Who benefits from a green rush?

As the cannabis industry booms, African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented

A 2017 reader survey by Marijuana Business Daily found that only 17% of minorities held executive positions in the cannabis industry.

A 2017 reader survey by Marijuana Business Daily found that only 17% of minorities held executive positions in the cannabis industry.

Illustration by Mark Stivers

For more information on Sacramento’s Cannabis Opportunity Reinvestment and Equity program, visit cityofsacramento.org and gsul.org.

When GT Goins was the purchasing manager for the local dispensary Two Rivers, he worked directly with vendors to create a more affordable market for a wider range of customers. He championed safe access for the collective’s patients and often discussed the benefits of terpenes or the difference between THC and CBD at educational workshops and compassion programs. And at an August panel discussion, Goins, spoke on diversifying the cannabis industry by ensuring a more inclusive hiring process.

He was one of the faces representing the company. Still, as the only black man behind the counter, he said his face wasn’t always the one vendors expected to see when they walked into Two Rivers to show their latest strains and products.

Goins recalled one incident when a man walked up to the counter. “He looked directly at me—not anyone else, just me, specific as f--k—and in a supremely rude tone said, ’Go get me your purchasing manager. I’m here to see him.’”

“You’re looking at him,” Goins said he replied.

The changing face of cannabis

Even as the perception of cannabis continues to shift, incidents like the one Goins described are common for people of color as more states legalize recreational and medicinal use.

Last year, California made about $300 million in cannabis sales and excise taxes, according to the state. Although that figure was projected to be much higher, it’s still the most of any state that legalized cannabis in 2016.

Within the last decade, cannabis has become the living, growing version of a modern-day gold rush with states and governments reaping the monetary benefits.

But the face of cannabis, and its social status, is beginning to shift once more. There are dispensaries that resemble posh coffee shops, plus cannabis delivery and customizable monthly subscription services.

Yet this rapid growth seems to be isolating the people who helped build the foundation—many times at the cost of their freedom or their lives. According to the nonprofit organization, NORML, there are 14 times as many prisoners associated with marijuana-related offenses in California as there were in 1980 and 59% are either Latino or African American.

But a 2017 reader survey by Marijuana Business Daily found that only 17% of minorities held executive positions in the cannabis industry. With legalization, there remain barriers to those who are now attempting to enter the cannabis green rush—the legal way.

The CORE on drugs

To assist those who are facing these obstacles, the city of Sacramento’s Cannabis Opportunity Reinvestment and Equity program started in 2017.

Managed by the Greater Sacramento Urban League and the Sacramento Asian Chamber of Commerce, CORE is intended to offer access to resources such as business development, fee waivers and one-on-one guidance.

To qualify, applicants must meet several requirements depending on whether they are applying as an individual or as a business, including: residing in a low-income household, living in zip codes targeted during the “war on drugs” and having a previous cannabis arrest or having an immediate family member with a record.

Brenda Davis of the Urban League told SN&R that the program addresses the consequences of the “war on drugs,” which predominantly targeted black and brown communities, because “the chaos of a conviction spreads and can take a toll on families, mental health, well being and financial security.”

The CORE program began accepting applications in April 2018 and its first group of 14 people started their 18-week program in August 2018. The next group begins in January.

While the CORE program is a start, Davis said that funding from the city “covers just enough to not really do anything.”

Davis said the program covers mentoring, classes and classroom space, but funding does not directly go to any participants.

Those interested in starting a cannabis business still have to find enough funding. But she said being able to attract business investors and partners is an important step.

Tiffani Sharp, a local attorney and activist, recently founded WOC Canna, an independent business incubator that provides opportunities for women of color.

“I’ve witnessed white-owned cannabis companies who think that women and people of color need to be ’mentored’ in the industry, when women and people of color have been running profitable cannabis businesses long before the legalization came around,” Sharp said.

This falls into a familiar pattern in which white business owners new to the industry suddenly become “experts,”she said.

“We’re talking about changing a whole system of economic inequality, racism and sexism. That’s what WOC Canna seeks to do,” Sharp said. “I believe it is important for more people of color, women specifically, to be represented and prevalent in the cannabis industry for the same reasons I believe women need better representation in every industry of business.”