On Juneteenth, Two Black Industry Leaders Say Social Equity Falls Short

June 19, 2023 · Green Market Report

Programs must address systemic inequities that exist across the board.

In the run-up to the national Juneteenth holiday, which marks the date in 1865 when Black Americans in Texas learned they’d been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, Green Market Report reached out to a pair of Black women cannabis industry leaders to get their thoughts on how far the marijuana industry has yet to go on racial equity.

The answer was simple: It’s so far that it’s hard to even put into words.

Both women – attorney and former director of the Minority Cannabis Industry Association Amber Littlejohn and Union Square Travel Agency President Arana Hankin-Biggers – agreed that social equity programs meant to help repair the harms wrought by the war on drugs have, to date, broadly fallen short when it comes to the Black community.

The pair both said that’s a reflection of deeper issues with which the entire nation is still grappling.

“The cannabis industry really could be used as an example of unfulfilled promises that we see to Black Americans, that we see in the country as a whole,” Littlejohn said. “Especially over the last three to four years, we’ve seen such an emphasis on equity and promises made to the individuals most impacted, which unequivocally are Black Americans… These are efforts that have completely fallen short.”

Hankin-Biggers, whose operation is a nonprofit social equity licensee in New York, said the Empire State’s ground-breaking marijuana licensing approach that prioritized racial justice is “really grand and wonderful and well-intentioned, but at the end of the day, we live in the United States of America, and capitalism, unfortunately, it’s steeped in systemic racism.”

“One piece of legislation is not going to correct 600 years of institutional racism,” Hankin-Biggers said.

The reality is there are still an enormous wealth gap between Black and white entrepreneurs that make it automatically harder for Black business owners to succeed, whether in cannabis or any other industry, Hankin-Biggers said. Just in Brooklyn, the racial wealth gap is about $4 billion to $5 billion between white and Black families, she said, citing statistics from the Federal Reserve.

Littlejohn also said that despite the good intentions of social equity programs, it’s poor planning and follow-through that have led to minority licensees often winding up worse off than they were before trying to launch social equity cannabis companies.

“A lot of social equity programs are really just chocolate sprinkles, put on an equitable ice cream scoop,” Littlejohn said. “You’re just sprinkling on a little equity for the aesthetics of it. But when you are not addressing the systemic inequities that exist in lending, access to capital, access to real estate, technical support and services, technical expertise, then those efforts are going to fall flat. And sometimes even worse, people will expend fortunes – the fortunes of their family, destroy their credit, leverage their homes – trying to achieve something that absolutely is unachievable.”

As one potential example of that, Hankin-Biggers said she’s worried that New York regulators are now giving multistate operators, the 10 “registered organizations” in the state already licensed to sell medical cannabis, an early entry this year to the recreational market despite the original pledge to give several years’ head start to smaller social equity businesses.

“I’m just afraid that once the market opens up now, the R.O.’s are coming in way earlier than we expected,” Hankin-Biggers said, adding she doesn’t believe those companies don’t share social equity values.

“Having real meaningful partnerships in the private sector who really believe in giving back is going to be crucial (to improving racial equity). And I don’t think it really exists so much in the cannabis industry. A lot of large cannabis companies claim to be giving back, and they’re really not doing anything substantive,” she said.

Littlejohn also offered some advice for non-Black-owned cannabis companies to not use the Juneteenth holiday for sales promos or celebrations, but as a day to reflect and offer some support to the Black community.

“This isn’t Black History Month. This isn’t Martin Luther King Day. It’s okay to sit this one out. It is okay to just simply acknowledge it,” she said. “This is a day to listen.” (Full Story)

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