Actor and comedian Hasan Minhaj shined a light on the state of legal cannabis in the United States on the latest episode of his Netflix show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. In the installment, which debuted on the streaming service on Sunday and is also available on YouTube, Minhaj maintains that the marijuana industry, now legal in one form or another in more than 30 states, is rigged.
Minhaj takes issue with the poor representation of people of color in the ownership of cannabis businesses. Noting that legalization often favors large corporations which are overwhelmingly owned and operated by white men, Minhaj humorously focuses his ire on Adam Bierman, the much-maligned board member and former CEO of cannabis multi-state operator MedMen. In clips from a previously videotaped interview, Bierman compares himself to characters in the Eminem film 8 Mile.
Minhaj isn’t having any of it, however, calling out the fact that Bierman grew up in San Diego and went to college at USC.
“You’re not 8 Mile. You’re fucking Ladybird,” he exclaims. “And if I have to stand here and listen to you pretend to be from Detroit any longer, I’m going to go chug a gallon of their water.”
Regulations Favor ‘Big Cannabis’
Beyond the obvious advantages of being well-capitalized, Minhaj reveals that large companies are often favored over small businesses by the regulatory schemes developed in many states. He cites the way cannabis business licenses are allocated and how a commonly mandated corporate structure known as vertical integration also tends to favor corporations over independent operators.
“States are building systems that are good for giant weed companies and bad for almost everyone else,” Minhaj says.
In California, for example, regulators originally said that cannabis cultivation licenses would be limited to operations up to one acre to support small farmers. But after a $1.6 million lobbying effort by larger companies, the regulations were written to allow more than one license to be “stacked” by big operators, whose economies of scale allow them to undercut the prices of small operators.
Minhaj also laments regulations that require cannabis licensees to own and operate their complete supply chain from seed to sale in a business model known as vertical integration. The mandate makes no place for small independent companies. In Florida, for example, vertical integration has led to only five companies controlling 65% of the state’s legal cannabis market and licenses that sell for up to $55 million.
“This isn’t just capitalism and the invisible hand,” says Minhaj. “This is a demented thumb saying, ‘if you can’t afford to do every single step, you can’t even play the game. You’re either flushed with cash or you’re out.’”
Do Social Equity Programs Work?
Minhaj points out that even as the legalization of cannabis spreads across the nation, the racial disparities in the enforcement of drug laws continue.
“The war on drugs never ended,” Minhaj says. “Today, white and black people use weed at roughly the same rate, but black people are almost four times more likely to get arrested for it.”
Some states have addressed the issue by developing social equity programs that seek to include communities that have been harmed by the war on drugs in the newly legal industry. So far, success has been spotty at best. In Massachusetts, where social equity provisions went into effect three years ago, the state is only now seeing the first Black-owned cannabis retailer open, Pure Oasis in Boston. But even Kevin Hart, co-owner of Pure Oasis, believes the execution of the state’s social equity program has not matched its intent.
“What this needs in order for people to be successful are a list of wraparound services—access to capital, legal, tax help, technical assistance,” Hart explains.
Noting that New York’s bid to legalize marijuana stalled last year over social equity provisions, Minhaj says how cannabis is legalized, not if, should guide the conversation.
“This is a racial and economic issue,” he maintains. “If we’re just going to make the rich richer, freeze out small business and the little guy and ignore victims of the war on drugs, should we legalize weed at all?”