By Darralynn Hutson
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry has a big diversity problem. Global cannabis legalization does a lot of things, but one thing it does not do is stop racial disparities.
In 2020, the top tier of cannabis businesses is run almost exclusively by white men, while retailers, dispensaries and pharmacies nationwide are expected to take in nearly $45 billion in revenue by 2024 from all cannabinoid sales, according to a study by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics.
Despite the disparity, there are examples of Black women who are successfully sidestepping such challenges. Instead of worrying about the bleak statistics, they are breaking barriers and bridging the gap in the cannabis industry whether through wellness clinics, dispensary ownership or advocacy.
Rachel Knox, MD, MBA is a certified cannabinoid medicine specialist who co-founded the American Cannabinoid Clinics in Oregon with her family. Their work involves getting medical marijuana in the hands of those who need it.
“People come to us with ailments and we as doctors are trained to treat the patient. But what we’re really treating is the endocannabinoid system,” Knox said. “It just made sense for my family and I at the American Cannabinoid Center to label ourselves endocannabinologists. We utilize cannabis because as far as we know, it’s the most versatile tool to work on that system. Patients leave our offices understanding that teaching comes first and treatment second.”
Knox is passionate about educating people on the safety and effectiveness of cannabinoid medicine, the evidence-based clinical integration of endocannabinology with cannabinology. As a cannabinoid medicine specialist, she has seen firsthand how significant a role cannabis plays in helping patients reclaim their health and overall sense of wellness.
“I’ve made it my life’s mission to talk about the science of cannabis. I wanted to be a healer. I didn’t want to be a drug pusher,” she said. “I had to find some place in the middle where I could thrive. As medical professionals, my family thought we could have some sort of an impact on validating cannabis as medicine, but I think at some point we also understood that as a family we provide something much more.”
In 2017, Hope Wiseman was touted as the youngest Black woman cannabis dispensary owner in the U.S. In addition to that, she was actually one of only a handful of Black female dispensary owners, including Vetra Stephens, CEO of First Quality Medz in River Rouge, Michigan, Wanda James, co-founder of Simply Pure in Denver, Colorado, Brittany Moore of Blunts & Moore, The Happy Store in Oakland California, and Sue “Mama Sue” Taylor, co-owner of Farmacy in Berkeley, California. Wiseman works alongside her mother to keep customers informed and medicated.
“My customers and my followers have two very different concerns. My customers are more concerned with education and pricing. They want to understand what they are using, how they are supposed to use it, and the quality of the product. Then, probably more than the education behind it, they are concerned with the cost,” she said. “My followers are most concerned with how they can enter the industry and how to get around the extremely high barriers to entry.”
In 2018, Wiseman established Maryland Grown Medicine, LLC, which provides “innovative new medicines” for patients dealing with health challenges, with the purpose of assisting and maintaining 100 percent minority ownership throughout all stages of business development.
“When I first was turned on to the legal cannabis industry in 2014, I realized that this was one of the largest emerging industries of my generation and that I was uniquely positioned to get in on the ground floor level,” she said. “Being on the plant-touching side of the industry in a state that had a limited number of licenses almost guarantees a certain level of success that I was able to accomplish in 2015 when I was awarded my medical dispensary license in the state of Maryland.”
Wiseman has a strong desire to cultivate more research and development surrounding cannabis. She has often said that once the dismissive connotation encircling the cannabis industry has been removed, communities will have the opportunity to heal and economically prosper. “I really like the lifestyle aspect of the industry and I really see brands like Cookies and Viola killing it from that perspective,” she said. “On the east coast, brands do not yet have that same level of recognition and the market is extremely segmented so there is much room for someone to come in and dominate. A lot of the larger publicly traded MSOs (multi-state operators) are missing the lifestyle aspect of cannabis and I believe this will hurt them long term.”
Cannabis advocate, Anqunette Sarfoh is best known as ‘Que’ from Detroit’s Fox 2 News. She was a steady presence on the small screen as a morning anchor for 15 years before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013. Following her diagnosis, she became an advocate for the benefits of cannabis, testifying that it allows her to live a normal life and deal with her symptoms. This winter, she and husband Richard said goodbye to Botaniq, a Detroit-based dispensary and grow space after putting their heart and soul into its opening. The financial requirements to get into the industry in Detroit were part of their decision, as they included a $6,000 state application fee, $66,000 state regulatory assessments, $5,000 application fee from a local municipality and proof of $200,000 in assets.
“It wasn’t the amount of money that we had to pay in licenses that was the most challenging for us, as we actually knew what to expect. It was the legal fees that were insurmountable because of our partnership,” she said. “We came out better on this side more financially sound and most knowledgeable about this industry. More investors are approaching us, wanting to do business with us and patrons are still looking to me for advice on what cannabis brand best helps their particular ailment. Plus, I consume so there’s no one better than me to tell someone that the ‘OG Kush’ got me off of my meds.”
An advocate for the benefits of marijuana usage, Sarfoh understands the heavy stigma associated with Black people and cannabis consumption that some patrons still visualize when there is discussion of alternative medicines. “In our community, cannabis has been stigmatized because of the legal impacts,” she said.
Sarfoh is hoping to change that. She was invited to sit on the board of Michigan’s Cannabis Industry Association, an advocacy group where she will be a part of a 15-person team for the marijuana industry. On the board she will be one of two Black women. It’s the reason why once a month, she gathers a few dozen of her female social media followers to a gathering, entitled Curiositea, where she answers any and all questions on her personal usage and recommendations of usage to those that want to come and ask.
Providing healing, education and a coveted product, these three Black women are opening doors for other Black women to get involved in a booming business, whether as informed customers or entrepreneurs. They are making a profound statement of independence and sustainability in the cannabis industry while inviting others to join them, and there’s plenty of opportunity. Everyone can take advantage of the $45 billion industry.