By Cassady Fendlay
Over the weekend, the second annual Black CannaBusiness Conference was held in New Orleans. As part of the official program, UFCW–the United Food and Commercial Workers union–co-hosted a town hall discussion on Representation, Justice, and Fairness in Today's Cannabis Industry at StudioBE, a Black-owned art gallery space in New Orleans. Bringing together the voices of activists, politicians, farmers, business owners and workers, this event advanced a much-needed conversation about how we truly create social equity not just for owners of color and minority groups but workers in the rapidly growing cannabis market.
A Black CannaBusiness Conference Town Hall: How Do We Achieve Social Equity in Cannabis?
Moderated by Sheba Turk, anchor of New Orleans’ CBS Eyewitness Morning News, and Jon Cappetta, VP of Content for High Times Magazine, the town hall featured the voices of eight people who each brought a unique perspective to the conversation on how to achieve social equity in cannabis.
“Social equity is a buzzword, but equity is not a program,” said Kristal Bush, founder of Free My Weedman, a media project to amplify voices of survivors of the War on Drugs. She emphasized the collateral consequences on families that often go unseen and the need for a holistic approach as states legalize cannabis. “What about the grandmother who put her house up to bail out her grandson? To me, social equity is healing the entire community, that includes the communities workers belong to and come from.”
Tamika D. Mallory, civil rights activist and founder of Until Freedom, noted that “America does not like the word ‘equity’. It’s a scary word. Equity has to mean asking, what can we do to create–I know it’s a dirty word in this unfortunate political cycle—affirmative action?” She emphasized how the creation of new cannabis markets could be a game changer in terms of poverty and the inequities that Black people have faced.
UFCW’s Cannabis Workers Rising program emphasizes the fact that, while licensing is important, social equity doesn’t “trickle down” from a handful of business owners who will receive licenses through any states' “Social Equity” programs. It requires that the jobs in the industry are good jobs–and workers in the cannabis industry earn an average of 30% more in unionized workplaces.
Black Business Owners and Unions: The Case of Cannabliss
Norbert Pickett, owner of DC’s Cannabliss Dispensary, challenged the traditional notion that unions and business owners are at odds. In fact, for Black business owners, the union is an ally, he says. Pickett previously sued the city of DC, successfully exposing the corruption which led to his application being denied, after having received the highest evaluation scores. “It’s just crony capitalism,” he explained, “and the union was on my side.”
“We communicate, we problem solve together. If there’s anyone intimidated by [unionization], there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said.
Employees of Cannabliss make the highest wages of any cannabis dispensary in the District of Columbia. They also have health benefits, a matched 401k program, vacation time and opportunities for training, certification and advancement. Pickett emphasized that this helps Cannabliss stay competitive, because employees are motivated to excel in their jobs. He also believes that together, Cannabliss and UFCW are creating a pipeline to entrepreneurship, which benefits Black representation in the space. “We don’t want to keep employees as workers, we want them to go on and do their own thing, whether it’s in transport, processing, branding, retail or other areas.”
An Opportunity for Black Farmers
Jarrel Howard, CEO and President of Gold Standard Farms, agreed, saying his employees are the ones that are helping advance his dreams into reality. “I see my employees as a family, because they believed in me. I don’t want them to be stuck on a treadmill, not going anywhere.”
Howard’s grandparents were sharecroppers who saved $3,000 to buy a farm in Northeast Tennessee. 80 years later, their grandson has transformed Gold Standard Farms into a premium, boutique hemp farm specializing in organic hemp cultivation, seed genetic research and development, and eco-friendly, hemp-based building materials. Howard emphasized the value of hemp to keep the dream of Black self-determination that his grandparents had alive.
“We’re in the ‘soybean capital of the South’, but it’s not making us any money,” he said, as he explained how he convinced his family to make the switch to hemp. Black farmers make up less than 1.2% of farms, and Howard sees hemp as the cash crop needed to keep existing Black farms going, and maybe even encourage new ones.
Howard’s is the kind of story that inspires Louisiana State Representative C. Travis Johnson to push for expanding the hemp and cannabis industry in his state. He sees opportunities not only for farmers, but also for ancillary businesses and the economy as a whole. “Think of the Gold Rush. Many people went looking for gold, but somebody had to sell them pickaxes first,” he said. Rep. Johnson also pointed to future-oriented possibilities like low-cost building materials made out of hemp, which could create more affordable housing.
“By the year 2030, the industry is estimated to be worth $144 billion. The question is, will we be in it or not? And now is the window of opportunity. Because in another 8 years, the market will be dominated by big corporations,” he said.
Kristi Price emphasized that she founded the Black CannaBusiness Conference (of which this town hall was a part) precisely to help Black people in cannabis find and network with each other. The Louisiana native, now based in Houston, began convening people in 2020–which happened be the year that George Floyd was murdered. “It turned into a 300 person virtual gathering that the people felt had to become an in-person convening,” Price said. Price also runs Black CannaBusiness Magazine with a similar goal in mind.
Black CannaBusiness Conference: Looking Ahead to Cannabis Equity
Candy Angel, the first woman to join Weedmaps in 2010, spoke about the company’s recently released policy paper on the state of social equity in cannabis. She emphasized the importance of tax dollars from cannabis being invested in communities that have been impacted by the War on Drugs, along with expunging records and creating licensing equity programs. “Not everyone wants to work in the cannabis industry, but everyone should benefit from it,” she said.
Angel is now the Head of TEAL: Together for Equity, Access & Legalization. For those looking to support businesses owned by women and people of color, she recommended Cannaclusive’s database, InclusiveBase, as a resource.
The town hall opened with recorded remarks from Sen. Cory Booker, followed by Viola’s Founder and CEO Al Harrington, then UFCW’s Director of Civil and Human Rights LaQuita Honeysucker. In closing it, UFCW’s International VP and Political Director Ademola Oyefeso emphasized the importance of jobs in the industry that people can raise a family on. “We have to disrupt the narrative of competition. The union has a shared interest in the business doing well, and you get a better workforce for it.”
Overall, this panel was thought-provoking and solutions-oriented, and it represented a new and surprisingly hip approach for a union. The space in StudioBE, founded by New Orleans native Brandan “Bmike” Odums, was beautiful and filled with inspiring imagery of Black struggle, Black excellence and Black love. The food was also fantastic, because, well, New Orleans.
Marvin Bing, one of the organizers behind the town hall on Representation, Justice, and Fairness in Today's Cannabis Industry, felt like it achieved important goals. “We need more than just lobbyists and lawyers in state capitals, while that's important building a grassroots united movement in communities and on the ground are equally if not more important.” he says. “We need a real ‘Rainbow Coalition’ of advocates, influencers, activists, creatives, artists, workers and businesses, in order to create and sustain a flourishing, diverse market, full of good, well-paying jobs with a pipeline for advancement, tax money reinvested in communities that were once and prob still over-policed, and opportunities and pathways for anyone that's invested in this industry no matter the level.
Judging from the response of attendees, the conversation in New Orleans on November 5, 2022 was a major step towards that goal.
Cassady Fendlay is a writer and strategist who has been behind the scenes of several major mobilizations for social justice and human liberation from systemic oppression. You can find more about her work on Medium. Connect with her on LinkedIn and at @cfendlay on Instagram.
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Featured image: All speakers at the Black CannaBusiness Conference town hall, including co-hosts Jon Cappetta and Sheba Turk, Shiest Bubz, Tamika Mallory, Jarrel Howard, C. Travis Johnson, Kristal Bush, Candy Angel, and LaQuita Honeysucker (C) Black CannaBusiness Magazine