For nearly half a century, the “war on drugs” has been the chief excuse behind some of America’s most obscene campaigns. This crusade has sent millions of Americans to prison and to their graves in the name of punishment and incarceration instead of treatment and compassion. Now, as prohibition begins to crumble, a new cannabis industry is emerging. And it’s giving those Americans wronged by the drug war a chance to turn their pain into profit.

Aside from being generally destructive and doing nothing to curb drug use, the drug war has been a cruel and discriminatory experiment. Even if it weren’t an admittedly deceptive and divisive program, the inequality of it is glaringly evident. With more police patrolling minority neighborhoods resulting in more arrests, in turn leading to sentencing disparities between chemically identical drugs (crack vs. powder cocaine), the “new Jim Crow” is as deviant as it is destructive.

Thankfully, the emerging cannabis industry stands to correct that. What has for decades been a source of fear and pain in millions of Americans’ lives is now beginning to work in their favor.

Turnabout’s fair play

ricky williams

Ricky Williams
is a prime example. Williams was an NFL running back who was released after failing several drug tests in the early 2000s. Losing up to $10 million in endorsements and salary, Williams decided to take advantage of the “stoner” image he couldn’t avoid. He has since opened a cannabis-friendly gym, the profits from which he expects will dwarf his NFL losses. What killed his old career is now the basis for a thriving new one—a career that helps people live healthier lives.

The stigma surrounding cannabis use among athletes is damning for many professional players. Meanwhile, Williams estimates at least 60% to 70% of NFL players smoke the herb. Comedian Robin Williams (no relation) famously lampooned cannabis discrimination this way after a positive test cost an Olympic snowboarder his gold medal: “The only way for marijuana to be a performance-enhancing drug is if there’s a giant chocolate bar at the end of the track.”

Marginalized groups like women have also begun to find refuge in the legal cannabis industry. We know the black-market drug trade often leaves a trail of women thrown under the bus as enforcement agencies try to use little fish as bait for bigger ones. Many women behind bars for cannabis were arrested as smuggling “mules” who can’t (or won’t, due to fear and intimidation) provide enough information to keep them out of long prison sentences, often hundreds of miles from their families.

Girl Scouts cook up sales savvy

girl scout cookies

Women actually in charge seem to be few and far between, as in nearly all industry. However, the new legal cannabis industry already looks poised to reverse this trend. Just look at how well the Girl Scouts have done selling cookies in front of dispensaries, using signage proclaiming, “Satisfy your munchies!”

There are already more women in executive positions within the cannabis industry than in most others, and this trend is expected to continue. Individuals and organizations are using this new industry to “tip the scales” in their favor. Women Grow is a coalition of women (and men!) working to connect and empower those interested in supporting women in the emerging cannabis industry. With this and other organizations focused on communities like those of color and the formerly incarcerated, for example, the legal cannabis industry is quickly becoming a place for anyone hurt by the drug war to turn that persecution into prosperity.

Justice begins when the drug war’s victims can find opportunities for success where they once found only pain. We are witnessing the birth of an industry with unprecedented accessibility for women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged. It’s time for those persecuted by the drug war go from under the bus to behind the wheel.

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Born in Arizona and raised in Maryland and Guinea, West Africa, Zach Brown claims the D.C. metro area as his home turf. He is currently back in Africa writing, teaching English as a second language, and making music in Bamako, Mali. Zach is an Eagle Scout who earned a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland. He was also president of the UMD chapters of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy).