Just why is Sir Simon Woolley, founder of Operation Black Vote, calling for people of colour to get involved in the UK’s burgeoning medical cannabis space? Because, as he put it at an event in London this week, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Young men from a black and ethnic minority (Bame) background make up about 51 per cent of the UK’s youth prison population despite constituting just 13 per cent of the population at large.
As Sir Simon details, these figures can be explained, in large part, by the disproportionate impact that drug law enforcement has on Bame people in the UK, through practices like stop and search.
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I have spent much of this year observing the great, the good and the just plain greedy of this growing cannabis industry in the UK. And one thing is clear: while those sitting in jail for weed may be black, when cannabis legalisation eventually hits our shores, it will be dominated by white men in suits.
It is not surprising that big money follows marijuana. Even with cannabis stocks currently taking a pummeling in the financial markets, estimates suggest the global legal industry will grow to $66.3bn by 2023.
Indeed as Shaleen Title, commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, has pointed out, cannabis represents a once in a lifetime opportunity in an industry in which the playbook is still being created.
“We get to decide how much influence we will have on it. Our choice will absolutely make an impact seven generations into the future, and further,” she explained.
As Canadian further education roll out courses on the cannabis economy, from production to applied science, and US universities allow students to enroll in classes from marijuana law and policy to journalism, the industry represents a ripe opportunity for our youth.
But for people of colour, in the UK and beyond, the potential impact extends beyond money. It’s a chance to shape the future industry in a way that repairs the disproportionate harm that the war on drugs has caused to our communities.
A 2019 report by Vienna-based think tank has even gone so far as to explore the extent to which the industry could be structured to meet the aims of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.
The report authors found that the potential of cannabis, in appropriately regulated settings, is transformative for our societies, “so long as ethical practices and sustainable approaches are kept central”.
The reality is that, at present, big money is shaping the debate on the future of cannabis in the UK. Black folk’s hesitancy to enter the space surrounding what is still a controlled substance is not surprising given the decades of racist propaganda churned out as part of the war on drugs.
Yet if we want proper answers to tough questions such as the potential correlation between psychosis and cannabis use, or how to successfully move people from the illicit to the regulated side of the trade, it will be down to us and the generations that follow to ensure that Bame youths are not just on the agenda but a core part of future policy and practice.
It is about time we, as a community, reconceptualise the way we think about this plant. Because as cannabis becomes commoditised, the price of the crop will inevitably fall.
We need to stop thinking of our youth as slinging bags of weed on street corners. Forward-thinking countries, particularly in the Caribbean, are creating industries that add value to this plant through ancillary industries including intellectual property, real estate, technology and tourism.
As Martin Drewry, CEO of Health Poverty Action, said in an interview earlier this year: “There’s an opportunity here – we have the chance to create an entirely new legitimate sector from the ground up.”
The decision is ours as to whether this opportunity is one we seize or squander.
Zoe Smith is a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs and the founder of Caribis, a platform concerned with the Caribbean’s legal cannabis sector