Atlanta civil rights attorney wants more black ownership in the burgeoning cannabis industry and becomes one of those owners


After black people were overpunished for marijuana charges in the so-called “war on drugs” for decades, cannabis or CBD oil is now legal in large parts of the country – but access for black entrepreneurs is limited.

Civil rights activist Mario Williams has noticed and doesn’t like what he sees. He has been fighting for the disenfranchised for more than 20 years, his work focuses on police brutality, prisoner rights, wrongful imprisonment and discrimination cases. Now, however, the issue of the criminalization and legalization of marijuana and its impact on blacks has risen on Williams’ list of concerns and priorities.

Mario Williams (Courtesy Photo Curtis Bunn)

For Williams, this paradox poses social justice issues that, like many of his civil rights cases, kept him awake at night.

“It’s an atrocity,” said Williams, whose office is in Atlanta. “Black people have ruined their lives and communities through laws and judges imposing exorbitant prison terms for a product that white officials always knew didn’t deserve the many years of being sent away.”

Marijuana legalization is about money, money that black entrepreneurs would like to have access to, but the ability to do so is consistently ruled out. The book “Marijuana Business 2021: The Legal Cannabis Industry in the US and Globally” states: “In just 20 years, a previously black market product became a source of income for a new industry.”

Thirty-five states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, 15 of which also allow recreational use. In 2019, legal marijuana sales reached $ 13.6 billion, according to New Frontier Data. Grand View Research Inc. forecasts sales of $ 73.6 billion by 2027.

“Yet they legalize it now that they have legalized it and understand the tremendous medicinal benefits of cannabis, but make it virtually impossible for the people who criminalized it to be part of the legal business side of it. An atrocity, ”said Williams.

Williams, 48, has won cases against the police for the use of force and attractive severance pay for customers. To win in the cannabis space, he has teamed up with his brother and a friend to start 9 Leaves, an upscale smoke shop that will be vying for a medical marijuana dispensary license when Georgia begins publishing. “We were lucky enough to make this possible,” he said.

“The reality is that minorities seeking corporate credit are three times more likely to be turned down than whites – another form of discrimination. Although it has been legalized, the cannabis and smoking industries remain stigmatized. And one of the problems is accepting African American property. If you’re Jay-Z, for
For example, you have no problem getting in. But it is so expensive for the common man. “

Williams’ brother Damon already had a small CBD shop that gave the brothers an entry into the cannabis and hemp industries. Each of them rummaged in their savings. Through 9 Leaves, they plan to donate 2 to 4 percent of their sales quarterly to selected organizations that work for the education of youth in the city center and for mental health.

“We have been strategic in our social justice efforts,” said Mario Williams. Mario Williams’ career as a longtime educator is one of the reasons the two will support child-rearing projects. The third partner, Gretchen Steed, is a former smokeshop manager who suffered the loss of her boyfriend to suicide – making mental health another focus of 9 Leaves in the black community.

“CBD is so popular right now because people are learning more about its health benefits,” said Trevor Nigel Lawrence, owner of Kamnisha Wellness, a cannabis company in Oakland, California. “As Black owners, we need to be responsible and make sure we are providing the best, healthiest products to our communities. After the criminalization we suffered because of marijuana, we owe it to our people. “

Lawrence took a different route to get his cannabis license in Oakland. He applied through the government’s equity program. It was an exhaustive process that took three years to complete.

“The obstacles are enormous,” said Williams. “Think about it: you agree to arrest African Americans and contribute to mass incarceration and the problem of unemployment. But when we say, ‘Wait, we want to participate
Cannabis Industry “won’t they help you? Or does it take a three year struggle to get a license that will make you give up?”

He added, “But here’s the thing: CBD can help advance health care in our community, and that has to be the main reason you want to get into this business. We have undergone extensive training so that we understand cannabis / hemp, so that we can advise our customers to get behind the science, to understand it and to use it correctly and in the correct dosage. “

This has been both a concern and an inspiration to the founders of 9 Leaves. Williams points out that the CBD available in most disenfranchised areas is sold in gas station convenience stores and the like that offer versions of the product devoid of the many healing properties of cannabis.

Part of CBD’s tremendous popularity is that it contains “non-psychoactive” components and improves consumer health without the cravings for black market marijuana. This is why the quality of the CBD is so important, Williams said. “A lot is sold like a snake oil salesman,” said Williams. “We are most affected by stress and diabetes, high blood pressure. And yet the (CBD) products made available to us that help us are in too many cases not the quality products that we need. “

The country’s shutdown due to COVID-19 affected people in many ways, including an increase in fear and desperation to be around people again. Williams and partners believe 9 Leaves will be an invaluable resource with its inviting communal space and availability of quality products to relieve tension.

“Our products are USDA approved, sun grown, water soluble and all of that,” he said. The hemp is certified by the USDA to ensure that it meets quality standards when grown. “We only use the best ingredients and technology. But COVID has taken a toll on people’s mental health and ability to socialize. At 9 Leaves, we focused on quality products and a comfortable space where people can return to their community instincts and enjoy CBD and Shisha that are healthy and safe while breathing life into the social aspects of life. “

To increase vaccinations, officials in Washington state, where recreational marijuana use is legal, have passed a law allowing CBD manufacturers to provide a free marijuana joint to anyone over 21 who takes the coronavirus vaccine put.

“If nothing else speaks for the safety of CBD and the need to bring the world back to a ‘normal’ space, then it does,” said Lawrence.

Biden’s government has said it supports the use of medical marijuana as well as individual states setting their laws to legalize marijuana. In addition, Biden supports the decriminalization of marijuana use and the automatic deletion of all previous criminal records. At the same time, marijuana is still illegal, a Category I drug, in most states, meaning it has “currently no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse (along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote)” according to the Drugs Agency.

“Doesn’t make sense,” said Williams. “Science has proven the health benefits of medical marijuana. And it bothers me because there is still an incredible rate of black men being arrested for something that is in some form legal in much of the country. We are working hard to break the glass ceiling of discrimination against the African American community – inside and outside the cannabis industry. “