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Despite the Biden Administration’s recent pardon of 6,500 people incarcerated under federal law for simple possession of marijuana, The Last Prisoner Project estimates that upwards of 40,000 people remain incarcerated on charges relating to cannabis, including a significantly disproportionate number of people of color.

A 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, concluded, “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates.” Authors reported, “In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.” 

These imprisoned cannabis entrepreneurs may have pioneered what has now become a legal market projected to rack up 43 billion by 2025. However, given their status as convicted felons, they often cannot obtain the necessary licenses and funding needed to participate in this industry. Even if they can get their cannabis convictions expunged from their records, those released from prison often do not have the means to pay the necessary expungement fees. 

Cannabis entrepreneurs advocate for equity

As cannabis becomes increasingly legalized throughout the United States and around the world, individual cannabis entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds are leading the way in exploring creative ways to achieve equity in the cannabis space.

Jacobi Holland, a half-black male in his twenties, founded On The Revel with Lulu Tsui, a fortysomething Chinese immigrant, after they grew tired of attending events that Holland described as “male and stale.” So they wanted to create inclusive cannabis events that according to Holland “made everyone feel welcome with actionable speakers that reflect the diversity of this industry and the opportunity to meet dope people.” 

On the Revel moves beyond simply offering a panel on “diversity” or having panels on cannabis use feature primarily black athletes. Instead, they seek out people of color working throughout the industry including scientists, growers, and CEOs that they put on stage for short 10-minute TED-style talks. 

After working in various corporations for over thirty years, Vonda Page founded Radical Change LLC after experiencing how men do a lot of the gatekeeping. “This makes it hard for black women to even get any kind of connections or meet people.” Throughout her work in cannabis and other industries, she encounters plenty of people who have the skills and experience to achieve their goals but there’s a gap when it comes to executing their vision. “Our brains are wired to resist change,” Page observes. 

Her company works to help to unwire people’s brains by giving people time, space, and energy to learn new skills by offering programs such as rolling results mentorships, learning labs, and master classes. 

According to Lori Lord, founder of the high lifestyle & brand natural high co., the biggest gap she sees is that the underrepresented folks are not at the table to make the decisions. “There has to be a change in the way we allow people to access the plant. But if you’re not at the table, nobody is going to think about it from your point of view.” Currently, she’s addressing this issue by putting together a collaboration of folks from different states who have worked on social equity.

Tiffany Watkins combined her background as an IT professional with her over three decades of grassroots advocacy to curate Vanguard Media Online as an archive of women’s stories, journeys, and experiences that she hopes will “help us craft a more equitable environment for the future of cannabis.” In her estimation, a lot of lip service gets paid to social equity to the point where this phrase is now viewed more as a buzz term rather than an actionable item. “If we really want to get anything done, we’re going to have to start putting everything we’ve been talking about into action; starting with opening up avenues to funding and removing the barriers that come up when someone of color is looking to enter the cannabis industry.” 

The role of the consumer in achieving cannabis equity 

Holland suggests cannabis consumers seek out those companies that align with their values. “For some just the fact there’s a black CEO or black founder is good enough for them Others want to see signs that the company gives back to the community and has an authentic founder story.” 

Before making your purchase, Lord recommends perusing Cannaclusive’s accountability database of cannabis and hemp brands. Make a list of those brands that suit your soul so you have some brands in mind when you order your CBD products online or in a brick-and-mortar shop or purchase cannabis products at a licensed dispensary. 

When entering a dispensary, Watkins recommends asking the budtenders how many social equity brands they carry. A dispensary committed to inclusivity will know the history behind the brands they carry and direct you toward those brands that are beneficial both for people and the planet. 

Advocating for equitable cannabis legislation 

As states move towards the legalization of cannabis, check to see if the proposed legislation and ensuring regulations are more performative than productive. Does this legislation waive expungement fees for those incarcerated for cannabis? Are there provisions to achieve social equity in the awarding of licenses to operate a cannabis business? Is the tax money generated from cannabis sales being invested back into those neighborhoods that are most impacted by the failed War on Drugs? 

When casting your vote, Watkins thinks as voters the best we can do is to keep an open mind and an open ear. “When we hear our leaders talking about cannabis reform, we need to be putting our words into action and letting them know what we expect to see,” she opines. 

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...