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Can the cannabis industry be an agent of social justice? Or is it just another big business?

Jason White, chief marketing officer at Curaleaf Holdings Inc., chats with Valda Ricks, a deputy state’s attorney from Baltimore City, during a legal clinic co-sponsored by Curaleaf in Baltimore last February. (André Chung/for The Washington Post)

Jason White has created dazzling advertising and marketing campaigns for Nike and Disney, the World Cup and Olympic Games, to name a few. But when the Georgetown alumnus told his parents he was exiting Apple-owned Beats by Dre for the cannabis industry, the announcement landed with a thud. “What they heard was, ‘You’re going to sell weed,’ ” the 44-year-old said, laughing.

White is now chief marketing officer at Curaleaf Holdings Inc., which says it is the world’s largest provider (by revenue) of legal medical and recreational cannabis. While some liken legal pot to a gold rush, White — who is African American and Cuban — talks of repairing communities harmed by the war on drugs. “Some are very wary of cannabis, having seen people arrested and their voting rights taken away,” he says. “But as cannabis has become more mainstream, others don’t see harm, but opportunity. I want to use this platform to help improve society.”

I first interviewed White at a Baltimore hotel in February 2020. Curaleaf has dispensaries in Maryland, and his team had flown in from the company’s Los Angeles office. With his gracious manners and clean-cut looks, he’s a wholesome ambassador for Cannabis sativa, the plant from which marijuana is derived. Indigenous cultures used cannabis for healing and spiritual rituals, White told me, until it became criminalized amid a “larger story of oppression.”

America is the world’s largest cannabis market, but the use, possession or sale of marijuana over certain amounts remains illegal under federal law. Still, state laws are shifting, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Following ballot measures in November, cannabis will be legal for adult recreational use in 15 states and Washington, D.C. Medical use will be allowed in 36 states.

For some, the irony of marijuana becoming a big business is cruel. Decades of disparate drug arrests and sentencing have ravaged Black and Brown communities. “While many large companies are making millions, many people remain imprisoned because of the historic classification of the plant as a Schedule 1 drug in the very same states where adult use is legal,” says Stormy Simon, executive director of the board for Mission Green, which is part of the Weldon Project — a nonprofit that pushes to free those incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis offenses. It strikes her as hypocritical that cannabis dispensaries were deemed “essential” operations amid the pandemic in some jurisdictions yet the drug remains illegal in others.

The day of our hotel sit-down, White and his team invited me to what one might call a “pop up” legal clinic in West Baltimore. The event was sponsored by Curaleaf and Possible Plan; the latter is a nonprofit that White co-founded to help fund organizations tackling reparatory justice and equitable access.

Nearly 200 people flowed through the Liberty Rec and Tech Center for free legal services. Pro bono lawyers Tonya and David Baña advised clients while their pooch napped. Staff from the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office offered informational pamphlets. Community organizers and then-Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young stopped by to express support. “It’s always rewarding to help people rebuild their lives,” said Anthony P. Ashton, at the time vice president (now president) of the board of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. White later posted on Instagram: “Over 500 charges will be expunged. That means people get a new shot at life.”

Yet some are skeptical of the cannabis industry’s altruistic motives. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration. He and former congressman Patrick Kennedy (a son of the late Ted Kennedy) co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) in 2013. “Pot legalization has failed to deliver for communities of color. Disproportionate arrests and steady incarceration rates persist in legal states,” says Sabet, who serves as president of SAM. The policy nonprofit favors decriminalization instead of legalization. “We can go much further by referring people to job programs, treatment and intervention,” he says. SAM’s 2020-2021 report “Lessons Learned From State Marijuana Legalization” notes that marijuana shops are disproportionately located in low-income or Black neighborhoods.

Will Jones, an outreach associate with SAM, lives in a community where stores are plastered with cigarette and alcohol ads. “These same industries have invested billions” in cannabis, he points out. “They will continue their exploitative practices in communities of color with marijuana. That is not social justice.”

Others, however, see a more positive role for the marijuana industry. Brittany K. Barnett, a lawyer and co-founder of the Buried Alive Project, which advocates for justice reform, wants to see “bold, brave” action from cannabis companies and legislation at the federal level. “Marijuana justice,” she says, “means everyone has the ability to achieve economic equity, health equity and general social equity.”

In early December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. Among other things, the bill would remove marijuana from the controlled substances list. Its fate in the Senate could rest with the new 117th Congress.

White believes that cannabis and the industry itself can provide societal benefits — be it for veterans with PTSD or entrepreneurial opportunities for people of color. “One day,” he says, “we’re gonna learn as a culture and society to use this plant. Not over-consume it. Use it respectfully.” He adds: “Big cannabis can be good cannabis.”

Donna M. Owens is a writer in Baltimore.

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