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In just six years, the global cannabis industry will be worth $73.6 billion, and the United States will hold the majority of that wealth. Today, Curaleaf Holdings, Canopy Growth, Cronos Group and Tilray — the wealthiest multi-state operators (MSOs) in North America — enjoy a collective market cap of almost $29 billion.

That wealth is the legacy created by the cannabis entrepreneurs who established the demand for weed before marijuana was legal.

Most media depictions of unregulated cannabis operators rely on stereotypes that fail to capture a more nuanced reality.

The neighborhood green thumb who sells weed and other herbs to patients looking for alternative medicine isn't represented by the caricature of a nefarious drug lord prowling in the dark.

The talented businessperson who made some mistakes as a kid, wound up with a criminal record and is now blocked from making a lucrative legal career doesn’t quite line up with the idea of an unmotivated thug.

The preconceived image of a couch-locked stoner doesn’t reflect the nerdy chef who figured out how to make potent and delicious edibles but lacks the thousands of dollars necessary to get a cannabis processing license.

Rather than being regarded as industry trailblazers, legacy cannabis operators have been characterized as criminals too lazy to raise the political and financial capital necessary to enter the legal space. This line of thinking is a racist fantasy. We’re going to break that down and tell you what you can do to set the record straight.

What Makes Legacy Cannabis Operators Different from Tech Innovators?

Let’s pivot for a second.

The internet is one of the most unregulated spaces in the American economy. Even as lawsuits attempt to break up tech monopolies, it’s clear that the people who profit most from the rapidly growing tech industry are the pioneers who created the market for it. It would be absurd if Mark Zuckerberg was thrown in prison for creating Facebook simply because it wasn’t a regulated business.

But isn’t that what’s happened to the millions of black-market cannabis operators who’ve been sent to prison, sometimes for life, for non-violent cannabis offenses?

You might say that comparing the developing tech industry to the cannabis one isn’t fair because cannabis is a potentially addictive substance and Facebook and Instagram … Oh.

Now you see it.

Some tech executives are so aware of social media’s addictiveness, they don’t let their kids have accounts. In addition to the disturbing relationship between social media use and poor mental health, we now know that social media platforms can be weaponized by international agents to influence American elections and incite social unrest.

While the mostly white entrepreneurs developing the tech industry have been given space to make mistakes and adapt to a changing legal landscape, the BIPOC entrepreneurs at the helm of cannabis, a far less dangerous “substance” than social media, have been arrested and imprisoned.

From the beginning, cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs targeted Black and brown communities. It was a political weapon designed to disrupt “radical” Black leadership and solidify political power in the hands of the wealthy and white.

To this day, Black people are 3.6 times as likely to be arrested for pot possession as white people, even though both groups use cannabis at nearly equivalent rates. As cannabis is legalized from state to state, Black entrepreneurs with the most relevant industry experience are also the most likely to be in prison or held back by the collateral consequences of criminalization, including cannabis laws that specifically exclude people with cannabis-related records from entering the industry.

Structural racism in cannabis punishes Black entrepreneurs for their adjacence to poverty, a trauma a disproportionate number of Black people experience as a direct result of the criminalization of cannabis.

If you want to see the cannabis industry open its doors to the legacy entrepreneurs who made the way, you can do something to make that happen, and right now is the time.

To the Advocates: How to Create Social Equity for Legacy Cannabis Entrepreneurs

You should expect resistance to the idea that Black people with non-violent cannabis convictions deserve support. But if you’re invested enough in your community to educate yourself, make some phone calls and spend your dollars strategically, here’s what you can do to push back:

  1. Educate yourself. The Hood Incubator, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, Supernova Women, Marijuana Matters and the Minority Cannabis Business Association belong to a coalition of social equity advocacy groups fighting to create space in the regulated cannabis industry for those most disadvantaged by the war on drugs. Follow and support these organizations to stay connected to educational materials and events that will equip you to advocate for the right kind of solutions. 
  1. Call your elected officials. Reach out to your federal, state, and local representatives and let them know that your support requires a public commitment to making social equity the cornerstone of the regulated cannabis industry in your community. 
  1. Purchase from social equity brands. If there are dispensaries owned by social equity applicants near you, shop at those stores. If not, let the MSOs with dispensaries in your neighborhood know that you’re in the market for cannabis products created by BIPOC-owned businesses and social equity applicants.

These are small tasks, but the consistent application of these strategies will turn your intention into impact.

To the Unlicensed Entrepreneurs: Transitioning to the Regulated Market

If you’re reading this as an unregulated cannabis operator, you know better than anyone the absurdity of being criminalized for the very thing that’s put Curaleaf Holdings’ market cap at $10 billion. Make these moves to get your legal piece of the pie: 

  1. Know the law. If you have a non-violent cannabis-related offense, you may be eligible for application fee and licensure discounts or licenses exclusively available to social equity applicants. However, it’s more likely that you live in a state with zero social equity provisions. Either way, knowledge will inform your next steps. You can find the full-text of your state’s cannabis laws on the state government website.
  1. Call your elected officials. If anyone should be advocating for social equity to be mandated into cannabis legislation, it’s you. You don’t have to tell your representatives that you’re operating an under-the-table marijuana business. However, as a registered voter, you have the power to apply political pressure for social equity.
  1. Treat your business like it’s legal. Even if you’re operating outside of regulations, keep financial records. Set aside your federal and state taxes. Hold yourself to the same ethical standards expected of cannabis business owners in the legal space. This demonstrates business acumen to potential investors and better positions you to make the transition once you have the resources you need to apply for licensure.

Historically, the loudest narrative has unfairly cast you as the villain. We’re not saying the people communicating that narrative are devils. We’re saying their story is missing essential perspective: yours. Wield your power. Share your story.


Marijuana Matters is a non-profit centering those disadvantaged by the criminalization of marijuana. M2 identifies and eliminates barriers to economic opportunity in the regulated cannabis industry through advocacy, entrepreneurship, and education. Support our work.