Putting People Over Profits, What Does a Values-Driven Marketplace Look Like?
Since the first mention of a retail cannabis market in Vermont, those involved in its structuring have repeatedly reiterated the same notion: Vermont should set a national example on how to produce a robust social equity program. But what exactly does this entail? For some, this means the commencement of a taxed and regulated market and its subsequent revenue. For others, it means safer access to the products and medicine they enjoy.
For Vermont NORML, this entails the above, but most earnestly it means there must be a heavy emphasis on righting the wrongs of the past. As the new market becomes that much more of a reality, it’s imperative that we never lose sight of this vision: recreational cannabis in Vermont should be driven by values, not profit.
The “wrongs of the past” that Vermont NORML seeks to mitigate involve blatant displays of government-sanctioned racism, xenophobia and elitism in a system that claims to be impartial to all. This declaration can be confidently asserted based on the fact that prior to the turn of the 20th century, hemp fiber from the cannabis plant was used to make many paper products, clothes, and rope. Historically speaking, cannabis was only seen in a negative light once non-white people began using it in the United States.
In the 1920s, the United States saw a huge influx in immigration from Mexico as a result of civil unrest from the Mexican Revolution. Their experience in the US was less than welcoming. A 1994 Atlantic Monthly piece describes just a snippet of what immigrants from Mexico faced as they began their new lives,
“The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a “lust for blood,” and gave its users “superhuman strength.” Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this “killer weed” to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”
The combination of media frenzy, political rhetoric and, simply, the pronunciation of the word “marijuana” was enough to form a stigma so impactful that, to this day, far too many ill-informed Americans see Mexican immigrants solely as dangerous criminals and drug lords. This de jure prejudice is part of the reason why cannabis was ever classified in the same rank as heroin, meth, and cocaine.
Sadly, this act of fear mongering left generational damage on more than one group of innocent people in the US. Black Americans, particularly those involved in the jazz scene, were socially and economically sabotaged for their perceived use of cannabis. While it is true that many jazz musicians at the time used cannabis, their use was overwhelmingly reserved for creativity in the studio, on stage, and while just generally having a good time.
Louis Armstrong once said, “I can gladly vouch for a nice, fat stick of gage, which relaxes my nerves, if I have any…I can’t afford to be…tense, fearing that any minute I’m going to be arrested, brought to jail for a silly little minor thing like marijuana.”
Ironically, lawmakers and other powerful forces of society decided to push the false narrative that jazz music is an evil Satanic art created by these dangerous, high people. Once white parents from suburbia began to hear these stories on the news and in the papers, there was really no going back. The lies had been dispersed and the course of American drug policy was set.
Propaganda, such as ‘Reefer Madness’ and the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, had deep and lasting effects on the American public. Not only did propaganda of this nature influence public opinion, but they and their likeness had (and continue to have) devastating generational impacts on Black and Latino Americans. In fact, in the first full year after the Marihuana Tax Act, Black Americans were 3x more likely to be arrested for narcotic drug possession, despite their rate of possession being no greater than that of white Americans. This disproportionate arrest rate has increased with time and can factually be explained only by deliberate discrimination.
Vermont NORML strongly believes that those who have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, systemic racism, and socioeconomic discrimination should be given priority when entering the market. Because of the fact that most other marketplaces in this country have high barriers to entry for those without existing wealth and/or capital, the Vermont Cannabis market must be accessible to all, with special priority given to those who don’t come from generational wealth. These are the values that drive our market approach.
Massachusetts (MA) was the first state in the country to actively take a values-driven approach to a recreational cannabis market. While decision-makers in MA had all the right ingredients of a great recipe for justice, there was one grave mistake made. According to former MA Cannabis Commissioner Shaleen Title, the state ended up using an approach that sought local approval as opposed to state approval when it came to the structure of the state’s social equity program.
While Massachusetts decision-makers did, overall, prioritize the social equity program, in the end private interest won, meaning those who’ve dealt with generational trauma due to their racial or socioeconomic position during cannabis prohibition have, once again, been failed by the system that has always claimed to protect them. Ms. Title and her associate Richard M. Juang, Esq. use the term “values-driven marketplace” when describing why the state’s use of local approval sabotaged the social equity program.
In many small/mid-sized Massachusetts towns, market goals were driven by profit and personal interest. Because so many local governments in the state didn’t approach the market through a set of reparative values, state-wide social equity provisions didn’t stand a chance.
In a letter to various US Senators, Ms. Title says,
“Cannabis commerce should not be a new revenue machine, a tool to exploit users, or a free-for-all for corporate greed. [We] envision a values-driven marketplace with room for all kinds of people and small businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators.”
At Vermont NORML, we look out for the socioeconomically vulnerable. As we continue to climb the hill that is cannabis regulation, we must ensure that those both previously and currently affected by past policies are the first ones lacing up to enter the recreational game.