The Cannabis Industry has a Unique Opportunity to Address Racial Inequity: Here’s How

Cannabis Racial Inequity - GCI Content Hub - Global Cannabis Intelligence

GCI’s latest Summit hosts a fantastic roster of experts and advocates discussing how companies can work meaningfully towards addressing racial inequity and promoting social justice in cannabis.

“This is a unique period of time. We have an opportunity to create an industry that is different from traditional industries” – Ernest Toney, Founder of BIPOCANN.

As cannabis becomes decriminalised across the world and the establishment of legal markets allows for the proliferation of a once-infant industry, selling a plant that – until recently – would have landed you in prison could now make you millions. But historically, cannabis prohibition was and continues to be a tool used to perpetuate systemic oppression through the incarceration of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities. While the cannabis industry reaches unprecedented highs, an estimated 40,000 people remain incarcerated for cannabis offences in the US alone. Despite roughly equal usage rates, an ACLU report shows that Black people are almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession.

The responsibility of the cannabis industry

“The cannabis industry is so uniquely connected to these issues because of the historical criminalization and stigma surrounding the plant,” says Dr Jenna Valleriani, Director of Social Impact and Advocacy at Canopy Growth Corporation. This is because the cannabis sector is a direct consequence of drug policy reform, which is “fundamentally about human rights and social justice,” she continues. “This has been an industry that’s been built on the backs of people of colour, who have been unjustly and disproportionately incarcerated for cannabis related activity,” explains Natalie Papillion, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Last Prisoner Project. For this reason, “social justice and equity provisions are foundational to the industry,” she adds.

Ernest Toney, Founder of BIPOCANN, explains that “a lot of the people who are being left out from having opportunities to participate come from minority Black and Brown communities that have paid the highest price for incarceration arrests.” Addressing racial inequity in the cannabis space starts with acknowledging the urgent need for reparations to be directed to equity-deserving groups. Further, understanding that the wider system impact of the war on drugs has implications that go far beyond reparations for and expungement of cannabis-related criminal convictions. “This is a unique period of time,” says Toney, “we have an opportunity to create an industry that is different from traditional industries”.

Understanding systemic barriers to industry

Incarceration has a devastating impact, not only on the imprisoned individuals but on the family and wider communities of those victims. Dr Valleriani emphasizes that “the continued effects can be intergenerational, they’re hindering individuals from prospering in their lives and their communities.” The demonisation of cannabis had the effect of “disrupting the entire ecosystem of Black family life,” states Roz McCarthy, Founder and CEO of Minorities for Medical Marijuana. Institutional racism as a structure has created a lack of “legacy of experience” McCarthy continues.

A lack of awareness about how the industry works is an obstacle to racial equity in cannabis. There are “huge educational gaps,” says Toney. New entries into the industry may not have access to connections which can be crucial to advancing in the field and gaining access to capital. “If it were not for some of the first collaborators that I was able to connect with when I started, I wouldn’t be here right now,” McCarthy admits. Additionally, a lack of diversity in legislator bodies and cannabis boardrooms means that effective policy which would allow underrepresented groups to enter and succeed in industry is not being created.

How can cannabis companies do better?

“The boardroom in cannabis needs to be more diverse.” – Roz McCarthy, Founder and CEO of Minorities for Medical Marijuana.

Community Consultation

“The boardroom in cannabis needs to be more diverse,” states McCarthy. “Listening to the community” and looking outward to consult with advocacy organisations doing work on the ground is crucial when creating social justice initiatives. “Including individuals with lived experience… and compensating them” is pivotal, says Dr Valleriani. Giving a voice to those groups you want to uplift is fundamental when addressing these issues. “You have to be comfortable with taking the backseat, with listening and learning, and also just appreciating their expertise,” adds Dr Valleriani. Toney cites Colorado state’s “first social equity fair” as an example of a scheme that allows marginalised groups to “get educated, get connected, have resources and have expungement.”

“Do not let perfect be an enemy of the good… it’s better to do something than to do nothing because you’re afraid.” – Natalie Papillion, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Last Prisoner Project.

Equity Execution

“Not just the same old wordage… how do we really execute and show that we are making progress?” asks McCarthy. “Purpose is critical,” she asserts. Shifting from corporate social responsibility to social purpose “which is really interwoven throughout the business” has greater chances of gleaning meaningful results, says Dr Valleriani. Further, she adds that examining “non-financial factors” like community in a company’s business analysis is important to create a socially equitable culture and purpose, driven from the top down and imbuing every facet of the business. This includes allocating funds and committing them to projects, “and then treating that as an investment,” says Toney. “When you create your budget, don’t make diversity, equity and inclusion an afterthought,” advises McCarthy.

“Invest in policy”

Putting resources towards policy is pivotal for a fair and equitable industry. Being able to coach and train lawmakers on the nuances of social inequity in cannabis, to enable them to deliver on policy, would help repair the institutional inequities in cannabis. Papillion urges companies to “invest in policy” to create legislation that is fit for purpose. “It’s important to have folks who are working in the industry to have a seat at that table,” says Toney, because lived experience is invaluable in creating effective policy.

As cannabis consumers become more sophisticated and value-driven, they will actively look to companies that are actively engaged in social justice work in their communities. The market will favour companies that “espouse these values,” explains Toney. McCarthy adds that “when you adopt these principles, and you live it and breathe it, diversity equals profitability.”

Although addressing issues as complex and systemically embedded as social justice and racial inequity is daunting, Papillion urges cannabis companies “not to let ‘perfect’ be an enemy of the good… it’s better to do something than to do nothing because you’re afraid.” “It’s a process to progress,” she concludes.

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