Had you told me at graduation that I’d one day head back to New Haven to speak at a Yale-sponsored marijuana conference, I would have assumed you were stoned. Yet I recently found myself back in New Haven, preparing to talk about marijuana laws with the 150-plus investors and entrepreneurs who’d traveled across the country to attend the School of Management’s second annual Yale Business of Legal Cannabis Conference.
While I couldn’t have imagined the momentum behind legal marijuana then, it’s become apparent that America’s currently at a crossroads when it comes to cannabis. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, 11 of which have also legalized cannabis for adult use. After over a half-century of misguided drug policies, the country is well overdue for a more sensible approach to marijuana.
The day before the conference, Governor Ned Lamont released a plan that would allow for adult use sales in his state, too. Lawmakers from New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island are also hoping to pass similar legislation this year. The momentum behind marijuana legalization has, in turn, paved the way for the explosive growth of the legal cannabis industry, a sector that’s projected to employ 630,000 Americans by 2025, according to USA Today, and to generate $80 billion in annual revenue by 2030, according to the New York Times.
A public and political reckoning with the devastating consequences of our decades-long War on Drugs has driven the recent liberalization of America’s drug policies. Despite spending five decades — and billions of taxpayer dollars — trying to stem American cannabis consumption, usage rates remain virtually unchanged since the 1960s.
Moreover, states facing budget deficits are looking to legal cannabis as a way to generate much-needed tax revenues. Advocacy by doctors, patients and veterans’ groups has also worked to highlight the medicinal benefits of cannabis consumption.
And there’s also the racial justice element. The meteoric rise of the legal cannabis industry has clarified the ways in which America’s marijuana prohibition has fueled mass incarceration — and devastated low-income communities of color. Despite almost identical usage rates, black Americans are around four times as likely as white Americans to be arrested on cannabis-related charges.
However, while legal marijuana may be creating many lucrative new business opportunities, it’s becoming apparent that the spoils of this new “Green Rush” aren’t flowing to the communities who bore the brunt of prohibition-related policing. Data shows that the vast majority of marijuana companies are controlled by white men — whereas only 4 percent of those businesses are owned by African Americans.
So, as I looked out into the conference’s chino-clad crowd, I was struck — as I often am at cannabis industry events — by the surreal nature of the scene. There, in the School of Management’s sun-dappled classrooms designed by Norman Foster ARC ’62, dozens of predominantly white, middle-aged and male investors and entrepreneurs were chatting about lucrative opportunities in the cannabis sector. And yet down the street — and across the country — thousands of overwhelmingly young, low-income, black and brown men are being arrested for the very same thing.
Bong Joon-ho couldn’t have written it any better.
Many Yale alumni return to campus for reunions and other celebratory events. But on my return, I met dozens of Yale alumni looking to shoot their shot in the marijuana industry. And for good cause — not only will the industry generate a historic amount of wealth, it can also help shore up state budgets, free up police resources, generate much-needed economic opportunities and even address public health crises.
But we can’t neglect legalization’s most important benefit. The legal cannabis industry has the potential to help revitalize the communities that have been harmed by racially-biased drug policy enforcement. We must pressure our elected officials to pass legalization legislation that, in the words of Gov. Lamont, helps to “right the wrongs of a War on Drugs that has disproportionately impacted minority communities.”
NATALIE PAPILLION graduated from Yale College in 2013. She is the founder of The Equity Organization. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .