NC marijuana bill locks out Black farmers, business owners

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State Sen. Graig Meyer, center, meets with a group of Black farmers including Moe Matthews, far left, Calvin Jones, and Charles Jones, right, at the North Carolina Legislative Building Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The farmers criticized the language of a proposed medical marijuana bill, which they say opens the door to corporate monopolization and shuts locals out.

State Sen. Graig Meyer, center, meets with a group of Black farmers including Moe Matthews, far left, Calvin Jones, and Charles Jones, right, at the North Carolina Legislative Building Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The farmers criticized the language of a proposed medical marijuana bill, which they say opens the door to corporate monopolization and shuts locals out.

tlong@newsobserver.com

North Carolina is on the verge of legalizing the sale and production of medical marijuana. In an industry projected to generate $15 billion in annual sales nationally by 2025 that should be good news for N.C. businesses and farmers who’ve been hit hard by declining global markets in recent years.

But what about Black farmers, Black entrepreneurs, and the Black community? Where do we fit in the projected growth of this new industry? The answer is nowhere. As the Senate Bill 3 is written, we are locked out.

Marcus Bass 2023.jpeg
Marcus Bass

The bill, which has passed in the Republican-controlled and is headed to the majority Republican House, gives an out-sized advantage to large corporations and entities from outside the state, with no protection for Black farmers or Black small businesses.

Among several unreasonable hurdles, this bill requires producers to have experience growing medical marijuana, which seems to be a catch-22 orchestrated to advantage established growers from out of state. How is a farmer supposed to demonstrate experience in an industry that, to date, has been illegal in the state?

Many Black farmers have been legally farming hemp — a cousin to cannabis — for years. Primed for what they saw as coming legalization, they’ve been working in co-ops specializing in the production of cannabis-infused products and studying techniques needed to produce medicinal marijuana. That preparation, plus decades of farming experience and the ability to incorporate new medical marijuana farming techniques into long-held agricultural practices, is being disregarded.

Other requirements in the bill seem written to prevent Black and Brown businesses from getting an industry foothold. That includes requirements that restrict the number of cannabis supplier licenses in N.C. to a mere 10 and allow only suppliers to own dispensaries (each could own up to 8). There are also startup costs of a nonrefundable $50,000 license fee, plus $5,000 for each facility. These costs are innately prohibitive and set up grounds for the monopolization of the industry by large-scale farms and corporations.

This bill is structured so that many local small farmers will be unable to compete, and at the bottom of that list will be the Black farmer. The ugly truth is that structural racism has helped choke the Black farming population. One hundred years ago 14% of U.S. farmers were Black. Today, only 1.4% are, and their farm sales account for less than 0.5 percent of total farm sales. In plain speak, the Black farmer is on life support.

Legislative policies that favor large-scale farms, inequitable distribution of agribusiness to minority farmers, longer wait times for loan approvals, and the denial of farm loans, continue to stifle Black farmers and make it difficult for new prospects to gain entry. If Black farmers are to have any chance of succeeding, better legislative policies must be developed. North Carolina’s medical marijuana bill is exclusionary. It illustrates legislation and regulation working together to fight equitable economic integration.

To prevent the continuation of discriminatory agribusiness practices, this bill must include language upfront that addresses the multiple hurdles Black and Brown farmers face.

The ironic parallel is that Black and Brown communities have been devastated by the ”War on Drugs” for decades. We have been penalized for cannabis possession at lengths that destroyed families. Nationally, Blacks are arrested at 3.64 times the rate of whites, and in some states where marijuana is still criminalized we’re arrested at 10 times the rate.

Now that medicinal marijuana use has been deemed more acceptable, and billions of dollars are to be made from its production and sale, we are expected to pay on the other end too.

The scales cannot continue to be rigged in favor of the powerful and against the Black, the Brown, and the small. If Black farms are to survive, our legislators cannot continue developing inherently discriminatory, exclusionary farming legislation. Senate Bill 3 must include a minority and small farmer inclusion. It must give Black farmers and businesses a fair shot at getting in on the ground floor of a lucrative industry primed for extraordinary growth.

Marcus Bass is executive director of Advance Carolina.

This story was originally published March 9, 2023, 12:51 PM.


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