This year, my New Year’s resolution was to stop talking about “diversity” in the marijuana industry. It’s a sharp turn, considering that’s what I spent most of 2015 doing.
Having co-founded a recruiting firm that emphasizes inclusion in cannabis companies, I sat in dozens of meetings with white “ganjapreneurs,” pointing out the need to bring more people of color into new businesses, conferences and publications devoted to the (largely white) green rush.
Yet nothing has changed. The legal marijuana industry still excludes people of color from the wealth and influence it generates. And our industry’s unique history makes our institutional racism particularly shameful.
The problem with “diversity” is that busy white leaders often see it as a box to check off. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few rolled eyes and outright dismissal, but more typically, the response is agreement, accompanied by a tight-lipped smile and a suggestion to solve the problem. Usually that “solution” entails tasking me with finding a token “diverse” person. Or, I’ll be asked to put together a panel to contain and address the issues facing people of color in one or two hours. Then it’s on to the next topic.
People of color are even more weary of the term “diversity.” Its overuse has led it to become a sanitized, corporate-friendly buzzword largely devoid of meaning. Recently, I asked a Latina colleague if she would serve on a cannabis panel. She declined, explaining that she’s sick of being tokenized to showcase how diverse organizations are, when in reality they are shutting out people of color from their decision-making.
It’s much easier and more palatable to talk about “diversity” than to ask the real questions: How do we replace the illicit marijuana market with a new regulated industry that begins to repair drug war-fueled destruction? How can we direct profit and economic empowerment from the industry to people who have been targeted by the War on Drugs?
Try this experiment: Bring up the word “reparations” on a marijuana industry conference call, and see how many people talk over each other in an attempt to quiet you.
But we need to talk about it. The marijuana industry is different from Hollywood, tech and every other industry currently struggling with a “diversity” problem. Because this industry was created by campaigns using talking points about the systematic destruction of communities of color to encourage voters to pass legalization.
I know, because I helped run those campaigns, and I used those talking points myself. We talked the talk; now we have to walk the walk.
A factor in our favor is that cannabis consumers are engaged, informed and willing to back their beliefs with their votes and their dollars. These are the people who turned out to make one of the most dramatic policy changes in modern history, after all. If the power of the dollar is the prime concern for businesses, they should pay attention to the practices that consumers want. Given the chance, I believe that marijuana consumers would willingly go out of their way to support companies that create economic empowerment for people previously harmed by the drug war.
So let’s stop talking about diversity. Instead, let’s figure out how we can harness our historic ability to foster change to creating a path to ownership, equity and belonging for communities of color. To start, there are a few obvious steps we can take.
First, we need to allow people who have been arrested for or convicted of drug offenses to obtain marijuana business licenses and seek employment in the industry. Many state laws currently prohibit this. Given that you’re 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession if you’re black than if you’re white—despite everyone using marijuana at similar rates—these rules perpetuate discrimination. Our goal must be to remedy the racial disparity caused by unfair enforcement of prohibition—not continue it with yet more unfair laws governing the legal industry.
In 2016, these provisions should be a deal-breaker. Our movement and industry must together refuse to actively support or endorse any bill or ballot measure that prevents people from working in a legal marijuana facility based on past drug convictions. It’s time to remove hiring restrictions and create pathways to ownership for people of color.
Existing businesses must play their part by doing everything they can to team up with people from communities that have been targeted by the drug war. It’s the right thing to do, of course, but there are also plenty of other reasons to do it.
Hiring people from different communities helps you reach consumers from broader audiences. It’s also often a smart recruiting strategy to look for people who have worked with marijuana pre-legalization; by definition, cultivators who have worked with marijuana since before it was legal have the most relevant experience. So from a purely business perspective, to exclude people who have convictions—who are disproportionately, as we have seen, people of color—is to deprive yourself of a lot of valuable expertise.
It’s also time to create licensing processes that allow more businesses and lower barriers to entry. In certain states, the process has been designed to strongly favor wealthy and politically connected (read: white) applicants. They may require the payment of extraordinary licensing fees, the possession of major capital (up to a million dollars in the bank), and in practical terms the hiring of a lobbying firm to help navigate the process. The demands of these systems have often caused delays, restricted access for patients and damaged productivity for everyone, as well as excluding people of color.
Take Massachusetts. The medical marijuana law passed in 2012 initially allowed only 35 licenses to be granted. Twenty were awarded at first, but then a series of Boston Globe articles highlighting conflicts of interest and political influence led to years of delays and several licenses being withdrawn. Meanwhile, the remaining licensees couldn’t open their doors and were forced to pay incredible costs for things like wasted rent and litigation. The first dispensary didn’t open until 2015, with only four currently operating.
What if the law didn’t present such barriers for applicants and instead allowed for as many dispensaries as patients needed? The process would have moved more quickly and smoothly for patients, and businesses would have avoided PR nightmares from which they’re still recovering. A process that’s more accessible and equitable would also be better for patients, and arguably for big business owners.
Finally, we need to collect data to quantify the disproportionately small number of people of color in the marijuana industry. Maryland is the only state that requires an annual report on minority owners and employees. But anecdotally, the problem is obvious.Of the hundreds of registered dispensaries in Colorado—arguably the state with the fewest restrictions and barriers for ownership—only one of them reportedly has a female black owner.
Obtaining that data is a crucial step. Every state-level marijuana program should be required to keep records on the race, gender and city of residence of each applicant (attempted and successful). Separately, each license holder should be required to submit an annual report regarding the business’s minority and women owners and employees. Only by knowing how bad the problem is can we effectively address it.
We are at a crossroads. Please join me in moving past cosmetic racial diversity and refocusing on the sense of humanity that has driven our legalization movement.
Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander put it best: “We must join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none.”
Shaleen Title is a co-founding partner of THC Staffing Group and a longtime advocate to end the drug war. You can follow her on Twitter: @