When the product you’re selling has more diversity than the industry itself, you have a problem. Such could be said for the legal cannabis market, where the plant’s genetic possibilities continue to expand while the industry itself remains decisively dominated by affluent white males. Compounding the matter is the fact that the U.S. government’s 50-year-long (and counting) war on drugs has disproportionately targeted communities of color.
Far from being a matter of history, the fight for justice for those arrested and convicted of nonviolent cannabis crimes is an ongoing struggle that continues to this day. It is the story of Michael Thompson, who was released earlier this year after spending 25 years in prison for selling marijuana. It is also represented in bone-chilling statistics like a June report from NPR which noted that the U.S. is still incarcerating more people than any other nation and that close to half of the inmates currently in federal prison are being held on drug charges.
There is clearly a glaring need to overhaul the justice system with an eye towards cannabis reform.
We need to fight for the release of every Michael Thompson while also ensuring those carrying criminal records from past cannabis convictions are provided with an easy path to expungement. In addition, it’s painfully obvious that the immense resources currently being funneled into failed efforts to police drugs should instead be reallocated to other, far more crucial needs (like climate change).
All that said, the other pivotal element of this equation involves diversity and inclusion within the legal markets for cannabis which have now sprouted up across the U.S.
In June 2020, Farmer & The Felon co-founder Dennis Hunter, who served a sentence of 6+ years stemming from a 1998 raid on one of his Humboldt grow sites, spoke with Bloom & Oil and summarized the situation thusly:
“Now that cannabis is legal in some capacity in nearly every state,” Hunter said, “it’s time to stop punishing people for the same activities that are fueling a legal cannabis industry worth over $20 billion.”
One solution that has thus far gained substantial traction is the concept of social equity programs. In essence, these city-approved (and in some cases, state-approved) additions to cannabis regulations require that a given percentage of licenses be issued to applicants which qualify as equity based on a set of specified criteria. In San Francisco, for instance, the criterion includes anyone who has been arrested for or convicted of the sale, possession, use, manufacture, or cultivation of cannabis from 1971 to 2016 or has had the same happen to a parent, sibling or child.
While being pushed to the front of the line to receive a license is undoubtedly a crucial advantage to have, such efforts are often mitigated by a lack of resources on the applicant’s behalf. Mainly, this comes in the form of money, as getting a cannabis business off the ground is a massively expensive endeavor. Without access to subsidized loans, incubation space provided for by non-equity licensees, and a plethora of other critical components, being awarded an equity license can feel like an empty gesture.
Naturally, not all equity programs currently in operation across the U.S. are the same. While some have risen to the challenge, others have thus far fallen well short of their intended purpose.
But even as the focus on diversity and inclusion within the cannabis industry understandably remains centered on those competing for permits, a whole range of other cannabis-adjacent enterprises must also be held to the same standard. This means that legal firms specializing in cannabis, engineering teams being employed by cannabis-specific software companies, and the budtenders being hired at each new dispensary are each a reflection of the industry’s priorities as well.
Perhaps it’s easiest to consider the legal cannabis industry at large as an ecosystem.
If the air or water is poisonous, nothing else stands a chance, so our top priority remains those convicted of cannabis crimes (past or present), both in ensuring their freedom and providing them with priority to thrive in the legal industry if they so desire. Then you get to all of the other elements that factor into an ecosystem as well. In this case, the flora and fauna are the myriad other cannabis businesses participating in the industry. If these auxiliary interests don’t also prioritize diversity and inclusion, the overall ecosystem suffers for it.
Today, the future of the cannabis industry remains a story with multiple possible endings. It could go the way of corporatization and profit, or it could become a case study in what’s possible when diversity and inclusion are welcomed as fundamental building blocks. It’s now up to each of us to contribute to this narrative, both through our dollars and our voices.
Together, we can create a cannabis industry that is truly equitable for all — but we’re not there yet.