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Will Oakland's Legal Weed Industry Leave People of Color Behind?

In the wake of the War on Drugs, state laws and industry culture are preventing Black and Latino folks from entering Oakland's burgeoning, hugely profitable cannabis market.



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The purpose of the Supernova panel was to educate the public about the legal issues at play surrounding cannabis regulations and the options available for people to enter the industry. But it also turned into an informal networking event, with people volunteering different skillsets related to their work in the cannabis industry. One woman asked if anyone wanted to pool resources to rent a commercial kitchen for making edibles and topicals. People offered resources for legal advice and leads on warehouse spaces for cultivation. Though the networking portion of the event was unplanned, organizers Senter, Lencho, and Parks welcomed it.

According to the founders of Supernova, networking is a vital part of running a cannabis business. Entrepreneurs often help one another by sharing information on upcoming legislation and city council meetings, business advice, and safety precautions for dealing with large amounts of cash and lucrative product.

"You can't Google how to run a dispensary," said Andrea Unsworth, who owns the cannabis delivery company StashTwist and is also the chairwoman of the Bay Area chapter of the cannabis entrepreneurship organization Women Grow. Unsworth, who is Black, said that opening a delivery service was one way for her to operate legally, given Oakland's current cap of eight storefront dispensary licenses. But running her business has not been easy, as she often fears for the safety of her drivers and questions whether law enforcement would be on her side if something bad were to happen.

But attending networking events can be costly. While the Supernova panel was free, according to Lencho, the admission price to attend a mainstream cannabis conference is typically in the hundreds of dollars. As a result, the attendees at cannabis networking events tend to be overwhelmingly wealthy and white. Those who don't have the time or money to attend them are essentially missing out on vital sources of information.

"I've been going to local hearings in Berkeley and Oakland," said Lencho, "and the only reason you know they're happening is because you're tapped into the industry and people are reminding you about the schedule of events, and you have people who are telling you about the upcoming conferences. If you have no idea that this is happening, which I think is the case with the vast majority of people living in this area, you're going to wake up in 2018, you're going to hear about these licensing applications, and you're going to be like, 'Wait, what? I didn't even know this was going on.'"

Cannabis networking events also provide entrepreneurs with the chance to make business connections: Topicals makers and growers can meet dispensary owners, for instance, which would improve their chances of getting their products in clubs. If networking events are structured in such a way that is not accessible to low-income folks, many people of color will effectively be barred from the industry.

"I'm not assuming that all people of color are low-income, or living check-to-check, but if you've been around weed [on the underground market], chances are you're not very affluent," said Claudia Mercado. "And finding the time to attend those meetings is very time-consuming."

While felony convictions likely will prohibit many people from becoming licensed to start their own cannabis businesses, one would think that a way for them to still profit from the cannabis industry would be through getting a job at a local dispensary. According to Andrew Silva, a San Francisco attorney who works with local cannabis businesses to make sure they're in compliance with state and local laws, dispensaries typically pay above the minimum wage.

"People with felonies are currently being employed by dispensaries, and it's a really good resource for them, because they pay well," said Silva, who used to make a living working at cannabis dispensaries before starting his law practice.

However, the cannabis entrepreneurs of color interviewed for this story echoed the sentiment that most of the cannabis clubs in Oakland — with the exception of places like Purple Heart, which is Black-owned, and Magnolia Wellness, which has a reputation for having a diverse staff — and around the Bay Area tend to have majority-white staff, even in entry-level positions.

Shaw, owner of Mystic Herbal Body Care, said that since she began selling her product at local dispensaries in 2009, she has seldom encountered people of color in managerial positions at dispensaries — a trend she often sees reflected in the racial makeup of the rest of the staff. Shaw said that she has applied to numerous dispensary jobs that she considered herself obviously qualified for — since she is an experienced grower, topicals maker, and business owner — but she has frequently been rejected. She has often wondered whether racially biased hiring practices were the reason.

"It's very disturbing, and it bothers me a lot, because Black and Mexican people might not be able to start the business, but we sure need jobs," she said. "And it would be great to do something in the cannabis industry, where you don't have to get drug tested and you get to deal with something that's so fun and be part of this whole movement. It kind of breaks my heart. ... Unless it's a Black-owned club, you usually don't see any Black people working there, not even budtenders."

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