WHY BLACK WOMEN BELONG IN THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY
by MARY PRYOR/ Zora
You may have heard the news about how fast the cannabis industry is spreading across this nation. But what you may not realize is that Black and Brown communities aren’t benefiting from this developing industry. Reasons include everything from incarceration and the drug war to lack of access to both education and capital. According to 2017 data from Marijuana Business Daily, 73% of cannabis executives were men and 81% were White. Women account for 25% and Black ownership in cannabis hovers at 4%.
While these numbers are problematic, there are Black women who are making strides and doing what it takes to shift through the challenges. As a cannabis industry adviser and advocate, I wanted to take a deeper dive into why our presence in this industry is a must. I sat down with Dasheeda Dawson, President of Flora Buffalo and co-founder of MJM Strategy, and Ashaki Fenderson, founder of Tainted Love Brooklyn, for insights on how Black women can transition into cannabis.
Mary Pryor: I’ll get right to one of the biggest concerns when it comes to talking about cannabis: “What will my family think?” This plant and its history is sensitive in our community, given the generational effect of the war on drugs. How do you warm people up to your involvement in this industry?
Dasheeda Dawson: I became The WeedHead, officially branding myself [as] a corporate-to-cannabis crossover. I wanted to share my stories and experiences transitioning into the industry to educate and empower others who want to be professionals and/or patients in the legal cannabis industry. My journey isn’t just for my family members, but for my extended family and community to see someone they trust and respect paving the way for their own journeys to start.
Ashaki Fenderson: I had a very candid conversation with members of my family about how marijuana was a social justice issue. Admittedly, it was easier to speak to my siblings and cousins than work my way up the generational ladder to elders. There are family fears involving law enforcement kicking down my doors and taking me away in cuffs.
Still, as cannabis receives more attention as a medicinal tool, my elders come to me to speak about how it can wean them off “dopey” pain meds, help with their arthritis, and even aid in the care of my 92-year-old grandfather who has dementia. My cousins come to me about how to find or what to do with investment, business, and partnership opportunities. This is definitely a different tune than when I first came to them more than five years ago. Our people need to know how this plant can help us.
Pryor: How can we relay the message of “cannabis is plant medicine” to Black and Brown communities? (Think of the illnesses and diseases that seem to target us the most — i.e. diabetes, cancer, autoimmune conditions.)
Dawson: As a woman suffering from my own autoimmune challenges, I consider myself to be among the “new faces of cannabis.” We are the fastest-growing legal users, largely due to the benefits of cannabinoid treatment on various misunderstood diseases and disorders, ranging from multiple sclerosis (MS) to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a scientist, my theory is that we are cannabinoid deficient, which is likely driving our bodies towards imbalance more and more. We need to drastically change our diets to improve the health of Black and Brown communities, which should include reduction in sugar and addition of a daily low dose of cannabinoids. People focus heavily on THC and CBD, but the real science shows there is power in all of the cannabinoids and terpenes found in the plant. My hope is that with re-education and continued research, we can identify the therapeutic opportunities available to us in cannabis and use them to improve our day-to-day lives.
Fenderson: Unfortunately, since marijuana was instilled in our communities as a drug, it gets abused as such. For many in our communities recovering from substance abuse, this is a barrier to medicinal benefits, as their previous use of the plant can trigger a more dangerous relapse. My mother has been in recovery for more than 30 years; she suffered a major stroke in 2005 which affects her physical, cognitive, and mental facilities. She was afraid to utilize the plant to help aid in her current care because relapse was a much scarier road. A flurry of research and marketing opened her up to using the plant as an option. She started using a full-spectrum CBD tincture. In a matter of days, I noticed a change in her health and the effects are overwhelmingly positive. Despite years of our communities using the plant to self-medicate for stress, anxiety, insomnia, and physical pain, this boon in medicinal research opens up accessibility that may have been lost to people like my mother.
I still occasionally have to defend my decision to transition into the industry to people of color who are still very afraid of the “devil’s lettuce.”
Pryor: What are the biggest barriers you’ve faced as a Black woman in this space?
Dawson: I have found the biggest barrier as a Black woman was initially a lack of community and support. More often than not, I have been the only afro in the room. I jumped into the industry as a patient and advocate in Arizona before the mainstream interest in cannabis began to explode. Within six months, I was successfully integrated into the local advocacy, education, and business groups for cannabis — or so I thought. How quickly that deteriorated when I was accused of stealing my own identity and the story was spread throughout the market simply because my excellence as a woman of color seemed unlikely and, therefore, unbelievable. Suffice to say, I knew I needed to enlist the support of my tribe to fulfill my mission to legitimize, to stabilize, and to diversify the legal cannabis industry. I am still usually the only afro in the room as I work with predominantly white males every day. I still occasionally have to defend my decision to transition into the industry to people of color who are still very afraid of the “devil’s lettuce.”
Fenderson: I started in advocacy and legitimizing business space of cannabis in 2014. For much of my life, I have been the only Black person in my classroom, on a film set, and on a nonprofit’s executive board. In this cannabis space I am often one of two, maybe three, Black women in the room. There is a huge gap of information and access being shared with the Black and Latinx community. Every moment in this space was barrier-breaking and that was exhausting. It is refreshing to see more and more of us get involved but I can’t help but recognize that we are a little behind in the race.
Pryor: How can Black women excel in this industry? How should one research about opportunities?
Dawson: Last year, I wrote my first workbook in The WeedHead workbook series. How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry is in third printing and will be available for purchase in summer 2019. It outlines the different sectors of the cannabis industry, identifying all of the potential white space opportunities for entrepreneurs, professionals, and contractors looking to cross over into the industry. Black women can excel in cannabis in all the same ways that we have seen white men excel — as CEOs, founders, and investors.
Fenderson: I came to this space after 18 years of film production and a lifetime in community advocacy work. I started Tainted Love BK to create interactive programming to share cannabis medical and justice information in entertaining formats. Speaking as a Black woman, we need to come to this space with our own personal strengths. If you hate gardening or kill all your houseplants, starting a hemp farm/grow is probably not the right space for you. There are plenty of opportunities that do not include selling or growing the plant, like bed-and-breakfasts, project management, event management, media management, research, lab design, cooking, waste disposal, construction, and so much more.
I’ll also add that starting a plant touching business involves a lot of upfront startup capital and experience in the cannabis industry. While there are incubators along the West Coast such as Hood Incubator and The People’s Dispensary, you’ll need to build a team, secure political connections, create a community campaign, and raise at minimum $3 million to $5 million. Networking at various cannabis conferences will tell you a lot about how this industry is maneuvering, given overwhelming populations of white men at MJBizCon, Cannabis World Conference and Business Expo, Benzinga, and National Cannabis Industry Association events. These events are important to attend but I suggest showing up as a large group, get in the room, and understand how to set up what you want to do.
Mary Teressa Pryor is co-founder of Cannaclusive, a cannabis advocacy, programming, and marketing collective based in Los Angeles, New York State chapter president of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and chief marketing officer for Tonic CBD, a hemp farm and CBD wellness company out of New York State.