It’s Black History Month and cannabis brands are launching a wide range of content celebrating the contributions of Black and brown individuals and organizations in the cannabis industry and culture at large. However, amid this widespread celebration remains serious gaps in building an equitable cannabis industry that addresses the lingering damage caused by prohibition and the War on Drugs. 

Before you create and send your messaging around Black History Month (or any other awareness month, for that matter) it’s important to consider how you’re actually contributing to social equity year-round and effectively build equity throughout the industry in the months after February.

Celebrating Black history in the cannabis industry

In the cannabis industry, Black History Month is a time to celebrate the many contributions of Black people to cannabis culture, innovation, the legalization movement, and the industry that is now being built across the U.S. Cannabis history and Black history are, in many ways, inextricably linked, and as the cannabis industry now flourishes it’s important to keep that history top of mind.

“Black culture has long been a driver of cannabis culture, especially our music and language,” said Kassia Graham, director of community and strategy at CannaClusive. “Jazz, reggae, and hip hop have always played a part in cannabis as artists consume and exalt the plant in song and rhyme. While demonized by various governments, religious bodies, and politicians, those genres of Black music capture the zeitgeist of the 1920s to the present.” 

However, while the acknowledgment of Black contributions to cannabis culture and the industry is much-needed and welcome, the conversation is necessarily evolving. Today, it’s critical to ground the celebration of Black in more tangible efforts to build equity in the industry and eliminate the obstacles faced by Black and brown entrepreneurs, professionals, and businesses succeed industry-wide.

“This conversation is important because years ago we wouldn’t have been having it,” said Ru Johnson, owner of Roux Black, a Denver-based creative consulting firm focused on platforming individuals and brands with an emphasis on social impact in the cannabis and music industries. The movement for an equitable cannabis industry has evolved beyond simple acknowledgement into an expectation of action on the part of brands, she added. 

When celebrating Black History Month, it’s important for brands to be able to point to their actual social impact, Johnson said. But what’s the best way for your brand to make a meaningful impact? And what contributions is your organization making to building an equitable cannabis industry day in and day out?

“We have found that social impact is only most impactful when there are policies and systems in place that allow creatives and consumers and those who want to operate in the industry to actually thrive all the time, not just when it’s in observation of [an awareness month],” Johnson said.

Moving beyond buzzwords and supporting true equity

However you celebrate Black History Month, it’s important that your messaging is grounded in real, demonstrable work your organization is doing year-round to help improve opportunities for Black entrepreneurs and professionals in the cannabis industry. 

“‘Social equity’ is almost more of a buzzword now than ‘War on Drugs,’” Johnson said. “What we’re not looking at in the cannabis industry are the actual components that made the War on Drugs so destructive to communities of color. Creating a social equity space doesn’t combat those effects because we aren’t looking at the actual disease — we’re just trying to cure the symptoms.”

As one of the most targeted demographics by law enforcement under cannabis prohibition, Black people suffered disproportionately due to the War on Drugs. In fact, Black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession as white Americans, despite virtually equal consumption rates. 

There also remain racial barriers to launching and growing a business in the cannabis industry. At the largest 14 cannabis companies, roughly 70% of executives are white men, while Black executives make up just 7% of leadership. Similarly, fewer than 2% of cannabis business owners or CEOs nationwide are Black.

As a result, social equity initiatives and corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts have become a major focus in the cannabis industry. Unfortunately, these efforts often leave a lot to be desired, however well-intentioned.

“Racial injustice, institutional racism as it relates to the carceral state … these are things that have long been in place and were exalted by the War on Drugs, “Johnson said. “I struggle sometimes when I hear agencies and brands say they exist to combat the detrimental effects of the War on Drugs when they’re not identifying these elements that make the War on Drugs still relevant.”

According to Graham, action is the missing component in many discussions around social equity in cannabis, and it’s time to begin moving the needle away from conversation and toward meaningful action that builds equity in the cannabis industry and beyond. 

“This work is not for the faint of heart. If you can get your feelings hurt so quickly by people seeking equity it’s important to sit with that, and ask yourself why it makes you feel as if there is not enough to share,” Graham said. “While cannabis equity is important I believe Black lawyers, inventors, scientists, chefs, CEOs, and other executives matter too. These people shouldn’t be seen as ‘diversity’ hires but rather the best candidate for the job regardless of race — they’re great at what they do and bring a melange of thought and experience to a team.”

How cannabis companies can support DE&I measures year-round

Unless you’re actively supporting Black businesses and leadership in the space, your Black History Month marketing campaign will ring hollow and self-serving, and your customers will know it. Taking the lead in terms of equity within your own organization and transparency into your DE&I programs for the sake of ethical accountability is a must.

According to Havas Media Group’s Meaningful Brands Report, 73% of consumers believe brands must act for the betterment of society and the planet. Additionally, 71% don’t believe most brands are sincere in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) messaging — and they’re tired of it. 

In other words, if you want to celebrate equity and DE&I, you need to put your money where your mouth is. Fortunately, the following steps can help create a strong foundation both for your brand and a tight-knit community of like minds that want to ensure an equitable future in cannabis and for our communities.

1. Consider representation in marketing

One simple but important way to normalize equity is to ensure Black and brown people are represented in all your marketing materials. That goes beyond simply including people of color in your marketing images, but actually elevating Black-owned brands in your content.

“You can make sure you’re utilizing your platform … to highlight and spotlight Black and brown businesses throughout the year,” Johnson said. “And make sure you’re listening to Black and brown customers.”

Representation goes beyond the realm of cannabis marketing content, too; it also matters how Black brands are supported by your business. Johnson gave the example of a retail environment and what products make it to the shelves, and how they are promoted.

“Determine if [your customers] are able to go in and find, for example, products from a woman-owned, Latino, LGBTQ+ business,” Johnson said. “How is the design set up in those retail locations actually benefiting platforming businesses of color? How easy is it to get on those shelves?”

Ensuring adequate representation in marketing and inventory is one of the first and most important steps in demonstrating your commitment to building equity in the cannabis industry.

2. Amplify Black voices and establish leadership pathways

To be the best advocate and ally you can be, you need to help support the people who are already advocating for themselves by amplifying their message and helping them tell the stories of their lived experiences. Connecting with individuals and Black-led organizations already doing the work and supporting them with the resources and tools they need is a great first step to getting involved in advocacy.

“We should amplify the voices of those who really have the experience and expertise to build survivable businesses in cannabis,” Johnson said. “And I believe one of the strongest ways to do that is by providing tools and resources to Black and brown and red and yellow communities that amplify the skills they already have.”

In this way, amplifying voices means more than just passing the mic, but also creating leadership opportunities for Black entrepreneurs, professionals, and organizations. This could include:

  • Rethinking your recruiting and hiring practices
  • Designing clear career pathways for employee advancement
  • Working with a coalition of Black-led organizations to advocate for equitable access to the industry
  • If you have a board, ensure it includes Black and brown members

Along the way, make sure you are soliciting feedback and implementing changes based on the input of your Black and brown employees and customers. 

“These businesses and companies can actually amplify the skillset of the people who work for them already and raise them up through the leadership pipeline,” Johnson said.

3. Build a community of like-minded businesses

Just like a Chamber of Commerce comes together to represent the interests of a businesses in a given area, so too should equity-minded cannabis businesses organize with one another to establish a network of organizations all striving for the same goal. By coming together and agreeing upon a framework of both internal DE&I practices and external social equity goals, businesses can more clearly work toward an equitable future in which the cannabis industry offers opportunities for Black and brown entrepreneurs and professionals.

“If we believe social equity can actually benefit these communities, then businesses need to come together and talk about that — then we can begin to have solutions,” Johnson said. “By listening to Black and Latino advocates, listening to Black and brown-owned businesses about the stresses they have in keeping businesses survivable … allows the greater industry to establish a standard of care for businesses across all sectors to thrive.”

4. Create awareness month campaigns based on real accomplishments

When you do all of the above year-round, you can base your Black History Month campaigns on the tangible contributions you’ve made to support Black business owners and cannabis pros, rather than simply creating hollow content as a nod to the awareness month. Use your Black History Month content to platform Black voices and celebrate another year of getting the work done, looking back on all you and your partners have accomplished together.

“If I were a [business] that wanted to prove my DE&I program was actually beneficial, I would lay out a retrospective on everything I’ve done to support Black businesses and amplify the work of those businesses,” Johnson said. “The best way to celebrate Black History Month is to celebrate what your business has actually done [to support Black entrepreneurs and professionals].”

Do more than just acknowledge Black history — help make it

During Black History Month, many brands’ social media feeds and blogs are replete with acknowledgements of the month and famous Black icons in cannabis — but that’s just the start. Now, it’s time to take the next step to engage in the work needed for true social equity reform.

“Cannabis companies can show up for Black people year-round by hiring us, paying us on par with white men, stocking our products, sourcing from us, amplifying our work regularly, and shining a light on the many ways we contribute to the industry,” Graham said. “It’s incredibly important to show up every step of the way, and to support cannabis equity internally — [through] hiring and company culture — and externally [by] supporting local, state, and national policy and legislation.”

If you’re looking to make an impact, consider joining the Floret Coalition, consulting InclusiveBase, Cannaclusive’s database of Black talent for hire in the cannabis industry, or supporting the many initiatives led by organizations like Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana or BIPOCANN. Johnson also recommended following groups like The Hood Incubator, the Oakland, Calif.-based Equity Trade Network, and people like Nina Parks, founder and CEO of cannabis equity brand Gift of Doja, to tap into additional opportunities to contribute to the movement for an equitable cannabis industry.

“We have more responsibility than just selling weed,” Johnson said. “We need to think about the tools people need, find the people who need it, and give it to them.”

As social equity and DE&I become buzzwords on everyones’ lips, rolling up your sleeves and doing the actual restorative work to both repair the damage done to predominantly Black communities by the War on Drugs and build a truly equitable cannabis industry is more important than ever.