Cannabis advocate and entrepreneur Dasheeda Dawson has been fighting for the legalization of marijuana in New York for years. And on March 31, part of her goal was actualized when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana across the state, making New York the 15th state to have legalized the plant (Virginia and New Mexico followed soon after, bringing the weed legalization tally to 17 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam). In a historic move, the New York law includes automatic expungement of previous marijuana convictions. And, according to The New York Times, 40% of tax revenue from marijuana sales will be poured into Black and brown communities, in which many have been disproportionately targeted with severe prison sentences. Under the new law, those with past convictions will also be able to participate in the new legal market.
“As the largest legacy [underground] market in the world, New York’s historic legalization will be a guide for other states’ emerging markets and eventually, the federal level,” says Dawson. “I believe that a national legal marijuana industry rooted in racial and economic equity is imminent, and New York’s bill sets the precedent for providing education, entrepreneurial access, and financial support for individuals and communities devastated by disinvestment and over-policing during the failed war on drugs. It’s time for our people to tap in."
It seems the proverbial green rush is gaining momentum, and that Black cannabis entrepreneurs will finally get their due. But while this legislation is a step in a hopeful direction, there is still much to be done in making the cannabis industry more accessible to Black and brown folks. And it’s Black women in particular who are leading the charge to ensure this industry serves communities of color.
Women like Kali Wilder, CEO of cannabis edutainment company EstroHaze, is one of the many cannabis advocates who are hopeful for what continued legalization across the states could mean for Black and brown communities, but she’s wary. Black-owned cannabis businesses remain rare despite diversity efforts, and the cannabis industry is still incredibly difficult and expensive to enter, particularly if you’re actually growing cannabis. Additionally, according to VICE Media Group's fourth annual survey of cannabis usage and perceptions among the VICE and R29 audience, only 40% of Black women think that, by 2030, anyone — regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity or social standing — will be able to safely produce and sell cannabis products.
“We know a number of instances where plant-touching owners have all their ‘ducks in a row,’ with a tight, robust investment opportunity, and despite this, the systemic racism and illicit bias at play make potential investors question their expertise, experience and resulting success in this industry,” Wilder says. Between varying regulations from state to state and obstacles within the banking system, it’s a difficult playing field for any businessperson in the industry, but particularly women and especially women of color.
"Communities of color have borne the brunt of racially biased enforcement of cannabis prohibition, so it makes sense that cannabis entrepreneurs of color, specifically Black women, are leading the conversation on equity and social justice opportunities as the country continues its march towards full legalization,” says Dawson, City of Portland Cannabis Program Supervisor and Founding Chair of Cannabis Regulators of Color. As a Brooklyn native, Dawson says she recognizes the tremendous effort made to pass an equity-centered legalization bill and create the framework for an inclusive and equitable New York cannabis industry. She spent years advocating for legalization rooted in racial and economic justice in New York and beyond. And last year, she transitioned to the public sector as a cannabis regulator to get a closer look at the obstacles to creating an equitable industry with Black, Indigenous, and Latinx ownership.
“I’ve learned that it starts with the law and civic engagement,” Dawson adds. “While we advocate for states to legalize the right way, centered in equity and access, women of color can also capitalize on the rapid growth of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities within the same market.”
And in the past few years, they have. As Buzzfeed reported in 2016, and as Marijuana Business Daily confirmed a year later, legal cannabis businesses are largely white. In 2017, women held 27 percent of executive-level positions in the cannabis industry (which actually reflected a 9 percent dip from two years prior). But although women have held top tier positions in the industry, most of those women are also white, as Ebony Costain, founder and CEO of BDTNDR — a job training platform for cannabis workers — told Fast Company that year. It doesn’t seem too much has changed since these numbers were reported. This means Black women still sit at the challenging intersection of racial, gender and financial obstacles. And yet, in many ways, Black women have been able to find success within the industry.
Organizations like the Minority Cannabis Business Association and Minorities for Medical Marijuana have made it possible for Black people to thrive in the cannabis industry in spite of the roadblocks. Other women-led initiatives such as Women Grow have created opportunities for Black women cannabis entrepreneurs to make an impact in the industry. As EstroHaze CMO Sirita Wright notes, “Black women are becoming more active and vocal participants within the cannabis industry because of the barriers they're faced with.”
"Black women are becoming more active and vocal participants within the cannabis industry because of the barriers they're faced with."
Poet Jasmine Mans, who is the founder of Buy Weed From Women — an apparel company whose proceeds go toward advocating for the efforts of women in the cannabis space — agrees. Mans, who found herself wanting to tap into the cannabis industry but unable to afford a cannabis license (the application fee in her home state of New Jersey is $20,000), made a way for herself through product design and branding. “If I don't touch cannabis, I have the opportunity to unify all of the people who do,” says Mans, who founded Buy Weed From Women in 2019. Since then, she’s hired a small team who works out of a small facility in New Jersey, and has been building her brand even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many businesses folded under the harrowing weight of coronavirus, Mans’ business flourished, and her mission became clearer amidst demands of those seeking justice and equity for marginalized communities. “I'm realizing that the pandemic shifted people's mindsets,” she says of last summer’s social upheaval and the widespread call to bolster minority-led brands. “People didn't want to simply invest in convenience, but they wanted to invest in integrity. All of these moments of protests created a space of like, ‘Is that a Black-owned company?’ ‘Is that company ran by women?’ ‘Where do their dollars go?’”
Other Black women entrepreneurs, like Solonje Burnett — co founder of Humble Bloom, a cannabis education and advocacy platform — have addressed such concerns by providing visibility to women and Black-owned brands within the cannabis space through education. And since the onset of the pandemic, the company has shifted to a consultative model, offering guidance to brands genuinely seeking to become more inclusive.
“We are helping brands bloom consciously and incorporating all of our learnings and what we've been doing, and the ideals and values that we're putting forth are resonating,” says Burnett. “I think with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, everybody was trying to figure out, ‘How do we diversify?’ ‘How do we make this a part of our brand ethos more than just performative marketing and just minimal corporate social responsibility?’ So we're helping them with coming up with their mission and vision and pillars. We feel like we're doing this transformative work now in the businesses, which is really amazing because we are not capitalized enough to do it ourselves.”
For entrepreneurs like Malaika Jones, founder of plant based beauty and wellness brand Brown Girl Jane, the work is as much about making alternative forms of wellness accessible to women of color as it is about ensuring business women like her are seen and supported. “I always say I'm an unlikely wellness founder, and that's because my professional background was on Wall Street,” Jones shares. “What I found throughout my professional and personal career is that I was supporting other people, but what I hadn't done was really formulate any sort of wellness plan for myself.”
Jones began her personal wellness journey by researching ways to manage pain from back injuries sustained while giving birth to her youngest daughter. Along the way, she discovered CBD, learning about its many uses and the ways it could be incorporated both internally and topically for pain relief. But when she started telling her friends and women of color about it, she found that no one had heard of it. “We weren't being spoken to in the industry as a whole,” she says. This led her to found Brown Girl Jane along with her sister Nia Jones and wellness expert Tai Beauchamp so that women of color could have access to wellness products as a solution for their health issues.
As the green rush continues to surge and legalization makes its way across the country, Black women entrepreneurs are looking ahead at the expansion of profitable opportunities in the cannabis industry.
“We need to talk more about the ancillary opportunities that people have, more opportunities and willingness to get into the space,” says Mary Pryor, founder of Cannaclusive. “That can be in the form of a marketing agency. It can be graphic design. It could be accounting. It can be so many other things.” But the key to success, she adds, is doing adequate research, as well as aligning with a supportive community, whether it’s in the industry or not. Because, like any industry, expansion often means bigger players with bigger pockets who, as Jones says, try to overwhelm smaller businesses — in this case, Black-owned brands.
Mans understands the value of sisterhood within the cannabis space through firsthand experience. “I'm literally learning from other Black women how to run a successful business, and it's going well, and it's something that I'm proud of,” she shares. “Because the cannabis industry and the laws are so particular to each state, and because wealth among women is so different, we have to become more clever. And the cleverness of it is what exposes the brilliance.”
Legalization is just the beginning. Ultimately, how Black women work together will dictate their future in the industry — and so far, against all odds, they’re winning.