(This story published on April 20, 2019)

Over the next ten years, the cannabis industry is expected to see growth around the globe. By 2027, spending on legal cannabis is expected to hit $57 billion worldwide.

The cannabis industry’s projected growth is a cause for celebration for some. Others, however, can’t help but think about the Black and brown people still locked up for it.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates.

The same communities targeted by cannabis’ criminalization, however, aren’t reflected within the cannabis industry itself.

Taking note of cannabis’ inclusivity problem, a group of women decided to confront it. Inspired by the growing opportunities — and disappointed by the diversity issues taking root —Cannaclusive was developed to facilitate fair representation of minority cannabis consumers.

One of the group’s founders, Mary Pryor, has experience in advertising, tech, and media. As a Digital and Marketing Specialist, she’s worked for major brands like Sony Music Group, Viacom, Black Enterprise, Ebony Magazine, and more.

Inequity in the cannabis industry is something that’s very personal and sensitive for Pryor, who uses the drug to treat a chronic illness.

“My Crohn’s disease is pretty much staved off or has shifted from being a life stopper to totally shifting to where I can operate and actually use the medicine” Pryor said.  “I noticed that that’s something a lot of our communities need and cannot access.”

In describing Cannaclusive, Pryor said, “We’re a collective that focuses on driving the conversation behind why marketing should be inclusive, providing those services, and talking about the advocacy and the space.”

Part of the collective’s work involved creating the first inclusive stock photo set to de-stigmatize cannabis.

Often, the images of Black and brown cannabis users are very negative, including associations with criminality, like handcuffs.  The photo set aims to turn those images on their heads by showing cool, yet accessible users in their 20s or older. Although improving marketing is important, it’s only part of the problem.

A photo from Cannaclusive’s stock photo set on Black and brown cannabis users.

Who gets to make money off of cannabis?

Right now, the cannabis industry is dominated by white dispensary owners. For Pryor, that speaks to larger issues around capital and who has access to it. It’s a common theme across industries, too. Project Diane, for example, found that Black women founders in tech are consistently underfunded.

“I would love for my local street legacy individual to be able to be in this market, but they don’t have $15 million upfront,” Pryror said, noting that white men often have the capital and debt ceiling to do what they want.

Many of the issues with cannabis — including those surrounding capital — can be traced back to the War on Drugs, which President Nixon declared in June 1971. The government campaign was used to increase the size of federal drug agencies and introduced measures like mandatory sentencing.

The reason behind the War on Drugs was revealed decades later, when top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine that the Nixon campaign and White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people.

“You understand what I’m saying,” Ehrlichman said. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

Over time, Black and brown communities were also associated with marijuana — and criminalized heavily for it. Even as cannabis becomes legalized in some states, Black and brown communities are still impacted by the legacy of the War on Drugs.

“Cannabis is wild because you got cousins and family members that have been locked up for doing what’s happening now,” Pryor said. “You know, it’s kind of like a slap in the face, trying to play catch up to something that you shouldn’t have to be playing catch up to.”

There have been various programs launched to try fighting inequities and stigma within the cannabis industry. Oakland designed an equity permit program to help longtime residents and city natives convicted of marijuana-related crimes take advantage of the booming industry. The city’s first equity cannabis dispensary opened its doors in December 2018.

Founders like Rashaan Everett with Growing Talent, Jeffrey Stewart with Ovandi, and Ron Johnson with GroLens all seek to change the industry. However, fixing cannabis’ inclusivity issues is also going to require tackling larger systems, like anti-Black racism and incarceration. That looks like going to city council meetings, talking to politicians, and working on a more definitive level.

There are steps that businesses can take, too. They can commit to social responsibility plans and make sure their executive boards are inclusive. The most important step though, as Pryor notes, is putting money into the communities that actually drive the culture and their businesses forward.

“They can reinvest dollars into the communities that they are pretty much using all of the terminology, flavor, and the spice from to drive their dollars and their brand.”