The Women Making California's Weed Industry Less White
As California enacts new regulations for medical marijuana, Supernova Women—an Oakland-based organization of women of color—is helping to make sure those policies don’t ignore minorities and victims of the war on drugs.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
In a small industrial space outside of downtown LA last Thursday, Sunshine Lecho lectured on the obscure legal intricacies of the medical weed industry under California's recently enacted Medical Marijuana and Regulation Safety Act (MMRSA). As boring as that sounds, the intently listening audience, who sat in folding chairs for the two-hour set of panel discussions, called "The State of Cannabis For People of Color," was fired up, punctuating talk of the state's new licensing system—and what it could mean for industry reparations—with cheers and affirming murmurs.
"For women of color, knowledge about the industry is so crucial to be able to shift our position economically," one attendee, Eyerie, told me during a break. The 33-year-old grows weed for personal use in Northern California, a skill she learned from a friend. Particularly, she grows a Sativa-dominant strain that she named after herself.
"There's so much money to be made in the cannabis industry. Women of color have been on the bottom for so long. Why not allow us to get power for ourselves?" she asked. She came to the event, put on by Supernova Women, because she's interested in the changing laws that could allow her to distribute her weed to dispensaries.
Supernova was founded by Lencho, along with Amber Senter and Nina Parks. The organization makes it a priority to eliminate the barriers to entry in the cannabis industry for people of color and victims of the drug war, and they do so through grassroots campaigns and policy education. Supernova's events are distinctly different from other industry conferences, which can cost hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars. They're free, and they feel more like an inspiring college seminar with your favorite woke professor.
"Everyone talks about how inclusive the industry wants to be and how they care about the impact of the war on drugs on people of color. But when you go into these industry events, you can see that there isn't any action on the part of the industry to include the community," Parks told me in a conference call with all three founders before the event.
"You can see the disproportionate impact police enforcement of marijuana laws has had directly in Oakland, where we live, and elsewhere in communities of color," she continued. "Yet you don't really see active business development, outreach, or any activity for these communities. Supernova formed because we saw the need. We saw the need for public education looking at what's happened around California's marijuana law and the national discourse."
Lencho jumped in and explained, "We try to give people a legal framework for understanding the industry, and then we also try to cover the actual criminal liability issues, too. You can't really separate the two, especially when you're dealing with communities of color. People need to have as much information as possible going forward." I didn't realize the scope of what they were talking about at the time—but I soon realized that "as much information as possible" is the bare minimum required to understand California's laws around medical marijuana.
At the conference, Lencho, a lawyer, held court over dozens of ordinary people who were completely rapt as she explained the impact of new regulatory measures for the medical marijuana space. This was due less to her oratory skills—though they are great—than the fact that she was simply doing it. While some were industry veterans there to network, many in attendance were looking to start business for the first time—without the first clue how to do so.
California, as a mass of land, is huge and diverse. Thus, as a regulatory body, it is preternaturally unwieldy—and, in regard to the California's cannabis law, things are frankly a shitshow right now.
Medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1996, but the passage of the Compassionate Care Act did not stipulate a statewide framework for licensing and oversight. Over the years, regulation has been reactionary and generally up for grabs, on both the city and county level. The ever-changing regulations on MED have been more than a burden on people who own weed-related businesses.
In the city of Los Angeles alone, for example, there have been several rounds of regulation that ended in an outright ban on dispensaries in 2013. The dispensaries that you see operating in LA now are those that are allowed to operate under Proposition D, which only recognizes the 135 establishments that were grandfathered in with the city's Interim Control Ordinance (ICO), a previous effort to regulate the industry in 2007, as legal. If this sounds confusing, it's because it is.
"LA has been the most aggressive, criminalized place to own a business," Ariel Clark, a lawyer who spoke alongside Lencho on the night's first panel, told the audience.
For women of color, knowledge about the industry is so crucial to be able to shift our position economically.
In an effort to cohere California's regulatory system, Governor Jerry Brown signed MMRSA into law last October. Though MMRSA initially caused some problems and an increase in city bans on MED due to the way it was written (badly), the law, which takes practical effect in 2018, is the first to set up a statewide licensing system for the commercial cultivation, manufacture, retail sale, transport, distribution, delivery, and testing of medical cannabis. In addition, for the first time, dispensaries will be allowed to be for-profit.
After years of operating in a legal grey area under the threat of shut downs, raids, and arrests, this, activists say, could result in a watershed moment for equity in the cannabis space, especially for people of color. The law still gives the cities ultimate control over licensing; operators must have a local license before they are able to get a state license. How cities will decide who gets a license in 2018 is happening right now.
The state will also vote on legalizing adult use of marijuana on November 8.
"We are in the midst of the birth of an industry," Clark emphasized. "We actually have the ability to shape the laws that govern us. Even though the two-tiered system is a frustration for some, it does afford the opportunity for local change. Everyone needs to get locally involved. There's so much diversity here—wouldn't it be nice to have an industry that reflects that?"
The founders of Supernova are currently leading the charge to make sure California's new permitting system means that people of color will have a chance to be heard and to impact the decisions of their local governments. Supernova recently advocated for the city of Oakland, where they are based, to put people formerly convicted on marijuana-related charges at the front of the line for licenses under MMRSA. The policy they helped form stipulates that half of all new licenses must go to formerly incarcerated people.
"When Oakland was talking about having equity amendments, we felt it was important to provide context for the council there as to what the impact on our community was going to be," Lencho explained over the phone. "[When MMRSA takes effect] the city is going to be dealing with a broad spectrum of people [who need licenses], but we wanted to make sure that, if there was going to be any conversation about equity, it included our organization's values. The majority of arrests for marijuana have historically [been] and continue to be of people of color. We basically wanted the ordinance to reflect the values that you hear the industry repeat and hold them to it."
"We still want to broaden the police beats [that the licenses go to] and make sure that things like fee waivers are put in place," she added during the panel. "If you're talking about barriers to entry, there's no greater barrier to applying for things than having to pay to even get the chance to be heard. We're also pushing for a grace period for compliance with this new regulation. As we're making this transition from an unregulated market to a regulated market, there are going to be some people who are slow to be captured in the regulation. We don't want them to continue to be prosecuted."
Lencho continued to go over the (many) upcoming changes in California law, including SB 643, which would establish a track-and-trace system for medical cannabis—standard in other states with legalized MED—and create recommendations for physicians who prescribe cannabis, and AB 243, which relates to the cultivation of marijuana. Under MMRSA, there are ten different types of cultivation licenses, depending on the size and specifics of one's operation, as well as licenses for dispensaries, manufacturers, transporters, and testers.
People in the audience furiously took notes. As I observed their enthusiasm for the topic, I couldn't help but feel in awe of the fact that the space was populated mainly by black people. As someone who has seen how white the industry appears, this wasn't just a welcome change for me—it was the first thing everyone in attendance noticed.
"I've been to other cannabis events, but I've never seen this many people of color in the industry all together. Ever," LaRon Cue, a cannabis vendor I spoke to during a quick break between the first and second panel, said. "You would think this would be the norm. We represent a pretty big part of cannabis culture."
Other participants echoed his disbelief throughout the night, but Cue also had some answers. "The cannabis industry is an emerging industry, but it's a microcosm of America," he explained. "There's not a lot of people of color represented in a lot of industries, let alone women of color. You're starting to see more of us come along, but we have an uphill battle. I cannot tell you how many times I've faced law enforcement. I feel like I have a right to be in this industry just because of that; I have more stripes than a tiger. Brothers are scared to come out and say, 'Hey, I own a weed business,' because we're already getting arrested for it."
The night closed out with a panel of three women of color in various sectors of the industry—Isamarie Perez, the head of business development at Meadow, a dispensary-facing tech company; Kathleen Villareal, a dispensary owner; and Ophelia Chong, who started a stock photography company to combat stereotypes of cannabis users—moderated by Senter. But the final word was surreptitiously stolen by a white woman who felt the need to add on to a panelist's answers during a Q&A with the audience ("If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?").
She stood up, moved to the center of the room, and announced herself by her full name. "When things get difficult, just remember we're doing this for the patients," she said in a manner that took at least three full minutes. When she was done making a point that Lencho had already touched upon at the beginning of the evening, everyone clapped and dispersed. It seemed insane, yet strangely expected.
"I don't know why they always do that," Lencho whispered to me after.