FILE — ReLeaf Health Portland

A street view of ReLeaf Health, a cannabis shop in Portland, Oregon.

(The Center Square) — After the November general election, more than two-thirds of Americans have access to medical or recreational cannabis, but many people of color cannot afford to cash into the growing business.

Making it in the cannabis industry was personal for Leona Thomas, a Black Portland business owner and founder of cannabis retailer ReLeaf Health.

Years back, Thomas suffered from a condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum during her first pregnancy, which causes extreme vomiting and nausea.

Her doctor prescribed her medications for it, but it was years later that Thomas was notified those medications included side effects which included birth defects.

It was during her second pregnancy that Thomas considered using cannabis on the suggestion of a friend, but relented to her doctor’s warnings that she could see her children taken away if authorities became aware.

Today, Thomas’s children are perfectly healthy, but she says those prescription medications never helped her through pregnancy.

“I have to be a part of this, because this is something the community as a whole needs to know,” Thomas said. “And the only way I can be a part of change is to actually do it. Our goal is to do research, continue to provide this medicine because that's really what it is to people who need it.”

To date, 47 states have legalized access to medical cannabis while 15 states including Oregon have given the thumbs up for its recreational use.

Pew Research found two-thirds of Americans support legalizing access to cannabis as of 2019 while state legislatures are pushing to expand access.

In 2019, Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 420 expunging past cannabis convictions for anyone found guilty of cannabis possession of up to an ounce by allowing convicts to file a court motion free of charge.

The proposal built on legislation from 2015 which attempted to ease the process for expunging cannabis conviction records. The bill took effect on January 1, 2020.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in 2018 that of the more than 2,000 people who were federally sentenced for cannabis offenses that year, 72.2% were identified as Hispanic while another 12% were Black.

Only 11% were white despite white Americans making up more than 60% of the U.S. population. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis businesses like Thomas’s have been allowed to remain opened as demand has shot up.

Legal cannabis spending in the U.S. is estimated to total up to $16 billion in 2020 and create as many as 340,000 jobs according to a report by BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research.

Cannabis tax revenue in Oregon alone is expected to hit a new record of $292 million in 2020.

Whether that money finds its way to the communities of color disproportionately jailed for cannabis offenses is another matter.

Thomas describes the legalization of cannabis as “bittersweet” for Black people like her who remain underrepresented in an industry with a high price of admission.

Starting ReLeaf cost Thomas $500,000 out of pocket which came through the efforts of her entire family as bank loans for the industry are largely still illegal.

“Getting into the cannabis industry is difficult because our communities don't have generational wealth,” Thomas said. “We don't have fathers and grandfathers that have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting around waiting for us to start a business.”

Application and business registration fees in counties like Multnomah can cost thousands well before someone sets up shop, Thomas says, and take months to process.

In 2011, median household income for African-Americans in Multnomah County sat at $28,028 compared to the $53,225 media income for white households.

In January, Oregon lawmakers will debate the Cannabis Equity Act, whose provisions include creating a state task force charged with identifying barriers in the industry for marginalized communities and lowers cannabis license fees.

Small businesses made up more than half of all jobs in 2019 and about 8% of them were minority-owned, according to a state report.

But collecting hard data on cannabis industry ownership is virtually impossible under federal law, according to Carrie Baxandall, program manager of Oregon’s Certification Office for Business Inclusion and Diversity.

“Although COBID collects demographic data related to ethnicity and gender, we do not have data capturing all Oregon owned businesses at this time,” Baxandall said. “We are not currently certifying businesses in the cannabis industry as the federal government continues to designate cannabis as a controlled substance.”

The Cannabis Equity Act, Thomas said, is just a first step to creating space for Portlanders of color in the industry.

“For me, equity is the bare minimum,” Thomas said. “We really need to be having this conversation, but it's one that we have to have. There needs to be a specific set of people involved in this conversation, not just those that are looking to be involved from a business aspect, but how it impacts our community.”

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.