It's Time to Stop Ignoring The Problem with Cannabis

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Working as a black woman in the cannabis industry, I've realized that progressive talk is often just weed smoke that clouds the truth of the matter: The cannabis industry benefits from the disenfranchisement of minority voices. In fact, it reflects the true ugliness of America. No 4/20 celebrations can cover that up.

Cannabis is America's new cash crop. And like all things American, the people who benefit the most are white and male. A few weeks ago while researching some of the hemp bills the Florida Senate is looking to pass, I came across a quote from Senator Doug Broxson (R) where he stated that he hopes Governor Ron Desantis (R) will see Florida's hemp legislation as a "pro-business bill that will allow us to do what we did hundreds of years [ago]".

Hundreds of years ago Native Americans, the original victims of oppression in the US, were being killed and forced to leave the same land that in 2019 is now being used to cultivate cannabis. Hundreds of years ago when cotton was America's cash crop, black slaves became involuntary accessories to the crimes of foreign white settlers, forced to labor for free on the same land that Native Americans had been killed and removed from.

Hundreds of years ago, white men created a narrative that would put down and shut out minorities for centuries. It's 2019 and things have not changed.

“If you want to know the truth about America, then look at the cannabis industry.”

White Americans are trailblazing ahead in the industry, while minority Americans are continually forced to face being left behind because of limiting laws backed by archaic, racist, sexist, and classist ideologies. Less than five percent of cannabis businesses are black-owned, while black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession.

In states like Florida, many minorities hoping to participate in the legal industry aren’t able to because the states new hemp bill HB 333 prohibits anyone convicted of a drug felony within the last 10 years from participating. Meanwhile, Missouri doesn’t want to create social equity programs to give women and minorities access to the market, which creates more space for big, white-owned, corporate companies to dominate the states medical marijuana market.

If you want to know the truth about America, then look at the cannabis industry. The racism, the sexism, and the classism of the industry illustrate how stuck in the past we still are. There are advocates who are continually saying that minorities should be the first to benefit from the industry, yet there hasn't been any real progress towards building something more inclusive.

I asked minority women who work in the cannabis industry to share their thoughts on social equity. What I discovered, mainly, is that the cannabis industry—like most American industries—isn't focused on creating real diversity.

And truth be told, being inclusive isn't that hard. It's a conscious choice that we can all make.

Lindsey Renner, Humboldt County, owner of Native Humboldt Farms

“Are there many Native Americans in the cannabis industry? The unfortunate answer is no. In my opinion Native Americans are still pretty segregated from the rest of the country. However, there are two ways of looking at it. I let adversity fuel me. I feel that in some ways it gives me an advantage.

“I'm resilient every hardship. I become more motivated to succeed. Failure is not an option, therefore, the presence of adversity only makes me stronger. I’m hoping to other Native Americans hope regarding the issue of . It’s all in the way you look at it.”

Solonje Burnett, Brooklyn, co-founder of Humble Bloom

“Working in the cannabis industry has been exciting, exhausting, and empowering. My co-founder and I work tirelessly and have bootstrapped everything. We’ve financed some of our immersive experiences, participated in unpaid speaking engagements, paid for our own exploratory trips to California, Mexico, and Boston to discover what the industry needs to effectively connect dots to bridge gaps between consumers, brands, and communities—as well as educate on how we can be an innovative industry that puts people first. It’s insane but we know that sometimes you have to build your own table rather than squeeze in a chair at someone else’s.

“At Humble Bloom we clearly outline how we can achieve an equitable, fair, and regenerative industry. For us that means humanity is baked in and the focus is on economic equity, equal access, integrity and preservation of the plant. That should include social equity programs specifically uplifting PoC and womxn, tax revenue earmarked for communities affected by mass incarceration, affordable medicine for patients, a protected craft farming, creating unions, incubators, controlling the number of out of state and international licenses, as well as protecting immigrants.

“I truly hope the future of cannabis is like no other industry before it. My vision is the industry holistically accepts and leans into the multifaceted nature of her powers, acknowledges past injustices, works towards clean supply chain, and ensures the culture mirrors the plant’s diversity through equal access to opportunity at all levels for all people. All skill sets and experiences can be added. Let’s create a cultural entourage effect to maximize the benefits of the industry for the people who need it.

Kassia Graham, New York, national project director for Cannaclusive

"Social equity in cannabis can be difficult to navigate. Some who are in this industry see cannabis equity as a hand out when it’s simply a means of attempting to heal communities harmed by the racist and classist War on Drugs. I’m still hopeful cannabis equity programs will genuinely be able to give women, people of color, the poor, and LGBTQIA+ folks, the disabled, and others an opportunity to thrive. However, we have to get those provisions in bills first. What happened in Ohio shouldn’t be allowed to happen anywhere else.

“If there’s a straight, white person—male or female—conducting business in this space they should pause to ask if their cannabis is inclusive. If the answer is no, they should be examining ways they can help marginalized groups be heard and given their fair share of this highly lucrative business. Diversity and inclusion will always yield a better outcome no matter what is being created."

Alaina Dorsey, Baltimore, owner of Creative Ether

"Since I’m a freelance content writer, I get to choose who I work with. This is valuable as a black woman as I don’t have to tolerate passive racism/sexism (aka microaggressions) for a paycheck. My clients are my equals and that’s very empowering.

“When it comes to social equity, current and incoming cannabis businesses need to put marginalized in positions of power. Hiring entry level budtenders and patient advisors aren’t enough for their diversity quotas. Screw the tokenism and actively look for diverse management. We’re qualified. And we exist.

“As a cap off, I think reparations should include a free monthly ounce of weed for every black person over the age of 21 for as long as we want it."

Mary Pryor, New York & Los Angeles, CEO and co-founder of Cannaclusive

"Making changes to the systems of inequality which put communities of color in the path of the War on Drugs goes way beyond just cannabis. No amount of legislation in this country will fix racism. That’s not what social equity is about. To be quite honest, it is time to call this what it is—restorative and reparative solutions based on purposeful destruction, lies, and false data by the government and police state on black and brown bodies.

“This plant is Indigenous. This business utilizes subcultures of black and brown themes within hip hop and popular culture as a way to market brands in various ways. Keeping people locked up for crimes based around the plant and just expunging them is not enough. Job training and incubators need to be present across all fields of ancillary and plant-touching businesses. Anything outside of that is just an appeasement trick. We have to demand this from the business level and the civil justice level at the same time while creating pathways to wealth industry.

“As for allyship, white men and women should use their agency as much as possible to drive this. Brands can create corporate social responsibility programs and actually act on them. As consumers, we can ask for this and stick to our guns by not supporting brands and entities who do not."

Hope Wiseman, Maryland, owner of Mary & Main Dispensary

“Minority communities have been devastated by the War on Drugs and are currently left out of the industry because of high barriers to entry capital, personal, and political connections.

“It is important to introduce legislation that would mandate equity be distributed to impacted communities along with funds to help support individuals once they are in the game.

The latter is currently missing in many of the equity models across the country, not allowing equity owners to have the support they need to actually be successful in this industry.”

Lyneisha Watson is the High Folks columnist for High Times Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Blavity, and Black Girl in Om.