Only 4% of cannabis retailers in Washington State are Black-owned, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB).
Mike Asai, a Black entrepreneur from Seattle, remembers what it was like growing up during the War On Drugs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Growing up in Seattle, in the 80s, [if you] just simply had a joint you would get five years in prison,” the co-founder of Emerald City Collective, one of the first medical cannabis retailers in Seattle told King5.
“[I’ve] seen that happen with family and friends and acquaintances, you know, for just that.”
Asai and his friend Peter Manning joined a cannabis collective that included Seattle-based retailers and growers in the early 2000s. However, in 2015 the state legalized recreational cannabis forcing Asai and Manning to close their business and apply for new licenses.
The two men paid city and state taxes and held all the necessary licenses to operate and because they were among the first to do so, they believed it would be a matter of time before they could reopen. However, the state had other ideas when it locked Black business owners out by granting only 19 (3.4%) of the state’s 558 recreational cannabis licenses to Black applicants.
“There is zero African American ownership in the city of Seattle, and to be supposedly this progressive state, this liberal state, it’s not showing,” Manning told King5.
Black, Indigenous, and other minorities have begun fighting back, demanding answers and action from the LCB at public meetings.
Washington State commissioned two independent reports in 2016 and 2019 auditing the LCB’s enforcement program and allegations of racial discrimination and failure to provide educational resources for applicants and inconsistent information concerning cannabis law in the state that left many with rejected applications.
LCB Board member Ollie Garrett, one of the only LCB board members on the state’s Social Equity In Cannabis Task Force (SECTS), said she considers it a failure that there are currently zero Black-owned cannabis dispensaries in Seattle.
The Task Force recommended allocating 38 cannabis licenses specifically to people of color. However, according to state records, more than half of the licenses are in areas where cannabis sales are banned—something Manning found ridiculous.
“What are you giving me?” Manning said. “A license that says I have the right to sell cannabis? But I can’t sell cannabis because I can’t open up in this location because it’s banned. How’s that equity?”
The task force recently discussed giving licenses to businesses that previously owned medical dispensaries, including Asai and Manning, and will submit its final report and recommendations in December. For now, Asai and Manning said the public should be more aware of where the money they spend on cannabis ends up, adding that Black Seattle residents want Black-owned stores in their community.