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Cannabis and Equity in Portland: An Interview with Dasheeda Dawson

Cannabis and Equity in Portland: An Interview with Dasheeda Dawson

By Neha Mulay

The country has its eyes on the city of Portland, Oregon, as protests rage and the unprecedented presence of federal agents fuels violent unrest. But while the city is rocked, it remains committed to progress in social activism – especially in furthering its Cannabis Program, where acclaimed entrepreneur and advocate Dasheeda Dawson has become Portland’s lead strategist.

In early June, Portland’s Office of Community & Civic Life officially appointed Dawson to the role of Cannabis Program Supervisor. It’s a groundbreaking move in myriad ways, strengthening a municipal government agency’s widespread goals with boots-on-the-ground expertise from a mainstay of the global cannabis movement. Dawson is the founder of The WeedHead™ & Company, a cannabis education and lifestyle brand, and the author of “How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry” as well as an award-winning F100 Strategist.

Portland has consistently been home to pioneering cannabis legislation. The city’s voters passed a 3% tax on adult-use cannabis in 2016. Since the measure was enacted, the funding has been redirected to “street infrastructure improvements; DUII training; drug rehabilitation; small business support, economic opportunity, and technical assistance for business owners from communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition; record-clearing; and other efforts.

The goal of Portland’s Measure 26-180, which establishes a citywide Cannabis Program through Social Equity Grants, aims to provide “support for neighborhood small businesses, especially women-owned and minority-owned businesses, including but not limited to business incubator programs, management training, and job training opportunities; and providing economic opportunity and education to communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition.” In her welcome statement to agency partners, Dawson emphasized the War on Drugs against Black and Brown men, saying, “In fact, cannabis prohibition has led to Black Americans being almost four times as likely to be arrested for possession relative to our white counterparts and remains one of the top reasons for deadly police interactions in our communities.”

Originally from Brooklyn, Dawson is fueled by her love for Portland, her passion for the industry and her commitment to social equity. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dawson via Zoom to learn more about her new role.

HONEY POT: You are coming into this appointment at a crucial time in our country. You wrote very eloquently in your official statement about how you will be incorporating activism into your time in office. What are some actionable steps you plan to take to ensure more equity around the Portland cannabis industry?

DASHEEDA DAWSON: Right now, we’re in the middle of a movement. For some of us who have been working in the Cannabis industry, this has been a movement in the making.

The prohibition of cannabis is a tool that has created a lopsided state of equity. I am honored to be able to use the cannabis industry to help right some wrongs, and it starts with changing our conceptions of the notion of equity; Equity is about social, health and economic opportunities, looking at communities as a whole and recognizing the impacts of prohibition and incarceration.

I’m excited because Portland is one of the first municipalities to offer a Cannabis Social Equity Grant based on the Cannabis tax review and while I don’t think this seed is as big or as broad as it could be, I think it’s the type of seed that I would like to be in charge of watering.

You are only the third Black woman in U.S. history to hold a position in cannabis regulatory oversight leadership for a governmental organization. What is the significance of that legacy for you, and how can these organizations benefit from more voices from communities of color?

I think it’s a heavy significance. It took me a while to even want to consider working in the government. I come from the corporate sector and in some ways, the trajectory of “out of the hood to make good,” doesn’t seem to be aligned with government work. I grew up in a house where my mother was an educator and an activist herself, and I think that is something that has been instilled in me from the beginning. In fact, my grandfather was the first Black man in New York City to be a part of the construction union.

So, I think it’s in my genetics in some ways. Still, it took me a minute to realize that we needed more people who would be interested in actually overseeing these kinds of regulatory bodies within the government. Incredible Black women such as Cat Packer [Executive Director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation] and Toi Hutchinson [Illinois Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer] have been leading the way.

I think it’s also imperative to recognize that cannabis is medicine — this is often missed in our communities because we’ve been so heavily policed and there’s so much stigma. My hope is that being a person of color, specifically, a Black woman will allow me to open up the channels for real, candid conversations with BIPOC lawmakers as well as leaders of religious and nonprofit communities.

In your personal journey, you have witnessed the gaps between low-income communities and those with higher incomes and access to higher education and other privileges. How will you address those gaps for the citizens of Portland? 

I’m going to start with strong partnerships and leveraging inter-bureau relationships. We have an Office of Equity within the city of Portland, and it’s a great framework for other bureaus to follow. They have identified the gaps as well as the Community Based Organizations on the ground that are doing the work. I have found that most CBOs are underfunded and don’t have enough support to be truly expansive in their reach.

My hope is to learn as much as I can about where the organizations that are working to fill the gap and figuring out how cannabis tax revenue can be appropriately allocated and disseminated amongst these organizations. I think it’s about capitalizing on what’s already being worked on and amplifying it with more funding.

What are your plans to make sure that the community has sufficient input into policies regarding cannabis? 

I’m such a fan of Portland and Oregon. As a businesswoman, one of the things I noticed is that they enacted an advisory body — the Cannabis Policy Oversight Team that is made up of a cannabis community and at-large community members that are partly voting members and advisory members that meet regularly. CPOT released an annual report in 2019 that highlighted some essential points that I believe in.

My job as the head of the Cannabis Program is to ensure they have all the information and administrative support they ended to be able to advise on policy changes and we have bubbled that up all the way to the city council and sometimes what we’re doing is polishing those recommendations to slide over to Oregon state as a whole.

In terms of changes, I think it is about creating a new foundation. Despite legalization and some of the progressive stands that Portland has taken, including the 3% excise tax on the adult-use market, there is still a lot of canna-phobia and fear-based decision-making.

We need to remember that cannabis is medicine first. We need to focus on fortifying the medical program and ensuring that the supply chain has a way to deliver top-notch products at an affordable rate for patients. In a CVS you can walk in and buy over-the-counter ibuprofen — I feel that’s a grading benchmark. We see it happening with Hemp-based CBD. The Oregon Cannabis Commission is chaired by Dr Rachel Knox. She is a Cannabinoid Medicine Specialist based in Portland, and I’m really excited to be working with her on cannabis health equity in general.

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(C) The WeedHead™ & Company

Throughout your experience as a global cannabis advocate and businesswoman, you have witnessed firsthand and emphasized the injustice done to people of color through marijuana prohibition. What are your guidelines and strategies for addressing this disparity in the City of Portland? How are you approaching the dual issues of cannabis-related prison reform and building social equity within the legal industry?

Well, thankfully, I’m entering a market that has already, at least legally, removed some of the barriers. Since legalization, the raw number of arrests are going down significantly, but particularly among Black and Indigenous populations. However, we’ve seen an uptake on disproportionate arrests in the 18-21-year-old market. This is why it is so vital to fortify the medical program because it protects that group. Arrests have a profoundly negative long-term impact.

I want to ensure that we are re-educating law enforcement. To date, the Portland Police Bureau has received about 80% of the tax revenue. I will be working on looking back at the history of how funding is distributed and how have we re-educated or retrained our Portland Police. Since, for now, cannabis tax revenue has been removed from police funding, I want to work on ensuring that if funding is going back into the police, it is strictly focusing on closing some of these disproportionate gaps caused by targeting specific communities. Whatever we learn in Portland can be used as a case study or a benchmark for bigger entities and markets.

Can you explain the current status of the Portland Social Equity Grant Fund and how communities of color have benefited from its resources so far, and how could this change or expand for 2020 to 2021 and beyond? 

The Social Equity Grant Fund has gone through three cycles, and we are just closing our third. We are excited for this grant fund to deliver just over half a million in funding for 2020-2021,

Some of the organizations that have benefited have been small nonprofit organizations that are already doing re-entry housing work, cannabis-specific workforce development as well as general workforce development. I hope that eventually offer broader grants that go to larger organizations such as Prosper Portland, which is essentially the city’s business incubator. They’ve been receiving money from the cannabis tax revenue, which they take and disseminate among the community. One of the organizations that has received funding is the NuLeaf Project, which is founded by Jeanette Ward Horton and Jesse Horton, who are cannabis pioneers in the industry. They are providing low-interest loans as well as grants directly to new licenses in BIPOC owned businesses in the industry.

I am focused on fortifying how well we administer grants ensuring that we’re providing general education that includes technical assistance to people that helps them make the most of the grant. I feel strongly about expungement — we’ve been able to help about 200 people fully expunge their records.

How will you be incorporating or partnering with existing cannabis advocacy organizations and groups, such as Minorities for Medical Marijuana or the Minority Cannabis Business Association, into your plans for the City of Portland’s cannabis program?

Well, thankfully, I’ve already been tapped into these groups for so long. I’ve already participated… in the [July 2020] Minority Cannabis Business Association summit. I also recently participated in a cannabis social equity workgroup that was started by Representative Akasha Lawrence Spence.

I will continue to speak, educate and participate. I’m just hitting the ground running and adding the ordinances, laws and policies of Portland into my repertoire, these are precedents we should use to enhance other jurisdictions as well as opportunities for us to pilot new ideas.

For more information about Portland’s Cannabis Program, visit https://www.portlandoregon.gov/civic/67575 or email cannabis@portlandoregon.gov. A complete copy of the Office of Community & Civic Life’s announcement of Dasheeda Dawson’s appointment can be found here.

Neha Mulay is an Australian-Indian writer and a current MFA candidate in poetry at New York University. Her poems have appeared/are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, The Maine Review and Coffin Bell Journal, among other publications. Her essays have appeared in Overland Literary Journal (online) and Feminartsy. She is the Managing Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine.