Pubdate: Sun, 31 Jan 2021
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2021 The Washington Post Company
Author: Donna M. Owens


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 Bana 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

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.