You Know Who *Won’t* Benefit From Cannabis Legalization? Women of Colour

Pessimistic, we know. But all signs point to white dude domination

(Photo: Stocksy)
(Photo: Stocksy)

“My husband is a tall white guy and I can’t tell you how much we show up to a gig and they look at him, shake his hand and assume he’s the owner,” says Reena Rampersad, who runs a catering business with a unique angle: High Society Supper Club incorporates edibles into their fare, often via sauces, dressings and—fittingly, considering her former gig as the owner of a Caribbean restaurant—hot sauce. “It’s my company; he’s the business manager, but I’ve had people say [to him], ‘Oh, is this your cook?’ And it hasn’t happened just once or twice.”

Rampersad’s experience is contrary to the current narrative around cannabis. The KitCBC and Chatelaine (which is, like FLARE, owned by Rogers Media) have all written about the ways women are shaking up the Canadian cannabis biz, or at least, the ways they could. According to these pubs, women will usher in a newly stylish and inclusive approach to weed—Pineapple Express-style stoner dudes are out, they say, while chic lifestyle brands that focus on wellness and self-care or derivative products, like edibles, topicals and beverages, are very, very in.

Those sectors make sense considering what exactly women want from their weed. According to a poll of 1,530 North American women by cannabis lifestyle brand Van der Pop, “health and wellness concerns—like pain management (19%), relaxation (17%), stress relief (16%) and anxiety reduction (15%)—far surpassed intangibles like ‘social experience’ and ‘increased creativity’ as motivations for using the drug.” But it’s also a matter of money. Canadians spent $5.8 billion on cannabis in 2017, and, according to New Frontier Data, an analytics company specializing in the cannabis industry, that’s likely to grow to $9.2 billion by 2025. Now consider the fact that women make most of the household purchasing decisions, for themselves and for their kids and older relatives, and that as cannabis becomes more normalized, it’s likely to become one of the things they purchase. Of course a “by women, for women” business narrative makes sense. 

It just doesn’t seem to be what’s actually happening. When Rampersad talked to FLARE a month or so before October 17, when Bill C-45 went into effect and cannabis was officially legalized, she was one of the few women—and even fewer women of colour—in Canada to run a cannabis-related business. And despite the business opportunities experts believe legalization will bring, she isn’t sure that’s going to change.

The legal weed economy, by the numbers

Back in 2015, Newsweek was already wondering whether legal marijuana could be the first billion-dollar industry dominated by women. “It seems fitting that a plant called Mary Jane could smash the patriarchy,” the story starts. Except that’s not quite what happened. There’s not a lot of data specifically about women of colour and cannabis, but we can make some reasonable assumptions based on existing data about people of colour and about women in the industry.

According to Marijuana Business Daily, a cannabis trade publication, 81% of American cannabis company owners and founders identify as white. In Canada, a Vice investigation found “almost all 45 of the federally licensed producers (LPs) are run by white men.” What’s more, when Vice asked those 45 LPs for diversity data, 20 responded—and only two had executives from visible minorities. A year later and in an industry that has since shifted to include many different types of companies—cannabis delivery businesses (Eddy Delivery), online marketplaces and review sites (Lift & Co.), even skincare (Evio Beauty Group recently partnered with cannabis heavyweight Aurora on a line of CBD-infused skincare)—this still matters because LPs are, as Vice notes, “the companies that will continue to lead the recreational market.”

Another Marijuana Business Daily report found that “the percentage of women in executive roles [at American companies] fell from 36% in 2015 to 27% in 2017.” The numbers are similarly dismal in Canada, where women make up 24% of execs at publicly traded cannabis companies; there are only seven C-level female executives in Canada, including a single female CEO: Alison Gordon of Toronto’s 48 North. “The business side of the legal cannabis industry is currently not diverse,” she says. “For the most part it is mostly male and mostly white. When I take meetings in the public markets, with banks, investors and the financial world, it’s predominantly men that I meet with. When you are at conferences, it’s predominantly men speaking and attending.”

Look at other places where cannabis has been legalized, like Colorado or California, and there’s a similar pattern: post-legalization, an influx of weed-related businesses, often offering ancillary services, like weed-friendly tour companies or businesses that provide dispensaries with chic packaging, soon open their doors. But overwhelmingly, the people who are launching those businesses are, well, white men. Just consider Canada’s four biggest companies: Aurora Cannabis was founded by Terry Booth. Canopy Growth Corporation? Bruce Linton and Chuck Rifici. Aphria was founded by Cole Cacciavillani and John Cervini. And MedReleaf was founded by Neil Closner.

Despite the way weed has been marketed in recent months—as women-friendly, empowering and chicit looks like women won’t actually get to participate in the promised post-legalization “green rush.”

It’s even more challenging for women of colour. Gia Morón is an executive vice president of Women Grow, a Washington, DC-based org dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership positions at cannabis companies. “I have seen amazing brands launched by WOC,” she says, “but the struggle is often capital and financial support. The brands that are standouts in our industry are often [run by] young white males. The question is, why won’t the masses support WOC’s cannabis businesses? Is it the marketing, demographic or are the products less appealing? If we had the answers there would be a solution right now.”

Follow the money

Let’s be clear, though: Many women of colour are interested in cannabis. According to Antuanette Gomez, a cannabis business consultant and former director of the Toronto chapter of Women Grow, she has seen plenty of women with strong ideas and often, with encouragement and mentorship, they’re keen to start their own small businesses. Unfortunately, interest and mentorship aren’t quite enough. These women also need investors—but they’re finding it difficult to access the same funding as their white, male peers. 

“There are so many different barriers that keep people of colour out of the industry… we are one of the first demographics that don’t have access to funding. And if you look at women of colour compared to women in the industry, we’re getting far less investors compared to our peers, which is really unfortunate,” Gomez says.

Generally speaking, men, especially white men, get lots of investment dollars. Women, especially women of colour, get almost none. Now apply this disparity to cannabis in Canada. This might be a new industry, and one with its roots in the black and grey markets, but the money that’s pouring into the sector comes from exactly where you’d think. That is, high-net worth investors, who, a recent Globe Investor article says, are “pumping hundreds of millions into a slew of pot-related ventures ranging from cultivators, marketers and product developers (cannabis beer anyone?) to software designers, science labs, fintech providers and data miners.”

And those high-net worth investors are throwing their money behind the same types of people they always have. Last year in Americamen received almost all (97.8%) the $85 billion invested by American venture capital firms. Women received just 2.2% of that money, and women of colour received less than 1%. The Canadian story is likely similar. We know the firms that most often invest in women are those founded and led by women themselves, and in Canada, only 14% of the partners at our venture capital firms are women.

Who gets a seat at the table?

So, companies led by WOC have a hard time getting funding. But what about those who want to join an established cannabis company? Well, it depends on what they’re aiming for. While there’s (slightly) better representation among employees, leadership remains stubbornly white and male—just like those high-net worth investors. 

That’s why it’s not terribly surprising that the companies with the same old racial and ethnic breakdown are the ones who most easily attract investors. According to a recent Financial Post article, one hedge fund, MMCap, has invested upwards of $600 million into a dozen cannabis companies in the past three years, including Canopy Growth Corp. (of its 14-person leadership team, three are white women, one is a man of colour), Aurora Cannabis Inc. (of its eight directors, two are women, one of which is a WOC) and Aphria Inc. (of its five-person executive team, there are no women and only one POC; there is one woman on its board of directors… but no POC).

Carolyn Tinglin, the president of the National Association of Cannabis Professionals, isn’t surprised by these stats. “Even within most companies, there are only one or two people of colour,” she says. And those shockingly low numbers mean even when POC get hired, they don’t feel empowered to advocate for their communities. And it’s not necessarily because cannabis execs are deliberately trying to keep POC down. Inclusion just might not be high on anyone else’s list of priorities—but that can have just as profound a chilling effect.

Tinglin explains it with an anecdote about a Black man she knows who works for a major LP. “In his division, he is the only one. And he is very cautious,” she says. So yes, he might try to do outreach with communities of colour and promote POC business owners, but there’s only so much he can do. “For him to go back to the company and say, ‘Well, listen, there are all these communities out there that we haven’t really tackled…’ He’s not going to get any uptake on that. He’s just not going to get traction. [They’re not going to say] ‘Oh, really? Well, why don’t you continue to explore that? That’s a great idea. Continue to explore that and get back to us.’ No, it kind of stops right there. In a way, I feel sorry for him, because he kind of ends up being the token, but the token with absolutely no ability to really affect change.”

The stigma is real

Of course, some WOC may be self-selecting out of the business. That is, they might have a great idea for a cannabis-related company, but they’re hesitant to even try to start it. 

Ashley Athill, a grower and the founder of Sensii, an educational cannabis cultivation platform based in Toronto, says one of the main reasons Black people and other people of colour hesitate to enter the cannabis space is fear. “Historically, these communities have been ostracized, ridiculed and jailed for simple possession of cannabis. That type of trauma doesn’t go away overnight,” she says.

That is, maybe they’ve seen friends or relatives face legal consequences in the past—a 2017 Toronto Star analysis found that Black people with no prior convictions were three times more likely to be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana than their white peers. And in April, a Vice investigation found Black and Indigenous people are “overrepresented” in marijuana possession arrests across the country. Or maybe they’ve been convicted themselves. After all, while Murray Rankin, NDP MP for Victoria, plans to table a bill that will expunge Canadians’ criminal records of cannabis possession-related charges, for now, if you have a prior conviction, you’ll still have a criminal record after October 17. (Yes, news did break on October 16 that the government plans to grant pardons to Canadians with “simple possession charges”—that is, possession of 30 grams or less, which is no longer illegal. But they won’t be offering amnesty, or expunging criminal records.)

Hence the hesitation. After all, “when you are, as a community, disproportionately targeted when it comes to cannabis, you’re not going to be wanting to go into an industry that previously criminalized you,” Tinglin says. “Why would you trust the very people who convicted and sent your cousin to prison for 10 years for a small possession charge? Why would you trust those very same people to include you or to invite you or to work with you in this very same industry?”

And there’s also the Reefer Madness effect. The 1936 propaganda film, in which a trio of innocent teens start smoking weed (via so-called “reefer” cigarettes) and quickly find themselves in a downward spiral of addiction, violence and even murder, was instrumental in stigmatizing cannabis—and for some communities, that perception lingers.

“Most immigrant groups are not embracing cannabis yet, so there is still a lot of education and community outreach that is needed if we are going to break down those stereotypes,” says Barinder Rasode, a former city councillor for Surrey, BC and the CEO of NICHE Canada, a not-for-profit that supports cannabis research and public policy development. “For South Asian women, there is often a double glass ceiling when it comes to cannabis, and that can be challenging.  Not only do we face the same challenges as other women, but we are also burdened by cultural expectations.”

Can women-led companies change the game?

Rasode does think change is coming, though. “I do believe that women and women and colour will begin to play larger roles at the top of the corporate structure, as the number of female cannabis consumers grows. And, those companies that recognize the importance of this can really set themselves apart from the competition,” she says, pointing to the “subtle mainstreaming of cannabis consumption” that has already begun. For example, post-secondary institutions, like Kwantlen Polytechnic University, have started offering cannabis training courses, while Health Canada’s messaging on cannabis has shifted to include more “nuance”—a far cry from its previous messaging, which mostly amounted to, “Don’t do it.”

But normalization is going to take work, and not just from the WOC who want to get into the biz. It’ll also require a commitment from the current leaders in the cannabis industry. That’s something Gordon, the 48 North CEO, takes seriously, and not just because of her beliefs. There’s also a business case for embracing inclusion. “The cannabis consumer is so much more diverse than the current culture wants us to believe. I have met women and men of all shapes, sizes and colours that use cannabis; there is an appetite out there for representation and that’s what we want to provide,” Gordon says. That’s why their marketing materials feature a wide variety of ethnicities, as does their office—though they’re a small team, the majority of their employees (75%) are women and 33% are POC. The company is also working on a community benefits agreement with the Matachewan First Nation in Kirkland Lake, where it has a facility.

For Rampersad, there is an obvious solution to many of these problems. “[Businesses should] try to seek out and reserve space for WOC specifically. I know that people frown at affirmative action, but I was a social worker in the US and I can tell you about dozens of employers who admitted that affirmative action is what forced them to hire POC, and it changed their perspectives.”

This article was originally published on October 15, 2018.