Marijuana Reform Should Focus On Inequality

When regulators dictate who grows a cash crop, they can spread the wealth—or help the rich get richer.

Marijuana plants
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty

Especially because Americans of color have borne the brunt of the drug war, they deserve to share in the marijuana boom now taking hold across the country. And if America’s long history with another smokable intoxicant—tobacco—is any guide, government rules will decide who can profit from growing the crop. At the moment, though, those rules favor well-connected corporate growers rather than independent farmers, much less independent farmers of color.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized recreational pot, and 15 states have decriminalized it. The drug can be used medicinally in 33 states. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now believe that marijuana use should be legal, and not all of them use it. For millions, the case for legalization rests on social-justice grounds. Revulsion against an expensive and racist drug war—in which black people have been nearly four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates—has been a significant force toward reform.

Making up for the brutal inequalities of the drug war should be a major goal of marijuana reformers—but so far, the reality isn’t working out that way.

Each state that reforms its marijuana laws must decide how it will allocate production rights. Right now, states severely restrict the number of licenses awarded to cannabis growers, ensuring corporate domination of the industry. In New York, where medical marijuana is legal, just 10 companies own licenses to cultivate and dispense marijuana. Competition is fierce over the licenses, which can sell for tens of millions of dollars—even before an ounce of marijuana is sold. For this reason, licenses tend to go to well-financed pot conglomerates that own cultivation facilities in multiple states.

That outcome should not come as a surprise. A federally supported program set rules for tobacco growers from the Great Depression until early this century. Its history suggests that production regulations, when done right, can be a powerful tool to spread wealth—but also that, when done wrong, they are a highly efficient way of excluding people from an industry.

Much like today’s marijuana regulators, the tobacco program inaugurated during the New Deal also instituted a licensure system. Not anyone could just move to North Carolina or Kentucky and start selling tobacco. A farmer needed approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That approval came in the form of a tobacco quota—the right to produce a certain amount of tobacco for which a farmer would receive a guaranteed minimum price. The specifics changed over its 70-year history, but the essence of the federal tobacco program was simple: A balance between supply and demand could be achieved with a limited number of farmers producing a limited amount of tobacco.

The architects of this system intended it to protect a privileged group of Americans: white farmers. Concentrated in the South, where Democratic representatives in Congress were crucial to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, tobacco farmers were of particular concern to policy makers. Quotas were set on a yearly basis based on USDA estimates of domestic and export demand. But they were rooted in historical production patterns, essentially locking in inherited wealth, excluding black sharecroppers and poor white tenants from this program benefit. Quotas were a government-created piece of property—property that licensed owners to engage in a productive activity, selling tobacco, that the government also subsidized. Although quota formulations were rejiggered over the years, the biases present in their formulation continued

But for all its flaws, the tobacco program succeeded at what it was meant to do: endowing a designated class of Americans with a way of life that buoyed entire regional economies. Because of strict production restrictions, tobacco farms were among the smallest for any staple commodity, which forestalled the consolidation of farms and an exodus of residents from rural areas. And there were many tobacco farmers in the middle stratum of the farm income ladder, and relatively few at the top. Small tobacco farms could still provide for a decent standard of living because tobacco was a high-value crop. Growing even a small amount could be lucrative. In 1980, an acre of cigarette tobacco was worth $2,700, as opposed to $150 for corn or $250 for soybeans. “There is absolutely nothing on this Earth that can compete with tobacco money,” a USDA economist told The Washington Post in 1980. Except, he added, “illegal smoking material.”

Now that “illegal smoking materials” are legal in many states, the licensure system for marijuana cultivation is poised to replicate some of the oligopolistic features of the tobacco program, while thwarting its genuinely redistributive ones. Instead of charging would-be cannabis growers for the privilege of growing, states should award licenses to a larger number of applicants from communities that have been hit hard by the War on Drugs. Much as small-scale tobacco farms anchored entire communities across the Southeast, cannabis cultivation on a human scale, rather than a corporate one, can build wealth within communities of color where opportunities to amass property have been denied—frequently at the hands of the government.

Indeed, the excesses of the drug war aren’t the only reason to enact more inclusive policies for marijuana farming. U.S. agricultural policy, too, has throughout its history been skewed against African Americans. When black farmers have availed themselves of government programs, they have frequently found discrimination and, ultimately, dispossession.

But those same tools can be put to work in the opposite direction. The tobacco program was devised to address the emergency of the Great Depression, and it did so in a way that sustained the livelihoods and communities of a targeted group of Americans. The effects of the War on Drugs are no less severe for communities of color, and the need for opportunity is no less urgent.