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What It’s Like Being a Black Woman in the Legal Cannabis Industry

What It’s Like Being a Black Woman in the Legal Cannabis Industry

It’s the fastest growing industry in the country, but am I profiting from an industry that is doing nothing positive for my community?

By Brianna Holt

When I was in middle school, my older brother was arrested for possession of weed for the first time. He had a gram on him and went to jail for a few days. Since then, he’s been arrested six times for the same thing. I remember an incident in Germany with my ex-boyfriend. He had just smoked with some friends and was driving us home. We got pulled over pretty quickly and the cops asked to smell his breath. From his bloodshot red eyes to his ganja scent, it was very obvious that he’d smoked and I was pretty sure we were about to get arrested, or at least a ticket. Instead, he was let off with a very gentle warning. How lightly Germany criminalizes weed compared to the United States, along with his white privilege, slapped me in the face. My brother was having a hard time finding a job with a criminal record for drug charges, meanwhile my ex was receiving tons of business offers.

When I was young, my dad would drive my brother and I through his childhood neighborhood and show us the effects drugs had on his community. No one in my immediate family used drugs, but we always seemed to be around them. We always knew someone that was dying from drug abuse or someone that was killed because of dealing. I developed an intolerance of weed and vowed to never try it. From the way it was portrayed in media to the negative impact it had on my family and community, it became a hard drug in my mind, and not the healing, therapeutic plant trending today. So, if you had asked me at my college gradation if I could ever imagine myself working in the legal cannabis industry one day, I would have replied with a puzzled look and a hard “no.” This was before I knew anything about the cannabis industry and its new rebranded look.

The legal cannabis industry actually fell into my lap one day after I was laid off from my previous job as an editor. I posted a lengthy paragraph on LinkedIn, notifying my network that I had been laid off and was actively seeking a new job. I listed my writing and social media skills and assumed most of my leads would be for similar roles. By the next morning, my LinkedIn post had blown up. Desperate to find a new job, I considered every message, email, and phone call.

A man called from a Colorado area code, asking if I ever thought of working in the cannabis industry. This was the first time I ever heard pot referred to as a cannabis. He told me about how the industry was blowing up and would continue to increase in funding and revenue as more states move to legalize it. He was looking for someone to help build an online presence and he was offering two times more than I had been paid at my previous job. I immediately thought it was a scam and decided to do some of my own research. I didn’t even know what the cannabis industry was. I had never been to a dispensary and I didn’t have any friends who got their weed from one. At first, I assumed this guy wanted me to work for an illegal company.

According to Grand View Research, the legal cannabis market is expected to reach $146.4 billion by the end of 2025. It’s the fastest growing industry in the United States and it is extremely hard to start a business without big funding or already being wealthy. As I kept reading, it became clear that cannabis was going to take over Wall Street and I wanted in. Although I passed on Colorado, I ended up taking a similar job in New York. The money was great, the team seemed nice, and it was the perfect time to try something new after being laid off.

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Working in the legal cannabis industry had opened my eyes to an entirely different world of pot. Luxury bongs, high-end vape pens, premium flower, $300 rolling trays, and monogrammed rolling papers–all things that I didn’t know existed, especially for such steep prices. I posted a few images of vape pens on my Instagram story and all my friends were shocked to see such beautiful and lavish equipment. We never even knew this side of cannabis consumption existed. I became convinced that stereotypes surrounding selling and using weed must have changed. People were dropping hundreds of dollars on smoking equipment and investors were throwing millions of dollars at cannabis companies like there was no tomorrow. This company hired me, a Black woman, so clearly diversity is a value in this industry, I thought.

One day while working on a graphic for panelists appearing at a conference, it hit me that not a single person on the panel was Black, and I began to wonder why there weren’t more people that looked like me in this industry. I researched the positions held by people with more experience in the industry to get a better understanding of my professional growth track. Every year, High Times puts out a list of the 100 most influential figures in the cannabis industry. This year three of them were Black. Three.

Eager to learn more, I watched the Netflix documentary, Grass Is Greener. It reported that less than 1% of legal dispensaries are owned and operated by African Americans. The film gave me a history lesson on cannabis, from the war on drugs to the disproportionate arrests of Black people for possession and the Nixon campaign in 1968; all things I never learned in school. Policies were put in place to specifically target minorities as other policies have also been put in place to keep minorities out of the cannabis industry today. Obtaining a business license in this industry can be extremely difficult. According to Biz Filings, to grow, states require a significant initial investment and proven horticultural knowledge. For retail, some states require business owners to have at least $250,000 in liquid assets. There are also restrictions in place to keep people with previous convictions ineligible from obtaining a business license.  

On 4/20, Ben and Jerry’s released their “Let’s be Blunt About Justice” campaign. Which explores how legalization hasn’t done anything to change racial disparities. According to the ACLU, “Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.” Leaders in the cannabis industry have a direct relationship to the business to start these conversations and work towards change. Seeing an ice cream company, with no direct relationship to cannabis, choose to use their platform and marketing to implement change, brought upon several epiphanies. Even an ice cream company is speaking up on this, but some of the top cannabis companies in the United States are not. It was shocking and infuriating.

Cannabis has put millions of people in my community behind bars. More recently, after watching a number of documentaries and doing research online, I’ve realized that most people in this industry don’t care about my community. A lot of them want to get involved to get rich, but do nothing to even acknowledge the war on drugs and the racial discrimination involved. The only way I can see my work being completely moral and feeling 100% comfortable with my output is if I’m offered substantial shares or ownership of a company, therefore making it Black-owned or if my company is actively working towards decriminalization, donating, and hiring a diverse staff to make up for the unequal treatment of POC regarding weed.

The only worry I had when joining this industry was that future employers might find it suspicious that I worked in cannabis. I didn’t even consider the inner battle I would have with my personal morals and my community. I started to feel guilty and somewhat like a traitor after being made aware of the unethical realities of this business. If anything, working in this industry has taught me about the war on drugs and how prominent the effects still are today. It was once a subject I knew nothing about and now I’m able to take that knowledge and consult companies on ways to reverse discrimination and injustice surrounding it. For once, I feel like I’m positively influencing change in cannabis, but there’s still so much more to be done.

Brianna Holt is a culture and music writer based in NYC. Her work can be found in BuzzFeed, One37PM, and Tinder. Aside from writing, Brianna has a profound love for astrology and poetry. Find her on social media @briannanholt.

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