How to achieve social equity in the cannabis industry

Partnerships and employee recruitment are crucial

TO ITS CREDIT, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has emerged as a national leader in the ongoing work to inject equity into the nascent cannabis sector. Many elected leaders have long embraced the fact of the decades-long “War on Drugs” disproportionately targeted people of color. And the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) stepped forward with several meaningful programs that expand economic opportunity through free technical assistance and training, alongside benefits like expedited licensing and fee waivers.

There’s still much more to do.  As an industry, we haven’t delivered impactful and sustainable social justice to those disproportionately targeted and harmed by race-based policies, which led to over-policing, over-prosecuting and mass incarceration. The cannabis sector can and must create sustainable practices and programs that are easily replicated by cannabis companies large or small.

Every cannabis company should consider two key factors when deciding on their social equity programming – partnerships and employee recruitment. On their own, each offers an opportunity to achieve results that make a difference between lip service and an operation built around social justice and corporate responsibility.

Flexibility and focus are the hallmarks of a successful equity-centered staffing initiative. Ascend, Boston’s first downtown adult-use retail store opened with a management team comprised entirely of people of color and women, a direct result of the company’s decision to set hiring goals for entry level and management personnel that met or exceeded the city’s demographics.

Intentionality is key.  Declarative employment advertising – “Our workforce will reflect the makeup of our City” – works. So does bi-lingual ad placement in community newspapers and hiring recruiters that specifically serve diverse populations and bi-lingual media ads. Our efforts tapped into a rich potential workforce of people with relevant talents and skills who might not otherwise have considered themselves eligible or qualified to work in the cannabis industry.

Partnerships also offer a more robust pathway to achieving social equity goals, particularly those grounded in providing opportunities directly to court-supervised or formerly incarcerated people who otherwise meet both the CCC’s and the company’s hiring criteria. For example, Ascend entered into a partnership with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department to identify and vet eligible employment candidates who successfully completed certain re-entry programs. With a starting wage range of $18-$22 an hour, these jobs offer skill-building in a new industry and real opportunity for advancement as new stores open and the industry grows.   

To make an even wider impact, Ascend and several other Massachusetts cannabis companies have partnered with The Last Prisoner Project. A leading nonprofit organization dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform, LPP relies on intervention, advocacy, and awareness to redress past and continuing harms of unjust laws and policies.  Along with direct support and participation in specific policy initiatives, Ascend promotes “social impact consumerism” by educating its customers, encouraging them to donate to LPP and matching their contributions dollar for dollar. 

More meaningful change awaits action in Washington. In May, congressional Republican lawmakers introduced legislation to legalize marijuana across the country. Though unlikely to garner bi-partisan support because it contains no social justice provisions, it signals a change in attitude among conservatives in favor of removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. Combined with The Safe Banking Act and other longstanding Democratic de-criminalization and legalization efforts, this legislation could, at a minimum, provide access to banking and end the prohibition on state-to-state imports and exports of cannabis. By unlocking access to capital in the form of bank loans, the federal government can substantially advance the ability of local companies to achieve social equity aims while boosting cannabis industry entrepreneurship by those most harmed by the so-called “War on Drugs”.

Meet the Author

Andrea Cabral

Chief executive officer, Ascend Massachusetts
Cannabis companies have a regulatory mandate and moral obligation to move the industry toward social equity. Let’s be focused, intentional, and embrace this unique opportunity to lead.

Andrea J. Cabral, a former Massachusetts secretary of public safety and the former sheriff of Suffolk County, is the chief executive officer of Ascend Massachusetts.