DENVER, Colo. — More Black and brown people have criminal records for possessing or selling marijuana, but as more states legalize cannabis, those same people make up a small percentage of business owners in the industry.
For the families who lived through this very scenario, it’s painful and tough to overcome.
“My dad served 21 years in prison for something that people are making billions of dollars off of every single year,” said Arzelle Lewis, a Denver entrepreneur, who is now trying to get into the cannabis industry himself.
But breaking into this industry is tough to do, even more so for business owners of color.
“Black and brown businesses represent less than 10 percent of the entire cannabis businesses statewide. Less than 10 percent,” said Hashim Coates, executive director of Black, Brown and Red Badged, an advocacy group for equity in the cannabis industry in Colorado.
Now, Colorado is creating a new fund to help even the playing field. Gov. Jared Polis designated $4 million in grants, loans and technical assistance to social equity licensees in the cannabis industry.
This could be the difference between success and a stagnant business for many. For Lewis, it will hopefully help him bring his brand-new delivery service, Duber Express, to the top.
In addition to the business, and more importantly to Lewis, it would give his family a sense the state is working to right the wrongs of the past.
Lewis’ father, Fred Harris was locked up for 21 years for marijuana possession.
“It was unbelievable,” said Harris. “I didn't think they would give me that amount of time, you know, for drugs. But it happened, and I guess at the time, it was probably the war on drugs.”
Harris was originally sentenced to 96 years in prison after multiple marijuana possession charges.
“When you find out that a person got that type of time, you feel like they're dead,” said Lewis.
The death of that relationship took Lewis’ childhood dream with it. He was a first-generation college student with a basketball scholarship. Harris was at every game before he was sentenced to prison.
“I feel like if I had my dad, you know, growing up, I probably would be in the NBA right now. I just grew up second guessing myself in many ways,” said Lewis.
On the other side, Harris grieved for his family and his freedom.
“You can’t get 21years back,” said Harris. “I see the law start to change over the years, for drugs and for marijuana and people's perception change about it, and I'm still sitting there. It’s like, is anybody going to see this or recognize this or, you know, give me some kind of justice?”
And just months ago, Colorado’s governor did. Gov. Polis overturned more than 2,700 convictions for marijuana possession. Fred Harris’ was among those convictions overturned.
“It was like a big relief off of everybody,” said Harris. “A little redemption, you know, justice.”
“We feel like the system in its own way, you know, harmed my dad,” said Lewis. “I think now the system should help my dad.”
For now, Lewis is helping his dad re-acclimate to society. They work together running Lewis’ magazine, Become a Champion and his non-profit, SweetFeet.
“My goal is to give a million pairs of brand-new shoes to kids,” said Lewis.
He said his own childhood struggle inspired him to create a movement to give back.
“When I was 12 years old, I got made fun of in class for my big toe coming out of my shoes and people saying my shoes were talking and making fun of me. And, you know, it caused me to go home that night, a Friday night, and steal crack cocaine from my Auntie and the next morning try and sell those drugs in Five Points. I was only 12. There was real drug dealers that came and ended up like, you know, beating the crap out of me and pulling a gun on me. Once they found out I was 12, they actually took a liking to me and provided me with money to get brand new shoes, you know, because they would see me playing basketball. They thought I was like 17, 18, so they thought I was just on their turf disrespecting them back in the day. Those dudes helped me from 12 to 19, get brand new shoes, and I was able to become the first person in my family to get a college education with a basketball scholarship. That basketball was my means to an end, and shoes led the way. Those shoes were vehicles for me, you know. So, I pay homage to the three dudes that helped me with brand new shoes, so I didn't have to be out there selling drugs like them and, you know, being in harm’s way. I know that providing kids with brand new pairs of shoes or it allows them to have a sense of identity, you know, and to fit into everyday fashion show high school. So that's why it's so important to me, because it can help them step in the right direction. That's our slogan at SweetFeet.”
Lewis is thankful for those moments and now, even more grateful his dad can be there for every moment, especially for the new business they are about to launch as a team.
“The name is Duber Express,” Lewis explained.
It’s a marijuana delivery service: a venture giving this family hope in the very thing that tore them apart.
“Thirty minutes or less, just like a pizza,” said Lewis. “Starting our own delivery business is a way for the system to try to help us get into the industry."
Lewis is hoping when the monies and assistance from the state equity fund kick in, his brand-new business will be included.
“It's just fairness, you know, just giving someone an opportunity to shine, you know, especially in a market that is dominated by people that don't look like me,” said Lewis.
Advocate Hashim Coates helped create this fund to build up Black and brown entrepreneurs across the state.
“As well as racism is intentional, equity must be as equally as intentional, if not more,” Coates said.
For Lewis and Harris, fairness is all they hope for.
“We're actually in the business to show kids who grow up and look like us, 'Look, you can take your story, your struggle, and you can turn that into a journey and reach a pinnacle someday,'” said Lewis.
Because even though they can’t rewind the clock, they can rebound to a future better than they ever thought possible.
“I know that this is going to take us to places that I would have never dreamed of,” said Lewis.
“This is bigger than making it to the NBA for me,” said Harris. “It does feel like a little bit of justice, but more than anything, the way I look at life, it feels like just a fair opportunity, because that's all I need."