Tag Archives: BIPOC

Chris Lacy

The Story of Chris Lacy: Social Equity & Hope in Cannabis

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
5 Comments
Chris Lacy

Christopher Lacy and The TGC Group recently won a Tier 3 conditional license under New Jersey’s social equity licensing program. Their story is one of misfortune, persistence, family and the dreadful effects that cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs has had on impoverished BIPOC communities.

Chris’s father was a sharecropper in Mississippi before he moved to Illinois and started a family. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, Chris was surrounded by gangs and crime. He started selling drugs when he was 12 and went to prison for cannabis before he was old enough to drink. When he got out, he saw firsthand the effects that incarceration has on a person, their family and their community.

Back in 2020, Chris Lacy and his wife Taneeshia Thomas applied for a craft grow license under Illinois’s new social equity program. Taneeshia wrote an article for Cannabis Industry Journal highlighting their story.

When it was first announced, Illinois’s social equity program seemed revolutionary and one that other states soon followed, setting the stage for markets all over the country to establish social equity licensing programs. However, legal hurdles, red tape and intense litigation have bogged down the system, causing severe delays. Chris and Taneeshia are still waiting to hear back about approval of their license application, years later.

Good news came recently when they were notified that they were awarded a conditional license in New Jersey. With the help of his family, business partners and The Garden State, The TGC Group is moving forward with launching their business. We caught up with Chris, to check in on his business’s progress, hear his story and see if it might inspire others to take a similar path.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your story with cannabis

Christopher Lacy, Founder of The TGC Group

Christopher Lacy: I grew up on a dead-end block in a little town in Illinois on the far south side of Chicago called Robbins. It has a very high crime rate and a very impoverished community so as you could imagine we grew up pretty poor. I personally didn’t feel the effects of poverty until just before I turned 13. I guess that became more obvious as I started hanging out and seeing that most of my friends had more than 2 pairs of pants. I starting selling drugs when I was 12 years old.  When I was about 16-17 years old, I had started trying to grow cannabis. Like any task, it takes time to develop the skills produce a good product. Cannabis definitely has it challenges when it comes to cultivating a product that could be considered good.

It’s not like there was an abundance of information out there specific to cannabis cultivation to aid in the task so besides the basic book knowledge of horticulture, you had to grind it out. It took me a couple years to really get it figured out. Once I did get it going, I started expanding. At first it was basements in the suburbs. We’d grab really nice houses and fill the basements with plants. When that wasn’t enough, we started doing warehouses. There was no real limit, outside of capital and the desire to not draw attention via odor or traffic from workers, if you could produce it, the demand was there. I did go to prison for a short stint when I was 20 years old for delivery of a controlled substance. 0.8 grams. After I got out of prison, I had a very successful illegal operation growing and selling cannabis. Life was pretty good for a few years. I wasn’t rich or anything like that but I was able to be around my family and provide the things that I was denied when I grew up. I don’t blame my parents for what I went through growing up. Because of my father’s age, I’m generation 1 out of the sharecropping era. My parents believed in one thing and that was learning. I tried to instill that into my kids as well. Being a father feels really good to me. Unfortunately, that dream was ended when I was arrested in one of our warehouses in Illinois. I did 3.5 years, locked down 21 hours a day for growing weed.

While serving my time I was able to really take a look at myself and develop a new me. I established some new core principles that I would hold close to my heart. One of them being not going back to jail for the sake of a dollar. I was not going back to prison. I had kids when I was young so I missed out on a big part of their childhoods. I had three daughters and two sons at the time that were of an age where having a stable home plays a huge role on how the child will turn out in the future compared to a typical American lifestyle.  When I got out of jail, my kids came and lived with me during and after high school but some serious damage had already been inflicted.  I worked a job as a truck driver and did the best that I could to support my family, but I never really gave up on cannabis in the back of my mind. My older brother used to always tell me that I didn’t learn what I knew about weed for nothing and that one day it would all make sense.

Christopher with his wife, Taneeshia

For the next few years, we just grinded it out as a family. It wasn’t the ideal situation but we made it work. And when we couldn’t make it work, we lived with it! I just was glad to be there doing Chemistry homework with the kids. That shows what happens when a father is at home with his family. We get college grads.

When the message came out that Illinois was going to do craft grow licenses, I got really excited. I figured this was my chance to do what I love and to make a living doing it. I had no idea how I was going to get to where I wanted to be but I figured if I could just put one foot in front of the other, sooner or later I would get there. I caught a break when my nephew, Edward Lacy, introduced me to someone who understood the application process. She introduced me to some of the most wonderful/helpful people in the world. People who literally wanted to help true social equity applicants like myself. With the help of these new friends, we were able to drop our first application in Illinois. After we submitted that application, that is when the first story came out about us in Cannabis Industry Journal. This story helped me get into a conversation with Cresco labs and I was able to get into a situation that really changed how I saw cannabis production. I got to work around some of the smartest people in the industry for just under a year. I can’t thank Charlie, Barrington and the rest of the guys at Cresco enough for the opportunity. From there, I knew it had to be my destiny to grow cannabis for a living. I just kept beating up the phones and emails. Something was gone give.

CIJ: When we last spoke, you were trying to get a social equity license in Illinois, can you tell me about that? How did it go?

Chris: Ultimately, after 2 years of waiting, we were denied a license in Illinois. When I first got this news. it took me about a week to get out the bed. Lol. It took my wife to pull me through. I can only imagine the pain that all the other disappointed groups are feeling, Ultimately, we all couldn’t win in Illinois so it is what it is. But definitely a big shout out to all the successful applicants that did win. You all have a torch to carry that should ignite the black and brown communities.

From the political standpoint in Illinois, it’s just not conducive for social equity applicants to succeed due to all of the legal hurdles, courts, lawsuits, etc. Not to say that the Illinois process is truly different from other states going through similar processes, New Jersey and other states went through a similar process when social equity licenses were announced. The laws that helped me qualify are what came out of the legal battles in New Jersey. The issue is the resources available for legal fees, holding property, and the time required to see these things through; this all equals dollars and that’s just something lacking in most social equity groups.

CIJ: So, what made you look at New Jersey?

Chris: After I had submitted my application in Illinois, I began looking for financial support. I knew this would be my limiting factor because access to the type of capital required to get a grow facility off the ground is quite substantial. For the most part no one returned calls but I called one financial institution in particular, VenCanna Ventures, and for some miraculous reason, they returned my call. I’m not sure what made them; but we kept an open line of communication going all while we were dealing with Illinois. I knew these guys were good because they were behind an impressive project in Ohio that actually won LEED certification. When I look back on it, it felt like a one-year interview. Then one day this past winter David McGorman, the CEO, asked me to partner up with him in New Jersey. It was exactly what we both needed. He has the expertise in finance and I bring the operations side.

Christopher with his daughter, Janeace Lacy

Once we had that team together, we put together a strategy to try and apply in New Jersey. We built the application and New Jersey actually had some very unique laws. If you had a cannabis conviction, you could qualify. Also, my oldest daughter, Janeace, whom I think my prison time hurt the most, actually lives in New Jersey with my granddaughter. So, she’s our resident in the state that helped us win the application and now a part owner, which led us to where we are now. I just couldn’t be more excited about all of this. It just feels right

We won a tier 3 conditional license and now we’re working on finding a good facility and building the operation.

CIJ: How did you set up your social equity license application for NJ?

Chris: It was a process very similar to Illinois except that the process was split into two phases. A conditional license and an annual license. Phase one was winning the conditional license. This is a more condensed application compared to what I was used to. After filling out the application, we had to submit a bunch of documents and proof of incarceration. That was for the conditional license. We still have to convert the conditional to the annual. The conditional basically tells us that we qualify and we can move forward with the rest of the business plan, find some property and spend some money on a lease. We’re still in that process for converting to annual, but we have won the conditional.

CIJ: What is your plan now that you’ve received conditional approval?

Chris: Right now, we’re working on property and securing a space for our facility. We are pretty close to nailing down a couple good locations. One of the locations that I am really excited about is in Somerset County. If we can lock down the property, submit everything to the state as far as our SOPs, security plans, cultivation plan, design, etc. we can try get approval to convert to the annual license and then we can start the build out. The good thing about the two-step process is that it really helps when it comes to spending money. Basically, if you don’t win a conditional, don’t go out spending tons of cash trying to hold onto property.

CIJ: You’ve come a long way from being put in prison for cannabis, to now being close to establishing a business in New Jersey. What made you decide to stick with the business of cannabis?  

Chris: You know, I can’t really describe it very well. It was just one of those feelings, you know it felt good to me. It drew me in when I was a young kid, although, I actually didn’t try using cannabis until I was 21. That’s when I first used it and it really jelled with me. Also, I’ve always loved gardening.

Chris Lacy

My father was a sharecropper in Mississippi, when our family moved to the suburbs of Chicago the first thing he did was plant a huge garden. I grew up in the garden and around plants. He used to spend so much time in that garden and I loved being there with him. We grew everything out there year after year until he was too old to keep it up. I can’t imagine a more peaceful environment then out in the fields with the plants.

It was also therapeutic, not just the obvious therapeutic aspects of cannabis, but also how therapeutic gardening is. Working with cannabis plants can be a challenge. To try to achieve unique terpene and cannabinoid profiles has always been a lot of fun for me. I love the challenge. Pushing genetics as far as I can to really experience what different cultivars have to offer. It is just one of those things that has always stuck with me and I really enjoy it. Once it became legal, a world of opportunity opened up for me.

You know, people say if you do something you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I was a truck driver after I got out of prison, and I really didn’t like it. I had to have neck surgery from the pounding my spine took. I had to work long hours, man I hated doing it. On the flip side, cannabis is something I love to do. And this is about me trying to control my own destiny, control my own life. I don’t have to struggle mentally and physically just to provide for my family. That’s what keeps me going – the drive to do what I love to do to provide for my family. I see cannabis cultivation as more of an art than I do anything else. The guy behind the growing at any facility in the country could share with people what he believes to be fire. I just love to provide an experience and there’s nothing more satisfying than a satisfied customer. Everything about this process seems to fit perfectly with my life.

CIJ: It’s a pretty inspiring story. How do you hope your story might inspire others to follow in your footsteps?

Chris: I don’t want someone to follow in my steps as far as breaking the law and going to prison. I had to learn this the hard way, you know I didn’t agree with the law, but it doesn’t matter. Whether you agree or disagree with the law, I don’t advise anyone to be a criminal.

On the other hand, I do believe that black and brown people have been impacted by the war on drugs the most. In whatever capacity they can, they should chase the opportunity in this country as the cannabis market evolves. It’s a new industry, it’s a way for people to build wealth, to maybe raise their families out of poverty. So in that sense, yes, I do hope people see my story and see that they could do this too. And if you still out there getting it the best way you know how, God Bless you! Lord knows it breaks my heart every time I see someone get arrested for cannabis. Hopefully that shit stops soon and we can get these mothers and fathers who are basically prisoners of a bogus war, reunited with their families and hopefully they get a chance to rebuild.

This a chance to build generational wealth if it’s done right. I would hope that anyone looking for an opportunity, look into the cannabis space. I know its evolving fast and the window might seem like its closing but that isn’t the case. This is more like the 2nd inning of a baseball game. There plenty of time to get going.

 I don’t think I’m the best role model. I just keeping fighting. And my advice for black and brown folks that might have gone to prison or might be put in a similar situation is this: Its never over. It’s never too late, no matter what somebody does. It’s not the end of the road. It’s just a bump at that moment. Just keep fighting. One step at a time. I do hope that people reach out to me.

I would love to work with anyone as long as they on a positive path, especially convicted felons. God Bless the felons! That’s my number one priority on my list. The guys that have been to prison, the non-violent drug offenders. Our society has a way of shunning those people. Some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life were in prison. It doesn’t speak to the character of an individual because they went to jail. If the system is supposed to work then why is it so hard for a convicted felon to get another chance? Of course, a few people have traversed this path successfully but there are so many more.

CIJ: I know your business is called The TGC Group. Out of curiosity, what does that acronym stand for?

Chris: We’re called TGC New Jersey under our license there and we applied in Illinois under the name, The TGC Group. TGC stands for a lot of things. It has a lot of meanings. I came up with it when I was in prison. I called it The Gathering Company. It was an idea I had because I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day in prison. I wanted to gather people under one umbrella.

But also, my name is Chris, my wife’s name is Taneeshia, (whom I am forever grateful for helping me pull my life together) and we have a son we named Grant. So, the first letter of each of our names also make TGC. It also stands for The Good Choice, because it is a good choice. The Ganja Connoisseur is another good one. I just hope that it grows to be known as a quality brand of cannabis that one can count on for consistent high-quality cannabis. Consistency and quality are what we’re striving for relentlessly.

I hope people read this article and feel inspired. We have a responsibility to give back to the community. We have a responsibility to rebuild what’s been destroyed in our communities. I am just trying to do my part. I was not a nice guy growing up, you know I was a gangbanger. But now, I want to rebuild and give back to my community the best way I can in Chicago. Not just my community, I want to give back to New Jersey communities, because we’re in their house now. I want to give back to Mississippi communities, where my family comes from. I’m not in this to get rich, I am in this to build communities. God willing, we will

The Great Social Experiment: Social Equity in New York

By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright
1 Comment

New York is embarking on a great social undertaking. In awarding its adult-use cannabis licenses, under the plan laid out by Gov. Kathy Hochul on March 10, the state is attempting to right generations of wrongs caused by the war on cannabis. The wrongs are numerous and include mass incarceration and complex generational trauma, prevention of access to housing and employment and the forming of an illicit market – all of which have had a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latinx communities.1

In addition to generating significant revenue for the state, New York hopes to make substantial investments in the communities and people most affected by cannabis criminalization and address the collateral consequences of that criminalization, reduce the illicit market for cannabis and illegal drugs, end the racially disparate impact of existing cannabis laws and strengthen New York’s agriculture sector.2

50% of All Licenses Will Be Social Equity

To accomplish these lofty aims, the state’s goal is to award 50% of adult-use cannabis licenses to social and economic equity applicants – and these licenses will be the first issued.3,4 The state’s entire focus is on this social equity licensing program; issues regarding non-social equity licenses are not being addressed at this time.

No one knows yet how many licenses will be issued. There are currently only 38 medical licenses in the state, although everyone expects the number of adult-use licenses to be significantly higher. (These medical licenses serve around 140,000 patients with sales in 2021 of around $300 million.)

The First 100 to 200 Licenses

Chris Alexander, executive director of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, says he expected between 100 and 200 licenses to go first to people who were convicted of a cannabis-related offense before the drug was legalized, or those who have “a parent, guardian, child, spouse, or dependent” with a cannabis conviction. Alexander also said his office would evaluate applicants on their business plans and experience in retail.5

What’s the Timeline?

In a recent Q&A interview, Tremaine Wright, chair of New York’s newly-formed Cannabis Control Board (CCB), which will be overseeing the licensing process, stated: “We are setting up a system soup-to-nuts … [final] regulations for the state’s marijuana startups will be issued by the Cannabis Control Board this winter [2022] or early spring [2023] … recreational dispensaries should be licensed to operate by summer 2023.”6

Whom Is New York Looking For?

New York has defined social equity applicants as being:

  • Individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition
  • Minority-owned businesses
  • Women-owned businesses
  • Minority and women-owned businesses
  • Distressed farmers
  • Service-disabled veterans.7

Extra priority will be given to an applicant who:

  • Is a member of a community disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition
  • Has an income lower than 80% of the median income of the county in which the applicant resides
  • Was either: (a) convicted of a cannabis-related offense prior to the effective date of the N.Y. Cannabis Law; (b) or had a parent, guardian, child, spouse or dependent; or was a dependent of an individual who was convicted of a cannabis-related offence prior to the effective date of the N.Y. Cannabis Law.8

Social Equity Licenses Come With Strings Attached

Social equity licenses cannot be transferred or sold within the first three years of issue. An exception will be made if the license is transferred or sold to another qualified social and economic equity applicant, but this must first be approved in writing by the CCB.9

Types of Licenses

While most people appear to be interested in a cannabis dispensary or lounge license, there will be nine types of licenses available: cultivator, nursery, processor, distributor, retail-dispensary, delivery, on-site consumption, adult-use cooperative and microbusiness.

“I don’t hear many people [talking about] processing and manufacturing,” says CCB chair Wright. She noted that processor licenses cover the production of edibles like candy and baked goods, which create a good opportunity to establish a brand.10

CCB Priorities

Wright also noted delivery companies would likely be capped at 25 employees in order to prevent behemoths like Uber from entering the market. “We’re trying to focus on not creating a space where monopolies can take over and kill all our small businesses,” Wright says.11

License Application Costs

The cost for an adult-use cannabis license in New York is still unknown, so the experts are looking at the cost for a medical cannabis license as the baseline, with a greater cost likely for adult-use. Each applicant was required to submit two fees with its medicinal application: a non-refundable application fee in the amount of $10,000 and a registration fee in the amount of $200,000. The $200,000 registration fee was refunded to the applicant only if the applicant was not issued a registration.12

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) states, however, that fees may be waived for social equity applicants.13

Funding Assistance for License Applicants

Because of the requirement that each applicant be from one or more of the social equity classes, it is quite likely many of the applicants will lack the necessary funding to open a cannabis business currently.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul

On January 5, 2022, Gov. Hochul pledged to commit $200 million to support social equity applicants in building adult-use cannabis businesses. New York’s Office of Cannabis management expects that around $50 million of the fund will be raised from registered organizations licensed to operate medical cannabis businesses in NY and that $150 million will be raised from private investors.14

Wright commented, however, that those loans aren’t guaranteed to be available for the first round of licensing because the money to fund them will largely come from tax revenue generated by the industry. “[The Office of Cannabis Management] is not going to be able to right all the wrongs of the financial services industry,” she added.15

This lack of capital will offer opportunities to those who might want to invest with a social equity license applicant.

Requirements for Those Who Invest With Social Equity Applicants

Any person or entity investing with a social equity applicant must keep in mind the State’s following requirements:

  1. Any entity applying for a New York cannabis license will need to be owned at least 51% by a social equity class applicant.
  2. That ownership must be “real, substantial, and continuing.”
  3. The social equity applicant must have and exercise the authority to control independently the day-to-day business decisions of the enterprise.
  4. The individual or entity seeking the license must be authorized to do business in the state and be independently owned and operated.
  5. The individual or entity must be a small business.16

Business Experience & Labor Union Representation Needed

The state is also looking for applicants with previous successful business experience and competency, and preference will be given to those who can demonstrate such experience.17

Additionally, the state would like to see that the applicant “has entered into [an] … agreement with a bona-fide labor organization that is actively engaged in representing or attempting to represent the applicant’s employees, and the maintenance of such [an] agreement shall be an ongoing material condition of licensure.18

New York’s Careful Approach

New York has moved slowly and thoughtfully in getting into the recreational cannabis market. Its leaders have studied the experiences of other states, noting complications and pitfalls that have arisen in such states as California, where small cannabis operators have been squeezed out and a large illicit market has grown to dwarf the tax-paying legal sector.

By opening up New York’s initial adult-use licenses to small, social equity applicants and requiring they have solid business experience, New York is hoping to give awardees a foothold in the cannabis market, enabling them to flourish and build strong roots before the onslaught of sophisticated, multi-state cannabis operators enter the fray.

Additional Keys to a Successful Application

New York City
Image: Rodrigo Paredes, Flickr

Beyond fulfilling the ingredients of the social equity applicant “recipe” outlined above, the key to a successful application will come down to the perception it gives the Cannabis Control Board of the applicant’s commitment to the state’s mission. In other words, how committed is the applicant to using his or her license and business to attempt to right some of the social wrongs perpetrated by the state and federal war on cannabis?

In addition to having an owner-applicant from a social equity class, the MRTA gives other clues of steps applicants can take (and discuss in their application) which could put them ahead of the competition in obtaining licensure.

The MRTA suggests the applicant demonstrate that they will “contribute to communities and people disproportionately harmed by enforcement of cannabis laws … and report these contributions to the board.”19

The MRTA asks each applicant to submit documentation of the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the applicant’s employees and owners. In addition, the MRTA suggests each applicant consult with the CCB’s Chief Equity Officer and Executive Director “to create a social responsibility framework agreement that fosters racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in their workplace.”20

New York is serious about its mission to use the legalization of cannabis to right some of the social wrongs of the past. An applicant’s dedication to this mission, as evidenced by a well-crafted application that emphasizes these values, may be the deciding factor on whether that applicant is rewarded with one of the state’s “Golden Tickets”. With a population of 20.2 million citizens, New York will be the second largest adult use cannabis marketplace behind California. Initial access to such a valuable and important market is worth the commitment of resources to creating not only a well-crafted application, but a well-crafted management team and business as well.


References

  1. New York Consolidated Laws, N.Y. Cannabis Law § 2, added by New York Laws 2021, ch. 92, Sec. 2 (eff. 3/31/2021) [hereinafter, N.Y. Cannabis Law].
  2. Ibid.
  3. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(2).
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/09/nyregion/marijuana-sellers-licenses-hochul.html, March 9, 2022
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022.
  7. “Distressed farmer” and “service-disabled veteran” are as defined by N.Y. Cannabis Law §§ 87(5)(e) and (f).
  8. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(3).
  9. N.Y. Cannabis Law § 87(7).
  10. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022
  11. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022
  12. https://cannabis.ny.gov/medical-marijuana-program-applications
  13. Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act, § 63-3
  14. See Hodgson Russ LLP, “New York Gov. Pledges $200M to Boost Social Equity Efforts as Part of Adult-Use Cannabis Legislation,” at https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/new-york-gov-pledges-200m-to-boost-9306262 (last accessed Mar. 2, 2022).
  15. https://gothamist.com/news/faq-new-york-cannabis-board-chair-answers-questions-about-what-it-will-take-snag-marijuana-business-license, Published January 6, 2022.
  16. Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act, § 87
  17. Id. at § 97
  18. Id. at § 64
  19. Id. at § 64j
  20. Id. at § 66-2

Where Are We Now? Social Equity in the US Cannabis Industry

By Dede Perkins
No Comments

As state legalization measures begin to legitimatize the US cannabis industry, stakeholders, both those currently in the industry and those who plan to join in the not-too-distant future, grapple with the best ways to right the wrongs from the decades-old War on Drugs. While some stakeholders support residency requirements and setting aside a percentage of a state’s cannabis licenses for social equity and economic empowerment applicants, others contend that these solutions are discriminatory. Reuters reports that lawsuits against social equity programs have been filed in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Maine, and some have received decisions that rule against existing social equity programs. While there is disagreement on the best way to create an equitable cannabis industry, few dispute that we’re dealing with an oppressive legacy against low-income individuals and people of color and the cannabis industry is in a unique position to shape a socially responsible industry that focuses not just on profits, but also on the greater good.

Challenges for Social Equity Applicants and Licensees 

Currently, Black Americans make up 13% of the US national population, but own less than two percent of cannabis businesses owners, according to Leafly’s Jobs Report 2021. Why? There are five primary factors.

  1. In most states, cannabis licenses are expensive and difficult to get. The application process requires a team of experienced individuals to work on everything from finding and negotiating real estate contracts; to vetting and hiring architects, safety, and security consultants; to working with community stakeholders to gain local approval.
  2. After the pieces are in place, applicants have to write it all down, which is a challenge in itself. It is not uncommon for one state cannabis application to be over one hundred pages.
  3. Since cannabis is still federally illegal and listed as a Schedule 1 drug, it’s nearly impossible to get a business loan to fund the application process or, if an individual is lucky enough to get a provisional license, to renovate or build out cannabis cultivation, processing and/or retail facilities.
  4. Because of the low-income status of many social equity applicants, few have access to accredited investors or low interest loans.
  5. Finally, if an individual or organization makes it through the application process and receives both a license and funding to operate, they face ongoing operational challenges including ever-changing laws, rules and regulations. Maintaining compliance is a process in and of itself.

If cannabis industry stakeholders don’t make honest efforts to provide real solutions to these challenges in the near future, inequalities will proliferate.

Current State of Social Equity in the US Cannabis Industry

To help mend the harms of the War on Drugs and reduce the institutional challenges faced by marginalized individuals, some states have instituted social equity programs that prioritize cannabis business licenses to those previously incarcerated on cannabis-related convictions and/or those who live in zip codes with high incarceration rates for drug crimes. Some states broaden the social equity lens and include women- and veteran-owned businesses in social equity programs.

The National Association of Cannabis Businesses explains:

The goal of social equity laws is to ensure that people from communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and discriminatory law enforcement are included in the new legal marijuana industry. Policymakers are working to address criticisms that outsiders are setting up legal cannabis businesses and profiting by doing the same things their less fortunate neighbors were arrested and given jail time for just a few years ago.

By prioritizing social equity applicants, our industry is starting to bridge the access gap and improve the odds that previously marginalized individuals will make it into the C-suite and other influential positions. But is it enough? Many argue that social equity programs won’t make a real difference until more programs include low-interest loans and/or provide access to capital sources and ongoing support after licensure.

Although social equity programs vary, many require applicants to live in a zip code with a high incarceration rate for drug crimes or have a state residency requirement, meaning that social equity applicants must have lived in the state for an established number of years before they can qualify for social equity status. In some states, municipalities are tasked with creating these programs as is the case in Los Angeles and Oakland, California.

While some states offer social equity applicants priority consideration for their licensing applications, others offer reduced application and licensing fees, technical assistance, entry into an incubator program specifically designed for social equity applicants and/or apprenticeship opportunities.

Although social equity programs focus on developing business leaders with marginalized racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, other components of these programs often include criminal justice reform, such as revising resentencing guidelines and expungement requirements for those with cannabis-related convictions. The MORE Act, for example, not only calls for federal legalization, but also for reassessing the legal status of cannabis-related convictions, arrests, and prison sentences.

US States with Cannabis Social Equity Programs

When Colorado and Washington voted in favor of adult-use cannabis legalization nearly a decade ago, lawmakers were tasked with drafting regulations for what a legal marketplace would look like in their respective states. Although legalization efforts focused on the inequities of prohibition, the War on Drugs, and the legal cannabis industry, social justice initiatives were not initially included.

Today, there are 37 states and municipalities, including Washington D.C., that have legalized medical cannabis. Nineteen of those states have also legalized adult-use cannabis. Recent data shows that one in four Americans consumes cannabis, suggesting that legalization efforts have started to normalize cannabis use among the US population.

Out of the 19 states with adult-use cannabis, 13 have developed social equity programs to help marginalized people become cannabis leaders in their markets. States that incorporated social equity programs into initial adult-use cannabis legislation include Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Michigan, Vermont, Illinois, Connecticut, Arizona and Virginia. Although Colorado and Washington’s laws initially did not include social equity programs, both states are now in the process of implementing them.

It’s important to note that not all US states with legal cannabis programs take the social equity approach. States with legal adult-use programs but without social equity programs include Montana, South Dakota, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Alaska.

After Social Equity Licensure

For those social equity applicants who receive operational licensure, there is the ongoing issue of compliance. As if there were not enough pressure on social equity applicants and license holders, maintaining state-compliant businesses and developing internal policies and procedures that drive brand awareness and loyalty can be a challenge. The hard reality is that admission into a social equity program and even obtaining licensure does not ensure a business leader’s success. Besides increased access to capital, expanding social equity programs to include post-licensure support, at least for the first year or two, would improve the odds of long-term success.

All in all, social equity programs in the US cannabis industry have begun to make a difference and right some of the wrongs of the War on Drugs, but there is still work to be done. To build an industry that improves lives not only with cannabis products but also with financial opportunity, we must continue to prioritize and expand current social equity programs and fight for new social equity programs in all legal cannabis states.

Social Responsibility and Supporting BIPOC in Cannabis: A Q&A with Ernest Toney, Founder of BIPOCANN

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
No Comments

The drug war has harmed communities of color since its inception. For decades and decades, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) have been nearly six times more likely to be arrested for drug use than White Americans, despite similar rates of use.

Over the years that legalized cannabis has proliferated across the country, the same trends of market consolidation have emerged in every state that has legalized the plant. BIPOC communities already impacted by the drug war have less access to capital and therefore less access to the cannabis industry. Cannabis market consolidation has always led to white people taking a greater market share while BIPOC communities are left behind.

The legal cannabis industry currently lacks representation of BIPOC executives, business owners, and professionals. Ernest Toney, former global marketing and partnerships manager at Marijuana Business Daily, wants to change that. He founded the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network – a membership community that is working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners.

BIPOCANN is a place to meet cannabis industry leaders, a place to exchange goods, services and ideas that promote BIPOC economic growth in cannabis, an innovation hub for unique voices and perspectives, and it’s all BIPOC-owned and managed.

In this interview, we sit down with Ernest Toney to hear about BIPOCANN and ask him some questions about what the future of the cannabis industry could look like.

Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me about your background- how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Ernest Toney: I grew up in Virginia and went to James Madison University where I studied kinesiology, and sports management in graduate school. That led me to pursue a career in sports administration, beginning as a sales and marketing director for a large YMCA in the southwest, followed by a stint as a sales consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Major League Baseball. Immediately prior to joining the cannabis industry, I worked at USA Ultimate – the national governing body for the niche sport of ultimate (frisbee) in the United States. During that time, I managed and scaled adult programs and events across the country. A big part of my job required collaborating with national stakeholders and creating and enforcing policies to grow the sport by making it more accessible to diverse demographics. We also worked hard to increase the commercial visibility of the sport through mainstream media, including ESPN, with gender equity being a major focus area. It was cool because looking back, I learned a lot of things during that five-year period that is directly applicable to the work I’m doing to support the cannabis industry.

Ernest Toney, founder of BIPOCANN

But my interest in the cannabis industry became strong when I moved to Denver in 2011, a year before Amendment 64 passed. When Colorado became the first adult use cannabis market in the USA, it was an exciting time. I have always been curious about economics and how policies can impact people’s lives. I was interested in what was going to happen when the new market opened.

Early on, I followed the industry trends very closely. Living in downtown Denver, I saw firsthand the effects the cannabis industry was having on day-to-day life, like increased tourism, a housing market boom, a lot of new start-ups, dispensaries opening everywhere. It was just something I knew I wanted to learn more about.

Around 2016, I started making industry connections, but didn’t pursue opportunities until a few years later. Eventually, I was hired in 2018 by MJBizDaily to focus on new business initiatives. Some of my past successes with scaling programs, national and international event management, and community-building aligned with what they were looking for.

I started as the company’s first international marketing manager. In that role, I was responsible for driving marketing campaigns to increase the company’s global readership, event registrations, and business conference presence in foreign markets. After the first year, I transitioned to identify and manage marketing partnerships for the company – which included international and domestic media, event, and affiliate partnerships within and outside of cannabis.

I felt compelled to make a change amidst the social unrest this summer. I was doing my own protesting and volunteer advocacy in Denver, but started to see more broadly, in the cannabis industry, that cannabis executives and companies were bringing attention to the fact that the War On Drugs has been problematic for minorities and communities of color. There was greater talk about social equity programs and how they are not as effective as they should be. There was greater attention to the fact that over 40,000 people are still incarcerated for the plant that others are profiting from – and that the people behind bars are predominantly coming from communities of color. I was in a position that afforded me the opportunity to see what the composition of the global cannabis industry looked like, and I  could see minority representation was lacking in business ownership, leadership positions, and more.

I thought – what is the best way for me to use my talents, insights, and knowledge to affect and change this narrative? Ultimately, I decided to start my own business. Not only was this an opportunity for me to “walk the walk,” being a black man starting a business in this industry where there is a lack of black ownership, but more importantly I was uniquely positioned to be able to educate and let people know about the opportunities to be a part of the booming industry. So, I did some brainstorming and came up with a company, which is called BIPOCANN and it stands for connecting BIPOC communities to the cannabis industry.

The work I have been doing for the last quarter includes directly recruiting people into the industry. If you are curious and want to learn more about the industry, then BIPOCANN can be the entry point. We figure out what your goals are and use the network and our resources to get you connected and figure out where you want to go. Likewise, if you are a service provider, like a graphic designer, accountant, marketer or business owner for example, that sees opportunities for your business to play a role and support it from an ancillary standpoint, BIPOCANN can be an entry point for you too.

The other component to it is working with existing businesses who are trying to make the industry more accessible. I work with existing companies and brands to create platforms that amplify voices and make BIPOC folks more visible, seen and heard within the cannabis industry. We are also helping businesses increase their profitability through diversification tactics and marketing tactics that contribute to their bottom line.

CIJ: Tell me about BIPOCANN- what is it, what are your goals with this project and how has it been received so far?

Ernest: The prohibition of cannabis has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the Americas. I alluded to this earlier, but there are more than 40,000 people behind bars in the U.S. for cannabis possession and use. There’s evidence suggesting that Black Americans are up to six times more likely to get arrested for cannabis use than White Americans despite use rates being the same. And when you look at the makeup of the professional industry, there is poor representation of business ownership by people of color. The Cannabis Impact Fund references that only 4.3% of dispensaries are Black or Latinx-owned. These problems intersect in a lot of ways.

BIPOCANN is a small business working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners. Now, I know that one company cannot change 100 years of cannabis prohibition and how policy works. But if you want to make this industry more accessible, inclusive, and profitable for those who do not have the access then there are a lot of levers to pull. Policy is one. But BIPOCANN is using more direct strategies. We actively recruit people to come in and be a part of this industry, through employment, entrepreneurship, consulting, and collaborations.

We have also created the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network, a community where members can exchange services, network, and collaborate. It’s all about creating more opportunities for BIPOC professionals and business owners, and it’s a safe space to share your experiences and to ideate. Similar to your Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, where there was a dedicated space for BIPOC folks to be seen and heard and tell their story through your virtual panels, we use our resources and network to help advocates for equity and access be seen, heard, and find opportunities to thrive as a business owner or professional.

CIJ: How do you hope BIPOCANN will be embraced by the cannabis community?

Ernest: I think it has been received well in its first quarter of business. We have had opportunities to share our story across a lot of platforms, including multiple cannabis industry conferences, podcasts, and interviews with varied media outlets. We are in startup mode, so currently we are about building a brand, being seen, and helping people understand what we are trying to achieve. We are working towards that right now. We have had some success and folks are supporting our vision and goals.

I am hoping the cannabis industry will look at BIPOCANN as another important resource within the social equity, business development, and networking landscape. I don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the organizations and individuals who have been doing similar work in this space, for much longer, but as an ally. Some of our approaches to bring new people into the industry will include strategically aligning communities and markets where we have strong ties – such as state governments, national nonprofits, and global cannabis networks.

CIJ: Where do you see the cannabis industry making progress with respect to diversity and including people of color?

Ernest: When I look at the types of conversations  and coverage the industry is having, even compared to last year, it seems like more conferences, media entities, brands, and individual leaders are tuned in and trying to figure out how they can contribute to making this industry better, more equitable and more accessible. I am seeing a lot of more attention, attempts to understand where the gaps are and what to do about it.

When I take a step back to think of all the virtual conferences that have made dedicated conference tracks or even entire programs – like the National Association of Cannabis Business’ Social Equity Conference, the Emerge Canna Conference, the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, and the Cannabis Industry Journal’s post-election social justice panel – or weekly segments from Black leaders like Dasheeda Dawson (She Blaze) and Tahir Johnson (The Cannabis Diversity Report) — those are good signs. They are creating opportunities for voices representing underserved communities in cannabis to share their perspectives and be advocates for change.

But there is still much to do and that includes greater education about the realities, histories, and challenges BIPOC and other minority communities are facing. Going back to the NACB, they recently drafted a social equity standard for state legislatures to use as a baseline for crafting policies and provisions for social equity programs. That and resources from organizations like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, Supernova Women, Cannaclusive, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, for example are some useful resources for the industry.

Wana Brands is also continuing to do good work, and it was exciting to see them become the first sponsor of the inaugural Black CannaConference by the Black CannaBusiness Magazine. That was a great example of an industry leader using their dollars, marketing resources, and company values to support an event specifically dedicated to creating, developing, and enhancing Black entrepreneurs and businesses in the cannabis industry.

“It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.”On the policy front, we just saw on election day cannabis having a ton of success at the polls, passing in every single state where there was a ballot measure.

Arizona did a good job with having social equity provisions directly included in the language on their ballot measure. I think for the states that have yet to draft a social equity program, they can look at what has worked well in some other states and also look at what has not worked well, like loopholes that invite predatory behaviors.

I’m excited to see that Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Working Group are already identifying the best ways to make a recreational market a beneficial and sustainable one, and tackling how to incorporate social equity, racial equity, and economic equity into a future legalization bill. I am looking forward to learning more after an upcoming meeting with a Working Group member. Eventually, I hope to contribute towards any social equity efforts that will benefit my home state and hometown (a high poverty community that has been at the crossroads of America’s major civil rights movements, with a correctional facility that houses an inmate population equivalent to nearly 10% of the town population).

CIJ: Where do you see the industry moving in the next five years?

Ernest: Ha-ha! It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.

Just this week the United Nations rescheduled cannabis, which is a big deal! We also saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass the MORE Act. We are inching closer towards federal legalization in the US and I think it will happen within that five-year timeframe, and it will be contentious. There will be compromises on things some folks don’t want compromises on, there will be more big money influencing the outcomes of the industry, and there will be unforeseen or unintended consequences to whatever the federal legislation looks like. I recently moderated a panel of social equity license holders, who felt that federal legalization would harm the disproportionately impacted areas (by the War on Drugs) even more! Their preference was to see cannabis de-scheduled and remain under state control.

I think federal legalization will bring another wave of major mergers and acquisitions, similar to what the Canadian market experienced in 2019, benefiting big business over small business. “We need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance.”

CIJ: Do you think we can change that?

Ernest: There are so many things at play. The legislators need to have diverse perspectives and representation from the folks in the industry, especially people of color who can speak to the impact that a century of prohibition policies have had on their communities. Those voices and stories need to be heard, but that type of representation is grossly lacking on Capitol Hill…which is all the more reason we need leaders from the aforementioned communities to have a seat at the table when decisions are made.

I say that because a lot of time there are unforeseen consequences when policies are created, so decision makers at the federal level can learn from those of us already doing the work on the local level. I recently had a conversation with a former journalist and colleague who is currently in a cannabis regulatory role. We were talking about how policy and operations intersect with social equity. He made the points that “many markets implement license caps, which are intended to prevent oversaturation of cannabis business (the idea being that density of outlets impacts use rates, and particularly youth use rates); in theory, that’s a good policy – but it comes with very real consequences for social equity applicants (because those licenses often go to the wealthiest applicants).  License caps also artificially inflate the cost of those licenses (for a transfer of ownership), which also harms social equity applicants. Lotteries are also generally the result of policy and usually have disastrous results for the social equity applicant.”

So yeah – the rare opportunity to define a new industry that doesn’t just do business as usual, that can right its historical wrongs, and that will reward the communities that have been most harmed by cannabis enforcement, is now. And we need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance. The optimist in me says “we can do it!” The pessimist in me reminds me that it is 2020 and people still believe the Earth is flat. I’ll keep pushing for change, but I also won’t be surprised if this perfect opportunity to get it right goes wrong.

CIJ: How can people get involved in BIPOCANN?

Ernest: The best way to get involved is to visit www.bipocann.com and support our efforts by becoming an individual member or business member. Not only does that give you the opportunity to connect directly with other members in our business network, but it gives you the chance to be the first to be notified about the latest projects, events, and opportunities we’re working on to change the industry, how we can. By joining, you also directly support BIPOCANN’s goals, contribute to the operating budget of a black-owned business in cannabis, and support the nonprofit partners who we allocate a percentage of monthly sales towards.

You can also get involved by subscribing to our monthly newsletter through the website or by following our social media accounts @bipocann. We are also available for speaking, media, or consulting projects that support social equity, diversity, and inclusion in cannabis. For those types of inquiries, please contact ernest@bipocann.com.