We’re Getting Equity Wrong

A journalist’s plea for entrepreneurs, brands, and regulators to look beyond retail licenses and nonprofit donations.

Another Juneteenth has come and passed, bringing a renewed wave of highlights of Black-owned brands and commitments to fostering diversity and equity in cannabis. Then, it’s back to the usual scheduled programming. Maybe the average brand will have one other product drop or campaign this year of which they’ll donate 10% of profits to a particular 501(3)c. Outside of that, though, it’s a whole lot of lip service the rest of the year. Realistically, communities harmed by the War on Drugs aren’t getting much of that small, annual donation anyway. I am tired of brands and business owners claiming to care about cannabis equity and leaning on tiny donations to nonprofits as their one effort towards that goal. I am equally tired of business owners with tight budgets acting like there’s nothing they can do, because that just isn’t true. 

Here’s the thing: Donating a couple of hundred bucks to a nonprofit once a year has about as much impact as resharing an infographic in Instagram Stories. (None.)

The good news is: there are so many other ways to level the playing field, and you don’t have to be swimming in disposable funds to make a significant, immediate difference in people’s lives. Much like all things when it comes to cannabis, it’s about zooming out and taking the entire supply chain into consideration.

First, you can hire more Black people. That’s the single quickest way to bring in communities most deeply harmed by the consequences of the War on Drugs; the most effective way to get legal cannabis-related earnings into the hands of communities who paid the greatest cost prior to legalization. You can hire a Black web developer for your company’s website, or a Black copywriter to work on product copy; an event planner for a party; a construction company for in-store renovations; or a Black-owned security company to install camera systems—those are all more concrete, more beneficial ways to facilitating cannabis industry profit sharing than donating $300 to a nonprofit that needs much more than that to do their work. Every part of one’s business is an opportunity to send those payments directly to the community you wish to empower. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t donate. I’m saying nonprofits need significant, steady donations to do good work, so if you can’t provide that, it’s more effective to support equity in other ways. We need nonprofits to organize grassroots efforts and assemble vital channels for regulators to understand the needs of business owners and consumers; to facilitate workshops and expungement clinics. We wouldn’t have equity programs if it wasn’t for the work of orgs like Supernova Women—a nonprofit empowering more people of color to become shareholders in the industry—the founding members of which spent week after week in Oakland City Hall to bring that city’s novel program into existence. If an established company is profiting off of legal weed while so many remain handicapped by criminal records associated with cannabis charges, they ought to donate. It’s the least they can do. But for everyone else—there are other ways you can help build a more equitable industry. 

In addition to hiring people from more diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, you can speak up for those perspectives when they aren’t in the room. Suggest entrepreneurs from backgrounds other than yours for media quotes and speaking opportunities. Point your customers/friends/coworkers toward Black-owned products and brands, whether in or out of cannabis. Buy your staff lunch from a Black-owned food cart next Friday. 

The thing about equity is that it isn’t just one thing. It’s not just about having an equal number of dispensary owners from every racial demographic, nor is it just about granting clemency to every cannabis-related prisoner still serving time. It’s both, and then some. True equity in cannabis is a combination of social justice reform, criminal justice reform, and economic support. It’s about people from every background getting a fair shot at market share—from who gets hired as a budtender to who sits in the C suite to who owns the company—and creating markets that don’t implicitly favor the biggest companies or richest people, and it also means compensating for the wrongs committed against communities systematically marginalized during pot prohibition.

That’s why I wish to extend this open-minded advice to all entrepreneurs of color as well. Owning one’s own licensed dispensary is not the only way to claim your rightful piece of the pie. At this strained point in the industry right now, it’s actually one of the least successful ways to attempt doing so. Amber Senter launched a company called MAKR House with this in mind. The Oakland, CA-based activist and co-founder of Supernova Women founded this brand house with the goal of building an inclusive supply chain from the ground up, creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs to be a part of this industry who can’t afford a full retail or cultivation license. MAKR House is a brand house that includes Disco Jays and Landrace Origins Goods and Supply and works with a network of producers, distributors, and manufacturers that center Queer, Black, and women-owned partners whenever possible.

“Not everyone has the pockets to take on the full costs and liability of being a licensee, but that’s not the only way to join this industry. This whole brand house concept has been flying under the radar, but it’s a lower barrier of entry into cannabis that many could and should explore. We need an ecosystem to make things work for the long run,” says Senter.

The single biggest way to support equity, in Senter’s eyes, is to “vote with that dollar.” Whether it’s a $5 joint, a $500 donation, or a $15,000 annual marketing budget for your company, it’s an opportunity to build the fair, balanced industry of our dreams. 

We are at an inflection point. We cannot afford to let equity slip to the back burner—we do not have time to spare. But we need to transcend the panicked mindset that got us here—that place of social media-driven obligation and guilt rooted in the emotional tumult of 2020. If we want an equitable industry, equity has to be a holistic part of businesses, how they naturally function; a part of every purchasing decision. For business owners and consumers alike, there is probably a chance to make a decision that brings more people in from different backgrounds every single day. Here’s to doing our part, whenever possible, to crack the door a little wider for others to follow behind.

  1. This shit was pure propaganda. My dispensary sells 2 or 3 brands, YEAR MUTHAFUCKING ROUND that are dedicated to helping those communities affected by the war on drugs. One BIG EXAMPLE is “Good Green”. They have that shit year round. Read the fucking back of a GOOD GREEN bag some time, you absolute plebian. Whoever wrote this is a racist, just trying to keep everyone thinking everyone is getting over on everyone. Grow the actual fuck up. Some people don’t get any fuckin representation at all in the cannabis community, you prejudice prick.

    1. You keep your ‘equity based’ socialism weed. I’ll take whatever the best grower has to offer, regardless of race. This race baiting ‘equity propaganda ‘ has begun to get ridiculous. This article is trash. Affirmative action is over, time to be graded on performance!

      1. That is bad news for white kids trying to get into a good college. Harvard would be like 70% Asian without AA.

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