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WeedmapsNews Culture & industry

The cannabis industry fails minority professionals. It's time to do better.

September 2, 2020   7:00 am PDT

It's little wonder why we don't see much diversity in the cannabis industry. Minority communities have been disenfranchised in the United States for centuries, and having little access to the business is yet another setback.

And through time, the government has been a major force in oppressing minority populations by using cannabis as a weapon. When commenting on the 1970s War on Drugs, President Nixon's domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, infamously told Harper's, “We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” 

How can we expect healthy diversity when entire generations have been desecrated by their own country's mandates and policy?

And it isn't just insidious laws that are keeping people well behind the curve, it's also everyday racism and microaggressions. It's ignoring the insights made by Black employees and other minorities in company meetings, yet paying attention when a white coworker says the same thing just a few moments later, or deeming natural Black hair “unprofessional” in the workplace. These biases happen all the time. So how can the industry get past this? How can we uplift and promote minority voices throughout the cannabis world? How can we make change?

To better understand the issues many people face when starting out in the industry, we spoke to My Green Network's CEO James Shih. From their website, My Green Network “is a California cannabis compliant manufacturing facility designed to provide an all-inclusive solution to enter the legal cannabis manufacturing market without hassle.” 

Currently, My Green Network is running Green Quest 2020, a contest where they will grant a “deserving minority-owned business a California Type-S cannabis manufacturing license.” Green Quest is a great opportunity for budding entrepreneurs. Shih noted of the winner, “We're going to pay for their license, we're going to subsidize their rent. We're going to move them along the process, mentor them, and put them in the cannabis network.” Applications for Green Quest are open until September 15. 

Getting past the high costs of the industry

If you're serious about starting a cannabis business, there's one thing you need first and foremost: money. A lot of money. 

You need money for a license, a manufacturing facility, a dedicated team to oversee social media and advertising, technical employees, day-to-day work and management — you need money for just about every step of the process. On average, opening a new cannabis business can range anywhere between $50,000 to $2,000,000 on up — just to start. 

Shih began his career as a lawyer, shifting into the cannabis licensing business in California. Once on the inside, he saw what kind of funding was needed to break into the industry. “We were realizing that we had to charge $100,000 for someone — in just the legal aspect — for getting a license,” Shih said.

So if you don't have a couple of money trees growing in the backyard, what options are available to you? Shih and his team formed Green Quest because “the process to get into the industry is painful. It's basically inaccessible for 95—99% of people purely based on the money.” The winner of the contest will have their costs covered, along with open and free access to the company's manufacturing facility. 

But aside from My Green Network's generous offerings, entrepreneurs who have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis reform and the War on Drugs may have access to social equity programs in their legal states. For example, the City of Los Angeles' Department of Cannabis Regulation runs a social equity program, granting funding and access to communities most devastated by governmental oversight in cannabis. Massachusetts also provides programs offering education and training in the cannabis industry for those with past cannabis convictions. 

Though these programs tout helpfulness, there is a warning to be wary; some of these programs have been met with mixed results, with funding moving at a glacial pace or having been circumvented into other city outlets like transportation or police departments.

The cannabis business has never been as expensive as it is now. Gone are the days of growing your own plants or baking a few infused goodies to share with the greater community. You now need business plans and analytics to break in. Shih added, “We saw that it is inaccessible, and what we do now is revolutionizing access for cannabis manufacturers.”

Expanding minority access and growth

According to a Marijuana Business Daily report from 2017, “the percentage of minorities holding executive positions at cannabis businesses stands at 17%.” A low number for an industry built on minority oppression up until very recently — and arguably still. 

With so much devastation felt by these communities due to decades of political warfare on cannabis and countless convictions, granting fair and open access for marginalized communities should be a right. Shih has also seen how certain companies have been dancing around these issues, “there are a lot of people passively talking about the need for equality. Green Quest was our way of saying, 'We don't want to be passive — we are going to take action.' It's an active process for us. We decided that if, in order to create real access for minority-controlled cannabis businesses, and really change a social, racial, and economic field, we have got to take steps — that's it.”

But My Green Network is only one pathway, “it doesn't just start with us, we're just trying to lead one. We need everybody on board to really highlight it, and everyone to start taking action — not just us.”

Last year, Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project told MarketWatch, “the most pressing issue facing minority entrepreneurs is obtaining the capital necessary to run a cannabis business.” Not only that, but minority-owned companies face larger hurdles when attempting to access loans or grants in general — or they're completely ignored regardless, due to years of predatory redlining and discriminatory practices.

Shih's team has seen the kind of greatness that comes with expanding the market and opening their facilities to diverse voices, “when you give opportunities to minorities — and other people that have been disproportionately impacted — those people have fantastic ideas, and cultures that support them — they are able to see current topics around the world.” This kind of knowledge may collectively impact cannabis on a global scale in years to come, with innovation and unique insights leading the way. 

How can industry leaders help?

Change in the industry must come from every level because every level is affected by racial politics. And though there is a risk when attempting change, it's what's needed in order to create acceptance and inclusion. When asked about what the industry can do to help, Shih said, “all these huge funded companies with millions or hundreds of millions of dollars behind them, if each one of them just allowed one person to come in that is a minority, and they focus on that, that would create change immediately across the entire industry.”

It is imperative for cannabis companies, especially, to offer means to diversify and lift up minority communities and employees, and to offer avenues to success. “People don't realize that the cost to produce innovative products is really high because it's a risk and [these products] may not be easy to make,” Shih said. “Not many people are able to take that risk. You could be an entrepreneur who makes a fantastic product that no one's ever really seen — that can be a huge entry point. But what's happening is that most people can't do it because they can't access it.”

Outside the occasional office diversity training programs — which tend to backfire when most people go back to their inherent biases just days or even hours later — hiring Black and POC candidates and offering them deserved merit and promotions is one step in the right direction. Larger cannabis companies have the funds to develop spaces for diverse voices along with inclusive (and better) training for non-Black and POC folks, but the companies themselves must be aware enough to take these steps. 

Cannabis is progressing in other countries at a phenomenal pace, and opening access to different perspectives, markets, walks of life, can all add to the expansion and explosion of the global market. And there's never a better time than now to start lifting up and helping. “We think that the time right now — for everyone — is really good because it's an opportunity where people can talk about it,” Shih said. “But we need to have people take that extra step and be active about it. That's really what people can do.”

Featured image by Reiana Lorin/Cannaclusive