The most recent data available from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) shows that among all of the cannabis business owners in Seattle, Washington, only 4% are Black-owned. A new report from King5 News interviews minority business owners who lost their place in the industry when Washington State legalized adult-use cannabis, and how a Seattle task force is working on change.
Former cannabis business owners Peter Manning and Mike Asai recall what it was like living in Seattle decades ago. “I know that we use the War on Drugs to go after Black and Brown people,” entrepreneur and Seattle-native Peter Manning told King5. “You guys punish us for years for cannabis. And now it’s okay. Now you’re doing it. Now it’s okay.”
“Growing up in Seattle, in the ‘80s, [if you] just simply had a joint you would get five years in prison,” said Mike Asai, co-founder of the Emerald City Collective. “[I’ve] seen that happen with family and friends and acquaintances, you know, for just that.”
Washington State legalized medical cannabis in 1998, which led both Manning and Asai to pursue a role in the industry. In the 2000s, both of them joined a medical cannabis collective, which brought together growers and retailers in a way that was beneficial to the community.
“To be on the bad end, when it comes to cannabis and then revert to be on the good end was very empowering,” Asai said of the collective. “Because of growing up and just seeing the War on Drugs was really the war on African Americans, the war on Black men and Black women in this country.”
In 2015, the state legalized adult-use cannabis, which forced cannabis business owners to shut down their businesses and re-apply for a license—but many Black and Brown business owners were not able to secure one. “To be legitimate and then all of a sudden now being criminalized…It’s been very traumatizing,” said Asai. “It’s been very depressing and painful to see, especially to see all the money that’s been made since the last six years since we’ve been closed. I’ve had to figure things out. I had to do Uber for about a year, just to stay afloat.”
LCB data from 2021 shows that out of the state’s 558 available licenses, only 19 have been given to Black applicants. “There is zero African American ownership in the city of Seattle, and to be supposedly this progressive state, this liberal state, it’s not showing,” Manning said.
In recent years, both Manning and Asai have spoken with the press and attended city meetings to speak out about this injustice. Recently, they both attended a Seattle City Council meeting on July 20 as public commenters urging the council to address the issue.
The Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force was created in 2020 to establish a social equity program, and to issue and reissue retail licenses. It’s first set of recommendations were submitted on Jan. 6. 2022, with a deadline that a final report be submitted to the state legislature and governor by Dec. 9, 2022.
LCB Board Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force member Ollie Garret told King5 that change needs to happen now. “Yes. I mean…what’s the saying? A day late, and a dollar short. Now the community is screaming, ‘What about us? What about us?’ Garrett said. “We go, ‘Oh, we need to fix this.’”
Garret describes the situation as a “failure” and a “missed opportunity.” “Could it have been done different in the beginning? Yes. But this was a new industry. Who knew, who thought about inclusion and Blacks being left out,” Garret said.
According to King5, the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force is setting aside 38 licenses for people of color. Unfortunately, over half of the licenses are for business locations in areas that currently ban cannabis. “Where we’re at right now, the LCB cannot move licenses out of the areas that they’re in or create new license[s] without legislation,” Garrett said. “We are going to introduce [that] in this upcoming session.”
Manning questions the task force’s view on equity. “What are you giving me?” Manning said. “A license that says I have the right to sell cannabis? But I can’t sell cannabis because I can’t open up in this location because it’s banned. How’s that equity?”
He also suggests that consumers be conscious about where they choose to buy their cannabis. “There’s white-owned stores in our Black neighborhoods,” Manning said. “Ten years ago, you were locking us up for the same thing. White people were making millions of dollars. You’re taking that money out of our community, and they’re putting it in the white community. We want our Black-owned stores in our communities.”