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How marijuana legalization could help black Americans — or leave them behind

Will Black Lives Matter activists support efforts to legalize marijuana in five states in 2016? It's complicated.

In some ways, marijuana legalization seems like a natural fit for the Black Lives Matter movement. After more than four decades of the war on drugs, the statistics very clearly show that black people have been disproportionately punished by anti-drug laws — even though they are no more likely to use or sell these illicit substances than their white counterparts.

Marijuana use and arrest rates by race. Sentencing Project

And in states where marijuana is legal, black residents seem to be benefiting the most. A recent Drug Policy Alliance report on Colorado found that there were still racial disparities in the remaining marijuana-related arrests — for possessing more than an ounce of pot, for example — but there were 90 percent fewer marijuana-related charges in 2014 compared with 2010. So even though black Coloradans are still disproportionately charged, these charges are much less likely to happen.

But as BuzzFeed's Darren Sands reported, one hurdle remains to Black Lives Matter's embrace of legalization: Those most victimized by the war on drugs are also the people least likely to have access to the industry once pot is legal. For example, in the states with legal weed, having a criminal drug record may automatically bar someone from joining the industry — Colorado, for one, blocks both business owners and their employees from the industry if they've served time for a felony conviction in the past five years or served time for a drug-related felony conviction in the past 10 years. Some states also effectively block poor people — whose communities are disproportionately hit by the drug war — from getting into the industry through high licensing fees and stringent land ownership requirements for starting a business.

This puts groups like Black Lives Matter in a very tough spot. Many legal pot activists got into the movement explicitly because of the racial justice aspect — Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, always lists it as one of his top concerns in conversations with me. But the effects of those same issues still keep black people from fully participating in the pot industry even after legalization. Until that's addressed, many Black Lives Matter activists don't seem comfortable joining up with drug policy reformers.

"[W]e know that if we're not in it from the jump, we're not going to be included," Daunasia Yancey, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Boston, told BuzzFeed. "And at the end of the day, they don't owe anything to anyone. If they're serious about making sure black people get involved, they need to say how, explicitly."