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For Black entrepreneurs, Missouri’s marijuana industry offers potential — and heartbreak

Marne Madison is the executive director of Exit-Now, a not-for-profit organization advocating for minorities to get the training and education to enter the cannabis industry.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Marne Madison is the executive director of Exit-Now, a not-for-profit organization advocating for minorities to receive the training and education to enter the cannabis industry.

As Missouri contemplates several proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, Black entrepreneurs — many of whom struggled to get awarded (or were denied) medical marijuana dispensary licenses — are urging voters to look at the fine print.

Marne Madison invested about $80,000 trying to secure a medical dispensary license in Missouri, only to see her application rejected.

“This was not a program created to include people like myself,” she told St. Louis on the Air.

Madison would like to see the state get it right when it comes to recreational weed. She noted that, in addition to large application fees, Missouri’s medical marijuana application program limited participation by capping the number of dispensary licenses that were awarded.

Black Missourians seek entry to marijuana industry
Exit-Now Executive Director Marne Madison discusses Missouri's cannabis industry, while Adrienne Scales-Williams and Jamila Owens-Todd of Luxury Leaf share their story as Black women working in medical marijuana.

“Having a $350,000 capital liquid liquidation requirement, [Missouri] immediately excluded so many people like myself,” she said. “Ultimately, not having enough dispensary or cultivation licenses to award was the downfall for most of us.” She added that rules designed to help people in economically distressed ZIP codes were too easy to game.

Madison is now executive director of Exit-Now, a not-for-profit organization advocating for minorities to get the training and education necessary to enter the cannabis industry. In that role, she conducts market cost analysis for entrepreneurs. She is also working to open a dispensary herself — this time, in Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma is very open and welcoming; this is not a predatorial market,” Madison said.

Oklahoma chose not to limit the licenses issued to medical cannabis businesses. The state also has a lower application cost of $2,500.

“It's as easy as going to get a business permit at City Hall,” Madison said.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Madison also discussed three proposals to legalize recreational cannabis in Missouri: Legal Missouri and Fair Access Missouri, which are both collecting signatures to get on state ballots this fall, and a legislative proposal introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives.

Madison wants local entrepreneurs to benefit from legalization — not just large corporate entities. She is most intrigued by what Fair Access Missouri offers the community — specifically its provision that provides funding for racial minorities wanting to get into the industry.

“We should be able to say specifically, ‘the Black community, the Hispanic community, Asiatic community has sent in this many applications, and we are going to award them first-round pick,’” she said, “because society has shown us, and history has shown us, that they have been some of the most disenfranchised.”

She said she’s less impressed by the other legalization proposals.

“Inside of Legal Missouri,” she said, “I just don't see them doing enough to actually get us in.”

Madison suggests that consumers and entrepreneurs alike dig into the proposals before then.

“We have to understand what initiative or what bill works for ourselves, our community and our state,” she said. “Read every single page.”

Adrienne Scales-Williams opened Luxury Leaf on January 21, 2022.
Danny Wicentowski
Adrienne Scales-Williams opened Luxury Leaf on Jan. 21.

Racial equity in the marijuana industry is particularly important due to the way Black Americans were disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, said Jamila Owens-Todd, a naturopath who is general manager of Luxury Leaf, Missouri’s first Black-owned dispensary.

“We still have Black and brown people who are in prisons right now because of this plant,” she said. “Meanwhile, we have other populations who are thriving [financially] because of this plant. So the injustice is still present.”

Luxury Leaf owner Adrienne Scales-Williams is pictured here alongside Luxury Leaf’s general manager, naturopathic doctor Jamila Owens-Todd.
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
Luxury Leaf owner Adrienne Scales-Williams and naturopathic doctor Jamila Owens-Todd.

Luxury Leaf Owner Adrienne Scales-Williams was awarded her license to operate a medical marijuana dispensary in 2021. Luxury Leaf opened its doors to the public on Jan. 21, 2022 — the first Black-owned medical marijuana dispensary in Missouri.

Scales-Williams said she sees her work as a calling.

“Every night I go to sleep knowing that I've helped some people get out of pain, and that is so rewarding,” Scales-Williams said.

Like Madison and Owens-Todd, Scales-Williams hopes to see more Black entrepreneurs break into the medical cannabis industry.

“We are all concerned about the lack of diversity in this particular space, and I'm hoping that at some point in time, there [will be] a lot more people that look just like me that have their own dispensaries — or cultivating or manufacturing,” she said. “I don't want to stand in this space by myself.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.