We tackle the hard history of cannabis legalization with the authors of Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice. University of Toronto Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and entrepreneur and investor Tahira Rehmatullah, often called one of the most powerful women in weed, explain why the War on Drugs is now considered a failed policy, what ten years of legal cannabis have taught us about social equity, and how you can advocate for a better future for the cannabis industry.
This podcast discusses cannabis and is intended for audiences 21 and over.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (00:06):
If we’re recognizing that prohibition is failed policy, why is it that we would still leave the individuals who were criminalized and our society to deal with the negative ramifications or effects of that prohibition? It makes no sense, right? We’ve recognized it’s a failure. We’re looking to move on. Let’s bring the people who are negatively harmed along with us.
Ellen Scanlon (00:28):
Welcome to How to Do the Pot, a podcast helping you feel confident about cannabis. I’m your host, Ellen Scanlon. You just heard from Toronto based Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto and the co-author of a new book called Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice. The legalization of cannabis is a very big topic, and on the show we usually focus on the practical side of weed, helping you feel confident to find relief for health issues like menopause, tips for how to find the right weed to help with stress, sleep or sex, or just how to have fun with cannabis. Last week’s episode was inspired by the Halloween season. It’s part of our series called Weed Words, all about the word paranoia. I shared the history and the science behind this side effect and offer tips to help you avoid feeling paranoid with weed.
And as we lead up to Halloween, it feels like the right time to talk about the darker side of weed. Safe, legal cannabis is a fascinating topic to me in part because of how it’s changing our culture. Today’s episode is about the history and the challenges of cannabis legalization, the injustice of it, the fact that black and white people smoke weeded at the same rates, yet black people are four times more likely to be arrested. Data that recently came out showing that in 2022, more than 200,000 people were arrested for cannabis crimes, with 92% of those arrests for simple possession.
Tahira Rehmatullah is a cannabis investor and entrepreneur who is often called one of the most powerful women in weed. She is the co-author of the book Waiting to Inhale and she and Akwasi, who you just heard from, we’ll share what they’ve learned about racial justice for more than 10 years of legal cannabis in select US states and five years of federal legalization in Canada, we’ll talk about how the drug policies of the past, the war on drugs, have hurt individuals and unfairly targeted communities of mostly black and brown people. Tahira and Akwasi will help us understand all of these complex issues and share their ideas for how to create an industry that we can all be proud to be part of.
Before we get into this week’s episode, I want to thank the people who’ve been asking how they can support the show. Please tell all your friends. Clicking the share button on one of our episodes and sending it to a friend is a great way to help us grow. Another thing you can do is sign up for How to Do the Pots newsletter. It’s a twice a month resource that helps you feel confident about cannabis for health, wellbeing, and for fun, we have thousands of subscribers reading and replying with comments and tips and the more the merrier. We couldn’t do this without you. Please go to dothepot.com to sign up. Thank you, and I really appreciate your support for the show.
Most people are familiar with the phrase, the War on Drugs. It was a policy started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. It ramped up in the 1980s very publicly with First Lady Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. If you were in school from the 1990s until about 2009, you may have participated in the DARE program, which brought police into schools to talk about the dangers of drugs. I asked Akwasi to explain what the war on drugs meant for the criminal justice system and how it’s viewed now through the lens of history.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (04:59):
My day job is as a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, and I study inequality in our criminal justice system, both Canadian and American focused. So although I started as a general policing scholar, my work expanded throughout the criminal justice system. But drug policy and drug law enforcement has become central to the work that I do. Recognizing that we can’t understand the true nature of racial inequality in our justice system, and I would say our society more generally without thinking about the impact of the war on drugs and how that has really targeted black and brown people. We also need to recognize that our early drug laws came out of attempts to control both certain racial populations as well as social groups who were seen to be problematic. So our first drug laws really targeted Chinese people and opium use, Mexican people with respect to cannabis and later black people and the association with jazz, and then also populations, groups, hippies, for example, that were seen as being a threat or a danger to mainstream society.
And so our drug laws were never initially devised and certainly have not been promoted and expanded really to protect the public in the way that we think they have. If that was the intention, I think we would’ve taken a very different approach. There are a few things that I want every cannabis consumer to know about the war on drugs. First of all, that it’s been a hugely failed policy. If the goal was to reduce drug use and the supply of drugs and to curtail criminal activity, to stop criminal activity around drugs and drug trafficking, then it’s been a huge failure. If you’re a politician who’s campaigned on a tough on drugs agenda, if you’re a law enforcement or justice agency who has benefited from the money that’s come from fighting the war on drugs, or if you’re a cartel or other organized crime group who’s benefited from the money being made, then it’s been successful in your eyes. But for the most part, it has been an abject failure. We spent trillions of dollars waging this war, and our society is no better for it. In fact, I think we’re much worse off.
Ellen Scanlon (07:01):
To learn more about the war on drugs, check out episode 133 called Weed Words: Marijuana, where I break down this words complicated and racist history. In 2013, Tahira’s grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. Her whole family kind of unexpectedly got curious about cannabis to help relieve her grandfather’s chemotherapy symptoms. A few years later when a friend from business school at Yale asked Tahira if she would be open to working in cannabis, she already knew it had powerful health benefits and saw this as an intriguing opportunity. 10 years later, she’s still a student of the cannabis industry. Only now she has worn a lot of professional hats as a cannabis investor, operator and founder.
Tahira Rehmatullah (08:05):
Being a 1980s kid, Nancy Reagan, Just Say No. That was the story that I knew. And then when I started doing research myself around cannabis while I was in business school, realized that it was not that at all and really started to have a different lens around it. So that was always really important to me coming into the industry, wanting to shift that narrative and give people opportunity. And of course that still continues to be a battle today, but it was a major motivating factor in also coming into the space and trying to formalize an industry that’s actually been around forever but has been operated in the shadows and really shouldn’t be. And so how do we bring that to light in a really positive way and help the people who have been advocates and working on it for decades actually start to benefit from it.
Ellen Scanlon (08:51):
In many US states that are legalizing cannabis, righting the wrongs of the war on drugs has been a controversial topic. It’s often called social equity. Akwasi explains what it means.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (09:06):
Social equity are really measures to address the harms of drug prohibition and advance inclusion and social justice and legalization. It really is the various ways in which cannabis legalization can be fair and can be just, and again, this comes from an acknowledgement that what we have had has not been just, and it’s produced hugely unjust outcomes.
Ellen Scanlon (09:29):
Talking about social equity in cannabis feels similar to a lot of the complicated issues we’re grappling with as a society. Tahira explains why.
Tahira Rehmatullah (09:42):
Just the definition of thinking around social equity, obviously there we’re talking in the context of cannabis, but we can think about it more broadly as well. It’s just taking into account systemic inequalities to ensure that everyone in a community has access to the same opportunities and outcomes. We see that being applied today in a lot of different industries when it comes to race, gender, education levels, you name it. And cannabis specifically, you add up all of those demographics and that is what social equity and cannabis or social justice is trying to equalize to some degree.
And therein is the challenge is that we’re dealing with decades and decades of unfair policy around the table. And the unraveling of it will take a lot of time, unfortunately. We all wish that it didn’t, but it takes years to create oppressive systems and it takes a long time to break them down as well. And so when we think about social equity in a practical sense for cannabis, none of these things alone are going to fix what have happened to tens of thousands of people, and beyond that, the extension of that, their families and their communities and that cycle of poverty that often continues. There isn’t a silver bullet obviously, to fix all of these issues and it kind of goes back to a big reason why quasi and I wanted to have this conversation and write this book was so that there’s more awareness around how we got here.
Ellen Scanlon (11:13):
I believe you can never have too many favorite podcasts and with so many to choose from, I also know that finding the right shows can take some research. I started How to Do the Pot’s podcast club so that I can share great podcasts that I think you’ll like too. If you want to share a podcast with us, please reach out at email@example.com or you can DM us at DoThePot. Check out the Lasagna Ganja podcast, a show about cannabis, not lasagna because well there’s layers to this. Join hosts rapper X to the Z, Xzibit and Tammy “The Cannabis Cutie” as they aim to highlight and explore the growing industry that is cannabis. Each episode will feature a range of guests, from owner operators to growers, to celebrities, to lawmakers who are all shaping the world within the cannabis space.
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While we’re still in the early days of the legal cannabis industry in the US, we do have states to look to where cannabis has been legal for over 10 years. Tahira shares what we’ve learned so far about social equity programs.
Tahira Rehmatullah (13:00):
On the US side, the programs that have been put into place when it comes to social equity and social justice, it’s still a work in progress. A good example of that is the state of New York, which has delayed passing laws around cannabis legalization because social equity was such an important piece of it, and yet that market right now is very challenged as a result of that because the execution of it wasn’t necessarily how everyone imagined it would be. So I think we’re still working on what does that golden structure look like to be able to execute against social justice. But there are good stories and examples of pieces that have really allowed people to start to benefit from how that state has set up the structure. New York and examples that a lot of people who are impacted by the war on drugs had previous convictions that fit within a certain framework were first in line to be able to get retail licenses.
There are cons of that as well and the way that the market has proliferated the illicit side of the market. But the intention of all of those I think was very sincere in wanting to allow for people to get that headstart. And a place where perhaps we failed is actually the capital intensity and the learning that it takes to get these businesses up and moving. And the expectation that if you move someone to the front of the line, then that’s all that they need. When we all know that so much goes into starting any kind of business, let alone a cannabis business where the laws aren’t even completely written at this stage and they constantly change. So the other side of it though is just the awareness around the criminalization aspect that has been in a constant state of reform that more people are getting involved.
The piece about that that I think continues to be challenging, and this isn’t just for cannabis, but for laws in general as they relate to policing and the way people serve time, is that it’s a very complex process to get someone, one person, have their record expunged or get them a review of their case, let alone tens of thousands of people, which is what we’re facing when it comes to the cannabis side. So we need federal legislation that allows for this to happen in a more impactful way. But I think that all of that will happen in time. It’s moving in the right direction, and I think the states are actually taking it more into their own hands to be able to impact their communities around what has happened.
Ellen Scanlon (15:16):
In Canada, cannabis has been federally legal since 2018. Looking back, Akwasi believes that the timing around social equity policy measures really matters.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (15:29):
We’re about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of cannabis legalization. And in many ways, legalization with respect to social and racial justice and with respect to equity has been a huge failure. And I think the biggest lesson for me is really that social equity needs to be, pardon the pun, baked in from the start. Once the legislation has been developed and implemented, in many ways, the train has left the station and it’s very difficult to bring it back. And so we had exactly that in Canada, but we had nothing with respect to inclusion in the industry, and we had nothing with respect to the redistribution of revenues back to those communities harmed. And so we see that reflected in the industry itself, who really gets to participate, who got to benefit from the greatest aspects of the financial stakes, and again, who continues to deal with the legacy of the war on drugs because it’s not been addressed in a meaningful way by our government. So it’s nice to see when we look at the American situation, that there are real pushes for social equity with respect to federal legalization,
Ellen Scanlon (16:28):
Akwasi and Tahira laid out three key ideas in their book about how they’d like the future of cannabis to look.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (16:37):
So the three models we lay out in the book are the clearing of criminal records for people who’ve been convicted of behaviors that are no longer criminal or downgrading, where the laws have been downgrading, providing avenues for entry and support into the legal industry, recognizing that there are people who’ve been criminalized for cannabis and there are people around them who’ve been negatively affected and they should have an opportunity and somewhat argue a first stake in legal cannabis, the ability to build and grow businesses, the ability to benefit financially.
And then finally, and I think this for me is one of the most important parts. The literally billions of dollars we’ve spent waging a war on drugs, has taken money away from schools, from hospitals, community centers, all the very types of things that we need to have healthy and vibrant communities. There are very high taxes on cannabis for a few reasons, but that’s money going into government coffers, and that’s money that could be reinvested into those communities who’ve been really ravaged by the war on drugs to help them be more healthy and more vibrant communities. And that’s important because we end up spending money in different ways on these communities when they’re not healthy and they’re not vibrant, whether that’s through law enforcement or it’s dealing with the lower economic and tax contributions, for example, that people can or can’t make because their job opportunities have been limited by criminalization. So the war on drugs has cost us money outside of simply the criminal justice system. And we have an opportunity through legal cannabis to really make things right, to make amends in a way that’s going to benefit our society as a whole.
Tahira Rehmatullah (18:06):
Those systems have been really challenging in cannabis itself, thinking about, okay, well, how do you actually go apart assembling the right mix? We don’t know, but we do know that giving people the chance to end up at the front of the line and then giving them resources and tools to try to get to that point is a way to potentially start doing that. And we do see some success stories for people from non-white communities who’ve been able to thrive in cannabis. Most of those people, however, came from a place of opportunity. They already had financial success, they had connections. We can’t take for granted what those pieces mean for people. We can’t take away the fact that if you don’t have a network, you’re not going to get money. If you’re not going to get money, you’re not going to be able to pay for the people who maybe know what they’re doing or to be able to have the interactions with the city council members who ultimately decide whether or not you’re going to get that license.
Just things like that that we’re not taking into account. And so there are a lot of pieces that we have to continue to chip away at, but if it’s not part of the DNA when we start making policy, it will never be, it will always be an afterthought. So even though a state like New York maybe hasn’t had the best execution when it comes to actually rolling out the policy, the fact that it’s there means that it’s not going away. And that iteration is what we need for… As angry as we get about things not working, we also have to stay positive, and say, “At least it’s there.”
Ellen Scanlon (19:35):
I asked Tahira and Akwasi to explain what expungement is and to share why they believe second chances are so important.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (19:45):
Expungement can mean different things. Essentially what we’re getting at is this real need to clear the criminal records and a model that is fast, that’s sufficient, that’s free and comprehensive. So the government taken it upon itself to identify people who’ve been convicted for behaviors that are no longer illegal. So for being been convicted of crimes that no longer exist, and clearing those records for them. And there are some novel ways, and we outlined some of these in the book. Code for America has now partnered with a number of jurisdictions to use AI essentially to do this in a very fast, efficient and relatively inexpensive manner. Why is this so important? We’re doing ourselves no favors through criminalization. The people are using cannabis. Substantial numbers of people are using cannabis. You’ve got a broad listener audience, which is a testament to that. But even the way in which our laws have been enforced, of course has been hugely unequal.
So while some people have been able to have possessed and use cannabis and have really little fear of reprisal from that, the same has not been true for other people. And so we have this situation now where we have people whose lives… And in the book we discuss all of what can come from even a simple cannabis possession conviction, difficulty finishing school, obtaining loans for post-secondary education, failing criminal background screenings for employment, reduced ability to gain housing, to travel, to volunteer, really to operate in mainstream society. And I often call cannabis the gateway drug, not a gateway to harder drug use as it’s often been seen, but a gateway to the criminal justice system because of all of the barriers that a simple cannabis conviction places on an individual. So if we’re recognizing that prohibition is failed policy, why is it that we would still leave the individuals who were criminalized and our society to deal with the negative ramifications or effects of that prohibition?
It makes no sense, right? We’ve recognized it’s a failure. We’re looking to move on. Let’s bring the people who were negatively harmed along with us. And many people say, “Well, they broke the law so they should have to deal with the consequences.” Well, from my view, the law was inappropriate and unjust in the first place, and it was enforced in an unjust manner. How many US presidents now have admitted to consuming cannabis? Right. We have not only people in politics, but business and in entertainment admitting to cannabis use, yet we continue to have people whose lives are derailed either through imprisonment or simply their criminalization from what we’ve done around this plant. And we really, really, really need to move on. And because so many of the people who are criminalized are those that have less access to social, political, economic resources, so they might not be able to get good legal counsel or navigate a process through which one would gain expungement.
Ellen Scanlon (22:32):
Understanding the criminal justice policies that led us here can require a lot of learning. The book, Waiting to Inhale, is full of personal stories that connect these policies to people. Akwasi shares a story from the book that had a big impact on him.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (22:50):
One of the greatest strengths of our book is really the stories that are told in it. And so one of the stories that I really like is Jesse Horton, who as a young man was on his way to university. And the summer before he was supposed to start, he ended up getting pulled over by the police and he had some cannabis in his car. What was then considered a fair amount, about an ounce. Now it’s trivial for many if you’re in the industry that’s laying on the floor underneath one of your trim desks, he ended up getting seven years behind bars. And then when he came out, he ended up founding loud based in Oregon, and he’s now become a very successful player in the cannabis industry. And so the story of an individual who’s gone from being a casualty in the war on drugs to not only operating in the industry, but doing what he can to promote the need for social equity to really give back, is a promising one for myself.
Ellen Scanlon (23:46):
Tahira shares a story from the book that points to the complications of being charged with a cannabis crime in the 1990s.
Tahira Rehmatullah (23:55):
So one of the stories I think really punches us in the gut is Michael Thompson, who received a prison sentence that was 40 to 60 years for selling three pounds of cannabis in the early nineties and in the state of Michigan. And when people initially hear, “Oh my gosh, 40 to 60 years, he must’ve been trafficking, he must’ve had all this stuff, violence.” No, just the ways that Michael’s sentence just seems like it is so absurd, but it’s actually not uncommon. He ended up serving 25 years of that term, and thanks to Michigan’s governor, was let out early. But his conviction really was spurred by not just the cannabis element, but also the fact that guns were found in his home. The guns were not his. They were his wife’s. They also were like relics. They weren’t meant to be used in any way, shape or form, but also he did the transaction while he was sitting in his car, not in his home.
So when Akwasi mentioned earlier that cannabis becomes this gateway, it’s also a gateway for police enforcement to use it in really negative ways. And for Michael Thompson, it was to use anything else that they had to keep tacking on to that charge. And so he was somebody who he’s worked with people like Aretha Franklin in his past. He was a promoter. He had such a rich history. People in his neighborhood knew him. He was someone who was selling cannabis but was also doing these really cool, incredible things for his community.
And that was all taken away from him. It was taken away from his family. And Michael has used his narrative to go on and try to help people. Now that he’s outside, he has his own foundation. So we’re continuously impressed by what he’s been able to do and the advocate that he’s become. A lot of people fall in the really negative side of that when they come out of prison because they don’t have support, they don’t have the opportunity. They aren’t able to channel their hurt and rage and everything that’s happened to them on their time in prison into something positive. And it takes a lot of willpower to do that. And at the end of the day, governor Whitmer coming in and relieving him from that long sentence and granting that clemency was critical, and we need more policymakers and people sitting in that position to pay attention to these types of stories.
Ellen Scanlon (26:13):
Being a cannabis advocate takes a lot of patience and fortitude. Tahira and Akwasi share how they kept their spirits up while writing the book and what they’re most excited about for the future.
Tahira Rehmatullah (26:28):
There may or may not have been a decent amount of cannabis involved over time. We’re long-term advocates. We’re not people who are kind of a flash in the pan looking to get our income and then jumping out. We really care. And we’ve seen all the negative. We’ve seen the dark. We’ve learned all about it. We’ve had our own experiences as well. And I think we still really understand the positive that can and will come from this. But it’s not going to happen overnight. I think we lean on patience to some degree, although admittedly 10 years in, we’re probably like, “All right guys, any day now.” But for me personally, it’s continuing to go back to the stories that we hear, both the painful ones, but then the positive ones too. And not just when it comes to the criminal justice side, but the health, people who’ve been truly impacted their lives have changed for the better because of the use of cannabis, or be it from day-to-day to pain or sleep or something, to cancer.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (27:30):
For me, I try and find humor in whatever I can because a lot of my work really focuses on the darker sides of humanity. With respect to the why should people care, a lot of people now want to publicize the fact that they buy a fair trade coffee and they don’t have clothes that are made in sweatshops, and they’re concerned about ethical practices. And I don’t think that we can remove the history of cannabis from the legal industry that’s developing. And so if people are concerned with things like fair trade and ethical business, they need to be supporting that through their engagement with the cannabis industry. And you do that by, again, purchasing from companies who care about the issues that we write about the book and who are working to fix the problems that we write about in the book.
Ellen Scanlon (28:21):
Thank you to Akwasi and Tahira for helping us all understand the complicated history of cannabis legalization and where we can go from here. Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice is available at local libraries and wherever you buy books. If you’re looking for a deeper understanding of the cannabis industry, I really recommend reading it. Stay tuned for more of How to Do the Pot and have a very happy Halloween. Thank you for listening to How to Do the Pot. For lots more information and past episodes, visit dothepot.com.
Are you one of the thousands of people who love How to Do the Pot’s newsletter? If you’re not getting it, please sign up at dothepot.com. And if you like How to Do the Pot, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It really helps people find the show. Thanks to our producers, Madi Fair and Nick Patri. I’m Ellen Scanlon, and we’ll be back soon with more of How to Do the Pot.