Member Blog: The Responsibility of Cannabis Companies to Further Equality 
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Member Blog: The Responsibility of Cannabis Companies to Further Equality 

By Lissa Lawatsch, CLS Holdings

Currently, in the cannabis industry, we find ourselves in a unique position. We are at an important crossroads of policy changes, advocacy efforts, and business opportunities. Within the dynamics of cannabis legalization, certain people seized new market openings, while others scramble to get a foothold in the business. 

As legal cannabis continues to normalize, we must ask ourselves whether the industry affords everyone equal opportunities. While certain U.S. states have established social equity programs within their cannabis laws, many people don’t feel it is enough to correct the current imbalances. 

Entrepreneurs and professionals alike are asking essential questions about our responsibility to minorities in cannabis. This movement is an excellent opportunity for cannabis businesses to help shape the industry’s future in a way we can be proud of. 

The Consequences of the War on Drugs 

The imbalances of equality in cannabis can be traced back to the War on Drugs. Since the War on Drugs was enacted in 1971 by President Nixon, it has had detrimental impacts on minority communities. 

Increased drug arrests in minority populations are not the result of increased drug use. The nonprofit Brookings Institution tells us, “All along, one consistent target for the nation’s cannabis laws [in the War on Drugs] were communities of color. Despite cannabis usage rates between whites and non-whites being similar, Black Americans were arrested for cannabis offenses at a rate of nearly 4:1, compared to whites.” 

For many, it is difficult to comprehend how impactful these cannabis convictions have been on minorities. Many families have suffered for a generation due to the head of household going to prison for cannabis crimes. In these unfortunate situations, there is no opportunity to spread the intergenerational wealth enjoyed by most families. 

Status of Social Equity in the Cannabis Industry 

From the outside looking in, it is easy to assume the cannabis industry offers equal opportunities. However, if you peer just beneath the surface, you will find several elements at play that keep minorities from starting cannabis businesses. Due to these factors, only 1 in 5 cannabis businesses today is owned by minorities. 

In nearly all cannabis markets in the U.S. states, strict laws prevent people with drug convictions from applying for business licenses. Yet, we have already established that far more minorities than whites get arrested for cannabis. This fact immediately creates a lopsided pool of applicants that favors white people as the winners of cannabis business licenses. 

Another factor that has led to imbalances in the cannabis industry is that white people are better off financially than minorities. This can be a real handicap, as cannabis businesses are costly to start. To illustrate, MJBizDaily gives us the following cannabis business startup costs:

  • $2,500,000 – Vertically integrated dispensary
  • $500,000 – Cannabis processing facility (MIP) 
  • $312,000 – Stand-alone retail dispensary 

As can be seen, it takes serious capital to finance a new cannabis business. Yet, many minorities do not have access to this sort of funding. This fact is partially attributable to the damage done in minority communities by the War on Drugs. 

State Mandated Social Equity Programs in Cannabis 

The early pioneers of legal cannabis did not anticipate the social inequalities that would arise in the industry. However, as places like Washington and Colorado have had functioning industries for over five years, we can now take a more granular perspective on the market. 

As imbalances in social equity are now recognized across the industry, individual U.S. states are enacting legislation to help “level the playing field” for minorities. The states taking meaningful steps for social equity in cannabis include New Jersey, Virginia, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

The breadth and scope of social equity programs in cannabis vary from state to state. To illustrate, California has established an initiative that provides financial support and training to minority cannabis business owners. Also, Michigan, Illinois, and Massachusetts have put controls on the application process to give minorities better chances to win licenses. 

Charitable Efforts & Business Groups 

While state-mandated social equity programs are a big step forward in cannabis, there is still a lot of work to do. To this end, modern cannabis professionals have taken it upon themselves to start dialogues about social equity. Even more, these people have branched out to join nonprofit groups and business organizations which promote social change in cannabis. 

Some noteworthy groups include:

  • Last Prisoner Project
  • Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA)
  • Veterans Cannabis Project 
  • Women Grow 

Last Prisoner Project is a particularly impactful nonprofit that seeks to overturn unjust cannabis convictions. Their team is composed of lawyers and legal experts – the organization also enjoys support from such cannabis icons as Jim Belushi and Steve DeAngelo. For their part, Women Grow spreads the message of equality in cannabis by empowering females. They are focused on connecting different women in the cannabis space to create powerful alliances. 

Company Ethics and Hiring Practices 

To truly affect change in the social fabric of cannabis, businesses must also take proactive measures within their operations. By promoting racial sensitivity within your business, you help plant the seeds of change in your employees and customers. 

To help your employee team better appreciate people from other backgrounds, we recommend enrolling them in diversity training. According to Cornell University, “An organization is only as good as its culture — and abiding that culture is not only a role for HR, it’s every manager’s and employee’s responsibility.” Diversity training is a great way to promote equality within your company culture. Specific training programs also educate your HR department on non-discriminatory hiring practices. 


In the few short years that we have had legal cannabis, the industry has taken some fantastic strides. While it seems that the fight for legalization has finally swung in the right direction, there is still a good deal of work to do concerning social equity. 

It is going to take a concerted effort to equalize opportunities for minorities in the cannabis industry. This process starts with addressing unjust cannabis convictions on a societal scale, and cannabis business HR departments must embrace these changes. 

Lissa Lawatsch currently serves as the General Manager of CLS’ Nevada retail subsidiary, Oasis Cannabis Dispensary. A Colorado native and graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver, Ms. Lawatsch has served the Las Vegas market for 18 years. With 20 years of VP-level experience in the banking and finance sector, Ms. Lawatsch synthesized her business acumen with her passion for cannabis to effectively launch and manage several brands and retailers in the Nevada market for the last 5 years.


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