Black History Month is about celebrating and understanding the legacy of Black people in the United States. It is also the perfect time to highlight and acknowledge the work being done by contemporary Black leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists. We highlight some Black leaders staking their claim in the blossoming Cannabis Industry for part two of our Black History Month series. There is no better time like the present to give them their flowers for pushing for a culture shift in cannabis!
Why are there so few Black cannabis business owners and Black-owned dispensaries?
Part of the reason it is important to highlight small businesses and organizations led by Black people in cannabis is because it is a rarity. According to a white paper released in June by Leafly, only an estimated 2% of businesses among the nearly 30,000 nationwide are Black-owned. Black and brown people continue to be the communities disproportionately impacted negatively by Cannabis prohibition.
Now that states across the nation are reversing prohibition, it is glaringly apparent that Black and brown people are struggling to access the legal market. Recently New Jersey Representative Donald Payne Jr released a statement via Twitter in response to the state's failure to award any licenses to Black business owners. Out of the 56 licenses issued by New Jersey's Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC), not one owner was Black.
The CRC started taking applications from adult-use cannabis growers, manufacturers, and testing labs on December 15, 2021.
New Jersey legalized medical marijuana use in 2012. Last year the state legalized recreational adult use, which presented an opportunity for retail sales. Yet, according to the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, no Black-owned cannabis business has been granted a license in the ten years of legalization.
Despite these bleak circumstances, many Black people have found success in the industry and are paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps! They also are some of the leading experts in advocating for the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in cannabis. Advocacy and entrepreneurship seem like the perfect vehicle for creating equity in the sector.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leaders
Tahir Johnson, Director of Social Equity & Inclusion for U.S. Cannabis Council.
A Howard University alum, Tahir Johnson is the Director of Social Equity and Inclusion for the U.S. Cannabis Council. The United States Cannabis Council (USCC) is a collective of organizations, businesses, and individuals dedicated to legalizing cannabis in the United States. Their values include "social equity for communities negatively impacted by the prohibition on cannabis" and "expungement of criminal records and de-incarceration for past cannabis offenses."
As the Director of Social Equity and Inclusion, Johnson works on being the voice for negatively impacted communities who deserve help as they access the retail possibilities in the legal market. He also works in the same role for the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest organization in the country dedicated solely to cannabis policy reform.
A few months ago, Johnson was one of the leaders present to discuss New York's plans for addressing the lack of social equity in cannabis and its plans for making the transition smooth from the legacy market to the legal market. Like most of the speakers, Johnson felt like the burden of implementing DEI efforts should be an industry-wide effort by cannabis and ancillary companies themselves.
He stated, "It's the partnership between public and private... Because no matter what type of rules you've got here… if you don't get people on the ground to know how to prepare for these types of opportunities, to give them a step-by-step playbook to be able to get there or what the resources are to actually get there, it's not going to happen."
Mary Pryor, co-founder of Cannaclusive
Mary Pryor gives the honest truth regarding DEI efforts in the industry. She is a co-founder of Cannaclusive, a collective that provides resources for minority-owned cannabis businesses. Their website is home to Inclusivebase, an impressive list of minority-owned cannabis businesses. They also host their own collection of stock photos that represent a fuller spectrum of BIPOC consumers. Beyond her work with Cannaclusive, Pryor has a plethora of roles.
She recently became a board member and advisor at The Parent Company, which owns several high-profile cannabis brands, including Jay-Z's Monogram. She's a Cannabis for Black Lives leader, a coalition of businesses to amplify Black voices in the cannabis space. She's the Chief Marketing Officer for Tonic CBD, one of the leading national women-owned CBD brands. She's the founder of Fit For Us, a wellness company to improve the health of minorities worldwide, and of Breaking Bread NYC, which helps feed the homeless.
We had the pleasure of speaking with the creative team behind Cannaclusive, including co-founder Mary Pryor She's also a dedicated advocate for the wellness benefits of the plant. Honeysuckle has closely followed her work, honing in on her passion for addressing the lack of support for melanated people in the industry while advocating staunchly for holding people accountable for it. She promotes actively holding cannabis stakeholders accountable for their lack of effort towards diversity beyond just talking about it. Especially when those conversations happen without representatives from the impacted communities present. She created the Accountability List to hold the industry accountable for its responsibilities in DEI efforts.
In a previous chat, she said, "We have become more active, given the fact that we need to be a voice, the great thing about this year is that people have to assess how they're making money, what are their business models, [and] how do they want to conduct themselves going forward. It is a unique time where everyone is examining their own lack of diversity and inclusion. It took a pandemic, a recession, social action and the publicized killings of melanated bodies through social media; that's what it took for the world to take a look at itself, which has been needed for a long time."
Ernest Toney, founder of BIPOCANN
Ernest Toney is the founder of the organization BIPOCANN. Their purpose is to advocate for diversity in cannabis. It is a "Black-owned cannabis business membership organization and consulting firm that is working to shape a more accessible and profitable legal cannabis industry for BIPOC cannabis entrepreneurs, business owners, and professionals in the Americas". Membership in BIPOCANN gives BIPOC business owners access to the cannabis industry by "reducing barriers to access industry education, networking, partner conferences & events, and resources to support their growth."
The membership network includes "Black-owned cannabis brands and ancillary startups, social equity operators, media and event partners, and ally companies who support BIPOCANN and its mission pillars of visibility, representation, and cannabis social equity."
Toney was a panelist speaker at M.J. Biz Con 2021, featured in a session that revolved around how to define niches for minority entrepreneurs and how to find supportive communities and strategic partnerships within cannabis.
Amber Littlejohn, Executive Director, Minority Cannabis Business Association
Amber Littlejohn is the Executive Director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA). She is a policy attorney and veteran advocate for various industries impacted by inequity. Before being appointed Executive Director, she served as MCBA's Senior Policy Advisor. IN that position, she helped develop and implement MCBA's federal policy program. She is also a business owner, counselor, and advocate for the cannabis and natural products industry.
The MCBA was founded in 2015. It is the largest national trade association dedicated to serving the needs of minority cannabis businesses owners. The organization represents a minority and allied cannabis businesses, as well as aspiring entrepreneurs and those who "share a vision of an equitable, just, and responsible cannabis industry."
Black-owned Cannabis and Hemp Businesses
These Black entrepreneurs are a part of the small percentage of Black business owners in the Cannabis and Hemp Industries.
Dr. Chanda Macias, CEO of Ilera Holistic Healthcare & CEO and Chairwoman of the Board of Women Grow
Dr. Chandra Macias is among the very few Black women who are Multi-State Operators! In addition to being chief executive of Ilera Holistic, she’s the CEO and chairwoman of Women Grow, the for-profit networking group, and the CEO of National Holistic Healing Center, a medical dispensary in Washington, D.C.
While earning her Ph.D. in Cellular Biology at Howard University, she initially expressed her wish to study the effects of cannabis on health. A professor dismissed her request, stating that cannabis was an area far too risky for a Black scientist to enter. She would go on to become the Director of STEM Education at Howard's College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences. Eventually, she came back to her interest in cannabis.
In 2015, she founded the National Holistic Healing Center (NHHC) in Washington, D.C. It was the second medical cannabis dispensary in the U.S. that a Black woman owned. Through NHHC, Dr. Chanda promotes education on ailment strain alignment, which pairs particular strains of cannabis to treat specific pain points.
During the Women in Cannabis session at MJBiz 2021, she said: "We have to have those constant affirmations saying that you belong here, and the truth is that we all belong here…When it comes down to it, the real challenge is to encourage everyone and invite you all into an industry that most of us have built based upon our healthcare to our families, to our parents, and the things that we need in our communities... I struggled, but damned if I'm not an MSO today."
Wanda James, Founder and CEO of Simply Pure
Wanda James is the founder and CEO of Simply Pure and the first Black woman to own a cannabis dispensary in the United States. Simply Pure is the first Black-owned dispensary in Denver, Colorado. It became one of the first successful cannabis edible companies in 2010. James and her co-founder/husband Scott Durrah are both military veterans, having served in the Navy and the Marines. Because of that, they make veteran patients and customers a top priority. As a pioneer of diversity in the industry, James does not hold back on illuminating the inequities and lack of diversity affecting cannabis businesses.
She is also the founder and Managing Partner of the Cannabis Global Initiative (CGI), a consulting firm that specializes in cannabis production, dispensing and processing, regulatory framework, and political outreach.
At M.J. Biz Con 2021, she contributed to the conversation of legacy operators debating big business. She said, "There is not a company in cannabis right now that can show where their board of directors, their C suite, their managerial and their pipeline into the company is focused on diversity or women," James charged. "Women and minorities are not counted in this industry, not financed in this industry, and are not moving forward in this industry… 99.9 percent of [Black entrepreneurs with licenses] have not been funded to the point that we have asked to be funded to because our businesses are not validated in the same way that a 25-year-old white guy in California that has no business experience or licenses will get $25 million from [investors]. We can't discuss moving forward until the focus changes."
Shanel Lindsay, CEO, and founder of Ardent Cannabis
Shanel Lindsay's company Ardent Cannabis is known for its signature product, the Nova. The invention resulted from her needing a more convenient way out of necessity. She discovered how inconvenient it was to decarboxylate weed when she began using cannabis over a decade ago to treat her chronic health issues. Ordinarily, the long process would involve drying the weed out without burning it before separating the THC from the plant into a carrier oil or butter. That's why she came up with the Nova, an electronic countertop decarboxalizer.
In 2017, Lindsay joined the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Advisory Board, and the following year was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis by High Times. Recently, Ardent expanded their product line with the F.X. all-in-one cannabis kitchen device, which decarbs, infuses, and bakes edibles.
Drs. Janice, Rachel and Jessica Knox, Founders of American Cannabinoid Clinics
These three women are a family of doctors who influence change in medical cannabis through integrative care. They are known as the Knox Docs are the founders of American Cannabinoid Clinics. It's an organization educating patients on evidence-based cannabinoid treatment. They provide access to quality healthcare while also doing groundbreaking research.
Dr. Janice Knox, the family's matriarch, opened the first American Cannabinoid Clinic with her husband in Portland, Oregon. Eventually, her daughters joined them. They now share their research at conferences nationally while training medical professionals working with patients' endocannabinoid systems. Janice, Rachel, and Jessica are also the co-founders and Vice President, Board Chair, and Executive of the Board of Directors respectively for the Association for Cannabis Health Equity and Medicine (ACHEM), a professional medical association and nonprofit serving the needs of BIPOC healers and health and medical professionals.
"I think of this entire industry as a do-over," says Rachel. "Are we investing in the technologies for hemp [and higher-THC applications]? Are we thinking about how we can use that plant to help our ecosystem and improve our health? To me… it is all integrative."
Janice adds that it's up to women to lead this revolution. "Take your place!" she advises.
C.K. Dunson, Founder, and CEO of Bouqé
C.K. Dunson is the founder of The Garden District, a collective of lifestyle and wellness brands that includes Bouqé, a line of hemp rolling papers. C.K. is a hemp business owner committed to grassroots efforts and sparking change within local communities. The tagline of Bouqé, Roll the Revolution," was born of his desire to help destigmatize the cannabis industry and disprove all of the negative stereotypes attributed to cannabis users, especially users of color.
"The impetus to create the brand Bouqé came from the desire to be a part of the cannabis industry," he says. "After facing rejection from more established businesses in the industry, I set out to do my own thing. I wanted to prove that you don't have to start off with millions of dollars, and connections to make it in this industry. But with a strong vision and ingenuity mixed with the right hustle, you can create your own lane and build a brand that can truly compete in the marketplace."
Joy and Raft Hollingsworth, Founders of The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company
The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company is a family affair! Raft Hollingsworth spent many years cultivating small batches of cannabis before researching transitioning to the legal market. In 2012 he started researching and presented his ideas to his family, who decided to join him. Eventually, his sister Joy and other family members joined the venture and invested in the business. In January of 2015, Hollingsworth Cannabis released its first flowers to the recreational market.
Erik Range, Board Chair of M4MM United and Owner of Hemp & Fork
Erik Range is the Board Chair of Minorities for Medical Marijuana M4MM. At a virtual event called More Than A Moment: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Cannabis Industry, Range shared his insight on the ways racism permeates the industry.
"We know for a fact what this industry can be," Range said. "Black and Brown folks have been allies of so many different movements. We've been allies of the United States itself when we fought wars abroad, to immigrants, women, the LBGTQ community…we have been allies to almost every community that exists, and now it's time for people to step up and be our ally."
Range is also the CEO and owner of HEMP&fork. HEMP&fork is the first Black-owned hemp food manufacturer in the United States, Founded in 2020. HEMP&fork is a mission-based leader in the natural foods industry. Its parent company, Legacy Farms Group LLC, partners directly with farmers in the hardest-hit rural areas like Gadsden County, Florida, to educate farmers about hemp and to help revitalize the community through co-operatives and redevelopment initiatives HEMP&fork is committed to providing education on hemp as a food resource while simultaneously providing practical tips for introducing and incorporating hemp into your regular diet. HEMP&fork currently produces, manufactures, markets, and distributes hemp hearts.
When asked why he chose to enter the hemp industry, Range provided a straightforward answer. "Because hemp offers us a way to heal our bodies, rebuild our communities, and restore our environment."
Organizations Who Dedicate their Missions to Combat Racial Injustice in the Cannabis Industry
From California to New York--These organizations are making strides in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion!
Roz McCarthy, founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM)
Roz McCarthy came into the cannabis industry with a business background in pharmaceuticals and realized that there was a need to communicate the underrepresentation of minorities in the industry. This caused her to create Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM). M4MM provides advocacy, outreach, research, and training related to business, social reform, public policy, and health /wellness in the cannabis industry. Roz's mission is "to fight against negative stereotypes, especially in African American communities. The foundation is built around four central pillars: Public Policy, Health/ Wellness, Business and Workforce Development, and Social Reform.
Recently McCarthy launched her latest business venture, Black Buddha Cannabis, an environmentally-conscious and social equity-driven lifestyle brand. Part of McCarthy's Soaring High Industries company, Black Buddha wellness products will soon be available in California, Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio. Actor Malik Yoba, known for his roles in Empire and New York Undercover, has joined Black Buddha as its Chief Strategy Officer.
Amber Senter, Tsion Sunshine Lencho, Nina Parks, Andrea Unsworth, founders of Supernova Women
These four women are the dynamos behind the organization Supernova Women. Supernova Women, a nonprofit organization, founded in 2015, works to "empower Black and Brown people to become self-sufficient shareholders in the cannabis and natural plant medicine space through education, advocacy, and network building." Their program offerings include The Workforce Development Program. The program was funded by California's Bureau of Cannabis Control and the Cannabis Workforce Development Grant Program. They were allocated part of a $1M grant for the City of Oakland to disperse to equity operators who could recruit, train and maintain a diverse workforce. The goal is to place people of color into non-entry-level positions in the cannabis industry by offering paid training.
Evelyn LaChapelle and Stephanie Shepard, Last Prisoner Project
Evelyn LaChapelle and Stephanie Shepard are two Black women doing the work the community desperately needs. As Community Engagement Manager and Development Associate for the Last Prisoner Project, respectively, LaChapelle and Shepard are working to ensure that those transitioning out of prison are given their dignity. The two use their own experiences with the prison system to spur their efforts to ease reintegration.
The Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and the War on Drugs through social justice and criminal justice reform. The organization was founded by "Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry," Steve DeAngelo in 2019. LPP fights for federal cannabis legalization and freeing every cannabis prisoner. The organization does this with its expungement and clemency support, post-incarceration grants, internships, and employment opportunities. Ultimately the purpose is to help those incarcerated for a plant that now fuels a billion-dollar legal industry get out, stay out and re-educate the public in the process. While cannabis convictions have begun to wane as legalization waxes, LPP estimates 40,000 prisoners are still waiting on clemency or release.
Khadijah Tribble, Curaleaf, and Marijuana Matters
Khadijah Tribble is an industry icon who serves as Curaleaf's Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility. In that role, she ensures that there is support and education for marijuana patients, employees, and all others who interact with Curaleaf products. Tribble has intentionally pushed the discourse about diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront throughout her career!
She is also at the helm of Marijuana Matters in Washington, D.C., an organization meant to help BIPOC cannabis business owners. Marijuana Matters informs the public about the impact of public policies related to regulating cannabis and cannabis-derived products. It specifically aims to reverse the damage done to communities heavily impacted by the policies born of the War on Drugs.
Jacob Plowden, Cannabis Cultural Association
Jacob Plowden grew up in Colorado and New York and saw firsthand the War on Drugs effects on his community. That background and a desire to find space for his community in the industry led to him founding the Cannabis Cultural Association in 2015, along with Nelson Guerrero, Sonia Espinoza, Kristin Jordan, and Kamani Jefferson. Along with being a co-founder, Plowden serves as the Deputy Director. Since then, the nonprofit organization has been on the front lines of the Green Rush, spearheading efforts such as a federal class-action suit against the Department of Justice and redefining social equity for people of color. The CCA approaches take a multifaceted advocacy approach, focusing on health and wellness, urban development, and policy.
Loriel Alegrete and Corvain Cooper, 40 Tons
Loriel Alegrete is the CEO of the Black, woman-owned organization 40 Tons. The social impact cannabis brand focuses on restorative justice, cannabis legalization, rehabilitation, and reduced sentencing. Part of the inspiration behind her founding the organization comes directly from Alegrete's experiences with her incarcerated loved ones, specifically her husband Anthony and close friend Corvain Cooper. Both Anthony Alegrete and Corvain Cooper were sentenced on marijuana-related charges. Cooper is currently the brand ambassador of 40 Tons, work he started doing when he was still behind bars. Now, after finally being granted clemency, he is using the platform provided by Alegrete to share his story.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Black History Month Series-Keep up with the story!
Stay tuned for our Black History Month series, where we delve into some of the Black Celebrities using their art and platforms to make waves in the cannabis industry. Check out part 1 of the series, Cannabis and Black History Month: A Brief Timeline of How the Two are Linked!