If you’re observant, you may look around you while in a dispensary and notice that the majority of the people behind the counter are white. You may also notice that the majority of the people in articles about the cannabis industry, as well as owners of cannabis businesses, are white — even in a state like Colorado where 21% of residents identify as Latino. On U.S. census and other government forms, Latinos or Mexican-Americans have the option of identifying as white, too, so this number may actually be low. The complications, misrepresentations, and difficulties of defining a people whose ancestry began in the Americas and who were subsequently pushed off their land; forced to abandon their traditions, languages, and beliefs; and rolled into one vast category are limitless. The cannabis industry is already moving toward governance by the white majority, whether it’s through Microsoft partnerships, pharmaceutical company acquisitions, or the leadership and monopolizing politics of the affluent white male population. In Part I of this series on diversity in the cannabis industry, we discussed African-Americans – today the focus is on Latinos in the cannabis industry: where are the beautiful brown faces in this sea of green and white?
A Brief History of Marihuana
According to NPR, “marijuana has been intertwined with race and ethnicity in the Americas since well before the world ‘marihuana’ was coined”; we now know that cannabis was demonized by companies who wanted to suppress the production of hemp for business purposes in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Fear of the influx of Mexican and indigenous people into Texas and Louisiana helped spark this demonization and turn it into the beast of prohibition it’s been for decades. While the U.S. was cracking down on cannabis consumption, so was Mexico, which outlawed cannabis is 1920 – 17 years before the U.S did. As Eric Schlosser noted in a 1994 article, “marijuana is and has long been the most widely used illegal drug in the United States…used here more frequently than all other illegal drugs combined.” Marihuana was the word that Mexican immigrants used to refer to the cannabis plant, while “cannabis” was familiar to white U.S citizens because it was used in many medicines at the time. It seems that the very term “marihuana” was meant to alienate Mexican customs and medicinal practices by making them less familiar to whites. When the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was proposed, it prevailed based on unfounded fears about Mexican immigrants and their desire to solicit sex from white women – the ultimate fear of white men of that period. The act banned the use and sale of marijuana/cannabis in the United States, and was eventually replaced in the seventies with the Controlled Substances Act which currently classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug that is highly addictive and dangerous (and inaccurate). As marijuana moves toward widespread legalization and decriminalization in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Latin America, the inclusiveness of the industry and the representation of people of color should be a priority to counteract racial profiling and past grievances. That said, here are some people in the cannabis community who are making inroads.
Miguel Trinidad is a celebrated Dominican chef who creates masterpieces from Filipino cuisine. Trinidad has found a way to celebrate cannabis and serve his fantastic cuisine through The 99th Floor, a private, roving, invite-only edible experience for members. Unlike his previous culinary triumphs Maharlika and Jeepney, The 99th Floor serves up “private multi-course dining events designed for gastronomers with experienced palates.” Trinidad wants to make the cannabis cuisine experience accessible to everyone, a pleasant social event, and an educational experience on ingesting edibles. As Jenison of Prohbtd noted, “It should be like drinking a glass of wine where you’re not chugging the whole bottle at once. You’re sipping and enjoying the euphoria that comes with it.” Dinner contents vary, but are geared toward providing even the most inexperienced diner with a pleasant and not overwhelming experience.
MassRoots spoke with Trinidad about his experience as a person of color in the cannabis industry. Trinidad noted that the lack of Latinos and Hispanics in the cannabis industry is a direct result of the negative stigma attached to cannabis, and believes its healing properties have been overwhelmed by a negative community outlook. Trinidad noted that education on medical benefits and proper dosing could increase the positive view of cannabis within Latino and Mexican-American communities in the future; a background in law is helpful for minorities or people of color who want to work the cannabis industry. He recommends that Latinos examine the industry for “possibilities in this market that have not been explored. I am positive that we will see other homeopathic applications within this industry that have roots in Latino culture.” Trinidad sees the future of the cannabis industry in artisanal products and small businesses; he recommends that small business owners band together to avoid being pushed out by larger corporations. Trinidad offers the following advice to Latino cannabis entrepreneurs: “If they tell you you can’t do it, do it twice and prove them wrong.”
Larisa Bolivar is a cannabis business executive and a recognized subject matter expert on marijuana policy reform. Bolivar is the founder of Bolivar Consulting Group, and executive director of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, a consumer advocacy organization focused on consumer education, public safety, quality control, and ethical business practices in the cannabis industry.
Bolivar noted that “Hispanics are culturally conservative” and there is a fear of racial persecution and ostracism. Bolivar mentioned lack of business capital, generational wealth, creditworthiness, as well as prohibition based on past criminal records as barriers to Latino participation in cannabis. Bolivar suggests reparations for communities of color and Latinos looking to start businesses in the form of small business loans and record-sealing for non-violent criminal drug charges, as well as Latino participation in policy-making organizations and industry trade groups. Bolivar believes that bilingual cannabis businesses and educational organizations within the Latino community can help reduce fear and stigma while bolstering community goals.
Mark Slaugh is a first-generation Brazilian-American, executive director for the Cannabis Business Alliance, membership director for the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council, and a member of the Minority Business Council for the National Cannabis Industry Association. Slaugh has helped define Colorado’s medical cannabis laws through edible safety, accurate record-keeping, and responsible vendor training. Slaugh owns iComply, a company that reduces risk, cost, and complexity in cannabis commerce through compliance, training, inspection, assessment, and standard operating procedure development solutions. The goal of iComply is to help cannabis businesses (medical, retail, clubs, and industrial hemp) to train employees successfully and learn to lobby for their and their patients’ rights. The company is focused on policy monitoring, political reform, and social justice – part of which is centered on the “social transformation [of cannabis] from illicit ‘vice’ to legal substance under licensing and regulation.”
Slaugh spoke with me concerning the underrepresentation of Latinos and Hispanics in the cannabis industry. Slaugh believes that the primary reasons for few Latino canna-businesspeople are “barriers of cost, eligibility, and knowledge it takes to thrive in the marijuana business space.” Access to “large, private funding sources,” citizenship or criminal history barriers, language barriers, and racial profiling can prevent people of color from becoming cannabis entrepreneurs. Slaugh is a champion of changing and lobbying for positive cannabis industry policy changes, and believes that communities of color impacted most by the drug war must be helped to appreciate, value, and equalize the industry. The method he recommends is a merit-based point system for cannabis business owners and neighborhoods of color during the application process; low-level crimes and marijuana crime exemptions for communities of color; and state mandated and funded job training to “ensure workers have the support they need to bridge the knowledge gap preventing them from equal hiring in the industry.” Changing negative beliefs in communities of color can only be accomplished through education, and states have a responsibility to educate their publics concerning responsible consumption and regulation of cannabis in many different languages.
Slaugh noted that Latinos and Hispanics are generally 30% of the population in many states, but representation is diluted by poverty and racial profiling. Poverty also impacts health in any community, and in the case of cannabis, the plant has long been a traditional and cultural resource for health and medicinal practices in Latino communities. Slaugh believes that “Latinos have a role to play as healers and medicine men/women who can use marijuana where traditional western medicine fails,” and as “ambassadors to our home countries south of the U.S.” Slaugh also spoke to the failed war on drugs, stating that “As each country reforms these failed policies, we take on our global responsibility across two continents to create a more workable model for the world.” Slaugh believes that communities of color and white communities both have a serious responsibility to ensure Latino representation through fair policies that root out and prevent the future suffering of communities of color damaged severely by the racist drug war.
Rico Garcia is a cannabis activist and entrepreneur who owns BotaniLabs, a professional consulting service for the hemp industry. Garcia is also president of the Cannabis Alliance for Regulation and Education (CARE), which advocates for patient rights and responsible cannabis regulations. Garcia was a member of the 2011 MED advisory subpanels and 2013’s Shadow Task Force made up of Latino and African-American civil rights representatives marijuana expertise. Garcia objects to unfair regulatory laws that allow white-collar criminals to participate in the cannabis industry, but few Latino minor offenders. Garcia believes that drug war policies are still evident in today’s cannabis industry laws, and must be remedied for people of color to fully participate. Garcia suggests a statute pardoning state offenders for nonviolent F4 marijuana offenses older than ten years, and has worked in conjunction with Shawn Coleman of 36 Solutions to create it.
Garcia believes that regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow greater access for people from disadvantaged communities, and noted that the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) would then be unnecessary as all enforcement could be folded into the current liquor enforcement division (this would lower licensing costs). With the Social Cannabis law passed in Colorado, the hope was that this would come to pass, but now the law is being reevaluated behind closed doors.
Garcia’s goal with his medical cannabis dispensary was to be more Latino-oriented, focusing on growing Landrace cannabis strains from Spain and Latin America. Garcia worked to change the language of Colorado’s original Amendment 64 draft language to address previous offenders with past drug convictions. Garcia encourages Latino cannabis entrepreneurs to grow cannabis without pesticides and defy stoner stereotypes, but most importantly to work on changing current policy by starting their own lobbying firm or industry group that caters to them specifically.
Overall, the Latino community has recognized the opportunities and barriers present in the current cannabis industry, and is working toward change, even as they have been working toward full equality. It is important to be aware of cannabis policy language in each state and in the federal government should it reschedule cannabis in August; laws in many states need to be amended in order to stop the lack of inclusion of Latino, Mexican-American, and African-American cannabis business owners and entrepreneurs. Organizations like Women Grow and the Minority Cannabis Business Association are excellent places to start, and fantastic resources for entrepreneurs who are just starting out. Above all, educating communities of color on the opportunities and issues within the cannabis industry, as well as their legal rights and methods to change the regulations and policies that are already in place have to be considered. Non-Latino cannabis industry leaders must work with communities of color and Latino-, Mexican-American-, and African-American-owned and -led organizations in an effort to ensure that equality is a part of the cannabis industry going into the future.