The Importance of Diversity in the Cannabis Industry and Why it Matters

The legal cannabis industry is booming right now, thanks largely to ongoing demand and the continued legalization of cannabis across states. But not everyone is necessarily profiting; namely, minorities seem to be left out of the equation and are not taking nearly as much of a bite out of the legal cannabis business’s pie as the white demographic. When it comes to diversity, the legal cannabis industry in the US may have a bit of an issue right now. It seems as though those who are not white are grossly underrepresented in the market, according to various statistics.

While the numbers may vary slightly from one source to another, they all point in the same direction: there is a lack of diversity in the legal cannabis industry right now.

Minorities Make Up a Small Fraction of the Cannabis Industry

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, less than 1 percent of the legal cannabis market that is involved in the growth and sale of legal cannabis are people of color. And according to a recent Marijuana Business Daily study, over 80 percent of cannabis businesses are owned by white Americans, with black and Hispanic Americans comprising just 10 percent of cannabis business ownership. Considering how many millions of people of African-American or Hispanic descent have been incarcerated over the years as a result of possessing or selling cannabis, this statistic may come as a surprise.

Policymakers and the cannabis industry itself may want to take a closer look at this issue and take steps to ensure wider diversity while removing any barriers that may be making it difficult for communities of color to be a bigger part of the industry. The history of cannabis prohibition enforcement has largely been against people of color. And today, this exclusion in the cannabis industry appears to be rampant, particularly when it comes to state licensing of cannabis operators.

Minorities are taking notice and speaking out against such a lack of diversity and seemingly systematic exclusion of minorities in the industry, so much so that wide-spread discussions are taking place around the country about this issue and what can be done to foster greater justice, equity, and access.

Why Diversity is Important in the World of Legal Cannabis

Diversity in the legal cannabis industry is important for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is breaking down the stigma that has long linked minorities and cannabis use. In turn, an increase in minority cannabis leaders in the industry can help make it more welcoming to all consumers, including minorities. Embracing new ideas and strategies for outreach to others outside of the caucasian demographic is something that the legal cannabis industry is lagging in, but certainly requires.

Diversifying the industry can also open the doors to more consumers. With people of all walks of life involved in the business of producing and selling legal cannabis, a more diverse group of consumers can be reached. A certain level of trust and support may be felt among minority consumers who may feel more comfortable with exchanges between others of the same or similar background and race. Perhaps some consumers of color may feel uneasy about tapping into the legal cannabis market because of ongoing stigmas.

But connections between minorities directly involved in the business of cannabis and consumers can perhaps bring more visibility to minority communities, which in turn can have a positive effect on the bottom line of cannabis businesses. Further, a broader reach can help businesses gain a better understanding of the diverse needs of communities and therefore help them develop products that consumers are looking for, at various price points.

Including everyone in the cannabis industry will also help expand the industry even more than it has been. It’s estimated that legal cannabis sales will top $23 billion in the US alone, and while those numbers are high, there’s always a chance that they could taper off. But expanding on the diversity of the industry can help improve the industry’s sustainable growth. Diversity can help bring about change to all communities and foster business relationships that can withstand the test of time. Legal cannabis businesses that are owned and operated by people of the same background as those they serve in their respective communities can contribute to continued strength and sustainability of the industry.

But, it’s not all about economic expansion, people like co-founder and CEO of Janerette’s Eco-Friendly Fungi, Dozie Mbonu help encourage others to foster inclusiveness in the world of agriculture and cannabis.

Not only is Mbonu bringing sustainable solutions, but he is also instrumental in adding to minority business owners in the industry. Mbonu says, “I know diversity in the farming industry in America has been a tough ride for farmers of different races and ethnicities, but I think that the hemp industry offers an opportunity to give all farmers a fair stake in the game. The issue with diversity is the finances. By state, many companies were overvalued and a lot of investment was given early, but that investment didn’t trickle down to the diversity equation. We are in the diversity equation, but unfortunately, I do not see many people engaging because they don’t have the access or the funding — many are on their own.” With a solid business plan in hand, Mr. Mbonu took the direction to bootstrap the entire company, taking a risk which has now produced amazing results. He is not now speaking on a number of panels to cultivators seeking knowledge and education on sustainable growing.

Not only race, but as one can imagine, there’s much discrimination towards women in the industry as well. However, passionates like Alyssa Erickson, co-founder of KY Hempsters strives to inspire all females, regardless of age, to pursue their dreams and create their own paths.

She decided to get into the hemp industry back in 2014, a time she explains that she didn’t necessarily think about her mission as women in the industry. “We had a passion for the plant and wanted to have a part in helping to bring it back to our home state, which was struggling for an alternative crop to tobacco. One of the first people we connected with was our dear friend, Katie Moyer, who was a mother of two (now three) and had been working on hemp legislation in Kentucky. It was over the next year or two that we realized how being young women was truly an anomaly for the industry,” says Erickson.

“I think the biggest issue we’ve faced as women in the hemp industry, or in business for that matter, is constantly feeling like we have to “prove” ourselves. Even though we’ve been at this for more than five years, we still find ourselves in situations where we aren’t being taken seriously or have to fight to have a voice. Some of that’s on us too. We tend to underestimate ourselves or feel the need to prove our value based off past experiences. It’s important to know your worth, stay consistent in your work, and let those who underestimate you be your motivation.”

New Initiatives Coming Forth For Improvement

Having said all of the above, some entities are starting to take steps in the diversification of the cannabis industry. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC), for instance, issued new licenses with a focus on diversity after being criticized for limited licenses being issued to minority groups. The MMCC recently offered license applicants the chance to earn additional points by bringing minorities on board, particularly those from disadvantaged communities.

Many organizations are getting in on the action, too. Cresco Labs is also looking to deal with the issue of diversity and workforce opportunities in the cannabis industry and recently launched its Social Equity & Educational Development program (SEED). The initiative was developed to both help expunge previous cannabis conviction records and encourage more inclusion towards diversity in the industry’s workforce. With more voices in the ring and more initiatives being taken from companies and regulators, there’s no reason why diversity in the industry can’t improve as the industry continues to grow.

 

Looking Toward the Future

At the end of the day, diversification of the legal cannabis industry can only be a good thing. No good comes out of excluding specific groups from anything, including the cannabis industry. From improving the sustainability of the industry to boosting the economy through an onslaught of successful businesses, to breaking down the stigma and stereotype of minorities and cannabis, diversifying the industry can only be seen as something truly positive for the industry at large, as well as those that it serves.

Mell Green – National Hemp Association volunteer writer

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