The Cannabis Industry Has a Chance to Change the World

In an industry born of "firsts," let's be the leading industry to address issues of racial inequity from the ground up.

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As is typical of most entrepreneurs, I like to think that I am responsible for my success. Entrepreneurs do work very hard, and some are talented enough (and lucky enough) to become successful. 

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Still, white entrepreneurs, especially those of us in the cannabis industry, must also acknowledge that we have benefitted from the business version of white privilege. The reality is that we have built our businesses on the backs of people of color, deliberately targeted and negatively impacted by the "war on drugs" and the criminalization of cannabis. That is why, if we are going to provide more than lip service to the issue, "inclusion" and "diversity" must be more than buzzwords. Creating a more equitable industry cannot be a feel-good concept; it must be viewed as a raison d'être that requires real action.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Are Essential in the Cannabis Business

Legalization opens up possibilities for equality

The ugly legacy of racism in cannabis enforcement lives on. According to the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), more than 40,000 individuals, disproportionately people of color, are still serving prison sentences for the very activities that are currently building wealth for so many in the industry. Focused on criminal justice reform, LPP is working for prisoners' release, the removal of cannabis crimes from personal records, and programs for these individuals to make a successful reentry into society. It is an essential and necessary effort and one that we at Wana Brands have offered our full support.

The work of groups like the LPP is a critical piece of righting the wrongs of the past. And beyond their essential work, the legalization of cannabis provides a unique opportunity in American history: The chance to create an industry from the ground up with inclusion and social justice in mind along with concrete steps to reduce discriminatory practices.

To realize that opportunity, people of color must experience the same benefits from legalization as their white peers. This means increasing diversity in hiring, providing educational opportunities, and eliminating barriers to entering the industry, such as limited access to capital and connections within the business community. To take it a step further, we have to actively recognize and push back on the systemic racism that permeates all aspects of the business both inside and outside the cannabis industry.

How can we do that? How can we really get through the layers of systemic racism that have been built up in business practices, both inside and outside of cannabis, over hundreds of years?

For starters, white business leaders often assume that they know what is needed to help people of color enter the industry. And even worse, sometimes social equity programs are manipulated to create the appearance of creating opportunity while not genuinely offering a mechanism to create wealth and ownership. Let's begin by laying down our assumptions and listening to aspiring Black cannabis entrepreneurs to understand how they see and define their needs. 

In a recent conversation I had with BlackCannaBusiness founder Kristi Price, I learned that Black entrepreneurs frequently struggle with collective PTSD because cannabis is most closely associated with the criminal justice system and legal issues. These entrepreneurs often have friends or family members convicted and incarcerated for nonviolent, low-level drug charges resulting in criminal records with lifelong impacts. Price believes that making the leap to the legal cannabis business can be a difficult mindset to overcome without the right information and acceptance from the industry. 

Related: This Is How You Turn A Social Equity Grant Into A Thriving Business

Creating anti-racist organizations

Taking a hard look at one's own business practices is not comfortable or easy. We realized this right away when Wana's leadership team began our internal process to better understand how to address systemic racism and increase social equity in our company. There was considerable discomfort as we began assessing our practices and assumptions. In part, the discomfort stemmed from the fear of offending someone or appearing out of touch.

There was also the concern that someone could point out how we fall short as an organization, and we would be embarrassed or, worse, called out as hypocrites. But, in my mind, the willingness to recognize where we fall short--and tolerance for the risk of publicly supporting anti-racism efforts in the light of our lack of perfection--is all part of improving as an organization. 

For Wana, this work is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires ongoing commitment and attention to achieve change and the ability to understand personal biases coupled with the willingness to confront them. We hope that more cannabis businesses will make an effort to undergo this process as well. To that end, we created the Cannabis for Justice website, which provides resources for addressing systemic racism and building social equity in the cannabis industry. In it, we also share a bit about Wana's internal efforts in this area. 

Do we have the right answers? Are our responses enough to meet the challenge? Will they make a difference? We can't know for sure, but we are focusing on progress, not perfection, as the expression goes. The important thing is to start the process and take action now before "the moment" passes and we find ourselves in the same place, or worse, five years from now. As white cannabis business owners, it is our obligation--but also our privilege--to make a difference and to embrace the challenge of building an equitable and just industry for all.

Nancy Whiteman

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Heralded as the Martha Stewart of edibles by Green Entrepreneur, Whiteman has been instrumental in securing Wana Brands’ position as America’s best-selling edible with the largest footprint in North America. She leads Wana’s strategic vision and is instrumental in new market expansion.