SPECIAL REPORT—(Editor’s Note: Legal Marijuana is the fastest growing industry in the U.S. As you are aware, medical marijuana is legal in California and beginning next January, recreational marijuana will be legal in the Golden State as well. This the first of a number of CityWatch reports on the politics and business of this industry.) When Mona Zhang told her parents she wanted to leave her job to report full-time on cannabis and build up her newsletter, Word on the Tree, they were skeptical to say the least.
"When I first told my dad [that] I want to cover cannabis and he was like, 'What's that?' I said the Chinese word for marijuana and then he was like, 'Ohh,'" Zhang tells me. "Neither of them knew much about cannabis or drugs before I [talked to] them about it."
Zhang started Word on the Tree in July of 2015 as a newsletter for the latest news in cannabis and the war on drugs; she launched a full site earlier this year. She feels lucky to have parents open to both the entrepreneurship and the topic she was so interested in pursuing.
"I've been an avid cannabis consumer for a long time, that's part of what made me interested in the topic. But I'm also coming to the subject from a position of privilege," she says. "Even though I'm a woman of color, east Asians aren't disproportionately targeted for drug offenses. As a consumer, I feel this is very unfair and very egregious."
There will never be a shortage of policy and developments for Zhang's site, because the marijuana industry is growing at a steady clip. The legal marijuana industry made $6.7 billion in revenue in 2016, according to a January report in Business Insider. This is up from $5.4 billion in 2015, and $4.6 billion in 2014, as reported by CNBC. And while marijuana is slowly but surely becoming a legal industry in America, the wait for federal legality hasn't stopped the creation of culture surrounding the drug. But largely neglected in the stories about the thriving marijuana industry and its corresponding culture are the women of color who are doing the difficult work of advocacy, accurate reporting, and community creation for users of a long-maligned substance.
"All those [reports] you see in the newsletter about the racial disparities and drug enforcement and all of that, that stuff gets me really riled up. It's something I feel really passionate and I want to write about and raise awareness about," Zhang says.
"The people who have 10 years of experience who are managing, owning, being at the top level, they will look very different than what the other managers and executives of other industries look like."
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union found that black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people—even though the two groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate. The ACLU's comprehensive report found that a black person is nearly eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.
More recently, in New York, where Zhang is based, blacks and Latinos made up 86 percent of the 60,000 people arrested for low-level marijuana possession in the first three years of the current mayor's administration, according to WNYC; black and Latino New Yorkers constitute 55 percent of the population. Similar disparities exist in places like Louisiana, New Jersey, and Virginia.
It's the racial disparities in sentencing and the war on drugs that brought Shaleen Title, an Indian-American woman, to the cannabis industry. While an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Title met a representative from the ACLU who taught her about the starkly different incarceration rates between white and black men for marijuana charges. After that, she got involved with Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
These days, Title is a lawyer who co-founded the THC Staffing Group, a recruitment firm for jobs within the cannabis industry. Title considers herself, first and foremost, an activist. Her arena for change is figuring out how to build economic empowerment in the fledgling legal marijuana industry for people of color.
"As important as it is to work on policy, it felt more direct [for me] to help people get into the industry because it was such a rare opportunity to see an industry start from scratch," Title says.
Title hopes her firm—which she co-founded with her friend, Danielle Schumacher—will help build a more egalitarian industry. "My goal is that I can keep working on getting people in the industry now on the ground floor," she says. "Seeing as [marijuana] is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., the people who have 10 years of experience who are managing, owning, being at the top level, they will look very different than what the other managers and executives of other industries look like. That's the goal I work toward."
That idea of a ground floor was also stuck in the minds of Brooklyn residents Tahirah Hairston and Ashley Brooke. The 27-year-old friends both enjoyed smoking marijuana, but never saw themselves, or anyone who looked remotely like them, represented in weed culture.
They hoped to find communities for liked-minded young professional women, but didn't find anything appealing to them. "There were very few," Brooke says. "And there were absolutely none for black women."
The pair realized the Google chats they had been sending, wishing for an online community for women of color who smoke, still hadn't materialized. So this year they launched The High Ends to create, as their website says, "a community of like-minded women who like to roll-up. We want to hear our stories told with nuance and wit from our perspectives."
The High Ends is explicitly for and by women of color. The launch included a series of short videos of women of color explaining why they smoked—for physical or mental health, for focus, for creativity. Bringing the stories of very disparate women together was critical. "There's Moms Who Smoke and Nuns Who Smoke, which is amazing, but I'm 27 and want a community the same way I can go and find out a skincare routine," Hairston explains.
The High Ends is geared toward women with regular jobs, who don't want to hide the fact that they smoke weed. Brooke and Hairston want to reach women who don't see themselves represented in mainstream coverage of cannabis or in popular culture.
Hairston puts it best: "It's about passing the L, and also passing knowledge."
(Caitlin Cruz is a freelance journalist who writes about health, gender, culture, Latinx, and religion. Previously, she was an editor and reporter for Fusion, a blogger for Talking Points Memo, and an investigative fellow at the Seattle Times. This piece appeared most recently at Pacific Standard.)