Black people looking to join non-Black cannabis companies face a familiar problem: racial bias.
How does a K-12 teacher become a passionate cannabis advocate, restorative justice organizer and prolific weed brand marketer? It was actually Brittany Parker’s time as a St. Louis school teacher that laid the groundwork for her cannabis career, but not in the way one might expect.
“I thought I was going to be a superintendent. That’s where my goals were set. I did that for about four years and I completely burned out,” Parker told HR Dive. Although she loved teaching and loved her students, she knew it was time for a career change.
She got her master’s degree and pivoted to advertising and marketing, working with clients such as Microsoft and Amazon. Parker had turned to weed for relief from the stresses of teaching and gastrointestinal issues. “Cannabis was that one accessible thing that helped both of those issues,” she said. The experience was so different from the fears their mom instilled in them about weed, so they started asking themselves, Why is this the case?
Weed’s vilification has its roots in the Harlem Renaissance, when many Black artisans and libertines were demonized for engaging with the herb.
The late Doc Cheatham, a trumpeter and jazz bandleader, told stories of Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday smoking weed in a club green room. He would sit in a chair outside the door and smoke a pipe to mask the fumes of pot, Cheatham recounted in Williams’ memoir. Another great, Louis Armstrong, was more plain about his love for cannabis. One of his songs, “Muggles,” was named after the plant’s early 1900s nickname. “It relaxes you,” Armstrong once said. “Makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.”
Like Satchmo, Parker’s discovery of cannabis as a health aid led to an expedition of intellectual curiosity. A desire to upskill for another career pivot led them to the Academy of Cannabis Science at Seattle Central College, and they emerged with Class A certification.
Their accreditation as a medical marijuana expert in the state of Washington allowed for medical consultancy work within recreational dispensaries and helped to land an account executive role at Leafly, a weed e-commerce vendor and media company.
Parker’s first foray into the weed industry illuminated a problem: Whether founders, or VPs of sales or marketing, the overwhelming majority of cannabis professionals she encountered were White men. She had spoken with hundreds. “I talked to maybe 15 Black people specifically, and about 10 to 15% of the people that I spoke with were women,” she said. To actually see it, she added, was “jarring.” That’s when Parker knew her position was a stepping stone for something bigger.
Then Parker was a part of Leafly’s series of layoffs, which eliminated 50% of the company’s staff. Initially at a loss at what to do and encouraged by friends and family to strike out on her own, Parker founded A Green Legacy, an organization for underrepresented founders and entrepreneurs in cannabis.
One of few cannabis advocates championing diversity in the cannabis industry, Parker is creating avenues for Black cannabis professionals to take up space and be fairly compensated. This work is particularly poignant, given the history of Black and brown mass incarceration for marijuana offenses, with related bail, fees and fines accruing interests.
A century of harm
President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, launched in 1971, quickly escalated the numbers of drug-related arrests, convictions and sentencing — from about 300,000 to about 2.3M, according to Equal Justice Initiative. Nixon’s campaign hit Black communities hard, and not accidentally.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Politicized drug crackdowns date back to much earlier times. Congress had passed the Harrison Act of 1914, which criminalized habitual drug users and any doctors considered to be their dealers. In 1930, Harry Anslinger, was named the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He helped to pass the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act which bridged the gap between state police and federal agents.
This happened right around the time that Prohibition ended in 1933. Scholars have noted that alcohol’s rehabilitation led to a slash in FBN funding, sending Anslinger scrambling for a new evil: weed. As outlined in Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger’s racism and xenophobia fueled his wrath against cannabis. His motivations were transparent.
Anslinger used the “N” word in government memos so often a senator asked him to resign, and he famously said, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as White men.” George Fisher’s “Racial Myths of the Cannabis War” discusses Anslinger’s erroneous link between hashish and Haschischin, a medieval band of Islamic killers. Despite the many nicknames for weed at the time, “marijuana” stuck because Anslinger pinned its U.S. introduction on Mexican laborers — hence the age-old association of weed with Hispanic and Latinx people.
In “Marijuana — Assassin of Youth,” his anecdotes of modern-day weed-smoking murderers drove home the idea that marijuana is a one-way ticket to harm and chaos. The Tax Act would place weed in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.
Anslinger’s defining play was conflating Blackness, madness and jazz. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers,” Anslinger said. “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes White women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
A crackdown on jazz culture would mean a crackdown on Black people. Notably, Anslinger targeted Billie Holiday, who refused to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about Black lynchings, at jazz cabarets. Anslinger pursued and ultimately incarcerated Holiday, using her drug addiction as justification. The government’s relentless attempts to end Holiday’s public performances — and the “Lady” herself — were retold in the 2021 film The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Starring Andra Day as the jazz singer, the Hulu film draws details and narratives from Hari’s book.
“The entire war on drugs is a war on Black and brown people,” said Akele Parnell, a cannabis lawyer and advocate who is the head of equity partnerships at Lantern. “According to the actual architects of it, meaning Nixon and Ronald Reagan administrations, it’s an effort to criminalize Black folks in particular in the wake of the civil rights movement. It’s an effort to diminish our political power and a means to control a population whose political interests aren’t aligned with the leaders at that time.”
Nixon’s war on drugs, revealed by Erlichman as an organized effort to vilify and criminalize Black people, created a solidly racist foundation for later “broken-window” policing and stop-and-frisk policies, which, despite being found unconstitutional, still pervade police practice. The fine line between decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, disparities between state and federal marijuana law and a century of bias puts Black and brown people at greater risk for incarceration.
“We’ve been using and dealing cannabis at the same rates as White Americans, but we’re criminalized at rates between four and nine times higher for political and racist reasons,” Parnell said. “It’s really important that Black folks in particular have a seat at the table, are able to build a significant amount of generational wealth and obtain a significant share of the market.”
Noting that the war on drugs campaign has siphoned billions of dollars from Black, Latinx and indigenous communities, Parnell said it’s a matter of fundamental justice that these communities should profit from the cannabis economy.
Building with equity at the forefront
Shirley Chisolm, a former New York representative, the first Black woman in Congress and the first Black woman to seek nomination for president, once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” When it comes to building a diverse and equitable future in cannabis, advocates have several types of chairs available.
Providing Black, Indigenous and Latinx weed professionals with the necessary career resources is a good place to start. A Green Legacy, Brittany Parker’s organization, connects women and non-binary people, folks with disabilities and people of color in the industry. Parker also provides a platform for journalists and publicists, shares negotiation tactics for freelancers, advice on equity and social media censorship, posts calling for weed destigmatization and cannabis job openings on Instagram.
Over at Lantern, where Parnell works, multiple incubators help entrepreneurs establish a cannabis delivery businesses. Lantern seeks out founders in emerging markets like Colorado, Massachusetts and Michigan. Parnell highlights the difficulty of licensing rounds, particularly the steep cost of medical marijuana licensing. Besides, even once funding is secured, few BIPOC-owned companies can maintain consistent support.
“It’s been hard and it remains hard. Raising money is difficult,” Whitney Beatty, founder and CEO of Josephine & Billie’s. The LA-based cannabis company, which has been backed by Jay-Z’s The Parent Company and featured in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Inc. and the like, is geared toward women of color. Its brick-and-mortar space was built to be accessible, affordable and welcoming, and is fashioned after the weed speakeasies, aka “teapads,” of old.
“JB,” Beatty calls it, is big on education. Books on cannabis cooking and plant medicine line the space. Naturally, jazz plays from the speakers. Goods are organized by terpene profile, instead of the typical THC binary of indica and sativa. Eighty percent of JB products are under $50, Beatty told HR Dive — a feat for an industry that thrives on ritzy presentation and emerging industry pricing.
Being underrepresented comes with a cost. “Even when you bring some money, it’s not enough. We’re still raising money. It’s hard being an independent retailer, and not being under a large multi-state operator. We don’t have the ability to amortize costs or what have you. It’s hard to let the community know that we’re there. We’re building everything from the ground up,” Beatty said, and the full gamut of work, from high-level decisions regarding investing and strategic operations to in-store clean up, is up to her and the team.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” she added. “But it is a labor of love.”
It’s clear that Beatty and COO Ebony Andersen have created a safe space. Beatty also brought up the war on drugs and its disproportionate effect on communities of color, which, she said, has created a reticence, almost, in some people of color toward weed. By educating with empathy, Josephine & Billie’s has started to chip away at the stigma and provide community care. Beatty’s voice was filled with fondness describing older ladies in the neighborhood, with limited access to healthcare, who are warming up to the idea of CBD balms or cannabis soaking salts to ease their arthritis.
“There’s a huge difference in us being open on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, in the middle of a Black and brown community, and us having opened on Melrose Ave. A lot of the people that come into our store every day walk there. They take the bus there,” she said. Josephine & Billie’s opened its doors in October 2021. It’s the little things, Beatty added, like when new patrons note, “I’ve never been to one where they’ve got jazz,” or “It’s the first one that my mom felt comfortable going to; it’s my mom’s favorite dispensary. Those are things that matter to me,” Beatty said.
Parnell highlights a connection between investing in Black founders and the function of HR in corporate cannabis.
“This sort of ties in diversity and inclusion at the same time. If you have more Black and brown companies, you’re going to have more diversity in the workforce. You’re going to have more diversity and ownership. You’re going to have more inclusive environments where by default, they’re going to bring that [inclusive] culture, it’s going to flow naturally,” he told HR Dive, mentioning Lantern’s work in development of both external and internal equity initiatives.
The corporate folding chair
Black people looking to join non-Black cannabis companies face the same problems they do looking to join any non-Black organization: racial bias. “The first and most obvious challenge is that whenever we are trying to get a job within a large corporation — whenever we are trying to get investment in our businesses — typically the people that we are talking to in order to achieve those things are White men,” Timeka Drew, founder of Biko, told HR Dive.
Along with running her own company, Drew is a social equity advocate, cannabis compliance professional and co-founder of nonprofit Our Dream (which helps LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants, refugees and others impacted by the war on drugs). She’s run into a slew of pervasive stereotypes about Black professionals at play: a lack of experience, lack of capital, lack of drive, know-how, intelligence. The list goes on, she said.
“In this nascent industry, I have very much felt the pushback of White men when they’re talking to me. Timeka, you know, it’s so great what you’re doing! You seem so talented, but shouldn’t you just pick one lane to be in? And I look at them and I’m kinda like, What’s your one lane, my friend? Because they all run in multiple lanes,” Drew said. Her peers sit on boards, they’ve founded and manage multiple businesses, they serve in executive and C-suite roles within these corporate structures, and they run consulting businesses to the side of all that. “But when they look at people of color, especially women of color, they think to themselves, Shouldn’t you [all] be in one big supporting role?”
A common theme throughout conversations with the above advocates, entrepreneurs and community organizers is that recruiting practices, compensation, corporate social responsibility, lack of cultural competency and unchecked White privilege in the cannabis industry all need to be pruned to make way for something more inclusive and equitable.
Among those laying the groundwork for this accountability is Kassia Graham, who uses she/they pronouns. Graham is the director of community and strategy for Cannaclusive, an organization that seeks to diversify representation of cannabis consumers and producers. Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Cannaclusive created The Accountability List.
Graham indicated the importance of the database, noting that a great deal of cannabis culture is driven by Black folks, along with Latino, gay, and indigenous people, who “face the brunt of the war on drugs.”
The database lists cannabis and hemp brands’ statements on Black Lives Matter, their anti-racist commitments and, to the chagrin of some, whether or not, those brands had made good on the promises of summer 2020.
“All of this stuff is public information, provided via their social media, their newsletters, what’s out there in the press.” Graham said. Reactions have varied. Some people tried intimidation. Others hoped to be included, eager to show their support.
Born from these conversations was Cannabis for Black Lives, a philanthropic leg of Cannaclusive, and a coalition of big and small organizations fundraising for cannabis equity and “cannabis-adjacent” causes. Through Cannabis for Black Lives, Graham helps shape company culture, facilitate DEI educations and push for diverse hiring.
She said it’s about making sure that marginalized people are actually being listened to, and are able to finally rise to those ranks, not just about filling a color quota. “So it’s not just like empty conversation,” Graham said. “I’m tired of conversations.”
Though systemic racism is far-reaching in the industry, advocates say it’s necessary to tackle every facet. Timeka Drew said this means focusing on legislation and community-building, and focusing on the business from the inside. “If we’re not within each and every one of those spaces, not only are we not being included and considered, but being exploited,” she said.