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Lack of diversity in cannabis industry ‘wholly unacceptable’

A bill in the Maryland General Assembly had sought to add more black firms to the state's regulated medical marijuana industry. Instead it might end up favoring existing players — nearly all of whom are white-owned companies.

As a female and a minority, I have experienced my fair share of barriers when it comes to breaking through glass ceilings. Though diversity is something that is talked about in theory with vigor, it is not always implemented in practice with that same energy.

According to a 2017 Marijuana Business Daily study, minorities are woefully underrepresented in the cannabis industry. More than 80 percent of cannabis businesses are owned by whites, while blacks and Hispanics constitute barely 10% of business ownership combined. Given the rapidly changing demographics of our nation, this is wholly unacceptable.

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Diversity is extremely important in the medical cannabis industry for a number of reasons. For one, diversifying the industry means opening up doors to previously untouched communities. Though it may be uncomfortable to admit, there are definite negative stereotypes about minorities and cannabis use. With more minority cannabis purveyors in the industry, those businesses can offer a more welcoming face to consumers, which could open access to the billions of dollars of spending power of minority communities. Diversifying the cannabis industry means injecting new ideas and perspectives. It means broader outreach strategies and innovative ideas to enter under-served communities. Another reason to embrace diversity is sustainability. A larger, more robust cannabis industry is a successful one. Everybody wins when the industry grows because relationships are built and communities are changed. Consumers want to frequent businesses where they know the owner and staff, and they know that person has the best interests of the community at heart. These businesses can only survive if the industry continues to grow, which can only happen with increased diversity.

A look inside Grassroots Cannabis, the first cannabis grower to open in Carroll County since the state implemented its medical marijuana program.

After facing backlash over the lack of licenses issued to minority groups, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) decided to issue 14 new licenses. In this application process, however, emphasis was placed on the diverse makeup of each group’s leadership team, its staff, and its intention to impact the local community. The MMCC offered firms the opportunity to earn extra points on their application by hiring minorities and hiring from designated disadvantaged communities.

At Community Wellness LLC, where I’m the CEO, we built an extremely diverse team of executives, board members, contractors and staff. Our team has years of experience as operators, scientists, strategists and more in both the pharmaceutical and cannabis industries. As we chose a location to house our growing and processing operations, we searched for a community in need of positive economic impact. One location stuck out: Princess Anne in Somerset County, home to the lowest income of any county in the state. County unemployment sits at nearly 7%, and 16% in Princess Anne. More than 35% of Princess Anne residents live below the poverty line with per capita income for Princess Anne under $15,000 and under $19,000 for the county. Recognizing the need to inject life into the community, we chose 83% of our cultivation staff and 90% of our processing staff from within 30 minutes of our facility, providing them with an hourly wage well above the county average and a comprehensive benefits package.

While our primary goal at Community Wellness is to become a leader in the Maryland medical cannabis industry, our mission goes far beyond that. Medical cannabis is a rapidly growing industry, both here in Maryland and around the nation. Research has proven the many medical benefits and healing qualities of cannabis, which make it a viable treatment alternative for many. We want to become a leading incubator to provide training and expertise to underrepresented groups throughout the state. With the knowledge they gain on medical cannabis, members of the community can go out and become entrepreneurs of their own, continuing to pass their expertise on to others.

Medical marijuana cigarettes are hand-rolled at the All American Cannabis Club, aka A2C2, a medical marijuana collective, in San Jose, Calif.
Medical marijuana cigarettes are hand-rolled at the All American Cannabis Club, aka A2C2, a medical marijuana collective, in San Jose, Calif. (Nhat V. Meyer, MCT)

Our location allows us opportunities to work with institutions like the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, an HBCU with a history of strong agricultural programming, and build strong relationships there. This was extremely important as I myself am a graduate of an HBCU, so expanding opportunities to those students was a high priority for our group.

We are changing the industry by identifying underrepresented individuals and giving them the skills and training they need to have long-term success in the industry. By building the knowledge base and expanding beyond previously established horizons, we are guaranteeing that the workforce will continue to become more diverse as it grows.

It is a time of unprecedented growth for groups that have been historically underrepresented. The importance of having diverse skill sets and viewpoints in the cannabis industry cannot be overlooked any longer.

Jasmine Sessoms (jasmine@communitywellnessmaryland.com) is CEO of Community Wellness LLC.

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