Social Equity in Cannabis is A Step, But Far From Anything Equitable

The war on drugs once took many Black Americans out of the entrepreneurial workforce. Now with the help of proponents of social equity, Black Americans are starting to make their way towards breaking the stigmas and cashing out by the same green that once oppressed them: cannabis.

Black Cannapreneurs are still unfortunately a small percentage of the newfound legalized emerald green garden of opportunity, representing only four percent of all the licenses awarded nationwide. 

Despite legalization efforts, Black cannabis entrepreneurs unfortunately don’t have the privilege of just working to start a business. They are often forced to activism to get their businesses launched. Gorilla Rx, Los Angeles’ first cannabis dispensary owned by Black women, mother-daughter team Kika Howze and Kika Keith, found themselves in this place while trying to launch a cannabis beverage.

“We plan on bringing a [cannabis] beverage brand to the market.” Kika Keith, co-founder of Gorilla Rx, told The Plug. “I thought that this was an opportunity to be the first to market a product in the cannabis industry. Little did we know that we would have to turn into political activists. Little did we know that it will take three years to get to a point where it was like, “Well, shit, there’s no turning back.”

“I’ve invested so much time and I put everything else on hold that we worked for so long that it was I think that was a part of the driving force that did not allow us to quit and make sure that not just ourselves but others crossed the finish line,” she said.  

Cannaprenuers are still navigating a mostly white industry seeing green

Others, like Karim Webb, CEO of 4th MVMT in Los Angeles, have chosen to build a franchise model to help cannabis oriented entrepreneurs gain retail space that will help the success of the business. And then there are others like Kashka Hopkinson of the culinary cannabis hybrid Stoney Slice who are forced to figure things out entirely on their own because additional training resources are often out of reach or simply don’t exist in areas of the cannabis industry such as his.

“Cooperative economics and education are how we were able to overcome the obstacles that they put in our path,” Kika Keith, whose team has verified over 250 social equity applicants and helped over 40 licenses get onboarded for social equity applicants, told The Plug.

Cooperative economics has been key to breaking entrepreneurial barriers within the cannabis space. Without a proper road map to get folks where they might want to go within the space, entrepreneurs are left to fend for themselves, find incubators or find another route. Even with social equity programs existing in some places in California, there aren’t really state or federally designated programs to help folks navigate through it.

“The community colleges of the world that are in the inner city communities are nervous about having full-fledged cannabis training programs because they’ll lose the federal funding for their colleges,” Keith said. “We’re not tied into grants and funds or city money or government money,”

“Those folks that are coming out of jail who could have living-wage jobs, there’s no place traditional for them to get the training they need to walk into the door and get hired, let alone operate a business,” said Keith, who hopes the incubator will help her community in ways that are not otherwise available.

While the women of Gorilla Rx, now in partnership with the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement Alicia Garza, have chosen to devote time to an in-genesis incubator program through the Black Futures Lab, which seeks to help Black entrepreneurs in a way that expands beyond cannabis,  businesses like 4th MVMT are specifically carving their niche, assisting Black entrepreneurs directly along the cannabuisness path. 

In order to repair the damage done by the war on drugs, accessibility is key. “Give people access to resources.” Karim Webb, CEO of 4th MVMT, told The Plug

After being locked out and locked up, Black cannaprenuers are looking to be included

“If you’re going to have limited licenses, we think that those licenses should go to human beings that are going to leverage the resources that come from successful businesses, to actually improve outcomes in communities whose outcomes were depressed because of the disproportionate application of criminal justice,” Webb said.

Webb’s grassroots efforts have assisted 120 entrepreneurs through his program. It is a small but mighty piece of a highly sought after step toward Webb’s ultimate goal: parity among the cannabis space.

“[Our goal is] that we get Black people receiving access to the businesses and the capital to actualize those businesses in a way that leads to competitiveness and a fair piece of the overall pie, the money, the resources, the thing that unlocks freedom and choice and the ability for us to create what we want for ourselves and our own communities,” Webb said.

Even with help through these types of programs, cannabusiness endeavors can be complex affairs. Finding investments can be difficult given the nature of the business and the lack of nationwide legalization. Without having access to a network of one’s own resources, finding investors is not only highly competitive but can be an uphill battle for even seasoned entrepreneurs.

“It’s a federally illegal business. It’s hard. It’s hard for people like myself with a lot of experience, a lot of credibility in terms of my other businesses.” Webb said. “It’s hard because you’re dealing with a very, very varied– not even one percent of all the capital that’s available for every business in the country is even available for cannabis. Capital is more selective now than it’s ever been.”

But even with help from social equity programs, incubators and other entrepreneurs ready to assist, there are still grey areas for aspiring cannabis cannaprenuers who may find themselves outside of the reach of social equity assistance. Kashka Hopkinson, owner and founder of Los Angeles cannabis pizza business Stoney Slice, was one of them. 

Hopkinson, who came from a background in cannabis retail before deciding to pivot to his own cannabis endeavor, told The Plug that he had to figure out his own path because of the grey area of where his cannabusiness exists.

“We work in a sort of a grey area of being a private chef and being a caterer as opposed to being a product that can be available to the masses. That’s the number one difficulty. All the equity stuff can’t even sadly apply to us at this point in time. They don’t have licenses for these things. It doesn’t exist,” says Hopkinson.

“That’s been the most difficult challenge because we can only reach so many people so fast in the business model that we have. Scaling it and becoming more commercial would put a lot of pressure on regulations, which is something we don’t have quite the power for yet,” says Hopkinson.

Those that choose to endeavor into cannabis have quite a bit to gain if they can get past the litany of obstacles and red tape that still exists despite legalization in some states. An entrepreneurial and nimble mindset is even more necessary. One thing that has been proven in the face of social inequity despite a desire for parity is that community advocacy and teamwork is the pathway to the dream of a rolling green future.