The Cannabis Crux: Marijuana Legalization in Post-“War on Drugs” Oklahoma

by Contributing Writer Shalon R. Youngblood

According to a report from Marijuana Business Daily, more than 5% of Oklahoma’s population is registered as a medical marijuana patient, surpassing any other medical cannabis program in the nation. In that same report, analysts proposed that by the time Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program reaches maturity, the market could be worth up to $700 million annually. It is difficult to ascertain if there is a significant Black ownership presence in the operation of medical marijuana businesses throughout Oklahoma as the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) has not provided ownership demographic statistics. There does, however, appear to be a significant visual presence of Black marijuana dispensary owners in Tulsa, specifically in North Tulsa, with at least two dispensaries incorporating the Greenwood name. There doesn’t appear to be a significant visual presence of Black ownership in the other medical marijuana business license sub areas, such as growers, processors, transportation, laboratory, and waste disposal. 

In 1933, Oklahoma banned the use and possession of marijuana. According to a 1990 article in the Tulsa World, the director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (OBNDD) stated that he felt after 15 years of observations, marijuana was the gateway drug, leading to some of the most dangerous crimes and convictions. He felt there was a lot of violence associated with the marijuana trade. The writer of the article wrote that, “In North Tulsa, police arrested dozens of teen-agers bedecked in gold chains who worked for crack cocaine networks in housing projects.” According to a 2016 article from Vox, President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman admitted that The War on Drugs was a policy set in place to purposely undermine Black communities. According to NAACP statistics, Black and white people use drugs at similar rates, but imprisonment of black people for drug charges is almost six times that of white people. Black people makeup 12.5% of drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.  

In 2016, Oklahomans approved proposals to reclassify simple possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor with no prison time. In June 2018, State Question 788 was passed legalizing medical marijuana and licensing, which began on August 25, 2018. With the passing of SQ 788, unlicensed simple possession of up to 1.5 ounces is now punishable by a misdemeanor conviction and a $400 fine, but only if a medical reason is provided. However, in 1992, a Tulsa man was given a life sentence for felony possession of .16 grams (.0056 ounces) of marijuana as a fall out of The War on Drugs. According to Slate in 2019, Oklahoma had the largest single day commutation in U.S. history with 462 people being released early, a large majority of whom were being held on lengthy sentences due to a simple possession charge now classified as a misdemeanor. More than 800 additional people are eligible for sentence commutation and release due to a law passed this past legislative session making the change retroactive. It is widely acknowledged that reparations in the form of social equity programs built by the government to help fund, build, educate, and support Black marijuana business owners would help combat the destruction caused by The War on Drugs of the 1980’s, especially in marginalized communities, such as North Tulsa. 

Based on recent law changes, it would appear that Oklahoma was progressing towards repairing the damage caused by The War on Drugs. However, according to Marijuana Business Daily, a social equity program was not part of Oklahoma’s legalization bill. Low licensing fees and no caps on the number of cannabis business licenses that can be issued has lowered barriers to entry in other regions, but this isn’t enough to promote diversity, help close the racial wealth gap, or flood revenue into the barren landscape of North Tulsa. In addition, there are many people and corporations in Oklahoma that have developed marijuana businesses because of the low barriers to entry, which pose a risk to small Black business owners who do not have the resources and capital to match their contributions. 

In his seminal 2014 piece for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates drew an unbroken line from slavery to Jim Crow to redlining, a racial discrimination in real estate that segregated cities and left residents of Black neighborhoods ineligible for loans. Redlining cut many Black Americans out of home ownership, the country’s primary method for accruing generational wealth, essentially creating the conditions for segregated, poverty-stricken schools. Three years later, those same neighborhoods became the primary targets of The War on Drugs. According to The Center for American Progress, America’s structural racism helped create the Black-white wealth gap due to discriminatory practices throughout history. The marijuana industry’s astronomical growth is also mired in racial oppression as most states deny applicants who have convictions related to drug offenses, of which statistics show Black people were disproportionately affected. OMMA requires that business applicants be disqualified if they have a nonviolent felony conviction in the last two years or any other felony conviction in the last five years.  

There are large, corporate-owned marijuana businesses that are profiting from marijuana legalization who target Black consumers, but fail to establish programs to help those affected by the criminalization of marijuana participate in the wealth explosion. One of the larger dispensaries in Tulsa has a daily standing radio ad on Fresh Jamz 105.3, a Black-owned radio station in Tulsa. When you walk into the dispensary, the staff are not reflective of the demographic market they are targeting with the radio ad. There doesn’t appear to be any efforts from the larger marijuana businesses to give back to the communities ravaged by the criminalization of marijuana. In contrast, small-owned businesses, such as 918 Buds, have received public acknowledgement for their donations to their local fire and rescue department and for paying it forward this past December by paying for the shopping baskets of over 20 families. 

Black marijuana business owners could help increase Black ownership by creating a space for empowerment, collaboration, and mentoring amongst one another. Black consumers could help ensure the success of these businesses by supporting them.  Black consumers could also ask larger marijuana businesses about their social missions and what they are doing to address the inequities inherent to the marijuana business in the form of sponsoring job fairs, continued expungement clinics, and making efforts to hire from communities affected by racist policing policies.  

An increase in targeted outreach efforts, such as the annual Expungement Expo spearheaded by Tulsa District 1 Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper, is a great example of a social equity program that could take place as a form of reparations. Additional social equity programs could look like providing business loans/grants, assisting with technical training in various areas, such as accounting and legal compliance, and reducing licensing fees for prospective business owners living in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by The War on Drugs. The latter alone would help to revitalize the North Tulsa area, which was and remains devastated not only by The War on Drugs, but also the lasting impact of the Race Massacre of 1921, urban renewal, and gentrification.  

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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