Black History Month 2023: Celebrating the Success of Black Americans in Cannabis

In honor of February being Black History month, we would like to take the time to shine a light on a few successful Black Americans making a positive impact on their communities and the cannabis industry.

For example, a few months ago Sean “P. Diddy” Combs announced a deal that would make him the owner of the largest minority owned cannabis company in the world.1 Combs said he wanted to enter the cannabis industry to help address the inequities that have seen minorities disproportionately imprisoned for cannabis related crimes. 

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, P. Diddy said: “It’s diabolical. How do you lock up communities of people, break down their family structure, their futures, and then legalize it and make sure those same people don’t get a chance to benefit or resurrect their lives from it?”2

If the deal goes through, it will give Diddy nine retail stores and three production facilities in New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Diddy has said that owning the entire process is a historic win because it will allow him to be a bold advocate for inclusion and allow him to empower diverse leaders.

Mr. Combs is not alone, there are many successful black entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry that are making an effort to help African Americans and other minorities thrive in the cannabis industry.

But before we get to the positive work that is currently being done to increase the participation of minorities in cannabis, let’s take a quick look back through history. 

History of Cannabis in the USA

It may surprise you to hear that cannabis/hemp was not always illegal in the United States. In fact, back in 1619 the colony of Jamestown actually required farmers to grow hemp. 

You see, back then there was no differentiation between cannabis and hemp. That would come later. Back then, hemp served as a very important crop that provided material to make things like clothes, rope, and sails.

In the 1700s, some of our country’s Founding Fathers actually grew hemp themselves. 

Throughout the 1800s, hemp was a valuable cash crop for the colonies and was relied on to make clothes, paper, and rope. Cannabis was also used as an ingredient in over-the-counter medicines like cough syrup. 

So if cannabis served as an important resource for our country for a couple hundred years, when and how did cannabis become villainized? And what does it have to do with Black History?

Harry Anslinger, Marihuana, and Reefer Madness

You may have noticed that so far in this piece, we have not used the word marijuana. That’s because this word did not enter our language until the 1900s. There are many theories as to where this word came from. 

Some believe that the word marijuana was introduced by those who opposed the use of cannabis as a way to give hemp an exotic sounding name that could help to stigmatize the plant. By doing so, they could use fear tactics to associate it with the large number of Mexican immigrants coming across the border at the time.

One of the first people to popularize the term was Harry J. Anslinger, who used it during his campaign against cannabis when he took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the 1930s.

This is when propaganda villainizing cannabis began to circulate. And this propaganda often used the term “Marihuana”. Not hemp, or the scientific name of cannabis – perhaps just a coincidence. 

What can’t be debated is that the propaganda against cannabis used racism to stoke fears and turn people against its use and those who use it. 

It was Anslinger who called the effects of smoking cannabis, “reefer madness.”

In addition to vilifying Mexican immigrants, Anslinger also targeted black people, saying that smoking weed inspired black people to create Satanic music. In case you’re wondering… the “Satanic Music” he was referring to was jazz.3

Anslinger was even quoted as saying: “There are over 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negros, entertainers, and others.”4

In 1936 the film Reefer Madness was released. It was filled with false narratives about cannabis including that first-time users could find themselves experiencing unfavorable situations such as hallucinations, attempted rape, and murder.5

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Regardless of where and how the term originated, there is no denying that the word marijuana, or marihuana, seemed to officially enter the vernacular of many Americans when Anslinger introduced the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

With the passing of this act, cannabis became heavily taxed and essentially outlawed. Unfortunately, this was not the end of cannabis prohibition and using cannabis as a way to villainize people of color. 

Nixon and the War on Drugs

In 1971, the Nixon Administration repealed the Marihuana Tax Act and replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act, which effectively started the War on Drugs. Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, was quoted in a 1994 issue of Harper’s Magazine saying: 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people… . We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and black people with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”5

You would think that after this information was made public, it would effectively end the War on Drugs. And although we have certainly come a long way in providing legal access to medicinal patients and recreational users, we still have a long way to go.

According to Forbes, out of the 40,000 Americans who are in prison for cannabis related crimes, the majority of them are minorities. Fortunately, we have many black and brown entrepreneurs who are doing important work towards this goal.

Before we get to that, we want to mention something important. 

Helpful Tip

One of the best ways for cannabis users to stay on the right side of the law is to always keep your medical marijuana card current and with you. 

If you’ve let your card expire – or don’t have a medical marijuana card, but feel like you may qualify – you can use the form on this page (scroll up on your desktop or scroll down on mobile) to find out if you qualify or to renew your card today.

Celebrating Black Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in Cannabis

Kika Keith, Founder & CEO, Gorilla RX, the First Black Woman–Owned Dispensary in Los Angeles

The next Black entrepreneur we would like to shine the spotlight on is Kika Keith. Ms. Keith is the Founder and CEO of Gorilla RX – which is the first Black woman-owned dispensary in Los Angeles, California.

Owning the first Black woman-owned dispensary is just one reason why Ms. Keith is on this list of entrepreneurs making a difference in cannabis. Before founding her business, Ms. Keith took part in an effort to help other Black Americans get their start in the industry.

You see, the City of Los Angeles was supposed to roll out a social equity program at the same time they started handing out dispensary licenses. Well, for one reason or another, this program was pushed back and only six out of the nearly 200 dispensaries that were grandfathered in, were owned by Black Americans. 

That is when Kika Keith co-founded the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association which ended up suing the city of Los Angeles. The organization won the lawsuit and as a result, 100 licenses were made available to minorities.

Ms. Keith’s passion for cannabis can be traced back to her parents who had a high level of respect for the cannabis plant and its potential to heal. Her father was a scholar and philosopher who was also a Rastafarian and her mother considered the plant to be holy.6

How Family Led to a Career in Cannabis

In fact, Ms. Keith credits her mother for helping to get her started on the path to becoming an entrepreneur. You see it was her mother’s secret recipe for a wellness drink made from chlorophyll that helped her launch Gorilla Life.7

Ms. Keith was running a music academy in South Central Los Angeles at the time, which was in need of cash. So, Gorilla Life’s wellness drink helped to fund the academy. And this was the beginning of Kika Keith’s life as an entrepreneur.

In 2008 Whole Foods started carrying Gorilla Life. For the next ten years, she worked to build her brand. In 2017, she heard the calls of Black politicians urging the people of South Central to enter the cannabis industry so that Black Americans would be excluded from yet another industry.

That is when Kika Keith decided to apply for a social equity license and took a break from Gorilla Life to focus her efforts on cannabis and social equity. The rest is history.

Al Harrington: CEO and Co-Founder, Viola Brands

Al Harrington is a former NBA player who was drafted by the Indiana Pacers at the young age of 18. In addition to playing for the Pacers, he also spent time with the Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, New York Nicks, Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic, Washington Bullets, and Toronto Raptors.

Following his retirement from basketball, Harrington decided to venture into the cannabis industry. When asked why he chose cannabis, Harrington responded, “Because I would like to see my people liberated.”8

A February, 2021 Forbes article addressed Harrington’s frustration with the number of black men that have been arrested and imprisoned for minor cannabis offenses. The article pointed to a research report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), called A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform.

There’s Still Work that Needs to be Done

Not only did this study show that 48% of all drug arrests were still marijuana related, but it also found that in 2018 police made more marijuana related arrests than for all violent crimes combined. This is according to the FBI. Even more disturbing is that the study found that a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person – even though black and white people use cannabis at a similar rate.9

We’re hoping with the recent changes to recreational legalization of cannabis in states like Maryland and Missouri, this will help inspire other states to follow – ultimately reducing these numbers.

Ricky Williams, President & Co-Founder, Highsman

Ricky Williams is a true trailblazer when it comes to professional athletes and cannabis use. Ricky played college football at the University of Texas and won the coveted Heisman Trophy in 1998 – which is awarded to the best college player each year. 

Ricky Williams was drafted to play professional football by the New Orleans Saints in 1999. From the outside everything looked great for Ricky. He was a top NFL draft pick playing for a good team with a great coach. 

Few people knew that Ricky was dealing with social anxiety disorder – which meant he would get anxious in social settings. Ricky turned to cannabis to help deal with this anxiety. The problem, cannabis was on the list of banned substances for the NFL.

After playing for the Saints for a few years, Ricky was traded to the Miami Dolphins and ended up testing positive for marijuana in December of 2003. As a result, he faced a yearlong suspension from the NFL along with a fine of $650,000. Then in July of 2004, Ricky announced that he would be retiring from the NFL.

At the time, few people could understand why Ricky would make the decision to walk away from the opportunity to play in the NFL and make millions of dollars. As you can imagine a lot was said about one of the most talented players in the league walking away at such a young age. Not much of what was being said was kind either. 

In 2005, Ricky returned to the Miami Dolphins after serving a four-game suspension. But then in February of 2006 the NFL announced Ricky had violated the NFL’s drug policy once again and would be suspended for the entire 2006 season.

That’s when the Toronto Argonauts, a team from the Canadian Football League signed Ricky Williams to play for them for the 2006 season. Joe Theismann, who had played for the Argonauts claimed he was disgraced to be associated with a team that would sign “an addict” like Williams.10

The Argonauts responded: “It’s really a delicate subject for him to attack someone if he has that in his own family,” referring to Joe’s son’s 2002 guilty plea to a felony charge of dealing cocaine.11

In 2007, Williams applied to be reinstated by the NFL and in October he was granted reinstatement and would enjoy playing a few more years for the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens before retiring in February of 2012.

Medical Cannabis Advocate

Ricky has said that he does not regret his decision to walk away. At the time, he felt he had an important decision to make. He could deny who he was, quit cannabis, and comply with the NFL’s rules – or he could stay true to who he was and walk away.

At a time when he had so much to gain by denying his passion for cannabis, Ricky made the difficult decision to stay true to what he believed and paid for his decision with lost income and a negative public perception by some.

Today, Ricky Williams runs his own cannabis brand, Highsman which he co-founded with the help of longtime friend and mentor Chris Ball, founder of Ball Family Farms. Ricky and Chris’ goal is to foster a positive narrative about cannabis. 

Ball said: “To see his career taken away because he indulged in a plant that was good for him, it touches me in a way that makes me want to help him.”

Ricky was quoted by Spectrum News 1 as saying: When I left the NFL, and the stigma was all over me, I had a question to answer.Do I wrestle this stigma? Or, do I live the life I know I can live and change? And where the story was that cannabis ruined my life, I said I’m going to live in a way to say that cannabis saved my life.”

Together Chris Ball and Ricky Williams are working to grow black and brown ownership in the cannabis industry.12

Another great example of positive impacts being made by black Americans in the cannabis industry is Jay-Z.

Jay Z, Chief Brand Strategist, Caliva

Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, was recently named Chief Brand Strategist for Caliva. 

According to Dennis O’Malley, Caliva’s CEO, social justice will be a main component of Jay Z’s role that will involve outreach programs – like job training, advocacy, and workforce development – to help create more opportunities for those who have been negatively affected by the War on Drugs.13

Caliva company officials stated that Jay-Z’s role will focus on helping to increase the economic participation of those who are returning from incarceration.

Helping to Address Cash Flow in Cannabis 

Jay Z is also an investor in a company called Flowhub – which creates cannabis point-of-sale software. 

Since cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the federal government, most major financial institutions do not serve cannabis companies. The same applies to credit cards and online payment processing companies. 

This leaves cannabis patients and recreational users having to pay in cash when visiting the dispensary. This is where Flowhub’s software can help dispensaries facilitate payments a bit easier.

The software allows payments to be processed using customer’s ATM cards. Instead of being processed as a debit transaction which is not allowed, the sale shows up as an ATM transaction.14

Flowhub and Social Equity

According to Forbes, Flowhub has donated $1 Million in software to cannabis companies that are owned by groups that are underrepresented in the industry, including Black-, Brown-, woman-, and veteran-owned dispensaries.

Black Americans Making a Difference in Cannabis Science 

Dr. Karyemaitre Aliffe, MD, PhD 

Dr. Karyemaitre Aliffe earned a BA degree from Harvard University and an MD with Distinguished Honors from the Stanford University School of Medicine. 

With more than two decades of medical research experience, Dr. Aliffe is considered a Cannabis expert whose work focuses on the many applications of hemp and cannabis. His work takes a fresh look at cannabis in an attempt to help clarify common misconceptions about what he calls “one of the greatest medicines in Nature’s Pharmacy.15

Specializing in the molecular physiology of the endocannabinoid system, Dr. Aliffe integrates his expertise with the power of data science, in the hopes of providing scientific evidence about cannabis that can help to advance global health.

Dr. Janice Vaughn-Knox, MD, MBA

A believer in the power of self-healing, Dr. Janice Vaughn-Knox is a board-certified anesthesiologist, clinical endocannabinologist, cannabinoid medical specialist, and Medical Committee Chairperson for the Minority Cannabis Business Association.

Originally from Richmond, California, Dr. Vaughn-Knox completed her undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and earned her medical degree at the University of Washington, Seattle.

She is certified by the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine as a Cannabinoid Medicine Specialist. And is a highly sought-out speaker on cannabis therapeutics. Dr. Vaughn-Knox uses her knowledge of cannabis therapeutics to help treat symptoms of chronic disease in cases where traditional medicine has been ineffective. 

Dr. Janice is a firm believer that cannabinoid care starts with an understanding of our endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

Keeping Your MMJ Card On You Can Help to Avoid Misunderstandings

If you are a Medical Marijuana Patient in a state where only the medical-use of cannabis has been legalized, make sure to keep your card current and on you at all times. That way if you happen to be stopped and questioned by the police, you can avoid any misunderstandings and problems.

If you’ve let your card expire – or don’t have a medical marijuana card, but feel like you may qualify –  you can use the form on this page (scroll up on your desktop or scroll down on mobile) to find out if you qualify or to renew your card today.

  1. Diddy Makes a Big Move Into Cannabis Game With $185 Million Purchase of Major Pot Players
  2. Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs to Buy Cannabis Operations in New York, Two Other States for Up to $185 Million – WSJ
  3. Cannabis & Black History Month: A Timeline
  4. Racism and Its Effect on Cannabis Research – PMC.
  5. The Link Between Cannabis History and Black History
  6. These Black Women Are Taking Their Share of the Billion-dollar Cannabis Industry – Essence
  7. Kika Keith on reclaiming power and building the dispensary of her dreams in LA
  8. A Great Way To Celebrate Black History Month? Ask African American Cannabis Entrepreneurs Why They Chose That Industry
  9. A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform | American Civil Liberties Union
  10. Ricky Williams – Wikipedia
  11. Joe Theismann’s Son Gets Drug Sentence
  12. Ricky Williams growing cannabis venture with special partnership
  13. Jay-Z joins cannabis company Caliva as chief brand strategist | CNN Business
  14. Jay-Z Invests In Cannabis Payment Company Flowhub
  15. Cannabis. My Life, My Motivation. With Karyemaitre Aliffe, MD – United Patients Group