Weed injustice called out as a civil rights issue

painting martin luther king at pot thing
Las Vegas artist Stephanie Amon paints a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Jardin Dispenary in Las Vegas.

“In any civilized society, it is every citizen’s responsibility to obey just laws. But at the same time, it is every citizen’s responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” -Dr. Martin Luther King

Dissent is indeed the highest form of patriotism among advocates of cannabis who have long fought not only for their right to partake, but also for the rights of those targeted in the war on marijuana — overwhelmingly people of color.

Now, even the stalwarts in the war on weed are coming around, in part, to address the racial disparity. 

“Legalize adult-use cannabis,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during his State of the State address this week.  “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”

Not long ago Cuomo called marijuana a “gateway drug.” Now he’s authored The Cannabis Act, which states:

“It is hereby declared as a policy of the state of New York that it is necessary to properly regulate and control the cultivation, processing, manufacture, wholesale and retail production, distribution, transportation and sale of cannabis, cannabis-related products, medical cannabis and hemp cannabis within the state of New York, for the purposes of fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption, to properly protect the public health, safety and welfare, and to promote social equality.”

Thirty-three states allow medical use of marijuana while ten permit recreational use.  Lawmakers in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York are primed to vote on legalization this year.

While the assault on marijuana is being turned back across the nation, the fight to restore justice rages on in the Silver State and beyond.  Cannabis establishments are the new battlefields.  

“In many ways, we are part of the living legacy of Dr. King.  He informs who we are and what we’ve done,” says Jardin co-owner Adam Cohen, who says he prides himself for a staff that reflects the diversity of his clientele.  

By and large, minorities, who endure more than three times the arrest rate for marijuana-related offenses as white users, have been left behind in the Green Rush.  

Zechariah Lord is one of the exceptions — an African-American dispensary owner.  Lord says he’s tired of turning away otherwise promising job applicants because they have a record of disqualifying marijuana offenses.

“We see it all the time,” says Lord, the co-owner of Jardin in Las Vegas.  “That’s why it’s so important to get these records expunged.” he says.

“I think it deters a lot of people from even applying.  They know already going in,” says Kema Ogden, owner of Top Notch, The Health Center.  Ogden says she’s the only minority woman in Nevada with an ownership interest in a dispensary.

“There are a lot of people who want to get into the industry but can’t. For women, it’s much harder to obtain capital,” she says.  

Ogden is less concerned with the standard industry gripe about the lack of access to banking.

“Safety is always an issue, but not if you can’t get in the industry to begin with.”

Under Nevada law, workers must be 21-years-old and must never have been convicted of a drug-related felony.  

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, the patron saint of marijuana establishments, told a gathering of the Las Vegas Medical Marijuana Association in King’s honor to look forward to mass expungement of misdemeanor offenses and a case-by-case effort to eliminate felonies.

Segerblom is not alone in his efforts to wipe the slate clean for marijuana offenders.  This week Governor Steve Sisolak told the Current he’s working on an effort that would expunge convictions in the same fashion as Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

But amid the progress of the industry is a commitment to remember those marginalized in the process.  

guilt by association
Saunders seated in the front row at a Las Vegas speech featuring President Barack Obama in 2010.

Katree Saunders says she developed an addiction to painkillers as a result of a car accident.  She turned to marijuana as an alternative to the debilitating opioids. While she credits marijuana with saving her life, her advocacy landed her in federal prison.  

Saunders was working with Nevada Compassionate Care, a medical marijuana organization, when she had the chance to see President Barack Obama speak in Las Vegas and got his personal assurance his administration was not prosecuting medical users.  

The president’s words turned into an empty promise just a year later.

“I sold an undercover agent $150 worth of marijuana and hashish,” she said.

“I have a dream,” said Saunders, echoing King’s best-known speech.  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“I have four children and that’s why I keep fighting,” said Saunders, recalling the offense that landed her in federal prison. “It cost the government $20,000 to arrest and house me. It cost me my freedom and my family.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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