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Profiting from the legalization of Marijuana in Grand Rapids: The ongoing legacy of the racist War on Drugs

April 18, 2019

In 2014, Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was asked about states there were passing laws to decriminalize the sale of small amounts of marijuana. Her response was:

Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing? So, that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

Michelle Alexander is not against the decriminalization of marijuana. What Alexander, and many other people are concerned about, is who is going to profit from marijuana sales, now that the industry will firmly in the hands of a capitalist system.

Unfortunately, this was not a question asked by a recent MiBiz article, with the headline, Non-locals make up vast majority of medical marijuana biz applicants. 

In the MiBiz article the focus is on whether or not those setting up marijuana-related businesses in Grand Rapids, would be locally owned or companies based in other parts of the state or other parts of the country.

The MiBiz story does provide some useful information, such as where the medical marijuana dispensaries will be located with Grand Rapids. The article includes a useful map (seen here on the right) that shows where the areas of concentration are for the new businesses.

There was also useful information in terms of costs associated with getting a license from the city of Grand Rapids, in order to sell marijuana. One business owner said, they needed to spend $5,000 for an option to buy the building, $5,000 on the city’s application for a provisioning center, and $6,000 for the state’s licensing application, for which they needed to show upwards of $300,000 in available capital. That’s all while they’re awaiting pre-qualification at the state level.

Based on the MiBiz source, one would need to pay $16,000 up front, plus ongoing rental or mortgage costs, and then have up to $300,000 in available capital. The question that should be asked, but wasn’t by the MiBiz reporter, is, who can afford to own a medical marijuana dispensary? The answer is fairly obvious……..white people. We can verify this by looking at some of the known businesses that will be operating medical marijuana dispensaries.

First, there is Healing Tree LCC, which is owned by Leafly and has dispensaries all over Michigan, as well as other states in the US. Leafly is a subsidiary of a much larger company, Privateer Holdings, which owns numerous other businesses within its portfolio.

Another company which stands to make profits from the medical marijuana dispensaries in Grand Rapids is the Bricks & Mortar Group, which prides itself on being an all woman-owned business. The only women that are seen on the Bricks & Mortar site are white women. 

A third company listed in the MiBiz article is Humble Roots LLC. According to the Co-founder’s linkedin page (Ben Migdal), “Humble Roots is a self-funded, vertically integrated, pre-licensed, Michigan cannabis group.Our founders started in the industry in California, Colorado, and Michigan over a decade ago and have expanded into Michigan’s emerging cannabis market. Our team has award winning genetics, flower, and a portfolio of municipally licensed real estate ready for build out. Our primary and immediate goal is to build out our existing cultivation and processing facility into the finest running cannabis facilities in all of Michigan while expanding our retail footprint throughout the state. The Linkedin page for the Humble Roots LLC co-founder also says that he co-founded BPMD Realty LLC, which is an entity utilized by Humble Roots LLC to ensure upkeep and standards for all properties acquired in Michigan.

Now, Ben Migdal doesn’t appear to be white, but he clearly has significant access to capital, in order to start and expand his cannabis enterprise.

The other owners listed in the MiBiz article are Jeff & Tami Vandenberg, co-owners of the Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme bars.

So it appears that most of the owners listed in the MiBiz article are white and all of them have numerous assets and access to an amount of capital that most people could never have access to, especially people of color.

For years now, those who have fought and pushed for the legalization of marijuana have been marginalized groups – communities of color, people with disabilities, AIDS patients and veterans, but these groups do not have access to the capital that white people do, thus making it more difficult for them to benefit from the legalization of marijuana.

The other important point that Michelle Alexander makes in the statement at the beginning of this article is, what are we going to do about “reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

We know that for at least the past 40 years of an official US war on drugs, that black and brown communities have suffered tremendous harm, even with marijuana. Look at the important study done by the ACLU in 2013, entitled The War on Marijuana in Black and White. This report makes it clear that arrests rates are much higher for black and brown communities than they are for white counterparts. Billions of dollars have been spent policing black and brown communities and arresting black and brown youth for marijuana sales or possession. So what reparations work are we going to be involved in that will undo this harm? If the trend is going to be white people disproportionately owning and operating medical marijuana dispensaries, that will not undo the harm done to black and brown communities for decades of drug-related arrests and incarceration.

Think about the millions of dollars lost to black and brown communities because of the years lost in jail or in prison just from drug violations and what that kind of disinvestment in their communities has meant. Looking at the map where there have been applications for medical marijuana dispensaries in Grand Rapids, are the areas where those dispensaries are located now at risk of further gentrification?

These are all important questions to think about and to act on. If we claim to be people who want to promote racial justice and to dismantle the decades of white supremacist drug war policies, then we can not sit on the sidelines content with the fact that the purchasing and consumption of marijuana is now legal.

I wrote to the City of Grand Rapids to find out if the information on all of the medical marijuana dispensaries is public information. As of this writing that information is not fully public, particularly in terms of which entities will own and operate the dispensaries. However, we did learn that this information will be made public sometime the week of April 22nd at this link on the City’s website. Once that information has been posted we will write a follow up story to see which entities are owning and operating the medical marijuana dispensaries, where they are from and what the racial makeup of those who will be profiting from the sale of marijuana.

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