The news spread like wildfire: Basketball legend Shawn Kemp would break barriers by opening a Seattle cannabis retail store. 

The October news release proclaimed Kemp’s Cannabis would be the city’s first Black-owned retail cannabis store. 

But much like racial equity in the cannabis industry in general, the reality was much murkier. The company later walked back its claim of being the first Black-owned cannabis store and acknowledged that Kemp was not one of the shop’s five majority owners at the time it opened on Oct. 30. Last week, the city said Kemp owns just a 5% stake in the business.

The confusion around Kemp’s Cannabis is just the latest example of the uphill battle to create racial equity in the cannabis industry.

Just like in every other aspect of the criminal legal system, African Americans have long borne the greatest brunt of the country’s racially biased drug enforcement policies. In a 2020 report, the American Civil Liberties Union said that even after legalization, Washington still saw Black people twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite having roughly the same rate of use. In Whatcom County, that number jumps to Black people being over nine times more likely to be arrested.

But for many local Black cannabis entrepreneurs, the door to participation in the state’s green gold rush has been largely closed. According to the city of Seattle last week, the city is “not aware of any majority Black-owned cannabis retail stores operating in Seattle currently.”

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Before there were licensed cannabis retail stores, there were unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries, some of which were owned by Black businesspeople. But when retail licenses were granted in 2014, the dispensaries were shut out.

“The industry which we built was ripped from us,” said Aaron Barfield, of the group Black Excellence in Cannabis, who operated one of the dispensaries. “Our businesses were hijacked.”

Barfield said given the decades of racial disparity in marijuana arrests, the exclusion of Black operators from the lucrative retail business was shocking. He said once the retail system launched, medical dispensaries were forced to close and the number of stores overall dramatically shrank. To his point, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) issued just 222 new retail licenses to offset an estimated more than 1,500 medical marijuana dispensaries, according to The Stranger in 2016.

The financial stakes are high. Cannabis is a big business, with $1 billion in state retail sales in 2019. 

But help might be on the way. With the passage of state HB 2870 earlier this year, a new state social equity task force was created to begin to right some of these pervasive wrongs.

State Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, is one of two Black women who co-chair the social equity task force. She said systemic racism is at the root of African American exclusion from the cannabis industry. 

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“[African Americans] have been cut out of the business,” Morgan said. “We were the very ones that were incarcerated for it, and some are still incarcerated for it, but yet now the white establishment is taking over the industry that has been legalized.”

The task force — made up largely of community members — wants to see new, forfeited or revoked marijuana retail licenses in the hands of those most impacted by the war on drugs.

But Barfield isn’t optimistic about the potential for the task force to enforce the changes needed to benefit Black businesses. He also has little faith in the LCB to champion the cause, either. He and Black Excellence in Cannabis wanted legislation with more enforcement power over the LCB versus making recommendations.

Black Excellence in Cannabis and King County Equity Now are calling for the city of Seattle to request 30 new retail cannabis licenses from the LCB for Black businesses. In addition, they want to create a reparations fund for victims of past cannabis arrests and dedicated funds from cannabis taxes for race and social equity programs.

Despite the skepticism, Morgan said the task force will be taking the keys back from the gatekeepers who are keeping Black and other people of color out of the industry.

“It’s an exciting time that we are finally at the table to correct the harm and the injury that has been done to the Black African American community,” Morgan said. “I think it’s a start. We have a long way to go.”

Correction: This story was updated on Dec. 7, 2020, to correct the comparison of arrest rates for marijuana possession between Black and white people in Washington. Black people were 2.1 times as likely to be arrested for possession as white people in 2018, the most recent year analyzed by the ACLU.