Achieving Diversity in the Cannabis Industry


Diversity, like love and peace, is a virtue widely embraced. Getting it done takes working through the grittier details, though. According to Jesce Horton, Cofounder and Vice President of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, speaking at a recent MJ Freeway Webinar on Diversity in the Cannabis Industry, “This is an opportunity not just to build another industry, but a new, different and better industry.”

Different and better means, among other things, improving ownership and career opportunities for communities of color, women, LGBT individuals and others not yet involved in the industry. Studies tie diversity to business success in compelling ways. A commitment to inclusion can help enterprises grow and keep a competitive advantage in corporate culture, employee morale, retention and recruitment.


Diversity in Ownership

“For lack of a better word, minorities are shell shocked when it comes to anything regarding cannabis, regarding drugs and the potential to be arrested,” Horton said.

The barriers to ownership are more than attitudinal, however. The high cost of starting any business, even outside the cannabis industry, is daunting to many new entrepreneurs. But the lack of traditional financing for the cannabis industry is enough to exclude many in minority communities.

State licensing requirements set financial and other requirements that seriously restrict the pool of potential license holders.

Jazmin Hupp, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Women Grow noted, “Teams in New York are currently spending upwards of $1 million just to apply for one of the five potential licenses. If they receive the 2-year license, they will need $15 to $35 million in capital to operate. That means that groups that haven’t traditionally had access to capital are completely shut out of this opportunity.”

In Florida, Horton noted, applicants for cultivation licenses must be horticultural growers that have been in business for at least 30 years and are already growing at least 400,000 plants.  In 2014, only 21 out of Florida’s 7,001 licensed nurseries qualified. The system seems designed to preserve the status quo.

Horton encouraged industry activists to make their voices heard as state regulators begin the process of drafting licensing rules to ensure that minimum requirements do not arbitrarily exclude large segments of the entrepreneurial population.

The way in which applications are evaluated may also affect the outcome. Hupp said an open application system, like that used in Colorado where the state offers a license to anyone who meets the minimum requirements, allows for greater participation.


Diversity in Employment

To increase diversity in management and staffing, Horton recommended community outreach through existing national and local cannabis organizations, such as his own Minority Cannabis Business Association, as well as Women Grow and the National Cannabis Industry Association.

A number of other business associations, not necessarily focused on cannabis, may be valuable resources, as well, including the National Association of Asian American Professionals, campus chapters of the Middle Eastern Students Association, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the Senior Job Bank.

Horton noted that at Panacea Valley Gardens, the Portland dispensary which he co-developed, a senior budtender could be an asset in understanding the perspective of the growing number of senior patients.

Staffing agencies provide another avenue. Hiring for the cannabis industry has very specific background-check and licensing issues. THC Staffing Group, with locations on both coasts, focuses specifically on helping the marijuana industry find qualified candidates who are a match professionally and personally and also represent a wide and diverse cross-section of America’s population.

Shaleen Title, Partner and Co-Founder of THC Staffing, said, “The applicant pool that comes to us lacks diversity. For some experienced positions we place, often the candidates that respond to our ads are 95 percent white men, and this is consistent with what we hear from businesses. So we work much harder to recruit from a wider base. That involves smaller numbers of people who are interested in coming into the industry, and there tends to be a greater stigma around cannabis within communities of color and women as well.”

Green Staffing Solutions in SeaTac, Washington, provides temporary and permanent agricultural, retail, warehousing and administrative staff to the legal marijuana industry. It is a minority-focused agency with a goal of providing employment opportunities for women, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans.

For Horton, though, diversity is about more than doing the right thing or building the customer base that businesses need to thrive. “We have to stay true to the plant that teaches about unity, healing, love and commonality with other people,” he said. His most important message is that staying true to the plant allows business to be true to patients and consumers, as well.

Anne Wallace is a New York lawyer who writes extensively on legal and business issues. She also teaches law and business writing at the college and professional level. Anne graduated from Fordham Law School and Wellesley College.

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