Can Cannabis Be Inclusive?

It’s June 2019. Welcome to Pride Month. It’s the time of the year when the cannabis industry wants you to know how much it cares. Many of the biggest brands in cannabis are rolling out the red carpet for their LGBTQ+ fans—massive dispensary chain MedMen, popular delivery service Eaze, and Kush Queen cosmetics are a few who have made substantial commitments to supporting the LGBTQ+ community. But despite the rainbow branding and heartfelt homages to queer folks who helped lead the good fight for cannabis legalization, the industry can’t ignore one uncomfortable truth: it’s very straight, it’s very white, and it’s very male.

While there’s little available data on LGBTQ+ representation within the cannabis industry, it’s clear there’s a problem—and it’s existed for some time. Back in 2017, Tessa Love of Slate warned that “by excluding LGBTQ people, the growing cannabis industry is betraying its roots.”

Other historically marginalized communities have also struggled to carve out a niche in cannabis: According to a 2017 survey from Marijuana Business Daily, only 4.3 percent of cannabis businesses are owned by Black Americans, while Hispanic Americans own 5.7 percent. Even one of the industry’s most notable success stories (the above-average representation of women in leadership roles) has been steadily eroding. While women held a full 36 percent of executive positions in 2015, by 2017 that number had decreased to 26.9 percent.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about bemoaning the cannabis industry’s lack of inclusivity, but the discrepancies are now too great to ignore, and addressing them with half-measures will prove problematic to the future growth of the industry. According to a May 2019 report from Grand View Research, the market for legal cannabis is expected to hit $66.3 billion by 2025.

Considering that 2015 sales in the U.S. (by far the world’s biggest consumer of cannabis) were only $5.4 billion, that prospective rate of growth would be extraordinary — yet it’s not inevitable. If the cannabis industry wants to reach its full potential, it needs to appeal to those who are not straight white men.

Here is a collection of important figures:

  • LGBTQ+ people: $917 billion
  • Women: $5 trillion (that’s a T)
  • Black Americans: $1.3 trillion
  • Hispanic Americans: $1.5 trillion

These are the best available estimates of purchasing power of different groups of people who are currently (woefully) underrepresented in the legal cannabis industry. They’re expected to increase in the years to come. Pew Research Center estimates that Hispanic and Black Americans will comprise 25 percent of the total U.S. adult population by 2025, while a recent analysis of Gallup poll data revealed that 4.5 percent of Americans consider themselves LGBTQ+, which is the highest number ever recorded.

If cannabis wants to build lasting relationships with historically marginalized communities, offering discounts during Pride Month or featuring diverse models in their advertisements simply won’t cut it. The industry needs to take strong, concrete actions to make “diversity” and “inclusion” more than buzzwords.

Here are some thoughts:

First, let’s make it easier for people from marginalized communities to get a foot in the door. Currently, most cannabis businesses require government-issued licenses to get started. These licenses are off limits to anyone with a previous drug conviction, even minor offenses, which people from marginalized communities are more likely to possess. As a result, we’re left with a world in which only a few dozen of the nation’s 3,000+ cannabis dispensaries are owned by Black Americans (around 99 percent of all dispensaries are white-owned).

And while it’s not within the industry’s direct power to change these laws, there’s a reason once-political powerhouses John Boehner, Joe Crowley, and Tom Daschle went straight from holding office to holding Board meetings for the world’s biggest cannabis companies. If those companies are genuine about wanting to make cannabis inclusive, they need to bring their power to bear on Washington. Now.

Another crucial move is to increase funding available to startups led by LGBTQ+ people, women, and all people of color. Cannabis is a notoriously capital-intensive business, with licenses running upwards of $20,000, and few conventional methods of financing available (financial institutions are wary of dealing with cannabis companies, since doing anything with the plant is still a federal crime). Getting funding is a challenge for any would-be cannabis entrepreneur, but it’s especially difficult for women and people of color. In 2017, just 2.2 percent of $85 billion in venture funding went to women, while businesses founded by women of color got what amounts to nothing. As Wanda James, the first black female dispensary owner in Colorado, told VICE: “Getting funded is a bitch.”

The cannabis industry must “change the conversation” around the plant, but in a different way. In the attempt to sanitize cannabis in the minds of mainstream audiences, a host of cannabis brands are oddly redefining a typical cannabis user as a chic, sophisticated suburbanite who is diametrically opposed to the stereotypical stoner of yesteryear. But what’s left unsaid is that a great many of those stereotypical stoners were queer, people of color, and often both. By seeking to erase the colorful cannabis past from public consciousness, the industry is missing an opportunity to right a historical wrong and secure its long-term growth.

The cannabis industry is still remarkably exciting and progressive—and we all know it. As Addison Herron-Wheeler said in OUT FRONT Magazine, “[It] is clear that the cannabis industry has its heart in the right place when it comes to acceptance and inclusion.”  There’s a difference between wanting to do the right thing and doing it, and as Herron-Wheeler notes, the industry “sometimes… [overlooks] diversity due to privilege within.”

If the cannabis industry is serious about being a positive force in society, it needs to do better—and it can.

Laermer, a proud gay man who knows his facts & figures, is our CEO & Chief Strategist