In May 2020, Dasheeda Dawson was named cannabis program supervisor for Portland, Oregon’s Office of Community and Civic Life. Tasked with overseeing the city’s medical and adult use regulatory programs, the pre-gentrified Brooklyn native is tasked with ensuring the city’s program is efficient while overseeing the successful implementation of the city’s social equity and educational opportunities.
No regulator role is easy, especially for Dawson, who has yet to work in Portland as the pandemic and social unrest forced much of the city to go remote just before her hiring. With a small but dedicated Civic Life team to rely on, Dawson has spent much of last year traveling between Arizona, New York, Georgia to further cannabis reform and education while learning about what’s best for Portland’s program.
Dasheeda Dawson: From Brooklyn And Business To Portland And Pot
The Rutgers and Princeton-educated Dawson possesses a long history of business acumen in cannabis, beauty, apparel, and more, working for top names like Target along the way. She’s a founder of both the lifestyle and education brand TheWeedHead in 2016 and the Cannabis Education Advocacy Symposium and Expo (C.E.A.S.E.) in 2017.
After years of leading businesses, she is still surprised to find herself in a governmental role, but she’s enjoying the ride. “My story over the last five years has been one of just kind of going with the universe,” said Dawson, who entered the space about a decade ago as a medical patient hoping to address autoimmune issues.
“I’m probably one of the only regulators that will say I am a cannabis patient, and I need this to work for me to live,” stated Dawson.
Cannabis Patient To Business To Politics
In 2016, Dasheeda Dawson moved to spend much of her time in Arizona. Once there, she enjoyed the selection of legal medical options that rivaled the New York illicit legacy market.
She’d start to work with a growing array of cannabis brands. Over time, she’d work with fewer big brands and multi-state operators, instead working with municipalities and Native American communities.
“I started to see a lot more of what the full economic and health and wellness benefits were for communities at large, not just an individual entity,” Dawson said.
In 2019, her work would get noticed by regulators in Portland, offering Dawson a role on the Oregon Cannabis Commission’s Governance and Frame Working Subcommittee. While serving amid a 15-city book tour for How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry, a work that she co-authored, Dawson became aware of the Civic Life position. Soon after, the tour would shut down due to the pandemic. She’d be offered the role around the same time.
A Significant Hiring With Substantial Goals
Dasheeda Dawson was officially announced as Civic Life’s new leader in July 2020. She was just the third Black woman in America to hold a cannabis regulator position. The significance of the hiring carried that much more gravity in Portland, Oregon, a city and state short on diversity and founded on racist ideals.
In her announcement letter, Dawson addressed the recent turmoil and pain in the nation caused by the murder of George Floyd, with Portland a central area for unrest between citizens and the police over the months. Citing inspiration from local activist Charlotte B. Rutherford, Dawson committed to upholding the Cannabis Policy Oversight Team (CPOT).
“While we continue innovating a model for equity in the cannabis industry, we must also honor the calls for change that have echoed around the globe,” wrote Dawson.
First Year Hardships Highlighted By Burglaries, Policing Concerns
The first year on the job has seen its share of milestones and pushback, according to Dawson. A rise in cannabis-focused crime in Portland led to a canna-phobia-type narrative.
“Most neighborhoods are still very fearful of having that cannabis retailer or operator in their community,” due to worries of crime, she explained. Dawson blames the rise not on the businesses themselves but instead on the cash-heavy operations cannabis operators have become due to federal regulations and banking prohibitions.
Significant pushback also comes against the city’s decision to divest its cannabis revenue from the police. Dawson said the total divested was a “small amount” of the police’s annual budget, which was 80% of the cannabis revenue. Still, pro-police funding advocates often use the figure, saying a more substantial presence is needed to address the burglaries. Civic Life is now working with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Mayor Ted Wheeler to address the situation.
Dasheeda Dawson believes part of the solution lies in community safety and its concern for local business. She said that a mom and pop shop being burglarized wouldn’t stand in back in Brooklyn when she was growing up. She stated that the community would come out to ensure it didn’t happen again. “That same courtesy is not really extended to the cannabis community,” she said.
Digitally Overcoming Obstacles With A Dedicated Team
Dawson and her Civic Life team of seven continue to operate entirely remotely. She plans to move to Portland this summer whether the government returns to normal or not.
Dawson credits the team she inherited for doing incredible work identifying ways the city can “remain human” in its regulatory process. Dawson said she is here to amplify that work. Her job also includes working with a cannabis policy oversight team made up of community stakeholders and operators, including one who was a recent burglary victim. Dawson said the member’s experience highlights how anyone in Portland’s cannabis industry can become a victim.
Despite the struggles, Dasheeda Dawson believes there is more good than bad in Portland and the state. Working in government provides Dawson with better access to resources to create substantive change through post-COVID recovery, various grants and further education opportunities for citizens.
Dawson takes immense pride in a collaborative effort with Dr. Rachel Knox, with the two forming a coalition of Black and brown industry leaders, the Cannabis Health Equity Movement (CHEM). The group is focused on advancing a cannabis education program geared towards historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal institutions, and minority-serving institutions. Noting equity and opportunity lags in these groups, Dawson believes learning about hemp could help provide chances for those often void of them.
“Hemp competency is cannabis competency,” said Dawson, adding that the knowledge should help provide opportunities for those looking for a job or a business opportunity themselves.