What Will it Take to Build a Truly Equitable Cannabis Industry?
With states such as New York, Virginia, Mexico, New Jersey, and New Mexico moving steadily toward various forms of cannabis decriminalization, legalization, and adult-use openness, many people will soon have more choices to consider regarding who and where they buy their products from. But what cannabis consumers may not know is that melanated people face excessive hurdles when it comes to starting a cannabis business, due to deeply embedded racism, which has left the current industry overwhelmingly white while the war on drugs continues to disproportionately affect Black and brown people.
At least 80% of the cannabis industry is run by white founders and business owners, according to a 2017 Marijuana Business Daily survey, and about 6% of business owners or founders identify as Hispanic/Latino, 4% identify as Black, and 2% identify as Asian. Only 8% of cannabis CEOs are women, according to a white paper published by the National Cannabis Industry Association and the Arcview investor group. People of color are disproportionately affected due to racism. Period. But melanated people, including Chinese, Japanese, and Indian people, have historical connections to this plant as traditional healers and horticulturalists—and they deserve to have a place in the legal industry.
At this point, it’s time for consumers to be part of this movement for inclusive cannabis. You may not realize it, but the choices you make about the businesses you support can have a huge impact on the industry. Below is my advice for those who are interested in supporting cannabis, hemp (which comes from cannabis plants that legally contain 0.3% THC or less), and CBD businesses in a way that helps make the entire industry more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
Buy from inclusive, diverse-owned, or ally-owned cannabis businesses.
Cannabis is now a multibillion-dollar industry mostly led by wealthy white men who are usually interested in market proliferation over everything else. Part of that is due to the extremely high barrier to entry when building a business. For a small cannabis operation (including retail, farming/grows, processing, and manufacturing businesses), costs generally start between $250,000 and $2 million in just about every state. That means most of us can’t start a plant-touching business (a cannabis-related business that directly deals with the plant), let alone access funding. Because cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug federally, banks are not giving out loans (which already reject Black applicants far more than white ones). So you would need ready access to large amounts of money or investments to even have a shot.
Add to that the fact that in some states a past conviction for cannabis offenses still prevents people from entering the industry, and you’ve got a recipe for a marketplace that systemically favors white owners over people of color.
And with so many roles in the industry requiring access to capital and an understanding of complex regulations, many people are simply unable to compete. But this isn’t just an issue for people of color or poor white people—even those legacy operators in Humboldt County (who became well-known for their marijuana farms pre-legalization) have been affected by the new regulatory climate of legal weed.
You can help brands that face higher barriers to entry by buying products from the few diverse companies that exist and the smaller-scale legacy farmers who helped make the current industry possible. That’s why our goal at Cannaclusive, the organization I cofounded, is to facilitate inclusivity in the cannabis industry among business owners and consumers, in part, by making it easier for people to find diverse brands they can feel good about supporting.
Ask companies and brands what they are doing to support cannabis equity and automatic expungement for all of those imprisoned for marijuana offenses.
It’s crucial that brands profiting from legal marijuana also contribute to cannabis equity efforts, including the expungement of records of people who are or were formerly incarcerated for marijuana offenses. At Cannaclusive, we receive a fair amount of inquiries from consumers who want to know which companies are doing their part in supporting and promoting cannabis equity and decriminalization efforts. Truthfully, it is quite alarming how many companies and brands truly do little or the bare minimum when it comes to this aspect.
That’s why we wrote an open letter to the industry asking it to prioritize specific goals in inclusion, employment practices, ending and addressing the harms of the war on drugs, and supporting BIPOC leadership in the community. Our living, breathing company database, the Accountability List, aims to track how companies are doing with regard to those goals and to share recent data about how businesses that claim to be showing up for equitable access actually are. What you will find is quite concerning when you look at the lack of diversity across executive, staff, and c-suite employment. Most companies are not vocal about including minorities in their front-facing advertising, fundraising rounds, and industry education campaigns either.
This is truly one of the most racially segregated industries across the board. The Accountability List can help give you a sense of who is doing their part and the kinds of actions we should be expecting from more brands.
Support organizations that focus on educating budding entrepreneurs.
It’s important to note who, how, and which groups are actively pushing this industry forward when it comes to educating and supplying the masses with as much support as possible given some of the issues I have shared. Some groups, organizations, and cannabis operators can and will pop up into newly regulated markets with the intent to use people as commodities for their equity status rather than actually supplying them with the tools to thrive in the space.
On the other hand, organizations such as Supernova Women, The Hood Incubator, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, Massachusetts Equity Opportunities Now, Almost Consulting, Student Marijuana Alliance for Research and Transparency, This Is Our Dream, and Cannaclusive are out there doing this work—for real and with purpose.
Remember that, as a consumer, you have more impact than you know.
If you want to support inclusive cannabis and hemp brands, you have to be intentional with every purchase you make. And thanks to BIPOC business databases like Inclusivebase, created by Cannaclusive and Almost Consulting, it’s easy to buy from BIPOC brands often and directly as much as possible.
As a consumer, you have more power than you think. This isn’t about canceling brands or companies—we need to call each other in and educate people around the full harms of the war on drugs. And understanding your civil duty and relationship to decision makers matters too. You’d be surprised how many legislators and government officials have stigma-based knowledge around cannabis. Viewing this plant as a drug fosters more negative policies that restrict access and awareness for everyone. You can contact your state regulators and government legislatures on a regular basis about your concerns for cannabis equity and workforce development for the formerly incarcerated.
Furthermore, this is connected to everything you may have marched for when it comes to social justice, restorative justice, civil rights, and equality. Cannabis equity is an active fight that requires full awareness of how this disparity is one of the many effects of white supremacy.
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