The country’s first diversity-focused marijuana trade association came to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) aid on Thursday, issuing a statement “to affirm our support and appreciation” for the 2020 presidential candidate’s recent comments on minority involvement in the legal cannabis industry.
During a Democratic primary debate on Tuesday, Sanders pledged not only to end federal marijuana prohibition and expunge past criminal records if elected, but also to help people of color find an economic foothold in the industry.
“We are going to provide help to the African American, Latino and Native American communities to start businesses selling legal marijuana rather than let a few corporations control the legalized marijuana market,” he said.
It’s an argument familiar to most legalization advocates, and several recent state marijuana laws have included provisions aimed at ensuring social equity in the industry for communities that have been targeted by the war on drugs. But the proposal didn’t sit well with everyone. Some wondered aloud whether Sanders was himself being racist by suggesting that people of color should sell drugs.
“Girl, I couldn’t believe my ears when Sanders said he was going to set up black people and natives to sell DRUGS!!” wrote one Twitter user, a self-described Christian mom from Alabama. “I’m still in shock. Dems are still the same ole racist. They look down on black Americans as if they are ignorant and incompetent children.”
Bernie Sanders “is a flat out racist” said another Twitter user, a supporter of Donald Trump. “Basically said minorities only capable of having businesses which sell drugs.”
But now, the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) is working to set the record straight. In a press release, the group said it “stands in support” of Sanders’s comments, which it argued touch on core parts of its mission to “promote economic empowerment for communities of color by creating policy considerations, social programming, and outreach initiatives to achieve equity for the communities most affected by the war on drugs.”
“Taking the public position of ensuring communities most impacted by the war on drugs will have the ability to enter the legal cannabis industry shows that he is serious about reversing the damage done by the war on our communities,” said Kaliko Castille, MCBA’s vice president.
In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment, MCBA President Jason Ortiz said he was “inspired” by Sanders’s comments, though he understands how they could have been misinterpreted.
“I think Bernie Sanders is addressing the issue of economic justice, and I think it is a complicated issue, so some folks have been misinformed,” Ortiz said. Sanders, he explained, is trying to ensure that the economic opportunities created by marijuana legalization are shared equitably.
So far in most legal states, he said, that hasn’t been happening.
“We see large, wealthy, white corporations already have access to those economic opportunities in our communities,” Ortiz said. “What Sen. Sanders is proposing is that communities of color share in those economic opportunities. And there’s nothing racist about economic justice.”
Ortiz chalked up the criticism to decades of misinformation about cannabis from government and the media.
“One of the most insidious parts of the war on drugs was its ability to confuse communities of color around the cannabis plant,” he said. “There’s been a sustained, systematic campaign to misinform our communities and deny us economic opportunities for decades.”
“Communities of color do want access to opportunities in the cannabis industry,” Ortiz added. “We demand access to opportunities. And we welcome any candidates that are willing to stand with our call for economic justice for our communities.”
Aside from Sanders, MCBA said that “Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is the only other Democratic candidate for president to release a plan regarding federal cannabis policy with restorative and economic justice.”
MCBA has not endorsed a candidate for president, but Sanders and Warren have by far the most comprehensive cannabis legalization proposals. Sanders’s plan would immediately deschedule cannabis nationwide and work to block big corporations from controlling the market. (He’s faced pushback from legal experts who argue that a president cannot legally use executive action to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in office, however.)
Warren’s recently released marijuana proposal, meanwhile, puts racial equity center stage. “It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx communities,” the plan says. “It’s about rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm. And it’s about ensuring that everyone has access to the opportunities that the new cannabis market provides.”
While some criticisms of Sanders’s debate statements appeared to be sincere, others seemed politically opportunistic. Conservative pundits pounced on Sanders, apparently in an effort to stir up racial tensions. Fox News host Tucker Carlson—who described the legalization plan as “Fire up a bowl. Numb out”—said Sanders “is encouraging more black kids to sell drugs.”
“Where is this weed going to come from? Bernie has a plan for that, too. Black people are going to sell it to you,” Carlson said. “So first, they fill black neighborhoods with abortion clinics. Now the frontrunner is encouraging more black kids to sell drugs, but somehow this is the party that loves black America.”
Ortiz responded that “Tucker Carlson and his ilk have been perpetuating the racist stereotypes that led to the over incarceration crisis we face today” and his “flippant disregard for the violent history of the war on drugs is a testament to just how much work we still have to do on an issue with near universal support.”