Black Women Are Fighting to Forge A Path in the Cannabis Industry

Black Women Are Fighting to Forge A Path in the Cannabis Industry

Evolving Dynamics: The Five-Year Journey of Michigan's Recreational Cannabis Industry.

The legal recreational cannabis industry in Michigan turns five years old this year, and it has evolved quite a bit from where it started. Dispensaries are popping up everywhere. The topic of cannabis is now on the covers of magazines and newspapers and leading the 5 o’clock news. Last year, Metro Times published the “Weed Book,” an all-encompassing herb guide in the Detroit area and where to get it.

Needless to say, we’ve come a long way with this concept. Years ago, cannabis enthusiasts could only dream of the progress that society has made in legalizing the drug. Recreational use has skyrocketed as consumers are able to simply purchase products with an I.D. or driver’s license without needing a medical card.

Years ago, medical options were the only ones available at local dispensaries. Sales in Michigan have been so good that the industry reportedly raked in $3 billion in sales in 2023, creating the second-largest U.S. cannabis market after California. Over time, it’s been fascinating to see the growth and change around the plant. What was once often frowned upon because of its illegal status and stigmas surrounding it have now appeared to become a celebrated lifestyle for many? Still, diversity has unsurprisingly been a problem in the industry.

According to Leafly, a leading cannabis journalism website, only 2% of cannabis business owners identify as Black. Black women make up an even smaller percentage. While this has been an issue, there are minority-owned businesses that have pioneered efforts to make the industry more inclusive to its consumers, and Black women are slowly but surely opening doors in the cannabis space.

Wanda James was the first Black woman to own a cannabis dispensary in the U.S. when she opened Apothecary of Colorado in 2009. Today, she continues to focus on social justice and equity within the cannabis industry. Her work to promote inclusivity has drawn the attention of many politicians, most notably Vice President Kamala Harris.

Locally in the Detroit area, there are Black female professionals who have been expanding diversity in the cannabis industry through dispensary ownership as well as in public relations that help to promote its benefits and break age-old stigmas.

Making Cannabis Marketable to Women

Calyxeum is a Black woman-owned cannabis wholesale and cultivation brand with over ten years of experience. In an industry that is largely dominated by men, the brand is unique in that it markets to the female consumer. It also promotes female growth in the sector by providing that perspective in its products, such as its merch that has messages like “Buy Weed from Black Women” and “Support Women Growers.”

According to their website, the company “seeks to redefine the myths of the cannabis consumer.” The company also rebuilds homes, grows community gardens, supports workforce development programs, and tutors STEM after-school programs. As a brand with a certain story and purpose, Calyxeum knows that it operates in a special yet often undiscovered place within the cannabis industry. They’re also aware that they are driven by the everyday support of those who choose to back their vision.

“What sets us apart is our unwavering commitment to community engagement and education. At the heart of our success lies our core values, which emphasize the integral role of community-building and empowerment. We’re not backed by millions of dollars, nor do we fit the stereotypical mold of rappers or athletes. Our supporters are hardworking professionals, and individuals dedicated to making a positive impact in their communities. They seek solace, relaxation, and often relief from pain in our products,” says Rebecca Collett, CEO of Calyxeum.

She elaborates that the company wasn’t started from a source of inherited wealth. It was born out of a genuine love and passion for cannabis and the desire to make a difference. As many people can attest, cannabis has healing properties. It has been useful for pain management, neurological disorders, insomnia, and more. Certain studies have also shown that the drug can treat rheumatic conditions, mental and behavioral health issues, and even cancer.

Black female ownership is growing slowly but surely in the industry, and Calyxeum is a contributing factor. While the company has made strides in diversity, it has seen its share of issues from its inception. When opening, Colett says she faced issues with investment capital and funding.

“The landscape of black female ownership spans various industries, yet the cannabis sector remains a challenging frontier.”

According to JP Morgan Chase, Black women represent the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the U.S. However, they encounter significant financial hurdles, often resorting to self-funding due to limited access to capital. Addressing this disparity requires a concerted effort from the finance community to acknowledge and rectify existing biases in investment evaluation, Colett noted. Many institutions have been hesitant to engage with cannabis users and operators and often withhold crucial support for those who need it.

Stigma has been and continues to be one of the prevalent reasons why many people have yet to embrace cannabis. Fear, lack of awareness and information, and its criminalized past have made many people shy away from using the drug for its benefits. It also may be a reason that complicates funding and startup capital.

“The importance of self-education cannot be overstated; an abundance of information is readily available at our fingertips through the internet. While we refrain from making medical claims, it’s undeniable that this plant has brought relief and enhanced the quality of life for many facing health challenges, including our loved ones.

“Contrary to misconceptions, cannabis isn’t a gateway to harmful substances; rather, it opens doors to increased appetite, pain relief, relaxation, and enhanced creativity. Within a licensed and regulated cannabis industry, consumers have access to rigorously tested and safe products, minimizing risks and ensuring quality,” Collett shares.

 She also adds that it’s important to debunk the stigma of what a cannabis user looks like as there is a wide spectrum of users and their lifestyles, especially in today’s times.

Representing Cannabis in Public Relations

Brittni “Bee” Brown is the founder and CEO of The Bee Agency in Royal Oak. As one of the top PR professionals in the Detroit area, she specializes in personal branding, lifestyle, fashion, and beauty PR. In the past, Brown has represented cannabis brands Pleasantries and Quality Roots and has expertise in this ever-growing field. When working with cannabis brands, she explained her approach to getting brands noticed by the public and helping to drive business and sales.

“The approach to promoting a cannabis brand involves a combination of traditional public relations strategies, education, and understanding all compliance with specific regulations. Our goal was humanizing those brands we worked with in the form of storytelling and internal team highlighting. We also aimed at the community angle to focus on impact. Our agency did not hold a deliverable to equal sales, but more so brand awareness,” Brown explained.

Given the stigmas of cannabis, it can often be a challenge to get many people to understand the benefits, as many minds have been shaped by the illegalization of the drug for many years. Fear, ignorance, and misinformation often inform many citizens’ lack of use. To combat these narratives, Brown found herself tackling the challenge.

“Representing a cannabis brand can indeed be challenging due to historical stigmas associated with the drug. Overcoming these stigmas may involve strategies such as educating the public about the medicinal benefits, even media/press outlets, emphasizing responsible use, and highlighting the legal and regulatory compliance of the brand and the storytelling factor,” she explains. While diversity has been and continues to remain a challenge in cannabis, there is projected growth. Brown foresees minorities finding success in the cannabis industry.

“The success of minority cannabis brands in Michigan, as in any industry, depends on various factors such as market trends, regulatory environment, and the business strategies employed. If there are supportive policies and initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry, it could contribute to the success of minority-owned businesses.

“Local community engagement and partnerships may also play a crucial role in building brand awareness and customer loyalty. Keep in mind that the cannabis industry is dynamic and subject to changes in regulations, public perception, and market dynamics. It’s essential for businesses to adapt to these changes and stay informed to navigate the evolving landscape successfully,” Brown explains.

Finding a Solution

Finding a solution to the diversity problem in the cannabis industry and encouraging Black female ownership isn’t going to be overnight, but there are ways to foster growth and change over time. For Colett, the key is collaboration.

“Collaboration is key to uncovering new opportunities; it’s time to dismantle the gatekeeper mentality. Together, we’re stronger. The Detroit Cannabis Project – our social equity business incubator – serves as a vital platform for discovering these very opportunities. In an industry as multifaceted as cannabis, there’s a demand for a diverse array of professionals—many of whom may not directly interact with the plant or require licensing,” she shares.

In an article shared earlier this month for International Women’s Day on March 8, Forbes suggests certain steps to take to foster diversity and inclusion in the industry. Some of the tips include building inclusion into company culture, introducing basic DEI practices, investing in human resources, and supporting inclusive businesses. While the brands that Brown worked with weren’t minority-owned, she still shared some insight on how minority ownership can increase in cannabis.

“The success of minority cannabis brands in Michigan, as in any industry, depends on various factors such as market trends, regulatory environment, and the business strategies employed. If there are supportive policies and initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry, it could contribute to the success of minority-owned businesses. Local community engagement and partnerships may also play a crucial role in building brand awareness and customer loyalty,” Brown foresees.

While diversity will no doubt be an ongoing issue in cannabis, it takes professionals like the owners of Calyxeum and The Bee Agency to shift the paradigm of what is considered normal.

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Region: Michigan

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