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4 ways cannabis companies can advance diversity and inclusion in (and beyond) their organizations

Speakers from Womxn, Wellness and Cannabis conference explore corporate and personal responsibility for advancing diversity and inclusion

4 min

The cannabis industry is unequal in many ways. Racially targeted arrests for marijuana possession still occur in every state and minorities are sparsely represented among senior leadership roles. High licensing fees and reduced access to capital have only worsened the opportunity gap for marginalized communities.

Companies that continue to benefit from legalization can, and in our view should, do something about the diversity and inclusion (D&I) problem in cannabis. Below are takeaways from a Womxn, Wellness and Cannabis conference panel that can help cannabis businesses—and those who work within them—enact change.

1. Identify shortcomings by consulting employees, customers, and stakeholders

Cannabis businesses can consult their workforce and the communities they serve to identify areas of improvement. Surveys, for example, are one way to formally assess a company’s D&I efforts and hold the organization accountable to addressing any shortcomings. 

“Assessment is the key to understanding any issue,” said Jessica Jackson, co-founder of cannabis sustainability and wellness-focused design firm LOUD.social. “It tells you where you are, where you need to be, and how you can get there.”

Proactive research helped LOUD.social design its events and social campaigns with inclusion in mind. 

“When planning our event, The Midpoint, we made action plans related to mobility needs and set up payment plans to ensure that lower income families could participate,” said Jackson. “We did this by doing our own research. We made the consideration of this community on our own.”

Consultation is especially important for cannabis companies lacking representation from marginalized communities in their leadership teams. 

“It would be great if we could have representation at all levels right away, but it may not be feasible at the start,” said Ivy Zmuda, vice president of regulatory affairs at Tantalus Labs. “Push for representation at the consultation level. Even if you're not there when decisions are being made, [management] should be consulting with you on the overall impact of these decisions and that's when you can make your voice heard. From there, ask to be in the room when decisions are being made.”

2. Re-examine existing policies and commit to ongoing training

Company policies and procedures can formalize a company’s commitment to D&I. Without clear accountability mechanisms, however, enforcement can be challenging for cannabis industry professionals. 

“While policies and programs and procedures aren't glamorous, it's the foundation by which diversity and inclusion is built on,” said Erin Gratton, an independent HR practitioner specializing in workplace education. “Workers don't have a lot of spaces to turn to. How we see that manifesting in cannabis is that claims of harassment have gone uninvestigated. As a result, those reports are not necessarily going to corporations anymore because there is a loss of faith.” 

Unconscious bias in hiring practices has, for example, deepened the leadership opportunity gap within cannabis. Hiring, retaining, and elevating talent from marginalized communities should be top of mind for employers. 

“Privilege is an axis when it comes to 'picking the best person for the job',” said Zmuda. “I don't think there's a lack of talent from a marginalized perspective.” Zmuda insists that ongoing staff training is a must for cannabis companies striving to create truly inclusive environments. “We need to acknowledge that dealing with harassment goes beyond the workplace,” continued Zmuda. “Particularly for our industry, because we have many conferences and people are active on social media, incidents will happen outside the workplace. We can still prepare our peers on how to offer adequate support.”

3. Create structured mentorship opportunities

Additional support can come in the form of mentorship—connecting people in positions of power with individuals seeking an advocate. Peer-to-peer mentorship across all departments and seniority levels can be crucial for retaining diverse talent and advancing women and minorities to leadership roles. 

Without a structured, company-sponsored mentorship program, though, the responsibility often falls on employees to seek out mentors themselves. In cannabis specifically, social media and events can be pivotal in facilitating mentorship connections outside the workplace. 

Nora Nathoo, co-founder of Louder Together and marketing specialist at Emerald Health Therapeutics, urged attendees to think about the qualities they want for themselves when they reach out to a mentor.

“Look for people who speak the language and who you can learn from,” she added.

For her part, Jackson said she was very intentional about the types of mentors she wanted. 

“I wanted queer women of colour. I followed hashtags [such as] #BlackInCannabis and people who were doing the type of work I want to do.” 

“I was very intentional about the types of mentors I wanted,” continued Jackson. 

4. Extend support beyond the organization

At minimum, businesses can donate to existing cannabis-specific social equity initiatives such as Cage Free Cannabis, Marijuana Matters, The Equity Organization, and the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty

Some organizations also have programs of their own. For example, the National Cannabis Industry Association launched its Social Equity Scholarship program, which provides complimentary year-long membership, mentorship opportunities, and other benefits to eligible cannabis social equity applicants and licensees. Cannaclusive continues to update its accountability database of statements and actions taken by brands to support diversity and inclusion efforts. 

“If you have the opportunity to invest, do it,” adds Jackson. “Whether it be through charitable contributions, sponsorships, or mentorship and coaching, it helps my business grow but also helps me sustain myself.”


Companies benefitting from the legal cannabis sector are urged to help make the industry more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Be it through stronger accountability mechanisms, reformed hiring practices, structured mentorship opportunities, or ongoing initiatives that promote social equity, we think cannabis businesses should consider levelling the playing field within and beyond their organizations.

Extracts

  • If you’re running a cannabis business, diversity and inclusion cannot be ignored
  • This story summarizes key points from the Womxn, Wellness and Cannabis Conference’s Diversity and Inclusion panel
  • It outlines some challenges marginalized communities face today, and what your business can help do about it

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