Diversity and Inclusion = Exploitation and Illusion?
Paying lip service to equality isn’t enough. We need to address the systemic racism underpinning the entire cannabis industry
Christopher Ratliff | | Opinion
Many cannabis companies make great claims about valuing diversity. But discrimination against Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) is rife. Over the past four years, I have watched my wife – an analytical chemist, extraction artist, and cannabis/hemp laboratory build-out specialist – be undermined and gaslighted because she is a female BIPOC.
I’ve seen her interview for a “director” role, where the CEO of the company was searching for someone to build out, manage, and operate a facility. My wife inquired why – given the level of responsibility involved – she would not be the COO. The CEO’s response: “That position would have to be cut from the same cloth, if you will.” Translation: “The position is reserved for a white male.”
I watched her work hard to build out a facility for some well-funded individuals. After she accomplished for them what they could not do without her, those same executives terminated her employment without warning – her entry card simply stopped working one morning. (The company in question had a predominantly white workforce and was based in a predominantly white town with a history of violent racism.)
Diversity and inclusion are hot topics within the cannabis industry, and corporate America in general. But support for BIPOC is all too often fueled by an ulterior motive: to make a profit, to exploit, and ultimately to silence with illusion.
When you saw an article about diversity and inclusion in the industry, did you expect statistics, percentages, or comparisons of women, men, BIPOC and white in the boardrooms and investment groups? While those numbers might convey the idea of diversity and inclusion in cannabis from an affirmative action standpoint, for me, there is a much bigger picture to look at when dealing with diversity and inclusion in cannabis.
The building blocks of exclusion and systemic racism can be traced all the way back to colonialism. These blocks are used to build a wall to protect the privileged (and their money) from seeing the reality of inequality in our society. Even before the so-called “war on drugs,” the same disenfranchised groups were unable to collect wealth, land or influence because of slavery or native relocations. Growing up below a certain financial line in the US will quickly teach you about exclusion...
Fast forward to mass incarcerations for cannabis possession and supply, and we suddenly have a convenient way to prevent large numbers of Black and Latino individuals from progressing professionally. Expunging non-violent cannabis charges or even legalizing the drug on a federal level isn’t enough to address this elephant in the room. We need to take active measures to redress the balance. For instance, social equity programs are designed to award a certain percentage of licenses to disenfranchised minority groups affected by the “war of drugs” and systemic racism. However, such initiatives have been slow to be adopted. While New Jersey introduced a social equity tax on cannabis, the social equity aspect of Ohio’s medical cannabis law was twice blocked by legislators. It’s difficult to make meaningful progress if politicians, business leaders, and the public don’t understand or acknowledge the underlying systemic prejudice that continues to curate exclusion and illusion.
If you want to understand why a car isn’t working, you must first lift the hood. You might be able to hear or even see the problem while driving – but that is not the same as understanding what you are seeing and hearing from a mechanical or engineering perspective. In the same way, you might hear about racism, and you might even see some of the more overt examples, but that isn’t the same as understanding the structural barrier to equality. How can you begin to include someone if you do not (or will not) see how they are excluded from the fundamentals of society itself?
We can’t address diversity in the industry without truly understanding the dark history that brought us to this point – where a Black man lies in a jail cell for a minor cannabis possession while mostly white board members are making millions. How many dollars are companies going to commit to helping BIPOC get out of jail for cannabis “offenses?”
The misperception that discrimination in the US consists of a series of isolated incidents, rather than being systemic and engineered, is depressingly common. And so, genuine diversity and inclusion in our field requires an entire sociopolitical re-education movement about cannabis and engineered discrimination. If your American history education ended in high school, you have a lot to learn (two accessible documentaries to start with are Ken Burns’s “The West” and Ava DuVernay's “13th”).
Two different educational ideologies battle for the minds of Americans: the 1619 Project (1), which seeks to put the legacy of slavery front and center in our understanding of US history, and the 1776 Commission (2) launched by President Trump to promote “patriotic education.”
For now, I am afraid that “diversity and inclusion” in the cannabis sector is really just exploitation and illusion.