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What I learned tracking down the story of racial inequities in the cannabis world

What I learned tracking down the story of racial inequities in the cannabis world

Picture of Donnell Alexander
(Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)
(Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images)

From 2018 to 2020, I co-hosted WeedWeek, a cannabis industry podcast based in Los Angeles. Until then cannabis journalism had not been a full-time job. It was more of a sidelight, a specialty that gave otherwise bright people license to make dumb jokes.

Throughout my life I’d found the people I knew from being around the prohibited plant to be among our most interesting storytellers. So, I adored that podcast gig. But after the first blush of adoration came an understanding that the story of American cannabis and the end of its prohibition is an almost endlessly complicated financial, political and cultural event.

Whether one was for or against legal pot was a small part of a much broader community discussion.

I learned also that sanctioned cannabis markets were in a fractured war with the unlicensed market (or the traditional market, as the progressive weed folk are calling it). My sense of being overwhelmed by the complexities of this new beat may have peaked on a busy weekend night downtown. I walked out of the big-brand dispensary Med Men on Broadway with other customers.

A Black kid rolled up Broadway on a bike. No hands. 

“Med Men?” he shouted at us, incredulous. “Y’all some suckas!”

Are dispensary customers suckers? 

I knew that was a jab at those of us who weren’t patronizing the vast and affordable unlicensed cannabis market. That legal weed was priced for tourists, as the kid on the bike implied. 

But there was still more to it. Black people were being shut out of legal cannabis ownership —  roughly 2% of America’s dispensaries are Black owned. I learned this in 2017, up in Oregon. And PoC podcast guest after PoC podcast guest would come on to our show and put together a little more of the puzzle. It took the quarantine and that podcast dying and then George Floyd’s death for me to take apart what the cyclist said. 

At my highest ambition, I wanted to talk about the state of cannabis in North America by focusing on the racial disparity in the weed that’s sold without white-collar investors or government sanction. Roughly 80% of our pot, one expert told me early on, comes from millions of unlicensed operators. At least as diverse as the nation itself, the traditional market offers better entrepreneurial opportunities than in emerging Medical Marijuana and Adult-Use paradigms.

Engaged journalism above all

Before I even knew the broader perimeters of my series, I knew that I wanted to give voice to the people who were not free to tell their stories on the podcast: Unlicensed cannabis operators. Ashley Alvarado, my USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism  engagement advisor, guided me through the development of a questionnaire aimed at unlicensed cannabis operators.

In the analogue days of in-person interviews, I kept my written-out questions shielded by my hand. Often, I treated interviewees as mere means to an end. With this project, that couldn’t be the case. There would be no convincing myself that I knew more than the people who negotiate the unpredictable realities of weed right now. 

I sent close to 50 questions to the savviest cannabis people I know, with a bent toward the equity issue I’d primarily focus on. They graded my questions on a scale of 1-5. The best overall scores, plus a few questions of my own, formed the 22-response questionnaire. 

I disseminated the questions online, then traveled by train up to the Pacific Northwest to do the reporting that would flesh out the series. 

Dry snitching ain’t us

Two issues guided the reporting: A note delivered to me by a Georgia activist and an adage from the streets that I’d come to know via hip hop culture.

First, my articles’ language truly needed to meet readers where they are. 

One activist read my questionnaire and bluntly told me the questions were written at too high a grade level to connect with the people I’d targeted. I learned this too late to alter my questionnaire, but I could make the actual article’s prose more accessible.

I’d taken with me to the Pacific Northwest a copy of Kevin Barry’s “Night Boat to Tangier.” For much of the early, framing narrative the author writes in short bursts, some paragraphs merely a sentence long. The approaches drew me in, made every point distinct. So I ripped off Kevin Barry. 

Then there was dry snitching. I would be bringing none of that.

Loosely defined, dry snitching is the sharing of information that leads to trouble for a person while not owning that you’re responsible. 

In journalism, this isn’t a transgression that reporters always concern themselves with. Here it was a concern because I want great things for legal cannabis and know that the war with unlicensed cannabis is a complicated battle that includes friends on both sides of the prohibition line. 

For this assignment, my operating principle was not to provide harmful insights into the unlicensed people who aren’t at the top of cartels. If you couldn’t read about it on the pages of a reputable site such as Marijuana Moment or hear a version of the practice in a rap song, that fact wouldn’t be in my story.  

But the deep-pocketed cannabis companies whom I viewed as hoarding cannabis wealth and spreading ownership only among white pot fans? I was prepared to throw everything I have at them, in the name of cannabis equity and fairness.

The home stretch

By November, the project had grown into a four-part series and been delayed at least a month. I began to shift from the reporting component to community engagement. It was important to remind my core group sources that their insights would not die on a vine. 

The social media plan was to focus on the first tier of collaborators from my questionnaire. (I’ve kept in touch via email.) Each day’s series link would be shared too inside Facebook groups focused on industry policy issues and on people of color in cannabis. That’s in addition to a group devoted to Black-owned farms and my connections in the cannabis industry on Twitter.

The Center for Health Journalism series is my fourth attempt to tell the story of social equity and cannabis. That I succeeded this time is due, in no small part, to James Causey, a Milwaukee Journal editor and my USC advisor. James let me write the way I have worked decades to develop, in a way that’s cannabis friendly and reflects the tone of that community. 

Usually, editors don’t allow me to use what I’m now calling my Sass Mouth Voice. If James hadn’t approved my prose and sent along with it the USC imprimatur, it’s doubtful that the piece would have been published. Capital & Main gave the project a home.

In college I dreamed of creating something called the Raw Style. This week that style was let out into the world. It took so many people to make this happen. They trusted and coached me, and I feel like the distance between squares and stoners in the shadows grew a little less distant.

Comments

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Hearing the voice on the ground from unlicensed to licensed cannabis growers and citing out the inequities of wealth sounds more like a social scientist endeavor and requires “big cojones”. I did not know much of such things as dry snitching nor of a Raw style of writing good journalists abide by but I appreciated your honest use of language here. Whether you live in Oregon or not, this nation is definitely at the mercy of big capitalistic take-over of the backyard, weed farmer guy just wanting to get a little of the action. But when you take the time to call out the constant cultural, race inequities still inherently haunting us all today, well that’s much more than a critique about weed. Thank you, Donnell Alexander and your advisors.

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Thanks for your perspective, Sandra. The equity topic is tough to address right now because civilian consumers, dealers & bystanders don’t know the stakes. But I did my best.

The hope is that readers will finding my reporting and actively respond.

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