DC's black residents want a piece of the legal marijuana market

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Julian Everly Shervington Wright thinks he has the perfect resume to become a marijuana entrepreneur in Washington, D.C.

The 41-year-old spent two decades in the Atlanta music business, working with star producer Dallas Austin and top-level musicians like Destiny's Child and Jagged Edge. He's a consultant now and he knows the District, since he's lived here with his family since 2002.


In the music scene, he saw plenty of people smoke marijuana — and he noticed that the suppliers stayed busy.

"One thing I'll tell you is those guys never lack for business," he said. "I never saw anything go on sale. I never saw them holding inventory and having to liquidate."


Now he wants a piece of D.C.'s cannabis market and plans to head to a marijuana expo on Saturday to expand his growing knowledge of cultivation and sales.

But as a black entrepreneur, he might face some challenges.

The legal marijuana industry is very white. While we couldn't find statistics, industry insiders widely acknowledge a lack of diversity in the emerging field.


Shaleen Title, a partner at THC Staffing, which seeks to connect businesses with workers, said it's a social justice issue.

"I'm not afraid to say it: it's a shame that so far largely black men have been arrested and incarcerated by marijuana prohibition, but so far largely white men have been profiting from legal marijuana," she wrote in an email.


D.C. could be different. Unlike Colorado and Washington, the city is roughly 50 percent black and has a history of business ownership among African Americans.

A new opportunity might soon arise. Marijuana became legal in the District on Thursday, but due to opposition from Congress, sales aren't permitted. Still, entrepreneurs with an interest in cannabis anticipate the law will change in the near future — and folks like Wright are gearing up for their shot at ownership.


But despite D.C.'s demographics, there's no guarantee black residents will make up a representative portion of marijuana proprietors.

The city's medical cannabis program shows how African Americans could be cut out of the picture. Of six medical marijuana dispensaries and grow centers operating in D.C., only one has a non-white owner, according to the sole black proprietor, Corey Barnette (the Department of Health did not respond to a request for the names of owners).


Barnette says things could be handled differently if D.C. is able to create a regulated market for recreational weed. A bill under consideration in City Council would require marijuana business owners to have lived in the District for at least six months, something that wasn't incorporated into the medical program.


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D.C.'s rapid gentrification in the last decade can't be ignored, either. As demographics have changed, elected officials are less worried about representing minority groups, Barnette said.


"Twenty years ago, there's no way you could have done this and that issue not come up," he said.

Chip Ellis, a real estate developer interested in owning a pot business, thinks the city should go even further with its residency requirements. The 50-year-old Capitol Hill resident would like to see guidelines that require living in the District for at least two years, maybe more.


Such a precondition wouldn't guarantee diverse ownership, but it would at least narrow the pool of competitors.

Ellis says that will prove "whether this person is truly a part of the Washington fabric or whether they're just some person who wants to come in, make a buck, and move on."


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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