When legal cannabis entered the US economy, tech startups, pot shops, and numerous brands flooded the space. Yet despite this explosive growth, Black and Brown entrepreneurs within the cannabis sector have been edged out since day one.
The overcriminalization of weed and over-policing of communities of color — even as more states regularly legalize every voting cycle — continues to be an insidious stain on the American justice system. Today, no one bats an eye at weed weddings, stoney sound baths, and entire festivals dedicated to the plant, but Black people and POC are still targeted by law enforcement. A 2018 Drug Policy Alliance report found that after Washington D.C. decriminalized cannabis, Black men and women were 11 times more likely than white people to be arrested for public cannabis use after two years of legalization.
We have seen throughout history that the Black community experiences harsh discrimination at every level of the judicial system. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, communities of color are “more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.”
Sure, cannabis legalization has brought about new opportunities for many — and many legal states have set up expungement protocols for individuals with previous cannabis charges. But that doesn’t mean our entire capitalist system is now free of racism within the cannabis space. That doesn’t mean that Black and Brown entrepreneurs no longer face discrimination and impassable walls when trying to build up cannabis businesses.
Amid the ongoing protests against police brutality against Black people after the murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and countless others by police officers, the importance of purchasing from Black and POC-owned businesses have swept over media and technology companies across many industries, including cannabis.
But supporting and donating to Black and POC-owned businesses shouldn’t be limited to a burst of protests and calls for justice. It should be a regular occurrence. In the entirety of its history, America has disenfranchised Black people and POC. Thankfully, databases of Black and POC-owned businesses exist in order to help consumers in lifting up the Black community by speaking with their dollars. When you help one, you help all.
It’s crucial to note that these Black and POC-oriented databases haven’t come out of thin air — they’ve long been needed and crucial in cannabis’ ongoing discussion of social equity in the industry, and they’re often created by people of color themselves. Cannaclusive is an organization that saw the need for a database that highlights Black, Asian, Latinx, Woman, LGBTQIA, Indian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, Veteran, and Disability-owned cannabis businesses and has worked with Almost Consulting for more than two years to create one called the InclusiveBase.
Below, we speak to Cannaclusive’s co-founder Mary Pryor and cannabis consultant Kieryn Wang of Almost Consulting about the importance of supporting Black and POC-owned businesses today and every day, and how utilizing inclusive databases can help you determine where to express your support.
Mary Pryor: the co-founder of Cannaclusive, Pryor is also Executive Director of Blacks In Tech, Director of Outreach and Partnerships of Black Techies, Founder & Principal of Urban Socialista, and an SXSW Social Innovator Award Winner (2014).
Kieryn Wang: founder and owner of Almost Consulting. Wang leads women-owned cannabis brands through the diverse marketing practices of modern cannabis. She also created InclusiveBase in partnership with Cannaclusive.
On the importance of support and alignment
WM: In your words, why is it important for consumers to actively support black and POC-owned businesses — especially now?
Pryor: I think three things are important. Due to systems that we are now being made ever so aware of, in terms of economic disparity, the wealth gap, and a lot of the barriers that are perpetuated due to white supremacy and racism, there has been a big, empty and far-fetched goal line in terms of economic wealth and access and equity in the world — especially between those who are Black and Brown and white people. And that’s due to a few factors: there’s slavery, there’s institutionalized racism, there’s segregation, discrimination.
There are a lot of things that are part of the lifetimes of people who are older — and that are not part of our lifetime as younger individuals — that have pre-set a lot of the current access people have if you are termed “minority” in this country.
On top of the fact that propaganda and the racial motivation behind the prohibition of cannabis — due to racialized stereotypes and the reefer madness movement — plus the War on Drugs caused the breaking up of a lot of different homes and destruction of communities. There are a lot of things that have been institutionalized in the system of how we operate in this country economically that is made to target and push aside Black and Brown people from access to capital on top of everything else.
So firstly, when you’re talking about supporting a Black-owned business, it doesn’t make it weaker, it doesn’t make it better, it doesn’t make it any “less than” or “more than.” It’s a business. But in cannabis, you have less than 5% ownership of Black and Brown people in the space. It’s 81% controlled by white men, and the numbers for women — which were in the 30s percentage range in 2015 — are now in the mid-20s percentage range in terms of ownership. Minorities, in general are faced with a huge gap of access to capital, which makes it hard to open a business in the space.
The startup costs are very high for plant-touching businesses, so supporting Black and Brown-owned businesses is just a way of saying that you understand, that you know there is a lot of work that goes into being able to access action items to start these businesses.
Supporting a business just because it’s Black or Brown-owned can be for anybody. It doesn’t need to be just a Black thing, it’s not just a white thing, it’s being able to acknowledge and be intentional with knowing that your support is going further than a store. It’s being intentional and mindful and being an educated consumer on why you’re supporting businesses that definitely deserve to be supported.
Secondly, businesses in this space — in terms of working with integrity — are hard to find. More so than we talk about. I find that a lot of the indigenous roots of the plant have been best served and best kept by those who understand the cultural significance. When you are a person of color, whether you’re Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, being mindful of having a cultural relationship to something that you’re utilizing usually has a bit more importance.
When it comes to the cool factor of what it is to be a person of color, a lot of things have been appropriated and misdirected and re-aligned to serve people that are non-Black or POC In general. I think businesses that understand culture and retaining that just have a better way of making it more seamless and more understood by the consumer.
Third, I think that in this time, being intentional behind why you’re supporting something matters. Whether you say it privately or publicly, there’s no need to be reactive and there’s no need to be performative — it’s easier to just adopt ways of understanding that this world has been made to go after. It’s showing us that it definitely attacks and treats people differently based on the color of your skin. And while you or I may never see that change in our lifetime — or our children may never see that in their lifetimes — it’s important to understand that taking the power of that and flipping it, that there is more equity and understanding in the space, is something that everybody can do. Whether it’s through advocating for equality for people to have access to capital that are Black and Brown, whether it’s supporting a business, whether it’s being very vocal about understanding that within a company you can hire Black and Brown people because we’re human beings and we should have these jobs.
Leaning far to one side and pretending that there’s not a whole other culture around you really just impacts your understanding of being able to operate and access all facets of the population when it comes to the business and consumer.
Wang: When you’re shopping from a small business — specifically POC and Black-owned — you’re helping support the next rent check, you’re helping put kids through school, you’re helping put the next meal on the table. I’m not saying that you’re not doing that with corporations, but you’re doing it more directly this way.
I saw a tweet one time, it said: “Thank you so much to whoever just put an order in on my store — I have groceries for tomorrow now!” That’s the kind of impact that you’re making.
Traditionally and historically in the cannabis industry (and every other industry), POC and Black-owned businesses get less opportunity for funding. They have less access. They also usually have fewer connections and resources in powerful places the way white folks do.
The industry is built on Black bodies, yet there are a lot of Black men and women still locked up for doing exactly the things that are “legal” for many people to be doing right now. I mean for goodness sake, cannabis is an essential business right now!
I completely recognize that and my role in being an Asian woman in cannabis. I have privilege as well, so I need to do my part, and I encourage all Asians to do our part in our communities and in the cannabis community to fight the injustices today.
On the work it takes to rise above
WM: What kind of work goes into creating these specific directories and databases, and who creates them?
Pryor: The methodology of being able to do a lot of research comes from having to do a couple of things. I mean, you go beyond just trying to find stock listings on MarketWatch or through any of those platforms. You have to go deeper, beyond just what someone says online or what someone says on Instagram. But in this case, looking at social responses to social matters is a bit more accessible to us. People use — especially with cannabis — Instagram and social media in a way that’s very unique and different than other brands.
Being responsive and noting how to respond during this time is something that everyone’s been looking at. A way for me to give honor to someone who inspired me was Cheryl Dorsey with what she created with The Plug, which is a part of the Plug Insights platform that she started a while ago. Support startups that are Black and Brown-founded and try to give them access to information in terms of how to play in this game, because in the tech and startup world, access to dollars for Black and Brown founders is extremely small. Now people are asking, “Why aren’t you opening up your purse? Why are you treating Black or Brown bodies differently? Why are you pushing us aside?” And now people are — given what’s happening in the world — realizing that they have to answer to that.
Access to capital, Black or Brown access, and social equity has not moved far across this country in various states. And even within states where people think they have it going well, it kind of isn’t or it’s shifting. It’s not coming up in ways that can truly help those who are most impacted due to the War on Drugs and those who actually want to be in the business.
I think that when we are looking at the methodology behind it, it takes a lot of research beyond all those items. Even if you have to go to someone’s website, email, or reach out. We’ve done everything from the surface level, but there’s so much more. You can do a deep dive and deep research via JSTOR [a digital library of academic journals, books, and sources] on whether someone has noted or said anything journalistically about supporting or being available to support those who want social equity.
You can look up previous programs that have existed maybe a year or two years ago or even within this year that have been created to bring on conversations to support Black-owned businesses. You can recall if an organization worked with a capital firm — MCBA [Minority Cannabis Business Association] worked with Merida Capital Partners last year to help five startup businesses that we’re Black and Brown and get going with donating over $50,000 to their business.
These are things that are out there in the world. So it does take that level of combing through previous press releases or current press releases — a lot of different items to go through that. But our methodology goes both surface level, and we’re making all those updates even as people share with us more updates. We see this as being a long-standing item that’s not gonna really go away.
And it’s needed — as soon as people realize they need to support a business, they were like, “oh, where are the Black-owned businesses?” And we’ve been sitting over here for almost two years and now everybody wants to find one. I’m glad everybody wants to find a business that’s Black-owned to support, but it shouldn’t have taken a COVID pandemic or horrible acts of police brutality. That’s something we as a country have to face; why did it take this much for people to start caring about Black-owned business?
Wang: Inclusivebase was created out of the need for a resource that highlights POC and Black-owned businesses. I published Inclusivebase in April 2019 and I started garnering community support. Mary reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’ve been doing this internally with my team for years,” for longer than I have, so she asked to join forces in order to amplify this resource to get more businesses represented.
Though there’s been an uptick as of late due to our current events, just two years ago this conversation wasn’t really happening. That’s why we decided to just do it ourselves.
Again, white people have had more money for marketing and more connections for funding — it all contributes to this lack of representation for Black-owned businesses.
And it does take work to vet these companies [on the database]. We get many submissions from, you know, clearly white-owned companies. We get that you want to be represented and want to be included, but this is a space for POC-owned businesses. Right now, we are really trying to build up and get more Black-owned businesses on there. It takes work to manage the submissions so that the company can grow the directory.
On using cannabis directories the right way
WM: What do people need to know about Black and POC-owned databases that they most likely don’t? How should they be used? How can they be misused?
Pryor: They could be misused in a way where you can have people infiltrate and try to break them. We’ve had people submit to the database that are white who have propped up one Black employee or one Black person that they have long written out of a contract to get on the list. We have to go back through and comb it and double-check it and say that’s not going to work. No one has the ability to change anything within the framework of it, but we want to figure out ways to make this way more accessible and way more accounted for daily.
Misusing a database like this only feels like you’re misusing it if you’re just saying “support this business” and you’re not making it a continued thing. This isn’t a one-trick-pony, this isn’t a one-time item. People should be talking about supporting businesses owned by minorities all the time. It shouldn’t just be when people are on the streets asking for justice and peace and Black and Brown people are getting shot at and killed.
So I only think you must use a list if you’re not serious about being intentional about making this a thing versus just a one-time item so that you look like you’re doing some type of performative support.
Wang: I mean, I think making sure to recognize and credit any work that has been done by Black and Asian women or the people of color who have done other databases. The goal is that we want more people to know about this, we want to be amplified and for tech companies to work with us in order to amplify the platform. The work has already been done for years now.
Because of current events and what’s going on in the world, we also want to make sure that people aren’t erasing the work that has already been done. Do your research first — especially for the companies that have the resources to do this type of research.
And, we’re not trying to be like, “Oh this is such hard work — we need everyone to know how hard it is,” but recognize this work that has already been done. We don’t want people capitalizing on this for just a moment in time.
So unless you’re prepared to continue to show up and show people what work you’re doing and hold yourself accountable as tech companies and media, then don’t pull off our work. The big thing is really just to make sure you’re shopping responsibly or connecting with the right people. Not only are cannabis shops on the database, there are lawyers, specialists — the variety of businesses blow me away.
On what’s in store for the future
WM: As time goes on, people tend to forget and move back to old habits. Will continued support be different this time?
Pryor: I think that I’m hopeful that this time is different. I’ve been in Ferguson and I’ve marched for something and about something since I was seven years old. I’m tired and I think that now, more and more people are tired. The exhaustion that I feel isn’t just me being tired because I’ve had a long day and I worked out at 5 a.m. It’s because I can feel the weight of everything when it comes to what my mother and what my grandmother, what my dad and what my grandfathers have tried to fight for so that I had a better life.
I did not envision race to still be this much of an item at this age. I wouldn’t have known that it would still be what I would be seeing versus what I remember from myself when I was 17 or 18 and being called a n***** in high school. I truly believe that you’re seeing more people speaking out across various industries because there is a collective tiredness.
In this unique time in history, we’re all in something together. That is undisputed. We’ve all had to sit at home and look at the wall and look at ourselves and train ourselves to not want to touch people. We’ve had to train ourselves to be freaked out over engaging with others and so, people got a lot of time, and we’ll still have a lot of time during re-opening.
I think people have more time to make honest, realistic needs addressed and put out solutions so that people can now consider actually moving on. I think that that’s one of the weirdest, awkwardest benefits of this whole entire thing — we all have a similar share of time to realize that things have to change. And when coming into this new world after lockdown, what has been normal is now unacceptable which it has been for a while.
People are now very much pressed to make sure that it sticks, and I think that we all can use this as an opportunity to grow better, be better and address these items that are definitely uncomfortable. But I can tell you as a black woman I’ve had to live with my discomfort, so I’m not shocked at anything that’s happening right now.
I just want us to grow and finally do something collectively, because it’s not just going to be Black people making change. It has to involve white people understanding the power of their privilege to make a difference as well.
On working with women in cannabis
WM: Kieryn, from your website, you advertise digital and marketing plans geared toward women in the industry. What’s been your experience following this path and being a consultant in the modern day of cannabis?
Wang: When I entered the industry back in late 2015 to early 2016, what I was seeing was a lot of people not addressing women in their marketing. Not addressing women when it comes to the ways that this plant can benefit you and how to incorporate it into your life.
Every single company that I’ve worked within the industry has some sort of directive to speak to women — to address them and their concerns. So with my consulting, my goal is to work with companies that are looking to create space specifically for women.
There are so many things that this plant can do — especially for women’s health — and I really want more women to find the products and the kind of information that can help them create a plan. But there is a learning curve. There’s a lot of shady snake oils out there which makes it really hard for the people doing honest work to get across to the people that are nervous about learning.
The big thing for me is creating physical spaces. I think a lot of people like sitting down and being taught how to roll a joint or being taught how to smoke out of a bong or feeling the plant in your hands. But now, obviously, you have to take it into the virtual space which is not something I love. That in-person education is so valuable, but fingers crossed we can get back to that soon in terms of helping people remove the uncertainty.
Featured image by Reiana Lorin/Cannaclusive