Cannabis for Black Lives Aims to Increase Industry Diversity

When the coronavirus hit California, cannabis was declared an “essential business.” So why is it that so many Black and brown people still sit in prison for cannabis-related charges? 

That’s the question Kassia Graham and other BIPOC leaders in the cannabis space have. Graham is running the day-to-day operations at Cannabis for Black Lives, a new coalition of companies dedicated to uplifting Black-led organizations and causes in the cannabis space.

Graham, alongside much of the rest of the leadership team, works at Cannaclusive, a nationwide organization fighting for more diverse and fair representation of minority cannabis consumers. In the two years since California legalized recreational pot, three separate social equity programs have been formed in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, and a handful of community organizations have collected funds and generated educational and technical resources for BIPOC entrepreneurs. However, Graham (who uses they/them pronouns) says that this summer’s nationwide uprisings for racial justice reminded them that the cannabis industry needed to do a lot more for Black people, immediately. 

“While George [Floyd]’s life was leaving his body, former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao was heard mockingly stating, ‘This is why you don’t do drugs, kids,’” Graham points out. They argue that Black liberation is very closely tied to more equitable cannabis policies, and that Thao’s ugly quip is only further evidence that the War on Drugs is indirectly responsible for George Floyd’s death. “The inclusive and equitable industry we are seeing can be won, but only if we start supporting Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the space — and their communities — now.” 

Cannabis for Black Lives’ activities will be divided into three isolated categories: hiring, amplification, and donations. While hiring initiatives focus on increasing BIPOC representation at the participating companies, amplification and donation initiatives work in tandem to boost support for an organization chosen of the board’s choosing on a bimonthly basis. Companies will not only be giving some portion of their own revenue to these community organizations, but also encouraging their customers to contribute by sharing the fundraising campaigns through their own channels like email blasts, Instagram posts, and physical marketing materials. 

The coalition is led by a 100 percent Black and Latinx board, and has rallied together companies nationwide ranging from the massive delivery company Eaze to smaller, regional suppliers. Twenty companies have already committed, and Mary Pryor, founder of Cannaclusive, leads the board. The leadership team pledges that, unlike with other campaigns, companies that join Cannabis for Black Lives cannot just pick and choose what initiatives suit their PR needs. Accountability is core to Cannabis for Black Lives’ mission. 

“They have to attend a meeting every single month, and they have to make sure that someone BIPOC is on their team,” says Bianca Monica, CEO and co-founder of the women-led full-service creative agency Limone Creative, who uses her marketing expertise to help the board amplify nonprofit campaigns. Companies also have to show that 33 percent of their staff is BIPOC, that they are promoting Black and brown voices in the cannabis industry on their branded social media pages 10 times per month, and that they can meet minimum annual donation thresholds determined by the size of their company.  “It’s not an initiative where people can come and go as they please,” Monica says.  

The coalition’s first partner organization is Oakland-based Supernova Women, a women of color led non-profit that aims to “empower people of color to become self-sufficient shareholders in the cannabis industry,” according to their website. The nonprofit’s activities range from educational events for budding entrepreneurs to legislative activism — in fact, their organization worked with the city of Oakland to help start the nation’s first cannabis social equity program for business owners affected by the War on Drugs, and recently helped lower taxes on cannabis in the city for social equity and small businesses. 

“We are the biggest group of entrepreneurs and the most underfunded,” Senter says of Black women in the industry. “In a typical landscape, people want to invest in people that look like them, and, typically, that’s white men investing in other white men. Being Black and being a woman is certainly not in either one of those buckets,” she says. For this reason, Supernova Women often prioritizes helping business owners access capital through investment workshops and their own fundraising, especially when crisis strikes.

Now Supernova Women is promoting their Cannabis Equity Relief Fund, or “CERF,” for those hit hardest by a series of organized robberies that coincided with June and July’s largest protests.

“Basically all of the money we’re getting, we’re turning around and giving as grants to those operators,” says Amber Senter, Supernova Women’s Co-Founder and Executive Director. Members of the coalition have already pledged several thousand dollars, though fundraising totals have not yet been released.

Senter says cannabis communities in the East Bay were hit particularly hard, likely due to the close proximity of cannabis businesses and near-universal knowledge that, on the night of large protests, Oakland police are difficult to reach. She also senses that cannabis businesses might be neglected by the authorities because police weren’t formally re-trained after the end of prohibition, and that there is still poor communication between cannabis professionals and the police. In fact, she moved the product from her distribution company, Breeze Distro, out of the Bay Area entirely during the protests. “It was everyone throughout the supply chain that got hit: the dispensaries, the manufacturers, the cultivators — it was like ‘no mercy,’” she says. “I was not going to take any chances.” 

San Francisco-based pre-roll company Space Coyote was familiar with this problem — in fact, both of the manufacturing companies they work with were hit by burglars, though they personally didn’t suffer any product losses. A representative from Space Coyote, a white-owned company, says the coalition represents an opportunity for them to stand behind BIPOC movers and shakers in a definitively productive way. 

“If you are so much as walking down the street smoking a joint, there are a lot of Black people in prison for doing the same thing you are,” says Space Coyote’s Director of Marketing Teagan Thompson. “If there are companies who are profiting off of a plant that has been weaponized against these communities, we have a moral obligation,” she says.

Newly launched, many of Cannabis for Black Lives’ future initiatives are yet to be seen. But for Kassia Graham, the future looks bright.

“Partner organizations such as Supernova Women will see lasting impact through funds received and relationships built via Cannabis for Black Lives,” Graham says. Additionally, Graham thinks Cannabis for Black Lives will generate a “more inclusive range of employees, contractors, distributors, suppliers, representation of BIPOC, and more” at the participating companies, and “more informed member organizations earnestly doing the work to support BIPOC in cannabis.”