The decriminalization of marijuana may be bolstering America’s weed boom, but with just 1 percent of the 3,200-3,600 (which amounts to fewer than three dozen) marijuana dispensaries in the nation being Black-owned as of early 2016, it’s evident the cannabis space remains a tricky one for Black entrepreneurs to navigate.
This disparity was largely born out of the 1980s’ war on drugs, a governmental drug policy campaign that has more than played a role in imprisoning Black and Latinx communities over Mary Jane. And with Trump lording over the fabled land of the free, you can bet Nixon’s ill-fated initiative is back in effect—even as the Green Rush surges across state lines.
Don’t see it? Consider 2016, during which more folks were arrested for simple marijuana possession in the U.S. than all violent crimes. This during a year when recreational marijuana initiatives were approved by voters in four different states. Clearly, there’s still work to be done.
We’re not just talking race. While its been said as recently as 2017 that women hold 27 percent of executive-level positions in the cannabis industry (a 9 percent dip from 2015), “it’s definitely a white women space,” as Ebony Costain, founder and CEO of BDTNDR—a job training platform for cannabis workers—told Fast Company in December. This leaves Black women at the crippling intersection of racial and financial hurdles; just ask the The Weed Show‘s Charlo Greene, who was targeted and discriminated against by police the moment she publicly announced her transition from news to weed.
Fortunately, establishments like the Minority Cannabis Business Association and Minorities for Medical Marijuana are making it possible for Black people to thrive in the industry, even as odds perpetually stack against us. Organizations like Women Grow are also cultivating opportunities for women like Hope Wiseman (Mary & Main), among others, to shift bud’s narrative.
For Women’s History Month, CASSIUS spoke to five dynamic Black women moving money in the marijuana industry. Here, they discuss their relationship with the green, being Black in a white space, and why it’s imperative Black women continue to get involved.
Journeying into the Green Rush
Cannabis doesn’t make me ill, it doesn’t make me say and do things I don’t wanna do or say.
Wanda James, Simply Pure: Cannabis has been a part of my life since right after high school, and definitely through college. Quite frankly, I’ve preferred cannabis to alcohol. Cannabis doesn’t make me ill, it doesn’t make me say and do things I don’t wanna do or say. I like to always quote Bob Marley along this piece where he says, “Cannabis is the healing of the nation, while alcohol is the destruction.” After the 2008 Obama election, I was on his national finance committee. I was also the campaign manager for Congressman Jared Polis, who has been very vocal about legalizing cannabis. Colorado did an amazing thing in 2008, and we laid the groundwork for medical marijuana dispensaries. My husband and I decided that we wanted to be an African-American voice in the business. Also, we wanted to be outspoken about what cannabis was doing to the lives of, at that time, 800,000 people a year who were arrested for simple possession. That’s what started us to opening our first dispensary, which was the Apothecary of Colorado, in 2009.
Dasheeda Dawson, MJM Strategy: On April 1, 2016, my mom passed away. I was a corporate executive at the time and moving up the corporate ladder pretty quickly. I took care of my mom [and] she got better, so it was a real [surprise] when she passed away. The abruptness of it really changed me. I couldn’t do corporate America anymore. I entered the [cannabis] industry in Arizona where my aunt [had already been living] for 25 years. She was already a medical marijuana patient, and she had been so for a year or two. In fact, my mother and her had joked about starting a dispensary together. I think that’s my first time seriously thinking about the industry. When I went there to mourn my mother’s death, I got my own medical marijuana patient card. Once I had my first experience in a dispensary, I could tell right away that everything I had done for Target, everything that I had done for Victoria’s Secret was applicable [in this industry]. Fast forward almost two years later, MJM Strategy is a managing and consulting firm. As the president, I’m the face of the company, and I leverage The Weed Head, my personal brand, as a way to tell my behind-the-scenes story and share this journey.
Dr. Lakisha Jenkins, Herbalist & Naturopath: I was born in Mississippi and I spent my summers there. My grandfather, he’s always been into herbs and natural healing. I remember us having expansive gardens and him really being one with the earth and growing a lot of what we consumed. When my daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and I started doing research about chemotherapy and radiation and figuring out that her brain tumor was rare and they wanted to use different treatment protocols for different types of tumors to address it, it just really felt like there had to be a different way. Since I was a novice and I didn’t have a medical degree, the doctors were hesitant to take any of my opinions whatsoever. To further exacerbate that situation, because she was a minor, the medical social workers let me know that if I refused the conventional treatment of chemotherapy and radiation for her, I’d be a threat to her in acting against medical advice and that they would get child protective services involved. Either way, that was the treatment plan for her whether I liked it or not. That was probably my catalyst for change. And when I really started researching, [I decided] that, number one, since you’re a doctor and you don’t wanna listen to me, let me go ahead and get a doctorate so you will listen to me and maybe see eye-to-eye [laughing].
I’m never telling someone ‘burn your doctor’s office down!’ I’m just saying that sometimes you don’t need this particular prescription.
Chef Ya Nore, Outre Apothecary: I’m really a jack of all trades. My holistic work started with cooking. In 2008, I got a job as a sous chef at The Standard Hotel in Miami, and they have a clean oil/no salt kind of philosophy for food, zero waste. My mom died of cancer when I was 16. That’s always stayed in the back of my mind, so I started doing this research into holistic food and this whole philosophy of “you are what you eat.” It’s a real thing. Through that work, I learned to heal myself. From my experience with my mother, I developed PTSD at 16 years old and it was a very long road of therapy. I’ve had every painkiller, muscle relaxer, prescribed to me [while I was] under 18. Hardcore stuff kids shouldn’t be putting in their body. It made me dependent on a system of medicine that I felt let me down in terms of my mom dying, so I was like, “Do I need that? What did people do before we had a pill to cure everything?” It sent me into this 18-month span of research and I emerged saying to myself, “You know what? I wanna make an apothecary!” I’m doing this to help the people that need the help. I do believe in combination therapy. I’m never telling someone “burn your doctor’s office down!” I’m just saying that sometimes you don’t need this particular prescription.
Charlo Green, The Weed Show: I started off in journalism and switched over to advocacy. When I entered the cannabis space, I was called to speak at a lot of events and what stood out to me the most was the fact that I was maybe one of three or four Black people in attendance or speaking, someone in a leadership position. Recognizing that there was a space, a need for the education to encourage more of us to take advantage of the opportunities that this cannabis revolution offers, I created a nonprofit organization, an outreach organization called Go Green—an acronym for Grass Roots Evolution Through Education, Networking and Empowerment. To take things a step further, instead of just having this one-time opportunity, I decided to parlay my experience in broadcast journalism into creating The Weed Show. If you’ve looked around the cannabis space, there aren’t too many video educational and informational resources out there. There are a ton of people that have different vlogs about cannabis, but very few are really polished and consistent like how what the rest of the world is used to getting when it comes to news. So I created The Weed Show to fill that space.
Getting Cozy with Cannabis
W.J.: It’s odd, being legal [in Colorado] and talking about this openly, how many people in America don’t consume cannabis. In my world, almost everybody I know smokes cannabis. In my world are doctors and lawyers and business people, elected officials, teachers, guys that own beer factories, people that make whiskey. And the people in my world that don’t smoke cannabis don’t [have an issue with it]; they just don’t smoke it because it’s not something they enjoy. When I was in college, most of my college friends smoked pot. For me, cannabis is a normal. And that’s why I have a hard time understanding the pushback to the possibilities of cannabis and the cannabis industry. I think that’s also why I’m also so proudly outspoken about it, because I know who smokes pot, and I know that the idea of the illegality of this is coming to an end.
I need to get everyone to understand that nutritionally we should be supplementing this particular system.
L.J.: [Cannabis] wasn’t something that was really talked about or highlighted or anything like that in my family at all. In my research and figuring out that the endocannabinoid system actually is the epicenter of homeostasis, that it regulates so many systems in the body and is responsible for creating that balance in the system—learning that portion and being a traditional naturopath and herbalist was that “a-ha!” moment where you’re like, “Wait. Our brain produces these chemical compounds naturally? Wait. We have over 300 receptors? Wait. And we’re not utilizing this? Everyone? All the time?” And then doing further research and finding out that the endocannabinoid system is actually developed very early in the embryonic stage, that every mammal has an endocannabinoid system. That means that supplementation of that system is almost an evolutionary requirement. I need to get everyone to understand that nutritionally we should be supplementing this particular system.
Y.N.: My godmother is elderly and has rheumatoid arthritis. She smoked back in like the ’60s and ’70s, you know, the whole peace groovy joint kind of thing. When I moved to Oregon, she’s like, “Oh my gosh! There’s legal weed! You’re gonna be stoned all the time!” And being stoned has never been my thing, which is weird, because I definitely consume very high grade concentrations in cannabis all the time. I’m probably rarely quote unquote “sober” in that sense, but it translates to other people as they think I’m just getting high all day and it’s just recreationally. So it’s fun for me to have people come to me like, “Oh yeah! I just wanna smoke a joint!” But instead of giving them a joint, I give them salve for their hands or knees or something and they see how fast it works.
C.G.: Growing up, my mom didn’t feed us too much of the prohibitionist propaganda, so I didn’t get much of an education on cannabis, but my mom was strongly against pharmaceuticals. She’s from Nigeria. I’m first generation Nigerian American, so I just had an understanding that plants had a place in our lives moreso than pills.
Full-on legalization is what can get these people the medicine they need, and protection they need.
A few of my friends smoked in high school. I tried it a couple times. I don’t know if you heard, but the weed in Alaska’s really strong, and it was way too strong for me to handle. It wasn’t until I was failing out of college because I was drinking all day and all night and a mess [that] my pothead friend that also went to school in Alaska with me was like, “Hey, maybe you should put down the bottle and pick up the bong and see if you might like that better because you need to do something different.” I went from failing out of literally every class to landing on the dean’s list, graduating cum laude, and then becoming a news reporter and anchor. That is because I decided to start smoking cannabis.
[When I was assigned to the cannabis beat], I was flown to Colorado and Washington. We had a vote coming up in Alaska on legalization, and I did a feature on what our community would look like, how everything might change. I met a mother, I met a dad, and all of them refused to be on camera because they were terrified they would lose everything—their livelihood, their standing in community—if anyone knew that they were using a plant to treat these serious conditions. It [had been] like 14 years [since Alaska had voted to medicinally legalize cannabis] at that time, and they still had no outlet for it and were being treated like criminals. Full-on legalization is what can get these people the medicine they need, and protection they need. That’s what pushed me to advocacy. The business part of it just kind of followed. I’m an activist first. Period, point-blank.
Being a Black Woman in the Weed Industry
W.J.: I look around and I’m seeing supernova women in the Bay Area. I’m seeing The Hood Incubator in Oakland and Shanel Lindsay, who is one of the board members in Massachusetts, move forward. I’m watching the ladies of EstroHaze. I’m seeing amazing Black women come up in this industry right now. These women that I named, a couple of them are Yale graduates, most of them have their MBAs. These aren’t your quote unquote “typical” what used to be considered “potheads.”
I’m seeing amazing Black women come up in this industry right now … these aren’t your quote unquote ‘typical’ what used to be considered “potheads.”
There’s [still] massive barriers. First off, the fact that it’s still federally illegal. Every state does not have a robust cannabis program. If you live in Alabama, you can’t open a dispensary. If you live in Texas, you can’t open a dispensary. As long as it’s federally illegal, we don’t have access to banking and credit cards and loans. Even though you may have an amazing business plan and a fantastic idea, you can’t just walk into the bank and sell it to the bank. You have to find private equity, and that’s always difficult because, as Black women, how many of our friends and family have a few million dollars to give to us?
L.J.: We’ve had like 80 years of propaganda shoved down our throats about how negative cannabis is, how it doesn’t have any medicinal benefits, how it’s likened to cocaine and heroine and other substances. And then when you take the disproportionate amount of negative impact on minority communities when it comes to non-violent cannabis instances, it’s really hard to say “embrace this herb” when your uncle, cousin, brother, friend, sister could be serving up to a de facto life sentence in prison just for handling this herb. Being that we are the keepers of health, and mothers, and we’re the nurturers of our families, and we’re put in charge of taking care of everyone and making those right decisions, those are gonna be the things that you draw upon to make those decisions. Misinformation and a lack of education is the reason that we don’t [get involved in the industry].
Y.N.: I think the platform is opening up faster than ever before. I think social media and things like that are allowing women of color and Black women’s ideas to spread with such fever. I’m seeing a lot of women get together like I’ve never seen before in any platform. I’m seeing a lot of sisterhood. I would love to see more women take the forefront in the actual owning of their businesses—actually registering as a LLC, actually taking the steps to own their ideas versus just being a spokesperson. I would really love that. And it’s hard. We’re still facing a lot of doors and a lot of branding. They want us to look a certain way, even in our own careers, which is crazy. I would love for the community just to accept all of women of color just as they are.
We understand that the industry has a responsibility to fix what prohibition has damaged.
C.G.: Black women are the ones that are stepping into cannabis, planting their flag, and doing really well. The community isn’t exclusive. Most of the Black women that I’ve seen really going into the cannabis industry 100 percent are celebrated, and a lot of people reach out and try to help push their careers further because we know that there’s a need for more diversity. We understand that the industry has a responsibility to fix what prohibition has damaged.
Why More Black Women Should Stake Claim in the Cannabis Space
W.J.: There is no amount of money right now that will buy you 20 percent of Hennessy. There is no amount of money right now that will by you 20 percent of Google. If you were around whenever the prohibition of alcohol came down, you may have had to opportunity to open up an amazing alcohol company that today is worth billions. You don’t have that opportunity today. So now we have an opportunity in what we know will be one of the great industries in the world, and unfortunately we’re not seeing a lot of Black folks trying to be investors in this industry or opening up business in this industry.
D.D.: On the social justice arm as a Black woman, we’ve seen that more than half of all drug arrests have been marijuana related, and a disproportionate amount of them coming from our communities. That’s our sons, that’s our brothers, that’s our cousins, that’s our uncles, that’s our daddies. [There are neighborhoods] where kids are being raised by grandparents because both parents are in jail, and we know it’s around marijuana. So if these white people are getting rich off of it, it’s on us to just even pay attention. We’ve gotta become advocates in order for us to change it.
We should learn that, as the keepers of health, whether you accept it or don’t, where life originates, we hold the key to that as Black women.
L.J.: We should learn our history. We should learn that, as the keepers of health, whether you accept it or don’t, where life originates, we hold the key to that as Black women. Our whole entire medical industry and medical advances have been developed on the experimentation of Black women. If you wanna read a book that will highlight that, it’s Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, and it really talks about how experimentation on slave women made the medical advances that we all know and utilize today. For that reason alone, and the fact that there are so many health and medical disparities that exist in minority communities for lack of access, lack of resources, while at the same time every other community is benefitting from the research that was done on our people in particular, women in particular, slave women in particular. If for no other reason than for knowing your history, Black women should want to get involved for that reason alone.
C.G.: If you look at the role that Black women have played in our communities and our homes, we are leaders. The Black community is a matriarchy. We’ve had to step up and lead because a lot of our men have been thrown in jail and had their lives taken away. It’s time that we step up and claim all of the opportunity that there is in cannabis. There isn’t another industry that doesn’t have any sort of glass ceiling, where anyone that has the talent can thrive because there aren’t all of these historical barriers put in place. There are so many other missed opportunities that people of color were not actively participating and leading in, and when you look at the role that cannabis has played in dismantling our communities, how we’ve been over policed because of it, over prosecuted because of it, now we have the opportunity to reclaim some of those financial resources that are only going to grow bigger as legalization inevitably continues to grow. Now’s the time to get in.
How Black Women Can Get Involved
W.J.: Bloom where you’re planted. The best place to start in the cannabis industry is where you’re at right now. If you tell me you’re a web designer, I would tell you get to know as many dispensary owners and edible company owners as you need because all of these brand-new companies need web design. As you go around and you meet different owners and different things and you do a good job with websites, people may offer you equity in their company, they may offer you to be a part of their company. Then you get the opportunity to learn. If you’re a journalist, start writing about companies. What is the best way to understand the cannabis industry? Write about it! Learn about it! Get to know who’s involved in it! Maybe you hit it off with somebody and you get the opportunity to learn about their company and how to be a part of it or grow your own.
Take what you’re good at, pivot, and sprinkle a little bit of weed on it.
Y.N.: I definitely think reading and researching is a great way to start. Figure out why you wanna be in it or what it is to you. I think so many Black women have so many talents. I mean, [for example], we put some crazy stuff in our hair! I was talking to a young lady the other day who was telling me about how she made a conditioner out of just avocado. And I was saying to myself, “You know that CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it doesn’t get you high, and is super conditioning, super fatty, super great for you, good for healing, good for restructuring.” CBD oil is so great for people who want the benefit without the high. [Also], go to California and see a dispensary, go to Colorado and see a dispensary. Involve yourself in the culture. Now is the time for us to explore. Go to legal states, man. See what they do. You’ll find out that they’re using cannabis in ways that you’re not even thinking of.
C.G.: A lot of people that are watching [The Weed Show] are excited about seeing how they can use this revolution to help heal the harms that prohibition has done on their communities. The most recurring theme that comes up when I’m talking to other entrepreneurs that are doing great in the space, and my own advice, is take what you’re good at, pivot, and sprinkle a little bit of weed on it. [Laughs] You can find your footing here. I’d say any Black woman interested in getting involved in the cannabis industry, start! Start researching. Look for different activism groups in your area just so you get to connect with people that understand the plant and to give you a bit of history on where your area is in terms of legalization, in terms of the commercialization of cannabis. Everything happening locally in your area is extremely important to factor in when considering what you can and cannot do in the cannabis space.
This story was updated on March 19, 2018 at 3:22 p.m. EST.