Cannabis justice: Racial disparities in a growing agricultural industry



One crop with some of the fastest-growing rates of production is cannabis, specifically hemp. Hemp, a strain of Cannabis sativa with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient most associated with marijuana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Center stated that in the first year following the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp production increased by 450 percent.

Additionally, states across the country, from Colorado to Virginia, are loosening and ending legal restrictions on marijuana (which has higher levels of active THC). The cannabis industry is expected to be a $40 billion industry in the next five years. In fact, Colorado alone saw $2.2 billion in sales in 2020.

Data show that small and under-resourced farmers, in particular, are gravitating toward these crops. Hemp and marijuana can be cultivated in more confined spaces, especially when harvested for fiber and seed, which are planted in narrow rows. And smaller acreages may not have as many regulatory hurdles as larger farm properties, because even as states relax their rules, the federal government has yet to legalize marijuana.

Still, there is no doubt that the cannabis industry is lucrative for producers. However, there are still enormous injustices that communities of color have faced in the cannabis industry.

Since 1937, marijuana has been federally illegal in the U.S. Since then, there have been extensive efforts to quell the sale and use of marijuana. These efforts, however, affect Black and Brown people much more extensively. For example, although Black and White adults between the ages of 18 and 25 years old use marijuana at about the same rates, Black adults are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession across the U.S. In some states, like Iowa and Minnesota, those rates are up to eight times more likely.

That means that for every one White person arrested for marijuana, there are between four and eight Black people arrested for the same crime. This happens as an increasing number of Americans support the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana.

Interestingly, most cannabis businesses in the U.S. are owned by White individuals. In Illinois, for example, none of the 89 cannabis dispensaries are minority-owned. Yet, a Black person in Illinois is 7.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Having criminal records for marijuana can trigger red flags on background checks, preventing individuals from getting a job, renting an apartment, and obtaining student loans.

These statistics and consequences are incredibly jarring and quite frustrating.

How did we get here? Through a combination of local, state, and federal policies and cultural portrayal of marijuana, communities of color have been targeted more in public media and law enforcement.

Most recently, I have been reminded of this through debates sparked around track and field sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who took full responsibility for not following U.S. Olympic Committee rules and testing positive for marijuana usage. Shortly after, a Forbes article was released about Olympic Soccer Gold Medalist Megan Rapinoe, who regularly uses hemp-derived products from a brand started by her sister.

Many took to social media to highlight the batten disparity in how each of these stories were told, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Other congressional members called for a change in the U.S. Anti-Doping Association Rules. Statistics also show that between 50 percent and 67 percent of individuals support the legalization of marijuana.

While the products that Rapinoe used were allowed under the World Anti-Doping Association, this is just one example of how the portrayal of individuals using cannabis products can be pretty confusing.

Currently, marijuana is recreationally and medically legalized and decriminalized in 18 states, as well as in Washington, D.C. Only in five states is marijuana fully illegal for medical and recreational purposes, with all other states having mixed laws around its medical legality and decriminalization. Of the 50 states, however, only four states offer broad automatic relief for those convicted of drug offenses now legal under current laws.

As more states fully legalize marijuana, more needs to be done to recompense those convicted for cannabis-related offenses. Today, people, primarily White people, are profiting billions of dollars on an industry that sends nearly 700,000 people to jail annually. What can destroy the life of one person can make another person a millionaire. Policies must shift so that all communities can not only survive but thrive in this new booming industry.


Irene Lewis is a recent Master’s student in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University with a major in public administration with a focus on public policy and management. She is a south Louisiana native and food justice and access advocate.

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