What a Decade as an African American in the Cannabis Business Has Taught Me
We have made many strides, but we still have a way to go.
My husband Scott and I started in the cannabis business in 2009, opening our first dispensary, The Apothecary of Colorado, one block from our popular downtown Denver restaurant. The following year we launched Simply Pure, the first edible company in the world that specialized in healthy edible alternatives. Over the next couple of years, as Colorado legalized adult-use cannabis, we became the first African Americans, legally licensed in America, to own a dispensary, a cultivation facility, and an edible company. Scott’s culinary expertise set the tone for edibles and what rules would follow.
A decade ago, there were no models, blueprints, or roadmaps to be a successful cannabis business owner. But we overcame every obstacle put in our way and now stand on top of a successful, vertically-integrated, socially-conscious cannabis company. As a business owner and someone who has worked in politics, I believe that you can make money and make a difference in the world.
With 2020 coming to a close, we can look back on lessons learned in the last decade to develop new ways of moving forward that expand this industry in a way that puts social responsibility and accountability at its forefront to create more Black cannabis business owners.
Nearly a decade ago, you couldn’t buy recreational cannabis in the U.S. Today, it’s legal for adult-use in 14 states plus Washington, D.C., for people 21 and older. There are currently 36 states where people with certain illnesses have access to medicinal cannabis, and two countries have full adult-use cannabis legalization.
In 2020, Arizona and Montana voted to legalize recreational cannabis, and South Dakota became the first state to legalize medicinal and recreational cannabis during the same election. In early December, The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) passed the U.S. House of Representatives. It would remove cannabis and THC from the scheduling of controlled substances and work to expunge anyone’s records with a federal cannabis offense. This bill would be huge for BIPOC communities, who have been the primary targets for draconian and racist cannabis prohibition enforcement.
Social equity should have been more of a priority.
The cannabis industry’s reality is that the conversation around social responsibility, accountability, equity, and justice wasn’t front and center. Instead, it focused on how our businesses could generate millions in tax revenue for state and local governments.
Looking back, this was a colossal misstep. We are currently paying the price and hustling to catch up and create successful BIPOC cannabis business owners and entrepreneurs.
In recent years the call for accountability as we legalize cannabis has grown. Some states have added additions to their cannabis regulations called social equity programs meant to give Black, Brown, and overly policed communities a leg-up when trying to participate in the legal cannabis marketplace. The most significant barriers to these programs are capital, resources, and legal business savvy. As it stands, less than five percent of the cannabis industry are Black business owners.
The first thing you have to understand about equity licensing in cannabis is that they are set aside for communities most harmed by the war on drugs, specifically cannabis prohibition. Communities that have fallen behind because of over-policing have a severe lack of capital, social resources, and experience.
The second thing to understand is that consumers are demanding that corporations address the significant issues of our times, and companies who do get a big reputation bump among customers. Deloitte Global’s 2019 Millennial Survey found that 38 percent of millennials and Gen Zs have stopped or lessened a business relationship because of a company’s ethical behavior. Conversely, 36 percent said a company’s social issues engagement spurred them to become customers or deepen their relationship with the organization. That can mean a host of things. For us, it means creating more Black and Brown cannabis business owners and entrepreneurs.
A focus on conscious capitalism
Much has been written about conscious capitalism. What does this concept mean for you as a business owner? While our regulations catch up to the people’s needs, we can start doing the work necessary for social responsibility and accountability. The good news? There are already many models for how this can work and be successful.As a successful cannabis company, you can partner with social equity applicants and license holders to provide them with your experience in the space, your connections built across the supply chain, and your brand equity. This is not an opportunity to take control of their license or managing power, instead provide them with a significant leg-up to ensure their long-term success, which can bring your brand exposure while making money.
You can also work with current license holders who want a successful brand with strong social responsibility at its core. The most important thing here is to ensure that you have alignment in core values that support Black cannabis business entrepreneurship, and those core values are in writing and followed as part of the brand use agreement.
Lastly, consider becoming a mentor. It is easy to trip and fall in cannabis. It’s one of the most regulated industries globally, and the rules seem to change once or twice a year. You can help budding BIPOC cannabis entrepreneurs avoid common pitfalls that can cost a business thousands with your experience.
The reality is that the cannabis industry has come a long way in a decade. Yet, Black cannabis business ownership remains stagnant even with the creation of regulations meant to help them create legal businesses. Mainstream business has so many excellent, profitable models of socially conscious brands. For example, Ben and Jerry’s puts pen to paper in galvanizing support for critical movements like Black Lives Matter and climate change. There is no reason to delay lifting the people who need it most. It is on us, the businesses who have had social accountability and responsibility at our core, to lead and create new Black and Brown ownership and entrepreneurship in the space and do it in a way that sacrifices nothing and builds everyone.