Hemp Notebook: Race and the Hemp Industry

Why hemp and CBD business executives should be talking about race

By Kristen Nichols

lmagine the owner of a natural-foods shop in tony coastal California. Now imagine the owner of a store called Quick Stop Discount Tobacco and Beer in central Tennessee.

Both stores have seen police show up in recent months because they sold CBD products. Guess which store owner got a warning and which one saw sheriff’s deputies padlock the doors and slap the owner with criminal drug charges?

We all know the long, sad history of racial disparities in drug enforcement. Now the hemp industry is starting to see it firsthand as the booming market for hemp-derived CBD runs into confusing mixed messages about whether the products are legal.

I see the disparities all the time as the hemp and CBD reporter for Marijuana Business Daily. Ever since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration pronounced in late 2016 that CBD is an illegal drug – an announcement seemingly in conflict with hemp production authorized by Congress two years before – there have been sporadic product seizures, store raids and arrests from local law enforcement trying to make sense of it all.

The CBD crime story always seems to unfold the same way, based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen. Retailers selling cannabidiol alongside yoga pants and expensive candles get a stern warning. Retailers selling cannabidiol alongside malt liquor and lottery tickets get arrested first and must plead later that hemp is legal.

It’s an ugly reality that can’t be ignored when authorities release mug shots of the retailers facing drug charges for selling down-market CBD vape pens or candies. You see far more people of color in the mug shots than you would expect in whatever small town where the arrests happened.

As one white, wealthy CBD producer told me recently, “They’re going after the people they know won’t come back on them.”

The hemp-derived CBD market is too new for arrest data to prove the disparities, though drug policy reformers I talk with say they’re seeing it, too – racial and class disparities are the same in CBD enforcement as they are in the marijuana world.

What’s different is that the CBD industry is new and should be vigilant in looking out for racial disparities in how cannabidiol is regulated.

Consumers are ahead of the industry here. Less than a week after the 23 liquor and tobacco stores selling CBD in Tennessee were padlocked, a group of white men who use cannabidiol products stood outside the county courthouse to protest the arrests while the business owners entered not-guilty pleas inside. The charges were later dismissed.

I’d like to see hemp and CBD producers speaking out, too. Hemp activists have long struggled to distance the plant from marijuana and other drugs. But the hemp industry shouldn’t stay silent about racial enforcement disparities when drug agents start sniffing closer to home.

While we await a court’s decision on CBD’s legality, old stereotypes about the “wrong” type of cannabis user are going to continue to plague the hemp industry. What’s the difference between a white MBA graduate selling CBD products for $100 a bottle and a liquor-store owner of color selling CBD gummies for $5 a package? The difference is our perception of who is the innovative entrepreneur and who is the scummy drug dealer.

Let’s see a new approach from the hemp industry. Instead of fearing any association with drug producers, let’s see the new hemp industry stand up and decry racial disparities before they become the enforcement norm.

You often hear hemp advocates talk about the plant’s potential to heal the world. Why can’t racism and classism be two more ailments treated by this amazing plant? 

Kristen Nichols covers hemp for Marijuana Business Magazine. She can be reached at [email protected]