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Why Prioritizing Social Equity in Cannabis Hiring Will Make the Industry Better

Why it's important to ensure the communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition have a seat at the table now.

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This story originally appeared on Cannabis & Tech Today

As medical and recreational cannabis becomes a legitimate $92 billion a year industry, a discussion around social equity programs has emerged. Why? Because certain communities have suffered long-term multigenerational impacts from now obsolete laws about marijuana. And now it’s all mostly legal. 

Understanding the history

To understand the present, we must understand the past. The 1971 “war on drugs” provided funding to federal drug control agencies and imposed mandatory sentencing for drug crimes. But some historians suggest that the policies were racist. 

According to John Ehrlichman, domestic policy chief at the time and one of President Nixon’s right-hand advisors, they may be right.

In a 1994 interview with Harper’s magazine, Erlichman revealed: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but … we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

Currently, there are millions of people of color incarcerated on drug-related offenses, and a majority of them are Black and Latino men and women. Despite cannabis decriminalization throughout most of the country, and although usage rates are similar between minorities and whites, people of color comprised 94% of NYPD marijuana arrests in 2020. 

RELATED: California Gives $15 Million to Cannabis Social Equity Program Participants

Why social equity?

The intent of social equity is to ensure that those communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition and the inequalities in the creation and enforcement of these laws are included in the new legalized marijuana industry.

According to David Hua, CEO and co-founder of cannabis software company Meadow, “Cannabis companies have great privilege and responsibility; not everyone has had the good fortune of being able to consume cannabis in peace and build generational wealth around this plant…”

Proponents of social equity programs want to help create minority-owned businesses and provide jobs to communities that have been criminalized, giving them priority access to the benefits enjoyed by those who are now part of a legal industry.

Hua goes on to say, “It’s essential we all find ways to give back to those who have suffered true multigenerational losses from racist policy creation and disproportionate enforcement of the War on Drugs on communities of color.”

For cannabis companies, this means diversity in staffing. In order to get there, these businesses are working to ensure that they recruit, hire, and retain people who represent the rich tapestry of the communities they serve. 

Underrepresentation in the industry

People of color are vastly underrepresented in the cannabis industry. The most recent available census data reports that, in 2017, roughly 4.3% of marijuana businesses have Black owners or stakeholders. 

Employees in the cannabis industry fare only slightly better. In Denver, for example, just 5.9% of industry employees are Black or African American and 12.1% Latino. This does not reflect the population of Denver County, which is roughly 10% Black and 30% Latino. 

Creating the environment for social equity hiring

Social equity is not a check-the-box initiative to increase the numbers. Your company’s strategy must address the broader equity issues, including those inherent in hiring practices and strategies.

This signals to future employees that you are paying more than lip service to diversity. Every company will approach the challenge differently. But there are some fundamental steps you can take to increase your chances of recruiting success and make an impact within your community. 

RELATED: 3 Women Who Are Trailblazing Social Equity Programs

Conduct anti-bias training

Make sure everyone understands the purpose of your social equity program. Nancy Whiteman, CEO of edibles company Wana Brands, advises: “People really do not get committed to a cause until they actually understand the problem and how it exists. That is one reason we conducted anti-racism training for the entire company.” 

If racism feels like too loaded a word, call it anti-bias training or use some other term. Every person has biases. It’s how we make sense of our world. As we challenge ourselves to understand and question the validity of our biases, we are laying the foundation for interpersonal skills that will serve us well in the long-run.

Communicate with care

When communicating, it’s easy to build in subtle or implicit bias that repels the very people you want to attract. Job descriptions that dictate neat hairstyles, excellent language skills, Ivy League or top-tier schools or white-shoe gentility are dog whistles that signal to diverse candidates that they may not belong.

We naturally talk the language of our own “tribe.” Be deliberate, push down on your assumptions and encourage others to challenge the norms.

Be realistic about qualifications

Before you include the requirement for a college degree or a high GPA, ask whether these are necessary to do the job. By including requirements that aren’t actually essential to the position, you may be eliminating the people you seek to attract. Not everyone can afford to attend college.

And many of those who do must work and study at the same time. Remember that English is a second or third language for many people. Focus on experience and capabilities that matter. 

Cultural alignment doesn’t mean cloning

If you ask people to blend tidily into the existing culture, you will lose the point of diversity. Think in terms of complements, not clones. It’s important that the people you bring into your company share similar values and that they can subscribe to the business mission and goals. It’s  not important that your new hire be an alumni of the same school or share your passion for racquetball.   

There’s no shame in sticking to the script

Use a scorecard to ensure that everyone is measured using the same unbiased criteria you’ve outlined in your equity initiative. Challenge each criteria by asking: Who are we eliminating? Not only will this exercise help you identify inclusive language to use, it will help you scrutinize your personal diversity roadblocks.

As Whiteman says, “There was considerable discomfort as we began assessing our own practices and assumptions. In part, the discomfort stemmed from the fear of offending someone or appearing out of touch.” Work through it; the results are worthwhile. 

Mobilize your social equity program

Sharing the responsibility for hiring decisions will smooth out the biases of any one person. Outside expertise, as well, can bring objectivity, experience and credibility to your social equity program. Contact Y Scouts today to discover how we can help you achieve your social equity goals. At Y Scouts, it’s never about the numbers. Rather, we partner with you to ensure that each hire is on purpose.