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The United States’ cannabis industry is currently worth upward of $10 billion, and the industry has quickly established itself one of the fastest-growing ones in the country. All the while, its foundation presents the glaring implications of the privilege attached to its profit, while those criminalized for marijuana use and sales continue to serve time for past crimes, or are completely barred from capitalizing on marijuana’s positively-reflecting trends. Significantly high barriers to entry, astronomical startup costs in some cases, and a lingering stigma all continue to pose roadblocks.
As the REVOLT Summit x AT&T made its appearance in Los Angeles in October, there was naturally no better locale to set up a conversation with industry leaders on the fight for social equity and the extreme importance for disadvantaged communities to get in at what is currently the ground floor of the cannabis industry. Sitting down for the “Smoke & Mirrors: The Cannabis Revolution” discussion, panelists included Snoop Dogg, NBA veteran Al Harrington, Cura Partners CMO Jason White, Lowell Herb co-founder David Elias, and restaurateur and social equity activist Karim Webb.
The conversation would begin with Snoop Dogg’s origins with cannabis. Over the span of decades that encase his career, Snoop has evolved from a chronic connoisseur to a legitimized businessman by launching his Leafs by Snoop brand in 2015, and eventually making it one of the only major brands to be distributed both in the United States and in Canada.
“I was branding the chronic leaf before I knew about branding, before I knew what branding was,” Snoop recalls of his beginnings in printing a marijuana leaf on a black hat in the ‘90s. “It was just hindsight of me knowing I had a vision of knowing and understanding that I was trying to push something, but not really understanding that I was pushing.”
This hindsight is certainly one of great reward when considering just how far cannabis culture has come. But, according to Elias, the current state of the cannabis industry will be immemorable given the growth that is on the horizon. His own Lowell Café is largely known as the nation’s first weed café and lounge. Its structure moves away from the traditional practice of consumption from home even in legal territories.
“There’s a huge part of culture that’s around cannabis. So, the idea that cannabis can only be consumed outside of the normal place—we’ll look back at this. It will be ludicrous that this was the first one,” he said.
As this industry continues to expand, the importance of differentiation and disruption will prove to be a driving factor in its growth, as with any industry that arrived beforehand. White, who famously transitioned from a role as head of global marketing with Beats by Dre to CMO of Cura Partners, believes that the narratives behind burgeoning brands will be the key to such disruption.
“As I came into the cannabis space, you walk into a dispensary and there’s a ton of choice in there’s very little education,” he explained. “There’s a massive opportunity for brands to tell stories and explain who they are. I saw immediately we had to figure out how to tell our story.”
He would allude to the very small difference that Beats made by turning their headphones to the side on shelves in order to showcase the famous “b” logo. Such an act proved to be a difference maker in pulling in new customers and played a role in the brand’s status as a coveted item.
All the while, the discussion largely found itself returning to the triviality of all this innovation and disruption if people of color, who are largely criminalized for marijuana, are locked out of participating.
“We have to understand that people of color — black and brown people — have suffered 75% of all the criminal justice as it relates to cannabis,” Webb reminded the crowd. “It’s a 10-billion-dollar industry. We own less than 1% of it. In 10 years, it’s going to be a $200 billon industry. We have a responsibility and we actually have the right, in my opinion, to take significant amount of market share.”
Webb is best known for owning a string of restaurant franchises, particular a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw Plaza. With its 2011 opening, the restaurant became the first casual-dining franchise to open in South Los Angeles in 25 years. It would go on to become one of the top performing restaurants in the entire franchise. But, at a much deeper level, it signifies the fortune that lies within our own communities when the opportunity is made available.
Webb, along with his 4thMVMNT initiative, consistently works on bringing this same narrative to the cannabis industry by providing critical resources through social equity.
He added: “If you can develop people to run multimillion-dollar chicken and beer places that show sports, we can make certain that people that come from our communities —communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the application of criminal justice — get access to doing business, then have the capital, and get all the resources not just to compete, but to win in that space. We need the bread ‘cause we deserve it.”
This same sentiment was echoed by Harrington, who owns the Viola Brands cannabis company. For him, his foray into the cannabis world came from witnessing the incredible benefits that the plant provided his grandmother, who suffered from a number of ailments that included glaucoma and diabetes. Pairing that with the deepened need to see cannabis reform take place within professional sports leagues, Harrington has been a proponent for the herb as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical meds.
“When you play pro sports, you put your body through hurt,” he began. “A lot of times, we have to play through pain because it’s someone right behind you trying to take your place…the stigma is starting to change and I feel like athletes need to have an option for an alternative, [a] natural way to medicate themselves.”
“Cannabis is synonymous with wellness in general,” Webb would highlight shortly after Harrington’s words. “I think wellness is synonymous with love. You can’t have love without equity and fairness.”
This remark would open the opportunity to discuss what step should be taken when promoting equity within the industry. For Snoop, this solution is simple: Include a minority clause in cannabis legislation.
“The minority has to get the first... It got to be somebody of color to get first action and then the rest of you mother--ckers with money get action,” he declared to a sea of applause.
“It’s generational wealth and health that are at risk,” Harrington passionately added to the topic of inclusion. “You got to think about all the other industries that happened before cannabis that black people were right there: rice, sugar, cotton, liquor, the lottery. That was us and right now, we have to be represented. …If we stay fragmented, we’re just going to be customers again.”
Elias would add a shift in understanding the value of taking part of the cannabis industry even as an employee and not as an entrepreneur. Highlighting his company’s strides in employing non-violent cannabis offenders, he underscored the opportunities that exist within the network of similar brands.
“Find us,” he directed. “Work for a great company. That’s where the opportunity is immediately…being a part of a great company that’s something every single person can do. That should be used by all.”
Still, the question of where these opportunities boiled down to the legality of cannabis across state borders. Among all panelists, the consensus was that the growing trend of legalization is happening quickly and the ability to analyze this trend will make the difference for anyone looking to creep into the industry.
“The east coast moving toward recreational is the next huge wave,” White added.
As for federal legalization, the prospects aren’t as assured. Webb highlighted the possibility of legalization from President Donald Trump out of an effort to get re-elected to office. However, he noted that he foresees any democratic candidate passing federal legalization within their two years in office if elected.
The resounding sentiment, however, seemed positioned on the fact that participation and involvement in this industry is crucial no matter where legalization is headed.
Snoop Dogg would be the one to cap off the conversation appropriately with one instruction: “Y’all need to get in it and get in quick.”