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As a casual consumer of cannabis, I don’t often ponder the lengthy journey that cannabis flowers and their cultivators traverse so that I can enjoy a joint while watching Broad City. But Jesce Horton—a Portland-based cannabis advocate, business owner, and board chairman of the Minority Cannabis Business Association—has spent much of his life paying attention to the ins and outs of these complex structures.

Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized cannabis to varying degrees. As the list of states allowing pot lengthens, a closer examination of the industry reveals a regurgitation of the racial disparities that are so common in this country. But instead of sitting back and accepting the status quo, Horton and a crew of similarly exceptional professionals took change into their own hands when they came together to form the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) in 2015.

Their aim is to foster diversity in all aspects of the expanding field of cannabis, from access to tolerance. “This is an issue that affects the growth, sustainability, and the health of the industry as a whole,” Horton says. “Our ability to grow and our ability to face different challenges [is stifled] because these communities are not just left out, they are shunned from the industry and thus are not supporting it.”

Made up of 17 board members from a range of backgrounds and professional expertise including law, medicine, and communications, the MCBA is the first nonprofit dedicated to this mission. They’re available to individuals and companies looking for a network of support as they enter or establish themselves in the cannabis industry. And as the MCBA’s Board Chairman, Horton dedicates his life to helping marginalized communities get access to cannabis, whether they’re consumers, patients, employees, or business owners.

At its core, the organization fights for economic empowerment and combats the lingering effects that the war on drugs has had on communities of color. This is done through a combination of mentorship, scholarships for professional conferences, policy education and reform, and resources for new business owners ranging from topics like financing, tax appropriation, and how to support senior populations with medical cannabis needs. The MCBA’s mission is three-fold: to increase economic empowerment, to decriminalize cannabis and rectify the effects criminalization has had on communities of color; and to educate people on the safe, medicinal properties of cannabis.

As the co-owner of Roseway’s award-winning Panacea Valley Gardens dispensary, Horton’s path to a career in the cannabis industry first stemmed from exposure as a teen. His father faced jail time following a felony conviction for cannabis possession and distribution, but Horton found himself better able to concentrate as a student when he smoked, even though it meant continually dodging random drug tests from his concerned parents.

While at Florida State University, Horton would eventually face arrest three times for cannabis-related charges and forfeit his academic scholarship. Though he walked away with misdemeanors, lifelong obstacles followed—such as difficulty with securing employment—and Horton identified his troubles as symptoms of greater trends in the cannabis industry.

As of 2016, the Drug Policy Alliance found that while less than one percent of cannabis establishments nationwide were owned by people of color, Blacks and Latinos collectively account for 70 to 80 percent of all cannabis possession arrests. The ACLU found that Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis-related charges as whites, even though it’s consumed at similar rates across cultures. Horton explains this dynamic as the root of what the MCBA combats.

“A lot of people have ill feelings towards the burgeoning cannabis industry because they may have been arrested and now they can’t get in, or they know someone like that. They see a dispensary but they couldn’t afford that rent or the licensing. There are so many things that make it so people say, ‘I may have wanted to support that industry, but…’” —Jesce Horton, board chairman of the Minority Cannabis Business Association

“You have states saying that you have to have a million dollars in the bank and that you have to have no felonies or arrests,” Horton says of the requirements to enter the cannabis industry. “All of these different things they’re requiring raise the bar higher and higher. It’s unfortunately affecting the very people who were targeted through the war on drugs. Our communities have to deal with generational effects of cannabis prohibition.”

Though Horton would have been disallowed from entering the industry in many other states because of his criminal record, Oregon’s legislation is much less exclusionary.

“[Oregon has] done one of the best jobs in the country of making sure that you have access at all levels,” Horton explains, adding there’s still room for improvement. “Fortunately, Oregon is one of the only states that tracks the level of involvement from people of color and how many people have licenses. They track it so that we can understand where we can be more effective and [identify] where the problem is. We don’t want to be out there banging our drums saying there’s a noise, but hey, there’s a problem, and we want to figure out what the potential solutions are.”

One of the MCBA’s pillars focuses on policy reform throughout the country, but at a local level, Horton has used his expertise to work with City Commissioner Amanda Fritz to help draft language for the Portland Marijuana Tax (Ballot Measure 26-180) to include grant funding for expungement in communities of color. It passed last fall, and Horton says he hopes to do similar work at the federal tax level one day.

Changing the existing stigmas that communities of color have held against the industry is another key element of the MCBA’s work. Dr. Rachel Knox, a Portland-based physician and MCBA board member, helps people understand the medical benefits and ways the plant can alleviate the effects of chronic illness.

Horton explains that all of the barriers to breaking into the industry only serve to increase unfavorable perceptions. “A lot of people have ill feelings towards the burgeoning cannabis industry because they may have been arrested and now they can’t get in, or they know someone like that. They see a dispensary but they couldn’t afford that rent or the licensing. There are so many things that make it so people say, ‘I may have wanted to support that industry, but...’

“Even if they just want to go and get cannabis, they go in and nobody in there looks like them for the most part, right? Nobody identifies with them, and that’s very important for the cannabis industry because if you look across cultures, people consume cannabis and are comfortable with cannabis in many different ways.”

As Horton steps up to the plate to lead by example on how to effectively make change in an industry, he’s sharing his knowledge and that of the MCBA so that at the end of the day, everyone has a chance to do the same. “Our organization is not here to ask for reparations,” he says. “Though there’s a lot to complain about—and without a doubt we could go on and on—the biggest thing is that we have to make sure everyone has a seat at the table, that we’re taking these things into account, and that we form together so that we can mobilize and make things happen.”