Chicago who became the number one cannabis supplier to jazz musicians– he was known to have that jive– better known in 2020 as the “loud pack.”The Mighty Mezz was the name of the strain that all the jazz musicians were smoking at the time, named after the man himself.
He immersed himself in Black culture, inspired by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, even considering himself black. “In his belief that through his immersion in African American musical culture and his participation in the life of the black community in Harlem, he had definitively ‘crossed the line’ that divided white and black identities,” according to Gayle Ward, author of Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth- Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Eventually, he ended up in jail for selling cannabis. Apparently, he was so convinced that he was Black, he demanded that the warden place him in the section for Black inmates because he feared being attacked by White inmates. Mezz Mezzrow’s arrest and stature in cannabis and jazz culture planted a bigger cultural seed than anyone could imagine, inspiring the generations to come.
Cannabis culture would not have been able to thrive without the help of great musicians like Mezz. Hip-hop, similar to Jazz, found certain artists leading the charge in normalizing marijuana use and advocating for it, perhaps beginning with Cypress Hill in the ‘90s. In the past decade, Wiz Khalifa has emerged as the new-age poster child for legalization.
“I think for every generation you have your trailblazers and your people who kinda set the standard for what pot is for people that age,” Wiz Khalifa told us. Wiz set a standard for the generation of smokers that followed. Kush & Orange Juice marked a shift in hip-hop and cannabis culture as a whole, as well as fusing the two tighter together than ever before.
“For me, it was like Snoop, Cypress Hill, Method Man and Redman. Even seeing people like Cam’ron smoke weed and rap about it, it just inspired me to be my own,” Wiz said. Along with Curren$y, the two intertwined their love for music and cannabis to become one of the most notable stoner duos in the last decade. “Me and Curren$y linked up just by being homies and being into the same things,” he added. “I think our genuine love for art and music as well as pot, it kinda just tied everything together and made it kinda clear that that was the norm. I mean it still is, it’s just creative people love to smoke, get together, and dress well.”
A portrait of Jazz musician Mezz Mezrow, circa 1940 – William Gottlieb/Redferns/Getty Images
The idea of having a personal strain, pioneered by Mezz’s The Mighty Mezz, set the precedent for artists like Wiz Khalifa to follow. And again, in the same way Jazz musicians came up with slang words to refer to cannabis, so too has the hip-hop community. In the mid-aughts, it was damn-near impossible to hear a rapper who doesn’t talk about smoking “Kush” or “Purpp.” Groups like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Cypress Hill as well as artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Devin The Dude, and countless others had popularized terms like Indo and Hydro, referencing the method used to grow the plants. Strains and nicknames that came from the streets would eventually make their way into every smoker’s vernacular. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic introduced the world to a common term for cannabis sativa in the West Coast. Nearly a decade and a half later, Cam’ron would title his magnum opus, Purple Haze, because, admittedly that’s what was fueling those studio sessions.
Mario Guzman, better known as Mr. Sherbinski is the man behind a few popular strains that are heavily referenced throughout rap music. His proprietary genetics have created sought-after strains like Sunset Sherbet and Gelato.
“I got into the game by growing really good flowers and being known by developing Sunset Sherbert and the Gelato strains in San Francisco in the early days of legalization,” he told us over the phone. Guzman was working as a real estate broker until the market was beginning to “take a turn for the worst in California.” A friend told him to start growing cannabis as a way to supplement the loss of income, and that marked the beginning of his journey into the cannabis industry. “Starting a little hobby, I quickly realized that I had a greenthumb. And I developed this connection with the cannabis plant,” he added.
Just as he forayed into the cannabis industry, the Bay Area was witnessing the birth of the Hyphy movement and the demand for quality cannabis was high.
“By putting them into the right influencers’ hands– local rappers in San Francisco and people that we knew that just wanted the flower, to help when they’re in the studio or for them to ‘catch a vibe.’ That was sort of the beginning and how I transitioned from, getting that flower to the rapper’s hands, but also into the guys that would sell on the streets, which would make it popular,” he said.
“When there’s good flower, we say it takes them to a place where we believe all creative energy comes from. If it’s not good flower, you don’t get to that point. You’re not able to tap into that energy so that’s what we’ve become known for. That’s why artists fuck with us, that’s why they want our flower because if they have it, they’re able to reach this place where you can tap in creatively,” Guzman explained of the SHERBINSKIS brand.
But it’s the streets, ultimately, that dictate what’s cool and what isn’t. Maybe that’s why rappers– despite spearheading legalization through normalization– are often being used by Big Weed companies to target the urban community and beyond. “That’s the unique connection– with making [any strain] popular with the people that are rapping about it, and [then] how that affects the young people that are listening to this music, and also affects the product that they buy. I think that also speaks to a lot of these corporate companies that look to the hip hop culture, [to] the urban communities, [to] Black and Latino culture that [really] influences what people are going to buy.”
Drug culture of the 80s was defined by cocaine, while the inner-cities were riddled with the effects of the crack epidemic. Reagan took away social programs, like Medicaid, food stamps, social security and federal education programs, that would’ve helped vulnerable communities deal with the epidemic while the Wolf Of Wall Street could rail lines of cocaine all day. Crack was harshly penalized in comparison to powdered cocaine. Given the crack epidemic disproportionately affected Black communities, the late 80s found many rappers, such as Ice-T on “You Played Yourself” (1989), pushing an anti-drug message, to prevent the youth from getting trapped as either a user or a dealer. Only a few years before dropping The Chronic, Dr. Dre famously said he doesn’t “smoke weed or sess ‘cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage” on N.W.A’s. “Express Yourself.” Hell, even in Jay-Z’s “22 Twos” off of his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt, there’s a part in the outro where Maria Davis condemns the use of cannabis. Yet, in 2019, Jay-Z was announced as the chief brand strategist for cannabis company Caliva.
The emergence of Cypress Hill shook up the world in the early 90s. A Latino “pot-smoking” group coming out of Los Angeles, embodying gangsta rap with an emphasis on spreading the benefits of cannabis. In 1991, five years before Prop 215, the group dropped their self-titled debut album. Their cannabis references weren’t exactly slick, either. They were letting you know exactly what they were doing on songs like “Light Another” and “Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk.” On a song like “How To Kill A Man,” despite what its title may suggest, B-Real and Sen Dog were simply explaining how things were in their community, ravaged by the crack epidemic and gang warfare.
“For them, it was easy to point the finger and to say, ‘Hey, this is the wrong example. This is not what our kids should be listening to,’ and you know trying to create these obstacles for artists like us,” B-Real said. “We were speaking our mind about what was going on in our communities and what was going on in society and in our neighborhood, you know, and we were taking big chances with some of the titles of the songs and some of the content and how we were making it. But we felt that, you know, artistically, what we had was so different and out of the box that, you know, we had to stick by what we were talking about and how we were doing it no matter what.”
“We didn’t expect that people would connect to it on the cannabis level that it did, because like you said, there was a lot of anti-drug messages in hip hop right at that point, because a lot of the labels didn’t want to take chances,” B-Real added. “Fortunately, in spite of some of the blowback of some of the songs, you know, it resonated more with people than any of us expected.”
Cypress Hill’s 1998 single “Dr. Greenthumb” planted a seed both metaphorically and literally for the artist. “Dr. Greenthumb” served as an exploration into B-Real’s alter ego as a grower and eventually, it would serve as the name of his cannabis company. B-Real and Sen Dog’s entry into growing and cultivating cannabis began long before their days as luminary smokers, when they would be smoking out in Sen Dog’s backyard. Seeds that were found in the buds were tossed to the side, but a few of them grew into 13-feet plants. B-Real explains it was this that sparked his interest in growing. Researching constantly, some disposable income, and trial-and-error over the years finally led to the launch of Dr. Green Thumb Farms and B-Real’s foray into the world of legal cannabis. Meanwhile, lessons learned from the music industry became applicable on the business side of the cannabis industry.
“When you go into music, when you start a group and get signed by a label, you gotta trademark your name. Copyright, all of that. And you learn all these things,” he said. “I came with some knowledge on how you market in brand products and how you own it, and then how you push it out. So I took that and applied that to this, so when I decided to come into the cannabis industry, I trademarked my name under Dr. Green Thumb [in] various ways.” Cypress Hill, already an established “brand” at the time, played in his favor. “I started my trademark with Dr. Green Thumb, the music and the events and then transitioned that trademark into cannabis and people were already familiar with it so that gave me steps ahead.”
Wiz Khalifa blows out smoke – Rick Kern/WireImage/Getty Images
It can be argued that Wiz Khalifa has benefited from the Cypress Hill template, as both an artist and a brand. Wiz’s name has been synonymous with cannabis for over a decade. Though known solely as a smoker in his early career, he’s now established as a cannabis entrepreneur, working the Khalifa Kush strain into the market and even teaming up with Supreme (not the streetwear brand) to launch a line of oils, along with ventures in the cannabis tech world such as the Weed Farms app. His entrance into the legal market was, like B-Real, a natural process.
Wiz’s KK strain is fine-tuned specifically for Wiz himself, he tells us. “I just wanted to create something that I was into. As far as taste and smell. You know what I mean? Just something I was personally into,” he explained. Described as a phenotype of OG Kush, Wiz Khalifa’s exploration into genetics and cultivation began with his relationship with Taylor Gang signee and fellow hip-hop cannabis king, Berner.
“I got into the genetics of it just by being down with Berner. Traveling and meeting up with him on the road, he just really put me onto some different strains and some different types. He was in the middle of cultivating and coming up with some new strains himself, so he kind of just sent me through the same process that he was doing. Looking at different strains and really being picky, tryna get it right. In that process, he was able to find a few strains that he held onto like Cookies, Brunch, and stuff like that while I was able to walk away with KK.”
Cookies is one of today’s most-referenced strains of cannabis in hip-hop, just like The Mighty Mezz was in jazz’s hey-day. Though the scope of the cannabis industry has vastly expanded and new methods of consumption have grown in popularity, Berner’s beginnings in the cannabis industry started when he was a budtender, just as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 was passed. Prop 215, as it’s frequently referred to, marked a milestone in cannabis culture, especially in California where the effects of the War On Drugs and the crack epidemic were still lingering. The stepping stones of his success with Cookies lie in his early adult years when he went from budtender to running a cannabis store, from the age 18 to 25. The industry was different back then.
“It was heaven. It was the best process in the world. I wish we could bring it back to that process. It was a lot more pure and genuine. You know people just come in with their turkey bags full of good herbs and you would smell it. If you liked it, you’d buy it and negotiate the price right there,” Berner explained. He shared how, these days, it takes nearly three months to actually get products on the shelf after they go through testing. Nonetheless, these are changes he expected with the cannabis industry shifting. Berner dedicated his entire adult life to the cannabis industry, before there was a legal weed industry. Though it started off on a grassroots level, he’ll even admit that his position as hip-hop’s de-facto weed guy certainly didn’t hurt his cause.
“Having that cannabis club I was running back in the days, [helped] build my name up. When I got the brand, being able to push it on the internet and show it off, and being aware of how important branding is to what you’re doing…The music helped a lot though, I mean, I’m in the studio this week. I ran into a lot of artists, not gonna say who, but really, really, really big artists and I’ve been able to put stuff that’s not even out yet, in their hands,” Berner revealed.
One of those artists was fellow connoisseur B-Real. The two just dropped off their second joint project, Los Meros on April 17th. There’s a mutual love between the two, as both growers and MCs, but just because Berner has access to some of hip-hop’s elite doesn’t mean he uses his flowers as leverage. He’s worked on projects with Styles P and Cam’ron in the past, and the week we spoke, he had run into Dave East, A$AP Rocky, and Dr. Dre. However, it’s the organic relationships that he’s built and continues to build that have cemented his lofty position in the cannabis industry. “I almost get a kick out of not doing music with people I run into and trying to leverage the weed,” he explains, in part due to his shyness. “I just like people to acknowledge what I get done and whatever happens naturally or organically, it happens. That’s what’s dope.”
These organic relationships extend into his work as an entrepreneur in San Francisco, including a recent partnership with Shawn Richards. Under San Francisco’s Social Equity Program, Berner and Shawn Richards partnered with Cole Ashbury Group to launch Berner’s On Haight. Richards is now the first equity partner under the program that’s been approved by the city and county of San Francisco. The program is meant to create fair opportunities for Black and Brown entrepreneurs that have been affected by the War on Drugs. Berner’s On Haight marks San Francisco’s first black-owned dispensary but the rapper did face a bit of backlash upon opening it. A Vice article read, “White Weed Entrepreneurs Gaming Programs Meant To Help People Of Color” emerged just as Berner celebrated his launch. The article also happened to come out just a few days before he spoke to me.
“They put a ridiculous article out claiming that’s not the case and the headline of the article stated that rich white businessmen are taking advantage of minorities’ equity program deals. Published one of the worst articles I’ve ever seen and it really f*ckin’ upset me because the amount of energy I put into partnering with Shawn outside of the partnership itself on teaching him what I’ve learned the past 20 years, it’s crazy,” Berner, who’s Mexican, said in response to the article. “We’re so happy with what we’re doing, and it is the first black-owned dispensary in San Francisco, and it’s the first equity applicant store opened in San Francisco, the second in the nation and it’s majority is owned by him. And he’s the CEO. He’s on salary and he’s learning the business from me which I don’t give this kind of game to anyone.”
San Francisco isn’t the only place that’s taking steps to create a more inclusive industry. These equity programs are popping up a lot more across the nation. Nearly all states, with the exception of three, allow medical marijuana. Though only 13 of those states have fully legalized cannabis, certain states like California, Illinois, and Michigan have launched equity initiatives to support ownership and employment in the industry. Los Angeles, specifically, offers “individuals who are low income, have past cannabis arrests and or convictions and those that live in Disproportionately Impacted Areas may qualify to participate in the City’s Social Equity Program. This Program aims to support people impacted by the War on Drugs and seeks to reduce barriers to entering the legal cannabis industry by providing a number of programs to support business ownership and employment opportunities.”
Berner holds up a big bag of weed – Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
The complications surrounding the cannabis business involve money and the lingering socio-economic impacts of the war on drugs. The economics of the legalization of cannabis presents issues to, not only disenfranchised communities targeted by cannabis prohibition, but independent growers who lack the reach of major corporations. Like Big Pharma and Big Tobacco, cannabis, too, now has Big Weed companies infiltrating the market. Launching a cannabis business requires big bucks for licenses, permits, and cultivation, among the various other expenses. Though fees vary state-to-state, according to Cova Software’s website, a company that produces POS systems for dispensaries and the cannabis industry at large, the initial costs for opening a dispensary start anywhere from $150K to $2M, including staffing and rent. They state that the licensing application alone, on average, is $5K, while the annual license itself, if accepted, is anywhere from $1K to $10K. An applicant’s net worth, however, makes all the difference in certain states. Pensylvannia, for example, expects owners to have enough capital leftover to maintain their company expenses which typically means assets amounting to $2M and $500K in liquid cash.
Government initiatives aside, there are people on the inside of these Big Weed corporations looking to bring inclusivity and equality to the game. Take Jason White, for example. He’s one of the leading African-American executives in the cannabis industry serving Curaleaf as its Chief Marketing Officer and overseeing the Select oil brand, which Curaleaf acquired earlier in the year. Previously working as the former global head of marketing for Beats By Dre and and Global Account Director of Nike while at Widen + Kennedy, his foray into cannabis quickly transformed him into a leading figure in bringing social equity to the cannabis industry. He’s also behind The Possible Plan that aims to bring equitable access and reparatory justice to those affected by the War On Drugs such as expunging records for those convicted of cannabis charges before legalization began. The Possible Plan recently expunged more than 400 records in Baltimore. Bringing social equity is not solely about ownership but about diversifying the industry as a whole whether it’s in sourcing the products, marketing or even the tech side of things.
“I still think that the industry is very, very young and you still have a small handful of financial and business leaders that have the greatest amount of benefit,” he explained when asked who is benefiting the most from the cannabis industry right now. “Those that are contributing the capital are the ones that are, right now, poised to benefit.”
Though it’s white-collar businessmen reaping the benefits of the cannabis industry, White’s work could be the template for bringing inclusivity and social equity to the game. He explains that right now there’s a large amount of growth to do, both socially and fiscally, while important decisions are made behind the scenes that can ultimately dictate all of this.
“I think Big Cannabis can mean big good,” he explained. “If the right people make the decision to build this industry the way it should be built, I think you can see in Big Cannabis something very different from what we’ve seen in the past and that is an industry that thinks about its heritage, that contributes toward the livelihood of those that have been that have been damaged in the past by prohibition and thinks about how to grow as an industry in a way that is inclusive and in a way that is equitable. I think where we are at a crossroads right now, where we can still make those decisions and we can still build an industry that’s more inclusive.”
To that effect, White is keeping a close eye on the MORE Act. Standing for Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement act, the MORE Act of 2019 is meant to decriminalize cannabis on a federal level, thus removing it as a Schedule I drug. But it also includes a social equity provision in the act that would help minorities, specifically those impacted by the War On Drugs, to face less barriers in entering the legal weed game.
“What we’re seeing in social equity laws — in the upcoming legislation for states that are going legal — are there very specifically-focused on how they’re giving access to the cannabis industry, to those that have either personally been affected by prohibition or those communities that have been disproportionately affected by prohibition. They’re getting a favor in license applications. They’re getting access to training in other areas through privately funded organizations. You’re starting to finally see a movement that is thinking about those people that have been not just ignored, but really disproportionately affected by the war on drugs,” White explained to us.
Though the fight to create more diverse spaces and opportunities in the cannabis industry continues, it’s not limited to owning a dispensary or cultivating the plant. The cannabis industry, as Leafly put it in their 2019 Job Count, is “America’s hidden job boom.”
211,000 Americans found employment in the ever-expanding field, and the number grows to 296,000 when you consider those who are working tangentially, such as marketing firms and legal aid. The stigma surrounding cannabis hasn’t been eradicated entirely but it’s putting food on many tables across the country.
Yet, even with these promising advances, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the small guys to succeed in the Big Weed industry. The fact of the matter is, anyone who wasn’t fully invested in the industry before the legal market was established will find it difficult to compete. It’s expensive– from getting started to maintaining cultivation, as well as the taxes that come along with it. Starting on January 1st, 2020,California raised taxes on vertically integrated cannabis companies from 30% to 80%. These large corporations feeding dollars to launch cannabis brands are able to afford it, certainly, but local growers and mom-and-pop shops might have to eventually close because of the margins and competition.
“I believe that they’ve pumped these taxes up to wash out small businesses and make room for big business, and those of us that have a big enough brand to survive will be like the craft brewers and, you know, independent like that. Those of us with a big enough brand to withstand what’s coming,” B-Real explained. “I know it sounds crazy, but you know, we saw this coming the minute they say they passed Prop 64. My group of people, some of us were saying it like, ‘you know, this is great. Legalization is great but some of this shit is off because it’s going to affect the small businesses.’ It’s not going to affect someone like me, you know, because I did building my brand before I got into the cannabis industry through music, being an advocate and activist. It’s going to affect the people that maybe, they don’t have a brand that is well-known. They don’t have the financial backing to compete with the marketing of some of the giants that are going to come in, because that’s the part of it. You can have the best cannabis in the world in your shop, but if you don’t have the money to promote, publicize and market that particular place, you’re going to fall victim to the one with the bigger name.”
Cypress Hill attend the first-ever Budtender Awards, October, 2019 – Denise Truscello/WireImage/Getty Images
The advocacy and work people like B-Real, Berner, Jason White and Mario Guzman put in before legalization happened is why they’ve been able to succeed. They perfected their craft and established trusted brands with quality products over the years. B-Real and Berner, for example, have lived this life, both on and off wax, for the world to see. Guzman might not be a rapper but there’s a reason that artists like Travis Scott and Migos have given him shout outs. Not many rappers can successfully get into the industry on their own unless they’ve been putting in the work for years. At this point, we will see more musicians get into the industry but through partnerships and sponsorships because they have the leverage of their brand.
“Groups like The Black Crowes in the 90s that were advocates and that were totally out there, up front about it. But it’s because rock, that genre, it’s about the music first, cannabis later, if cannabis at all. Some of those fans just ain’t into it but some of them are. That’s the commonality that we have.” B-Real explained. “Cannabis activists loved them. But like, let’s just say, music fans, not all of them embraced their politics. Whereas in hip hop, that’s just a given. It comes with every fuckin’ rapper. It’s like if you had a Star Wars vinyl toy with Luke Skywalker, what does he come with every time? A fucking lightsaber. If you were to put out a fucking rapper vinyl, you know, collectible, they should be having a bag of weed [come with it], because that’s what it is these days.”