What is Environmental Racism and What Does It Mean in Cannabis?

Consider where you are currently living and the environment you’re surrounded by. What do you see? There are probably neighborhoods with houses, nearby schools, and public buildings…perhaps even a few favorite restaurants or bars are nearby.

Urban and metropolitan areas across the globe not only make up a large portion of the population, but contribute to environmental pollution from surrounding operations, companies, and industries.

While many residents are in specified neighborhoods or zoning districts that don’t experience negative impacts or health hazards of this pollution, there are marginalized communities and towns that do. These communities are experiencing this type of environmental injustice in both practice and policy.

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on marginalized, minority groups, such as the BIPOC community. In this blog, we’re dissecting how climate change, cannabis prohibition, and its impacted communities correlate to the deep injustice of environmental racism.

Understanding Environmental Racism 

The phrase environmental racism dates back to the civil rights era – when the leader Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. coined it as, the intentional siting and placement of pollution and waste facilities in specific marginalized communities.

Metropolitan areas are populated with groups, such as African Americans, Indigenous People, Asian Americans, Latinx, and low-income workers, who are disproportionately exposed to harmful environmental pollutants. As a result, short or long-term increased health issues or respiratory problems often arise within these communities.

Environmental racism also refers to any set of rules or policies from a government that creates decisions deliberately targeting the disadvantages of specific communities in harmful or toxic environments.

Unfortunately, environmental racism is a societal issue that has deep historical roots. Dating back to the colonial era, many indigenous communities were forced into separated colonies and communities to make way for polluting industries and machinery – including deforestation and mining.

Environmental racism is caused by a plethora of factors within our society, including:

  • Intentional neglect of a marginalized group or community
  • An alleged receptacle or space for pollutants in more metropolitan or urban areas
  • A lack of governmental or institutional power and low land values of people of color in specific areas and neighborhoods
  • A lack of environmental regulations or ordinances to protect these communities from hazardous waste and pollutants

In all, environmental racism is another form of systemic racism. It largely exists today due to policies and practices that have favored the health, well-being, and decision-making of white communities over non-white, lower-income groups.

Today, the effects of these actions still exist and are prevalent throughout the country.

How Does Environmental Racism Affect Communities? 

The presence of environmental racism in the United States is a clear expression of the long-standing systemic oppression faced by certain marginalized groups for centuries.

Of course, nobody wants hazardous industries, waste, or pollutants surrounding their backyards, neighborhoods, or environment. Yet, groups of primarily white, middle to higher-income communities have always been more favorable and fortunate at preventing it. This is in comparison to many BIPOC communities that do not have equal resources or authority to prevent or push back on these same concerns.

The World Health Organization has stated nearly 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to toxic air quality levels. Depending on how dangerous the air quality is, residents within this area (most often BIPOC adults and families), can experience a risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic or acute respiratory diseases.

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that these BIPOC communities experience 66% more exposure to particulate matter and pollutants in their water, which contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses or issues.

What are the Current Impacts of Widespread Environmental Racism?

As mentioned, there are many factors contributing to the rise of environmental racism occurring in the nation. Many of these impacted groups suffer from environmental inequality due to the unfair advantage given to bigger industries and corporations.

For instance, research shows that corporations that often violate environmental laws or regulations in the area are subject to being fined. These fines to companies in these areas tend to be lower in these marginalized BIPOC communities due to lack of regulation or simply from authoritative figures turning the other way.

It’s a vicious cycle that continues to lead to less environmental regulation and as a result, more pollution and harm to fellow community members.

Unregulated Environmental Concerns for Cannabis Operators

The continuous rise of indoor cannabis cultivation is beginning to demonstrate similar concerns with environmental injustice and racism. This is due to the lack of regulation, rules, and environmental compliance enforced by state authorities.

Identified as the Green Zone, a 10-mile stretch in Oakland has hosted nearly 20 different cannabis companies and commercial operations over the last few years.

These cannabis operators filled commercial buildings with an overload of power grids, generators, and other energy-intense equipment for their massive indoor warehouse cultivations. Most generators and equipment used for these operations were unpermitted and unregulated by the city – this resulted in burning up to 12,000 gallons of toxic diesel fuel (that’s enough to power 9,000 homes per day).

Carbon emissions were being released from these generators into this surrounding environment up to four times greater than if they had utilized the city’s local power source. Additionally, any ordinances or requests to seize the unauthorized use of generators were defied by cultivators.

This severely impacted the surrounding environment and community in the Green Zone. Residents experienced poor air and water quality and burning eyes or itchy coughs from the exposure to generator fossil fuels.

Decriminalizing cannabis in America teaches important lessons for policymakers making decisions on environmental regulations in the industry. This instance in Oakland is just one of the many examples of how indoor cannabis cultivation can correlate to conceiving environmental injustice if these measures are not properly managed and regulated by city ordinances.

In all, these actions towards marginalized communities are not accidents. All policies and efforts that directly affect or disadvantage specific marginalized communities have severely impacted society as a whole.

Igniting the Environmental Justice Movement

In the early 1980s, communities fighting for change from environmental racism held local protests in their area. These societal and racial protests were forced to be isolated and separate from other communities experiencing similar concerns.

However, one environmental justice protest in 1982 sparked a further nationwide conversation on this issue. Afton, a small town in Warren County, North Carolina, populated predominately by Black communities, was designated to host a hazardous waste landfill in their town. The landfill would accept hazardous dumping from materials that included PCB-contaminants and result in illegal dumping of this toxic waste along roadways.

After a period of time, these carcinogenic compounds leaked into the town’s drinking water, affecting the health of the community.

Over the years, the direct repercussions and consequences of environmental racism in this small North Carolina town magnified in the public eye and ignited the Environmental Justice Movement. 

In 1983, an Afton protestor and member of the Congressional Black Caucus requested the U.S. General Accounting Office hand over a report on the effects of placing communities near these toxic landfills and industries.

This report, repurposed today as Toxic Wastes and Race in States, showed 75% of hazardous waste sites, in only eight states within the U.S., were placed in low-income and marginalized communities of people of color.

During the time of this environmental justice movement, and for the years after, justice leaders and activists like Robert Bullard, Richard Moore, and Hazel M. Johnson have played a significant role in not only shedding light on this racism but advocating its ongoing impacts.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images & The Boston Globe

Inequitable Environmental Standards for Communities 

Fast forward a couple of decades later, environmental racism continues to exist whether or not the city’s practice, policy, or directive was intentional for marginalized individuals or not.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the environmental injustice crisis that took place in Flint, Michigan in 2014. The city of Flint switched its municipal drinking water source from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River, in an effort to be more cost-effective for the city.

Inadequate and irregulated treatment of this city’s water supply results in a series of major water quality concerns and health issues for residents. In the span of 18 months, Flint’s community experienced adverse health conditions and effects from consuming water that was discolored, dirty, and off-tasting for users.

Government officials ignored and overlooked all civil complaints made to the city about the water quality concern – it wasn’t until the Michigan Civil Rights Commission established a report that showed the contaminated water in Flint was also doubling, and in some cases tripling, the incidence of elevated blood lead levels in children.

Doctors, scientists, journalists, and citizen activists continue to raise concerns over the harmful effects Flint’s contaminated water had on the community and the lack of attention and traction it gained from the city’s proper authoritative figures – the Flint Water Crisis was a direct result of systemic racism.

How Can the Cannabis Community Help? 

Considering the deeply rooted history and revolution of environmental racism, it’s clear that governmental authorities cannot do this alone.

In conjunction with the cannabis industry, these same groups of marginalized people have, and continue to, experience racial inequality perpetuated by the War on Drugs. These harmful actions from cannabis prohibition have made poor, urban communities of color especially vulnerable to the long-term effects of climate change.

Communities subjected to these types of racial inequality are more likely to experience the impact of climate change first, less likely to recover from any economic damage, and likely to lose more assets and income than wealthier communities in the process.

Many protestors and activists during the Environmental Justice Movement have led protests, strikes, civil rights complaints, and city hall meetings to fight for basic human equality. Antiquated laws and policies make it extremely difficult for specific communities to apply for mortgage loans, receive access to financial banks or institutions, and even get basic access to clean air and water.

Now is the time for cannabis industry leaders, entrepreneurs, advocates, and consumers to act and make a change.

Both existing and startup cannabis companies alike can actively make a difference in this form of systemic racism by becoming more environmentally conscious and engaged within their communities. Cannabis companies are in a unique position to leverage this societal and racial concern by positioning themselves as leaders of their community, honoring diversity and inclusion in cannabis, and paving the way toward a more sustainable future.

Many legalized cannabis states have rolled out successful and inclusive social equity policies and procedures outlined to redirect and support individuals and neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by prohibition. However, most of these social equity programs do not directly address or touch base on environmental racism and its effects.

A legal cannabis market or company with a defined social equity program can assist affected communities by reinvesting some of its funds to improve the air or water quality in these marginalized neighborhoods.

Additionally, reinvesting funds and efforts toward green infrastructure in the cannabis industry can also directly and positively impact communities experiencing toxic runoff or waste from cannabis cultivation operations. (Even more so, there are plenty of sustainable cannabis companies and technologies providing this solution). 

Cannabis Creative: Fighting for Environmental Equality for All

The cannabis industry is in a unique position to spearhead a more positive and impactful change in the Environmental Justice Movement. No matter if you’re a successful multi-state operator or a small and eager startup, cannabis operations can promote environmental and social justice in a variety of efforts.

Invest back into the communities your company is profiting from, strategize brand campaigns and ad collaborations with environmentally conscious companies, or even dive into the sustainable, versatile, and carbon-reducing wonders of hemp.

Racism is driving environmental inequality in our country. Americans must not only be aware in realizing the detrimental impact it’s having on these communities and the environment but use their advantage, privilege, and voice to speak up and help.

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