Cannabis may be consumed by adults of all races, ages, and genders, but in Canada, those employed in the upper echelons of the nascent industry don’t reflect that diversity. According to a report published by the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation (CDPE) and the University of Toronto, the leadership of the country’s licensed cannabis producers is made up of predominantly white men.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the paper titled, “How Diverse is Canada’s Legal Cannabis Industry?” The report aimed to take a closer look at the race and gender of individuals “with the greatest influence and financial stake” in the industry: the boards and executives of the hundreds of licensed producers growing Canada’s legal weed.
Unsurprising But Important Data
The results of the report were not surprising in a country where corporate boards and directors have already been established as largely white: 84% of industry leaders were white, 6% were South Asian, 3% were East and Southeast Asian, 2% were Indigenous, 2% were Arab, 1% was Black, and 1% was Latinx. When broken down by race and gender, 73% of executives and directors were white men, 14% were non-white men, 12% were white women, and 2% were non-white women.
“We know that corporate Canada is predominantly white and also predominantly male, so we’d have no real reason given the way our cannabis legalization framework was set up to believe that the cannabis industry would be any different,” said Owusu-Bempah on the results.
He and the team of researchers behind the report did the work not to point out the obvious, but to highlight underrepresentation precisely because Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately harmed under prohibition. “This of all industries could have provided an opportunity to make amends for that historic injustice, and, importantly, provide an avenue for opportunity for the groups that have been harmed by prohibition,” he said.
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Led by Nazlee Maghsoudi, the researchers crunched the numbers by first determining which of Canada’s 500-plus licensed producers had publicly identified their executives and directors, and then analyzed, assessed, verified, and cross-referenced to determine race and gender. Owusu-Bempah said it was a time-consuming project that required several updates as new producers were licensed.
Solutions? Looks South, Says Researcher
While it would have been ideal to address the undue harms of prohibition towards Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the first edition of the Cannabis Act, Owusu-Bempah says it’s not to late to make changes. At the retail level, a tiered licensing system not unlike the ones in places like Illinois or Los Angeles could be offered, where low-income applicants or those who come from previously criminalized populations are given priority, he said.
“That’s one promising way to go about this,” he said. “In terms of creating a diverse marketplace, the federal government could have done more than just simply offer micro-cultivation licenses as its diversification and provided these targeted avenues of entry as well,” he said, suggesting a priority licensing system for eligible producers could also be implemented.
Massachusetts Program Offers Support But No Guarantees
Shaleen Title is the commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and was a co-author of the state’s marijuana legalization referendum. She became interested in the issue of equity in cannabis after her work on legalization in Colorado in 2012.
“I had been very focused on criminal justice, stopping the arrests, and making sure that cannabis users were treated like law-abiding citizens, but then as we began to see the business aspect being unfair and focused on rich, white-owned companies, economic justice became a lot more important to me,” she said.
When she sat down with the group of co-authors to write the referendum, Title found for the first time she wasn’t the only woman of color in the room. When she and co-author Shanel Lindsay suggested the referendum use language that encouraged the inclusion of disproportionately harmed communities within the industry, there was little to no opposition from other co-authors.
When the legislature refined the citizen-authored bill, equity provisions were made even stronger, with specific mandates related to farmers, veterans and women- and minority-owned businesses, says Title.
Today, the free Massachusetts Social Equity Program provides industry-specific training to those most impacted by the War on Drugs. While it does offer free training, an expedited license review and waived application fees, it doesn’t actually guarantee a license to applicants who sign up.
Title says what makes the program in her state different from other social equity programs in the United States is that the data from its policies has unfolded in public. “We’ve been very honest and transparent about what we’ve tried, and I think the big takeaway for other states is they need to do as much as what we’re doing,” Title says.
Her biggest piece of advice to other jurisdictions looking to implement similar programs is not to wait. “If you implement diversity efforts early on, as the industry is being created, it’s going to be easier. It’s going to multiply and have a bigger impact if you have a really small industry now, and you make sure that it’s diverse as it grows,” she says.
Los Angeles Program “A Work In Progress”
While a similar social equity program in Los Angeles hasn’t been without its issues, Cat Packer, the executive director of the city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation, says its program is unique because of the department’s continued collaboration with stakeholders.
“The program has faced many challenges as we’ve worked to implement and improve existing programming. However, we believe that within every challenge is an opportunity to learn and to do better,” Packer said. Some of those challenges, she said, have included securing continued funding for the program, advocating policy changes to improve the program and working with the city’s legal representatives to protect the program against litigation.
“Some jurisdictions might call 10 to 15% of a licensing fee for certain applicants a social equity program,” she said. “Our programming provides priority application process, access to a fee deferral program, a financial grant program and business development services.” Recent changes to the program also give social equity applicants exclusive access to delivery and retail licenses until January 2025.
In order to be eligible for the program in California’s biggest city, applicants must be low-income, have past cannabis arrests or convictions, live in areas of the city that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition, or a combination.
Packer says the program has seen much attention, receiving more than 2,500 applications during its first application period, with staff verifying approximately 1,600 applicants as eligible to participate. Just last week, regulators released the final list of 200 social equity retail license finalists.
Despite some pushback, Packer says social equity programs like the ones in L.A. and Massachusetts have helped turn an important conversation into necessary action.
“Because of the leadership of [those] who were among the first to elevate cannabis equity as a priority through their respective social equity programs, equity is now often a centerpiece of cannabis reform efforts happening across the country—as it should be,” she said.
Back in Canada, Owusu-Bempah points out that the data from his report only highlights executives at the producer level, and doesn’t analyze the makeup of boards of retail or ancillary firms in the space.
As the Canadian government is currently undertaking its three-year review of the Cannabis Act, Owusu-Bempah says the time is now for federal lawmakers to consider how social equity programs might affect the industry at large.
“The underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people here,” he says, “reinforces the need to apply a racialized lens to that assessment of the impact of the Cannabis Act.”