Small Steps Toward More Diversity in the Cannabis Industry

By Omar Sacirbey

The cannabis industry has started taking steps to become more racially diverse, albeit baby steps at this point.

Several new organizations have sprouted up to foster and encourage diversity in the marijuana workplace, and more people are speaking out about the lack of people of color in the industry.

States are beginning to develop regulations with this issue in mind, while some high-profile minority celebrities – including comedian and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg (pictured) – are getting involved.

Add it all up, and it appears the groundwork is being laid for a more diverse industry down the road.

“It’s not doom and gloom,” said Jeanette Ward, an executive at the marijuana software firm MJ Freeway and co-chairwoman of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “We think people want more diversity, they just don’t know what to do or how to make it happen.”

Diversity in the Spotlight

Goldberg’s recent decision to jump into the burgeoning cannabis business is both a move in this direction and a stark reminder that the industry has a shortage of people of color.

She has voiced her support for medical marijuana and uses it herself for glaucoma. But Goldberg also said her interest in starting a cannabis company is tied in part to the fact that the industry doesn’t have enough minority business owners.

It was an opening salvo in the latest diversity debate.

Shortly after her comments, the head of the San Francisco NAACP publicly backed a black female dispensary license applicant in the city, saying laws essentially exclude many minorities from leadership positions in the cannabis industry.

“We see yet another lucrative industry growing without almost no input from our community — another table we are not invited to sit at,” the NAACP’s Rev. Amos Brown wrote in a letter to city councilors.

Big Barriers

Many cannabis business leaders have long acknowledged the industry’s lack of diversity. Moreover, the financial and legal barriers facing minorities who want to enter the legalized cannabis industry have been long hashed over.

So why is diversity a particularly big problem in the cannabis space?

Ward points to two main reasons.

The first is cost. Many states require exorbitantly expensive application and licensing fees that can easily run into six-digit figures, making it harder for people of color to launch a cannabis business.

“That kind of capital, historically, isn’t at the fingertips of people of color, or women for that matter,” Ward said. “Those ridiculously high financial fees are the first barrier. People of color just can’t climb that financial wall.”

The second reason is that many states disqualify applicants for cannabis business licenses if they have a criminal record, even for misdemeanors.

Because blacks and Latinos have been swept up disproportionately by the War on Drugs, many have criminal records and are therefore barred from the industry.

New Diversity-Focused Groups

To help fix that, a handful of African-American, Latino and other minority cannabis industry leaders last year created the Minority Cannabis Business Association.

The group formed a board in September and has gathered an email list of about 700 people. It was scheduled to launch its inaugural membership drive this week, and members will hold a policy summit this summer.

The goal is to help educate minorities about how to network and break into the cannabis industry, as well as funnel job candidates to marijuana businesses.

The association also is drafting a model policy it hopes will be used by states that have legalized cannabis or are mulling legalization. The policy will recommend ways states can keep costs reasonable and remove the legal stipulations that keep many minorities and other otherwise well-qualified people out of the industry.

Ward, the association’s co-chairwoman, said the model policy’s authors are borrowing from states that already have sound policies in place. She singled out Oregon’s cheaper $1,000 dispensary application fee, as well as California’s decision to direct some medical marijuana revenue into minority neighborhoods.

Additionally, the group is working with CanopyBoulder, a business incubator in Colorado, to mentor minority-owned businesses.

“People don’t know how to get in, so the third barrier to entry is education and networking. We want to educate people and give them opportunities to meet people in the industry,” Ward said.

The association also is working with the University of California, Berkeley, on a study about minority participation and leadership in the cannabis industry. The study will be released in the middle of this year, Ward said.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) is hoping to help as well. The organization has established a Minority Business Council as well as an Inclusion Initiative.

The aim is to expand the reach of underrepresented groups within the industry, in part by establishing a scholarship fund for minorities to attend cannabis business events and programs.

“The inclusion issue is something the industry needs to address,” Taylor West, NCIA’s deputy director, said. “We don’t know the answers, but that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

States Taking Steps

While the private sector is taking its first steps to address the cannabis industry’s dearth of diversity, there has been progress among the states, too.

Florida’s newly expanded medical marijuana law mandates that the state must add three new licensees if the patient total surpasses 250,000.

One of those new licensee holders must be a member of the Florida chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, and have been a participant in a class action lawsuit in which some 400 black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discriminating against black farmers.

Previously, Florida stipulated that nurseries applying for cultivation licenses in Florida had to be 30 years old, and be capable of growing 400,000 plants and putting up a $5 million bond – conditions that shut out most black farmers in the state.

“It seemed Florida had disregarded other people, especially people of color, the black farmers,” Howard Gunn Jr., president of the Florida chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, said. Gunn said his group lobbied legislators for more than two years to find a way into the industry for African American farmers.

To change laws that keep African-Americans and other minorities out of the cannabis industry, activists need to network with politicians, Gunn said.

“Our farmers have always cultivated crops, and this is just another crop as we see it. This is just another grower’s opportunity,” Gunn said. “And you have to be there where the laws are made because of the volume of money that is involved.”

Pennsylvania’s New Law

The new Pennsylvania medical marijuana law calls on state officials to reach out to minorities and encourage them to apply for licenses. It also calls on the Pennsylvania Department of Health to issue a report in 2018 on whether the program is succeeding in creating a diverse marijuana business sector.

Ward, of the The Minority Cannabis Business Association, said her group welcomes such changes, but believes the best way to increase diversity is not through “affirmative action-like programs.”

Instead, she advocates removing the financial and legal obstacles that have kept African Americans and other minorities out of the legalized cannabis space, and educating minority entrepreneurs about how to break into the industry and thrive.

“If we do those three things, we’re going to see the industry change,” Ward said. “We would rather see a level playing field that allows for lots of true competition and any number of minorities (to) get in.”

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at