Cannabis has an inclusion problem—and much of it is coming from the business world.

The subject is a frequent topic of discussion in some circles and industry groups, but up until recently, it had primarily gone underground. The lack of reports could stem from several reasons. One that plagues most cannabis topics is a lack of conclusive data. It wasn’t long ago, in 2017, that Marijuana Business Daily was touting its Women & Minorities Industry Report for what it considered the first-of-its-kind look at the diversity in the industry. In its report, MJBIz notes that “virtually no research” on the issue was previously conducted. 

The years since have seen additional studies and surveys focused on the matter. Often, the results yield signs of progress with critical areas of stagnation included. This unacceptable mixed bag of results affects owners and employees alike. An August 2020 American Marijuana survey of 320 Black dispensary owners, consisting of nearly 66% men and 34% women, revealed that discrimination was prevalent. Over 84% of respondents said they experienced discrimination in the cannabis workplace, with co-workers (29%), a superior (26%) and customers (22%) all representing significant shares of the problem. 

With cannabis appearing to be a catalyst for reform in this country, including the racial wealth gap, more needs to be done. High Times spoke with several Black owners and leaders in cannabis businesses to gauge their experience and what could be done to make everyone equal and welcome in the cannabis community.

Is Cannabis Welcoming To You?

Marijuana is something intended to unite us. It’s a community-centric piece of our lives. Unfortunately, that idealistic harmony mainly went out of the window when it was weaponized and used in racist propaganda decades ago. 

Today, the cannabis community’s inclusivity carries on as people of all backgrounds get together to enjoy cannabis. On the other hand, the propaganda and subsequent ongoing drug war’s lasting effects played a significant part in creating the chasm between Black and other people of color and the legal cannabis market. Sources say this effect is particularly felt when trying to become an owner in the growing space. 

With such a convoluted predicament, a seemingly simple question asking if someone feels welcome often becomes multi-pronged for black people. 

Most of those who spoke to High Times said that the cannabis community’s communal aspect has been on full display. Certain parts of the business is another story. 

Austin Stevenson, chief innovation officer of Bay Area-based Vertosa, a creator of ingredients for infused products, said his welcomed feeling comes with an asterisk. After five years in the space as an operator, entrepreneur and investor, Stevenson said, “I can and will attest the beauty of a new burgeoning cannabis industry is that it’s a wide-open ‘greenfield’ ripe for planting for ambitious entrepreneurs.”

He added that privilege can sour the feeling. “However, the beauty is overshadowed by the reality that start-up businesses require access to capital and investment vehicles that are traditionally only available to the privileged few,” Stevenson stated. 

Evelyn LaChapelle, Vertosa’s community engagement manager, said she has felt “completely welcomed” by cannabis, especially after making a move from the corporate hospitality space she previously worked in. LaChapelle added that she has wondered if her lighter skin complexion and background, which involves being imprisoned for a non-violent cannabis-related offense, has anything to do with her welcome. 

“I realize that my smooth entry into this industry is not the common outcome for people of color,” said LaChapelle.

The same feeling was reported outside of the Bay Area. Pana, a holistic medicine practitioner and founder of cannabis health and wellness brand BE, reported similar experiences. The New York City-based professional, who grew up in North Carolina, provided his answer in two parts. He called cannabis a “great equalizer” that supports inclusivity and community.  

Like Stevenson, Pana said that the business world could be another issue. 

“I believe that the industry makes the information about laws and policies available, but like most things in America, minorities are generally the last to know,” he said. 

Pana elaborated on the sentiment and the effect the delayed information has on Black and other marginalized communities. “By the time the information gets to minorities, the profits in the industry have already been made, and the heavy hitters have already been established.”

The holistic practitioner reminds people that discrimination isn’t always as overt as being denied funding, critical information or other obvious actions. He believes all people of color in the space have experienced discrimination. Examples include being monitored more so than other dispensary customers. He also reported times when he’s gone overlooked at expo booths or been talked down to with over-explanations. 

“I don’t believe that is direct discrimination but more of an undertone of subconscious discrimination,” he opined. 

Continuing And Advancing Efforts To Reverse Course

The legal marijuana industry has time to catch up on the inclusivity practiced in the cannabis community. However, as the market becomes less nascent, that window begins to close. If it closes without adequate inclusion measures, then the U.S. will have once again failed to address any shred of wrongs created by the drug war and over four hundred years of oppression in America. 

Many in the cannabis space hold such a view and are making efforts through their advocacy, business and other means. But, as the disparity continues from ownership to arrest rates, additional steps could be done to sway all touchpoints in the cannabis community. 

Various points were raised. LaChapelle highlighted a desire to see inclusive job hiring practices refined. Pana championed local and state advocacy, calling for equity to be part of regulations. He also mentioned messaging. What was once used to demonize people or color, marijuana can now be used to repaint the narrative on black and other affected groups.

“Many times, cannabis seems to be whitewashed when painting this new image of the culture of cannabis,” he said. “This is problematic because historically, the culture of cannabis that is depicted of black and brown people was criminalized and set the tone for a future narrative.”

Messaging was also mentioned by Stevenson, who has adopted a “see something, say something” policy towards racism and discrimination. He calls out a particular message: the use of “black market” and “white market” to describe the legal and illegal markets. He said using Black versus white terminology perpetuates racism. 

“So, over the past five years, I’ve made it a point to correct people and change the terminology to illicit-market versus regulated market,” said Stevenson.

He added, “It’s a small change, with huge implications.”

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