Colorado natives Trey Parker and Matt Stone haven't limited their interest in the state's business community to resurrecting Casa Bonita. As Governor Jared Polis noted right before the creators of South Park announced that long-rumored deal in August, the two hometown heroes were about to kick off the Comedy Central show's 25th season.
And episode two of the new South Park season, which aired on February 9, tears into the issue of racial inequity in the Colorado cannabis industry. "The Big Fix" starts in Denver, where the Colorado Convention Center is hosting the 2022 Cannabis Cultivators Expo.
A panelist at an event called the "Changing Face of Hemp Farming" delivers an ultimatum to the largely white crowd: "We growers must face a harsh reality. Since the legalization of marijuana, communities of color — Black and Brown Coloradans, those most affected by the racist War on Drugs — have now been locked out of the wealth creation of the industry. Luckily, the public is starting to understand this unfairness. And many people are now talking about boycotting cannabis growers who are only white-owned. We are seeing a healthy and dramatic spike in consumers who demand that their marijuana be grown by those who understand the fight for social equity. The bottom line is this: A completely white-owned weed business these days just isn't going to survive."
While Colorado has long been a trailblazer in the cannabis realm, a role that peaked in late 2012, when the state's voters passed Amendment 64 and legalized recreational marijuana, the state has failed on the equity front.
"Amendment 64 dealt with social exclusion and not social equity, which is inclusion," says John Bailey, the head of the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative. "What they did was, they said who couldn’t participate. Folks who had criminal records couldn’t participate. Right away, you excluded the folks who had been most impacted by the War on Drugs."
"If you had past cannabis convictions, you could not participate for ten years," adds Sarah Woodson, founder of the advocacy organization the Color of Cannabis, noting that this largely affected Black and Brown men. "The guy that used to sell you weed, he wasn’t able to do it anymore, legally."
Colorado's cannabis industry has remained predominantly white for years. The Marijuana Enforcement Division's 2021 demographic study, released in September, showed that 83.7 percent of licensees are white, while 7.7 percent are Latino and 2.9 percent are Black.
"They're drinking from a well they didn’t dig," says Bailey of the predominantly white industry. "They didn’t go to jail. They weren’t disrupted. They didn’t have to pay significant fines."
For years, Bailey, Woodson and other advocates have pushed for social equity policies in both the city of Denver and the state of Colorado.
On April 20, 2021, Mayor Michael Hancock signed into law Denver's social equity program, which began accepting licenses that June. It used a social equity definition created by the Colorado Legislature that passed a bill last year setting up the Cannabis Business Office, which established a series of grants, low-interest loans and technical-assistance programs aimed at marijuana business owners who qualify under the state's social equity marijuana provision.
Still, Woodson considers the qualifications for Colorado's social equity program too loose, as a person only needs to prove that they or their families were arrested on certain drug charges, earn less than 50 percent of the state median income, or come from a community designated as a low-economic opportunity zone by state officials.
"We created a program that was supposed to help Black and Brown people that is only really helping white people qualify," Woodson says.
On another front in the fight for social equity, Polis pardoned 2,732 past marijuana possession convictions — which affected people of color disproportionately — in late 2021.
Back in the satirical South Park world, the news that there are equity issues in the Colorado cannabis industry catches Randy Marsh, successful pot entrepreneur and owner of weed company Tegridy Farms, by surprise. And he decides to keep his business flourishing by any means necessary.
Randy, who is white, invites the one Black family in the town of South Park — the Blacks — for dinner one night at the Marsh farmhouse and manages to strong-arm Steve Black, the family patriarch who is already an immensely successful executive at a financial consulting firm, into working with him at Tegridy.
Not long after, as Steve drives around town, he sees a huge Tegridy Weed billboard with a photo of him next to Randy with the backdrop of rolling pot farms framed beneath mountains.
"Sales are going nuts right now," Randy says to Steve, who's upset because he thought he was just doing a bit of consulting for Randy. But Randy is able to win him over by stuffing a bit of money in his pocket.
At first, the episode depicts Steve Black's role in Randy's company as nothing more than a token racial minority hire.
"That’s already happening. It’s happening in every other legal state, including California," Bailey says of people who don't necessarily qualify for cannabis social equity programs gaming the system.
And when Steve comes up with his own idea for using fantasy genre names for weed strains, Randy and his other business partner, Towelie, shut down the idea as dorky. "Randy, you seem not to care very much about any of my ideas," Steve says.
"You know, you're just not the idea guy," Randy responds, which leads Steve to conclude that he was indeed a token racial minority hire.
"This disproportionality and disparity, it suggests that folks are not willingly going to give up their revenue stream," adds Bailey, who notes that he's not a fan of the show, which "can be confusing at times."
Soon, Steve Black opens up his own weed company, right across the street from Randy's. This new business, Credigree Weed, is 100 percent Black-owned, the advertising highlights. And Randy becomes incredibly upset that he's got new competition right across the street.
While Steve Black, a racial minority, was able to establish a stake in the cannabis industry in the world of South Park, that's rarely the case in Colorado, according to Woodson, who says she likes the show and watches it with her oldest son.
"Social equity is always at the bottom of the totem pole," she says. "It’s definitely an uphill battle. I think it’s going to take a lot of collective work from everyone."