Separate and Unequal: When the US cannabis market goes fully legal it will usher in Big Industry who will crush minority owned small business, hurting people’s health in the process

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As the legal walls of cannabis prohibition come tumbling down in the US – it’s no longer if, but when – it “will only accelerate the power grab already happening for control over the multibillion-dollar industry,” says drug policy attorney Shaleen Title of the Ohio State University College of Law. “Big tobacco and alcohol companies are making significant investments into cannabis . . . . Left unchecked, this scramble for market share . . . would likely eviscerate . . . state social equity programs,” further gutting the paltry 4% ownership of cannabis companies that Blacks currently enjoy.

But bankrupting  small business and keeping Blacks at bay is only part of the story says noted Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. To be sure, not having a fair share of the economic pie – to be of low socioeconomic status – “inflicts biological damage on bodies and brains” because you can’t afford health insurance, medicine, good food, a gym membership, vacation, and so on.

But there’s something else going on, “something quite powerful,” over and above all that, says Saplosky, that negatively affects our bodies and brains; namely, “the stressful psychosocial consequences of low socioeconomic status.” In other words, it’s about inequality and the knowledge that you’ve been divorced from society. He explains:

. . . how people rate how they are doing, relative to others, is at least as predictive of health or illness as are any objective measures such as actual income level. . . . Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.

The constant stress of living separate and unequal works its way through your body in three particular ways says Sapolsky: chronic inflammation and chromosomal aging and diminished brain function.

For instance, the constant secretion of stress hormones will result in chronic widespread inflammation throughout the body increasing the risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Stress even yields a molecular version of wear and tear, chromosomal aging, so much so that by middle age your DNA can be > a decade older than someone who has lived well. And then there’s brain and behavior, where sustained stress has been shown to affect a wide array of things: impaired learning and memory; an increase in fear, anxiety, and depression; and loss of impulse control due to a less developed prefrontal cortex – neuroimaging shows it to be thinner & smaller than a normally developed PFC, akin to a malnourished person being smaller than someone well nourished.

Bringing this back to the rapidly evolving cannabis industry, attorney Shaleen Title observes that we’re at a crossroads as we’re literally writing the rules of the game. Policy choices that will determine how the market will function and who gets to participate and to what degree. Specifically, will it be a market dominated by a select few such as Big Tobacco and the likes of Amazon, or will it be a market that makes room for the many, such as small businesses, entrepreneurs, and especially, women, Blacks, and other people of color?

Sapolsky makes a unique and valuable contribution here. His work implies that if we write off, say, Black people, and write in the industry titans, then we’re literally doing violence to those we write off. Think of it this way: if you punch someone in the nose you can go to jail for a year. If you beat someone up so badly that you cause a heart attack or brain damage then you’ll go to prison for a long time. Now look again at the exacting toll of biological damage to bodies and brains that Sapolsky details and ask this question:

What’s the difference, physically, morally, and legally, between writing an industry policy that excludes minority’s from the cannabis market, Blacks, say, thus keeping them down and out, versus physically beating people up from that group?

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