Commentary: Life, liberty and the pursuit of cannabis reform


As the first state in the union, Delaware has been at the forefront of revolutionary politics since the beginning of our nation. But we are not the same union we were in 1776, or in 1861, as a country divided fighting a civil war, or in 1971 — when the war on drugs ravaged through minority communities of the First State. This Black History Month, conversations surrounding equity and restorative justice have rightfully taken center stage. So as the Delaware House prepares to reconsider a bill to decriminalize and regulate cannabis, there is a real opportunity for Delaware to lead on cannabis and update our outdated laws.

Today, about one-third of Americans live in a state where they have legal or medical access to cannabis and cannabis products. That’s more than 100 million Americans. Meanwhile, almost 4,000 people are in Delaware state prison, and 87% of them are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. More than 60% of them are Black. This begs the question: Why are people stuck in Delaware state prisons for something that other states have turned into lucrative tax revenues? Why has our state, which is known for being a leader, so behind?

As of 2020, the cannabis industry was worth $61 billion. This number is only expected to grow. The most recent Gallup poll shows more than 2 in 3 Americans support legalizing cannabis. The future generations feel even more strongly: Among 18- to 29-year-olds, support rises to 79%.

As a Black American, there are two sides to the coin of being from the First State. We may have been the first to join the union, but we were one of the last to abolish slavery. It wasn’t until 2020 that we finally took down our last whipping post on public display. The reminders of our dark past live on in places like these, and trauma is passed down through generations.

To be targeted by a government that is based on values of freedom and equality is an irony that descendants of slavery know too well. And yet — programs focused on reducing economic and racial inequality were sidelined in favor of misnamed “tough-on-crime” approaches. The result was a 500% increase in incarceration nationwide and in Delaware. We are past the days of the “Just Say No” messaging that no longer resonates with the majority of Americans.

Residents in Delaware can drive within 30 miles in either direction to gain access to legal cannabis — all thanks to our neighbors in New Jersey and Maryland, who now have burgeoning markets that regulate medical and adult-use cannabis. As of 2021, cannabis was one of the fastest-growing industries — despite the COVID-19 pandemic. But as more states create their own markets, we’re left with a patchwork of policies that change as soon as you drive across a state line. More work is needed at the federal level to establish a regulatory framework for the entire country, with clear guidelines and enforcement structures, which would directly benefit small and minority businesses.

In a paper published by the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation, multiple federal policy recommendations are discussed that would help Black communities access capital, start-small businesses and conduct operations in an industry that needs more Black voices and business owners. It argues for more empowerment for Black-owned banks, which we know are pillars of local communities. Additionally, it points out that federal tax revenues should fund programs that help Black and minority entrepreneurs secure access to capital, business support, mentoring and other professional services.

For such a small state geographically, Delaware has a future of endless possibilities. Our 46th president proudly calls Delaware home. The great American experiment is always changing and adapting to reflect its diverse population. That’s what makes this country great. Even in the 21st century, every American is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There’s no reason cannabis shouldn’t be part of that, too.

Ayanna Khan is the founder, president and CEO of the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce.

Members and subscribers make this story possible.
You can help support non-partisan, community journalism.