Despite Local Government Support, Minority-Owned Medical Marijuana Businesses Are Sparse

Jessica Diaz-Hurtado

Victoria Harris is perfecting a cucumber salad recipe in the kitchen of her Northwest D.C. home, but it isn’t your average cool summer salad. All of Harris’s recipes for her business, D.C. Tastebuds, include marijuana. She’s one of a handful of local people of color hoping to benefit from the city’s growing marijuana industry.

Harris thinks that minorities should have the opportunity to benefit from legalized marijuana since communities of color were disproportionately affected by the government’s effort in the 1970s and 1980s to combat drug use, known as the “war on drugs.”

“The war on drugs has created such a stigma around cannabis, and Latinos and blacks have suffered the burden of that,” Harris said.

Minorities have struggled to break into the industry, however, even in places like D.C. which legalized medical marijuana in 2014. The District removed criminal penalties for possessing, consuming and growing cannabis in small amounts, but marijuana can only be sold from an established medical marijuana business.

Harris experiments with recipes — such as cannabis-infused cucumber salad — in her D.C. home.Jessica Diaz-Hurtado / WAMU

Opening a dispensary requires a lengthy application process and secure financial support.

Dr. Chanda Macias, who owns one of the District’s five dispensaries — the National Holistic Healing Center in Dupont Circle — said access to funds is the biggest challenge people of color face in establishing a marijuana business.

“I had to just take out a second mortgage on my house to fund myself,” Macias said.

She added that making it in the industry also requires relationships and networks, which people of color often don’t have.

Macias is one of only two black women in the entire country to own a dispensary.

“There’s only six black men in the nation that have dispensaries or cultivation centers,” Macias said. “So, literally, I have eight people I can call, where my colleagues have over hundreds of people to talk to, support, find ways of getting capital, and derive innovation.”

The lack of contacts is also a problem for Harris. Since cannabis edibles can only be sold at approved dispensaries or cultivation centers, she is still working out where she can sell D.C. Tastebuds products and recipes.

D.C. Council Member Robert White (D-At Large) is working to change that dynamic. In June, he worked to pass a bill giving people of color priority in the application process for marijuana dispensary licenses.

“Particularly because people of color have been disproportionately harmed in the enforcement of our marijuana laws, I think that it is only right that they get to play a role in the commercialization of marijuana,” White said. “Anything else, I think, is unfair and hypocritical.”

According to the ACLU, African Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug charges, although the patterns of drug use are similar. African Americans currently own about 1 percent of the marijuana dispensaries in the U.S.

White is uncertain whether the bill will have much of an impact, though. A similar system hasn’t worked so far in nearby Maryland.

“They distributed 15 licenses and, I think, passed a law to give some preference to people of color, and yet none of the licenses went to people of color,” White said.