Insuring Cannabis Summit: Industry at Diversity Crossroads

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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles based on panels and presentations during Insurance Journal’s 2020 Insuring Cannabis Summit on Nov. 19.

Diversity needs to be more than a mere buzzword in the cannabis industry.

That was the message from James Jackson III, a senior vice president at Mark Edward Partners, who leads the firm’s cannabis practice and has created a dedicated unit focused on helping minority, women and LGBTQ+ businesses as the firm’s diversity and inclusion group practice leader.

Jackson gave a presentation, Diversity in the Insuring Cannabis Space, during Insurance Journal’s 2020 Insuring Cannabis Summit on Nov. 19.

For decades, there have been historical injustices of failed drug policies that have been detrimental to communities of color, he noted.

“So when this industry is built and when this industry is coming together, it makes sense that it’s representative of those people that have been harmed,” Jackson said. “And those people that have ultimately had to bear the brunt of essentially this industry now becoming the shoe success.”

A study from the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year showed that Black Americans are 3.64% more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession thank white Americans despite equal cannabis usage rates.

“Specifically, there are states such as Montana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Iowa, where black people are 7 times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts,” he said. “So there’s no arguing that for years, communities of color have taken the brunt. And it only makes sense that those communities and people that are within those communities be able to own and take part and be large participation in an industry that is now having tons of success and monetary value.”

Jackson would like to see more diversity across the spectrum in cannabis: management, C-suite, on boards, and ownership. However, adding diversity to the latter category is difficult due to lack of access to funds.

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Banking services and investment are limited for the industry because cannabis is still considered illegal at the federal level.

“How many people of color are able to actually get into the space, because we know that raising funds doesn’t exist institutionally right now, so it’s all private investment,” he said. “And private investment is stems directly from your network. So again, the cannabis industry has a long way to go as it relates to diversity, being less than…5% ownership. Obviously in some more mature markets like California, it’s a tad better, but still it’s not representative of, I think the entire cannabis culture and essentially the popularity that was growing on the backs of Black people.”

States like California, Illinois, and others have programs to encourage minority entry into cannabis. Regulators in Denver, Colo., formed an advisory group to recommend licensing and policy changes to diversify the city’s cannabis space and provide more equitable access to the market.

And with five newly legalized states, which has many implications for the industry, it seems diversity and cannabis are at a crossroads.

“The industry is growing. It’s going to continue to grow,” Jackson said. “More states are going to legalize, decriminalize and go adult use or medical, but the question now comes, what is the legislation that’s going to go along with it? Is that legislation going to help benefit people of color entering the industry as it should? Or will those pieces be left out and gear more towards big business and some of the larger MSOs getting an even further head start than some other entrepreneurs in the space that are trying to gain entry?”

He added: “So it’s a very important crossroads right now for the cannabis industry, as it relates to what direction it will go in as far as diversity.”

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