Oakland Plants Seeds for Community Ownership in Cannabis Industry

The legal marijuana industry’s racial and economic disparities are well known, but the hard numbers are mood altering in an infuriating way. While privileged white politicians such as John Boehner and Anthony Weiner have been welcomed to the cannabis industry with lucrative executive positions, African Americans comprise a mere 5 percent of industry ownership. Black-founded cannabis companies have received just 1 percent of the industry’s venture capital investment. Although whites and Blacks use cannabis at the same rate, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for it.

That disparity is even worse in Oakland, California, where prior to recreational legalization in 2016, African Americans were arrested on cannabis charges at rates nearly 20 times higher than white people. The green rush has not been a gold rush for Black and Brown people, and weed continues to be weaponized against communities of color. To be fair, lawmakers nationwide are taking this disparity into account as they craft an expanding slate of recreational marijuana bills. Oakland was one of the first communities to adopt cannabis equity measures, and half of that city’s permits have been set aside for people from communities that have been targeted by the War on Drugs. But some entrepreneurs of color have their eyes on bigger prizes than just permits.

“Black and Brown communities have been the ones taking on the vast majority of the risk as marijuana has been under prohibition,” said Oakland cannabis activist Ebele Ifedigbo. “It clicked for me: this is the thing. This is the opportunity for our communities. More risk should mean more reward.”

Ifedigbo co-founded Oakland’s The Hood Incubator to make sure that reward is realized. The Hood Incubator is a combination of a startup and a nonprofit, whose mission is to dramatically increase the rate of Black and Brown ownership in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry. Although The Hood Incubator was launched in Oakland in 2017, it’s making headway toward national aspirations.

By 2020, The Hood Incubator hopes to add programs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, plus state and national chapters and coalitions. They also want to grow their current membership of 2,000 to 5,000 members nationwide. Last year, The Hood Incubator was bolstered by a $1 million investment from cannabis delivery service Eaze. Ifedigbo made 2018’s Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for the Incubator’s work, and The Hood Incubator co-founders were on that same year’s Essence Woke 100 (they came in at No. 32).

The North Star spoke to one woman who was in the audience during the 2017 launch event. Linda Grant was a grandmother with dreams of opening a dispensary; she’s now an alumnus of The Hood Incubator program and her OakTown Distribution holds three active California cannabis business licenses. “I started smoking cannabis at the age of 10, 11 years old, and started selling it at 12,” the now 50-year-old Grant said. “It’s always been in my family. My uncles, brothers, cousins, everybody always sold weed.” “I’ve been arrested three times for cannabis in the early '90s,” she continued. But that’s actually an advantage under the Oakland cannabis equity provisions, which give priority to drug war victims who are interested in cultivating, manufacturing, delivering, distributing, testing or transporting medical cannabis in Oakland. The Hood Incubator has helped nearly a dozen applicants of color successfully navigate that permit process.

“They started telling me about the different requirements that you had to have to qualify,” Grant remembered. “Live in Oakland for 10 years, live in one of the 21 police beats that the police constantly harassed and arrested people for weed, and you have to have an income of less than $55,000 a year, or you’ve been arrested for weed after 1996. I automatically qualified for three of them. I’m like ‘Hey, that’s me!’”

The Hood Incubator had a part in writing those Oakland cannabis equity laws in 2017, but now their focus is lifting budding cannabis entrepreneurs of color. They do this with a three-pronged approach of community organizing, policy advocacy, and direct economic development services. Ifedigbo stressed the importance of organizing efforts specific to Black and Brown communities. “There is a legacy of trauma, stigma, and isolation,” they said. “Imagine if your parent went to jail because of cannabis distribution or your sibling was killed in a DEA raid. This is not a light issue for our folks.”

On the policy end, The Hood Incubator advocates for getting strong equity protections written into each batch of new city, county, and state regulations as recreational cannabis spreads. And the important economic development aspect helps pair equity entrepreneurs with available real estate, resources, and venture capital. “The Hood Incubator helped me because they had a lot of events where we were able to meet investors — people who actually had money — to help us start our businesses,” Grant said. “I met all my investors through The Hood Incubator.”

Hardly a day passes anymore that you don’t hear of some gigantic, multimillion-dollar investment deal that makes some freshly-hatched marijuana tycoon rich. What is less discussed is how that tradition was born in communities of color, albeit on a more modest scale. “Many of our members talk about how their parents or siblings or friends have been arrested or incarcerated,” according to Ifedigbo. “But they also talk about how their father or mother or aunt doing marijuana distribution was what allowed them to be the first person in their family to go to college.”

That legacy lives and grows, thanks in large part to activists and advocates like the Hood Incubator. “I have six kids, I’m a grandmother,” Grant told The North Star. “I wanted to leave a legacy for my kids. This is a start for us.”

About the Author

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice. His work has previously appeared in various outlets, including SF Weekly, Thrillist, and the Daily Dot.