America Has Yet to Achieve Racial Equity in Cannabis Reform. New Jersey Is Hoping Dianna Houenou Can Change That


Illustration for article titled America Has Yet to Achieve Racial Equity in Cannabis Reform. New Jersey Is Hoping Dianna Houenou Can Change That
Photo: Edwin Torres, Office of Governor Phil Murphy

On Election Day, New Jersey became one of four states where voters legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, joining a wave of drug reform and decriminalization that has been sweeping the country since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012.

This means that a third of Americans (more than 111 million total) now live in states where adults can legally purchase pot. But although reform is sweeping the nation, with dispensaries popping up everywhere from Oakland and Denver to Baltimore and Chicago, America’s “green rush” has yet to substantially uplift the communities most harmed by the country’s devastating “war on drugs.” Instead, white business-owners and large corporations have disproportionately benefited from cannabis reform, prompting fresh concerns about what the future of marijuana legalization holds for the Black and Latinx communities who suffered the most from America’s punitive drug policies.

New Jersey hopes to change that narrative. On Friday morning, Gov. Phil Murphy appointed Dianna Houenou, a senior advisor with an extensive background in criminal justice reform, to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will be charged with shaping the state’s cannabis laws and ensuring that the communities devastated by the New Jersey’s drug policies reap the benefits of the burgeoning industry.

“Dianna has been a critical voice for social justice and equity on my team for the past year and a half after spending several years working on the fight to legalize marijuana with the ACLU,” Gov. Murphy told The Root in a statement. “Her commitment to doing what is right and to leaving no one behind has powered our criminal justice reform agenda, and I am immensely proud that she will be continuing that commitment as Chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.”

“Since day one, we have said that the legalization of recreational marijuana must prioritize the communities marginalized and decimated by the failed War on Drugs,” Murphy added. “I know that Dianna is the perfect person to lead our state’s effort to create a marketplace for recreational marijuana that is equitable, fair, and inclusive of all communities.”

Previously, Houenou (pronounced way-now), who also serves as Gov. Murphy’s associate counsel, worked with the ACLU of New Jersey as its policy counsel, in which she worked on advocacy campaigns that included marijuana reform. Houenou told The Root she first became interested in drug policy as part of her broader interest in criminal justice reform while attending law school at the University of North Carolina.

“That was really the time where I started to connect the dots from earlier in life—where I was recognizing huge inequities, even among my friends and their life outcomes,” she said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “The way we have treated drug use has really been a disservice to people.”

“Cannabis legalization and regulation is just one illustration of much larger work that is needed to reform our drug policies wholesale,” she said, adding that doing so would give individuals “the freedom to thrive.”

New Jersey is the most populous of all the states that legalized recreational marijuana this week, and the first state in the mid-Atlantic to do so—leading Pennsylvania and New York, where lawmakers have long discussed legalization but have disagreed on how to do so. In New York, a major part of that disagreement has stemmed from questions around equity and accessibility. Nationwide, Black and Latinx Americans aren’t leading cannabis operations in significant numbers, nor have they been leading regulation or law-making efforts.

“The lack of equal access leads to corporations and out-of-state operators dominating the market, and many small businesses miss out on the opportunity to enter the market while it’s still emerging,” Grizzly Bocourt, an NYC cannabis activist and President of New York Cannabis United Bocourt told Forbes earlier this year. “We also need to bridge the gap between regulators and stakeholders [and] communities who have truly, disproportionately been affected by the war on drugs. New York is in need of extensive preparation before we reach full legalization.”

Some of the issues that have prevented Black folks from staking their claim in the emerging cannabis market include smaller legal restrictions, such as morality clauses and non-compete clauses that limit the viability of getting and keeping a job selling legal marijuana. There have also been, ironically, restrictions on people who have drug-related or adjacent arrests being able to get licenses.

And as with other industries, finding adequate property and capital to start a cannabis business is difficult. In Massachusetts, Forbes reports, more than 63 percent of cannabis businesses are white-owned, and a great share is run by large operators. In other states, such as Illinois, a lack of clear or accessible ownership data means there’s opacity about who’s profiting off the state’s drug reforms.

“Obtaining a marijuana license is practically impossible without a million dollars [or more], which is why there are only a handful of women and person of color-led dispensaries,” Imani Dawson, Executive Director of the Cannabis Education Advocacy Symposium and Expo (CEASE) and National Communications Director for Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) told Forbes. We aren’t reflected in venture capital spaces, and it’s clear how much representation matters.”

Racial equity in cannabis has been difficult even in areas where formal programs exist, such as Oakland, which offers equity permits to support marijuana entrepreneurs who were either convicted for pot-related offenses or are from neighborhoods heavily impacted by drug prohibition. Even holders of these permits can be boxed out of opportunities by larger, outside dispensaries that can undersell rival businesses and extract profits from local communities, reports The Guardian.

Working to make cannabis reform equitable will be no small task for Houenou and the commission, particularly in a state like New Jersey, where, despite similar rates of marijuana usage, Black people are 3.45 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. As recently as 2016, the Garden State spent $669.3 million to enforce restrictive drug policies, “despite the grave racial inequities in fuels,” writes Insider New Jersey.

Because the country has yet to really get equity in the cannabis industry right, Houenou will be leading New Jersey into uncharted territory. But if successful, the state could very well be a model for the region and the country at large.

Houenou isn’t going it alone. She has the full support of Gov. Murphy, who made marijuana legalization a signature part of his 2017 election campaign. She also understands that making cannabis reform truly equitable will be a holistic process requiring education, advocacy and buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, from law enforcement to those who lost years of their lives to drug prohibition policies. For her and the commission, equity won’t be an afterthought, as it has been in other places.

“We really are looking to make sure that equity is built into a regulated structure at the onset,” she said.

Houenou stresses that under her leadership, nothing would be off the table for the commission. This includes policies already existing in other places, including prioritizing permits for those who live in neighborhoods impacted by harsh drug policies, as well as individuals who have been entangled in the court system specifically for cannabis offenses. But she’s also interested in exploring—and breaking down—other barriers to entry and ensuring that revenue from these burgeoning businesses goes back into Black communities.

Outreach will be a key part of the commission’s mission and whether it’s successful, Houenou said. The five-person group will need to make sure they understand “what issues people are facing, how people are wanting to be involved in the cannabis industry and where they are—where we need to do the investment.”

She acknowledges that this means a slower process than some people may like, but community involvement will be crucial to help state lawmakers avoid the equity issues that have plagued America’s cannabis reforms thus far. What she’s ultimately aiming for, she said, is sustainability, not speed. To get there, the commission—and New Jerseyians—will need to think big.

“There is no limit to how big we can dream and how creative we can get to make sure that people of color and specifically Black people, who have been disproportionately negatively impacted by the war on drugs—making sure that they have room in this new industry,” she said. “To benefit and to take part in setting up what can be a great boon for communities.

“Every part of this process is so important because equality isn’t just about who gets a license,” Houenou noted. “It’s not just about what you do with the revenue that’s generated. We also should be using this opportunity, this chance to really build something great—and build it great at the outset.”

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