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The Struggles of Being One of the Few People of Color in the Cannabis Industry

Kayvan Khalatbari runs one of the only minority-owned cannabis businesses in America—but he wants that to change.
All photos courtesy of VICELAND

Black and brown people don't use or deal illegal drugs more frequently than whites, but they're more likely to get arrested for them. And three years after the groundbreaking decision to legalize cannabis for recreational sale in Colorado, black and brown people are less likely than whites to see the benefits of the green economy.

Reportedly, while there are more than 3,000 cannabis dispensaries nationwide, less than 36 are owned by black people. And if you're black in a weed-legal state like Colorado or Washington, you're still twice as likely to be arrested for weed than a white person.


Laws can shift, but that doesn't level the economic playing field that has long marginalized the non-white. It's disheartening, but not surprising. As anyone who's listened to a presidential candidate scream bigoted remarks, or watched a cop shoot an unarmed black person, or been inside a prison, knows America is an openly racist country. That fact doesn't change just because a drug becomes legal.

The campaign to legalize marijuana was never about challenging racial injustice in America. It was largely white activists waving the flag for cannabis reform, and it was largely white businessmen who reaped the benefits. It's up to black and brown people to reap those benefits for themselves.

In our VICELAND show Vice Does America, we passed through Denver and stopped by the Denver Relief cannabis grow house, one of the only minority-owned grows in the country, to discuss the political climate around cannabis with owner Kayvan Khalatbari.

VICE: How long have you been in the cannabis business, and what has your involvement been in the industry?
Kayvan Khalatbari: I started as an activist and advocate with SAFER and Sensible back in 2005 in Denver working on the I-100 Initiative, which legalized the possession of an ounce or less of cannabis by folks 21-plus. This led to me chasing the then mayor, now [Colorado] Governor John Hickenlooper around in a chicken suit at five town hall meetings in an effort to expose his refusal to debate cannabis policy. Considering he made his fortune and fame from brewing and selling beer, along with the fact that cannabis arrests actually went up the year after Denver legalized, there was a lot of hypocrisy in his stance.


In 2008, I started the dispensary Denver Relief, which I still own today and which operates as the oldest continuously operating cannabis business in Colorado, at 7-plus years. We are the largest medical cannabis cultivator and product manufacturer in Illinois with Cresco Labs and have a vertically integrated cannabis business in Las Vegas with Silver Sage Wellness.

I also currently sit on the board, committee, and councils of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation, the Illinois Cannabis Industry Association, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), C&C of Denver DEH Environmental Stewardship Committee, C&C of Denver Mayors Office Marijuana Work Group, and C&C of Denver Campaign for Limited Social Use.

Related: Watch 'How to Make a Cross Joint,' from our series 'Smokeables'

Since you entered the cannabis business, how has the diversity of cannabis business owners evolved?
It hasn't, and it pisses me off. I spoke recently at the National Cannabis Industry Association Business Summit on two topics: environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility, and one of the main points was the persisting issues of minority inclusion in the cannabis industry. Denver, considered one of the most liberal places in the world with regard to cannabis, one that has shown the most progress of almost any city in America with regard to regulations, has a higher arrest and citation rate of black and brown people over white than almost any major city in America, data which was in the most recent state report on this issue. It's gross.


Drug policy affects people of color, and when [legalization efforts] pass, those folks are often left in the cold, having things on their record that would have been legal in today's world [i.e. they were arrested for smoking pot] and still prevent them from getting a job, housing, a scholarship, or maintaining custody of their children. Financial and background barriers to entry often disallow people of color from being owners and operators in this industry, but also simply to be employed.

I am currently being nominated for a board position with the Minority Cannabis Business Association, which is doing what it can to further these efforts of inclusion. One of their first orders of business is something I am funding 100 percent personally, which is to create template legislation, regulations, and rules to distribute to states and local municipalities that address these issues of inclusion, retroactively fixing criminal records, keeping license fees down and license counts up, etc.

Why do so few non-white people enter the cannabis business?
The laws, rules, and regulations often don't allow for it because of high-financial barriers, holding arbitrary criminal records against folks, racist politics, and license selection processes—many of the same reasons people of color are put at a disadvantage in life in general. This industry exacerbates that.

It's all compounded by the fact that the often white, greedy folks who do have these licenses, and even the well-intending white folks, don't ever consider minority inclusion as something that should even be on their radar. It's sad how many millions and millions of lives the drug war has ruined, especially those of color, and now those folks aren't even given the opportunity to participate now. Talk about getting kicked while you're down.


Are there any efforts being made to make it easier for minorities to enter the cannabis business?
There are, but they are few. The Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) is doing what I mentioned before, the National Cannabis Industry Association finally has a minority business council that I am helping with, Illinois gave "bonus points" for having minority and women inclusion, and Oakland had some cool provisions in its local ordinance that were meant to include the residents in poor neighborhoods there to try and get ownership in the industry. The problem with some of these, Oakland for instance, is that now rich white people are essentially trying to "buy" black people to be on these licenses but don't actually give them a seat at the table. Sick.

But, on that MCBA project, we're now formally getting support from NCIA, the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation, the SSDP, and the Drug Policy Alliance. Hit them on all fronts with exposure, education, litigation, policymaking, and so on.

Do you feel that cannabis legalization is driven more by the motivation for justice, or more by the opportunity for business?
Ten years ago, even five years ago, people pushing for social justice and drug-policy reform were the ones driving this. Color wasn't an issue because we were all one, fighting for the common goal of turning around these failed drug policies that affected all of us, but paying special attention to those of color and trying to show how unfair this actually is to them. Now: MONEY, MONEY, MONEY. Period. End of story. I would say less than one percent even have this topic on their radar let alone give a shit about progress here. It's one of the most disheartening things I've experienced, but also one of the greatest motivators. If in my position as a leader in this cannabis industry and in my home of Denver, I don't bring this topic up and fight for this… who will?


Where do you see the cannabis industry in ten years in terms of diversity?
If I have my way, it will be like how we see women in the cannabis industry. We have more women in executive positions in the cannabis industry than any other industry in America because people paid attention to it and balanced social consciousness with good business. If people focus on this issue like they do women right now, we can see this difference, but we need to rally around it.

I don't know that our current environment of restrictive licenses owned by tenured, rich white people is going to get that done. To be honest, I don't see it getting much better, but I'm hopeful, just as I was 12 years ago when we were pushing for Denver to legalize and everyone told us we were crazy, that it would never happen. People all along the way have told me and a bunch of other well-intending people in the industry that we are restricted in what we can do, that we have to play by these larger rules and hierarchies… Well, I don't subscribe to that.

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VICE Does America

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