In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Sonya A. Grier asks what the storefront of a local cannabis dispensary in Washington, D.C. can tell us about the state of contemporary (Black) capitalism.
Main image: Picture by the author (2021).
In April 2020, in the aftermath of protests following the televised murder of George Floyd by a policeman, Cannabliss, the District of Columbia’s (DC) first “100% black owned” medical marijuana dispensary, faced vandalism attempts. The owner, Mr. Pickett, wrote on the front of the building:
100% black owned and black operated
Please don’t destroy black jobs
Mr. Pickett claims that he aims for the dispensary to increase access to medical marijuana in an underserved market, create jobs, and support economic justice (www.dcholisticwellness.com/press). In the recent Covid-19 pandemic,marijuana businesses were deemed “essential” businesses. The dispensary employs 22 people, most from the surrounding area. The owner is proud to present his dispensary as the “first fully unionized cannabis shop in the District offering employees greater pay, paid time off, and paid holidays, as well as retirement plans, additional accredited training and health care insurance”. The dispensary is located in the former home of a 50+ year Black-owned liquor store that served the predominately Black, historically low-income and slowly gentrifying Deanwood neighbourhood.
In gentrifying areas, new businesses may be viewed suspiciously as long-term residents perceive that new businesses are targeted to incoming residents. A cannabis dispensary faces particular scrutiny given the “War on drugs,” which has subjected Black Americans to decades of over-policing, arrest, prosecution and incarceration for non-violent offences with dire consequences for Black communities.
Although the push for legalisation repositioned marijuana as a mainstream drug, Black Americans remain the face of illegal cannabis. Despite similar rates of use across racial groups, Blacks are almost 4 times as likely as Whites to be arrested for possession of cannabis. In Washington, D.C., Black people comprise 84% of people arrested for public consumption, although they are only 45% of the D.C. population. Black communities are understandably skeptical regarding a legal business for a product they see continue to criminalise their friends and family. Community members may also wonder about the types of products sold by their local businesses given the 50-year tenure of the liquor store that preceded Cannabliss. The “green rush” may start a new conversation in the public health debate over the adverse effects of targeted marketing to Black communities. White Americans have become the face of the $61 billion-dollar fast-growing legalised cannabis industry where fewer than 5% of dispensary owners are Black. Significant structural, economic and other barriers exclude Black Americans from reaping the economic benefits of cannabis legalisation. Social equity programmes have been designed as a form of reparations that redistribute wealth, power, and resources within the existing capitalist system as payback for structural oppression. Will state sponsored Black capitalism be the solution? The writing is on the wall.
 John Schroyer, “US markets that have allowed marijuana businesses to remain open during coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home orders,” April 2 2020, https://mjbizdaily.com/states-that-have-allowed-marijuana-businesses-to-remain-open-during-coronavirus-pandemic/.
 UFCW, “Workers at First Solely Black-Owned Cannabis Dispensary in DC Unionize,” The United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 (2019).
 Sonya A. Grier & Vanessa G. Perry,”Dog parks and coffee shops: Faux diversity and consumption in gentrifying neighborhoods,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 37, no. 1 (2018): 23–38.
 Benjamin P. Sheppard (2020), “Going for the Green: Social Equity in the Recreational Cannabis Industry,” Lincoln Memorial University Law Review Archive, 8, no. 1 (2020), 280.
 American Civil Liberties Union, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in The Era Of Marijuana Reform(2020), available at: https://www.aclu.org/report/tale-two-countries-racially-targeted-arrests-era-marijuana-reform.
 Rose Hackman, “A billion-dollar industry, a racist legacy: being black and growing pot in America,” The Guardian, 15 June 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/15/legal-marijuana-industry-racism-portland-jesce-horton.
 Sonya A. Grier & Shiriki Kumanyika, “Targeted Marketing and Public Health,” Annual Review of Public Health, 31(2010): 349–369.
 Flowhub, Cannabis Industry Statistics 2021, Flowhub consulting, available at: https://flowhub.com/cannabis-industry-statistics, accessed March 2, 2021. Marijuana Business Daily, Percentage of cannabis business owners and founders by race (2017), available at: https://mjbizdaily.com/chart-19-cannabis-businesses-owned-founded-racial-minorities/.
 See Sheppard, “Going for the Green.”
Sonya A. Grier
Sonya A. Grier is Professor of Marketing at the American University Kogod School of Business. She received her Ph.D. in Marketing from Northwestern University. She is a social researcher and documentary filmmaker. She has published her research in leading journals across disciplines and has won multiple best paper awards. She has a diverse background working in private, government, and non-profit sectors on issues related to the role of race in diverse markets, and the use of marketing for social change. She is a Co-founder of the Race in the Marketplace (RIM) Research Network and co-edited the volume, Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Sonya currently serves on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the Journal of Consumer Affairs, and Advertising and Society Quarterly, and is also a member of the Council on Black Health. She enjoys photography as a way to engage with the world around her.