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Only 4% of Cannabis Businesses in Washington State are Black-Owned

According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, only 4% of all cannabis businesses in Seattle are owned by Blacks. King5 News has released a new report that interviews minorities business owners about how they lost their position in the cannabis industry after Washington State legalized adult use.

Mike Asai, an ex-owner of a cannabis company, and Peter Manning are both able to recall how it felt like to live in Seattle decades back. “I know that we use the War on Drugs to go after Black and Brown people,” entrepreneur and Seattle-native Peter Manning told King5. “You guys punish us for years for cannabis. And now it’s okay. Now you’re doing it. Now it’s okay.”

“Growing up in Seattle, in the ‘80s, [if you] just simply had a joint you would get five years in prison,” said Mike Asai, co-founder of the Emerald City Collective. “[I’ve] seen that happen with family and friends and acquaintances, you know, for just that.”

Manning, Asai and others were inspired to enter the cannabis industry by Washington State’s 1998 legalization. They joined an association of growers and retailers to produce medical cannabis.

“To be on the bad end, when it comes to cannabis and then revert to be on the good end was very empowering,” Asai said of the collective. “Because of growing up and just seeing the War on Drugs was really the war on African Americans, the war on Black men and Black women in this country.”

In 2015, the state legalized adult-use cannabis, which forced cannabis business owners to shut down their businesses and re-apply for a license—but many Black and Brown business owners were not able to secure one. “To be legitimate and then all of a sudden now being criminalized…It’s been very traumatizing,” said Asai. “It’s been very depressing and painful to see, especially to see all the money that’s been made since the last six years since we’ve been closed. I’ve had to figure things out. I had to do Uber for about a year, just to stay afloat.”

LCB data from 2021 shows that out of the state’s 558 available licenses, only 19 have been given to Black applicants. “There is zero African American ownership in the city of Seattle, and to be supposedly this progressive state, this liberal state, it’s not showing,” Manning said.

Manning and Asai both spoke with the media and participated in city meetings over recent years to protest this injustice. They were both present at a Seattle City Council meeting as public commenters, urging them to resolve the problem.

Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force, established in 2020. Its purpose is to develop a social program and to issue or reissue retail licences. It’s first set of recommendations were submitted on Jan. 6. 2022. The deadline for submitting a final report to the governor and state legislature by December 9, 2022.

Ollie Garret from the LCB Board Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force stated to King5 that there is a need for immediate change. “Yes. I mean…what’s the saying? It’s a day late and it costs a dollar less. Now the community is screaming, ‘What about us? What about us?’ Garrett said. “We go, ‘Oh, we need to fix this.’”

Garret describes the situation as a “failure” and a “missed opportunity.” “Could it have been done different in the beginning? Yes. It was, however, a brand new field. Who knew, who thought about inclusion and Blacks being left out,” Garret said.

According to King5, the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force has set aside 38 licenses specifically for persons of color. Over 50% of these licenses go to businesses in places that have banned cannabis. “Where we’re at right now, the LCB cannot move licenses out of the areas that they’re in or create new license[s] without legislation,” Garrett said. “We are going to introduce [that] in this upcoming session.”

Manning questions the task force’s view on equity. “What are you giving me?” Manning said. “A license that says I have the right to sell cannabis? But I can’t sell cannabis because I can’t open up in this location because it’s banned. How’s that equity?”

Manning also suggested that cannabis consumers should be aware of where their marijuana is being purchased. “There’s white-owned stores in our Black neighborhoods,” Manning said. “Ten years ago, you were locking us up for the same thing. The white population was making billions. You’re taking that money out of our community, and they’re putting it in the white community. We want our Black-owned stores in our communities.”