Cannabis + Justice: How Dispensaries Can Implement Social Equity Programs

Social Equity Programs

Justice and social equity are major drivers in the cannabis industry, and they’re only going to increase in importance. As we’ve written before, states such as Illinois, Michigan, and California have promised to put social equity at the center of their cannabis licensing programs, offering expungement of certain cannabis-related criminal records and weighting their licensing decisions towards applicants of color.

That said, thus far the results are somewhat mixed. In Maryland—where one in three residents is Black—none of the first fifteen cultivation licenses went to Black-owned businesses. And in nearby Ohio, an initiative to award 15% of its cannabis licenses to minority-owned businesses sank after the state’s Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

That’s not a reason to give up hope. Rather, it’s a reminder that it’s incumbent upon individuals and businesses to take the matter into their own hands. With that in mind, here a few ideas as to how dispensaries can implement social justice programs of their own.

Cannabis Dispensaries and Social Equity: Hiring Practices


Half a century after the inauguration of the War on Drugs, the federal program is widely considered a failure, having disproportionately targeted communities of color and done little to stem the flow of objectively harmful drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines. One way to repair the disastrous effects of over-policing is to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate in and benefit from the cannabis boom. And perhaps, more than anything else, that means seeking out and hiring a diverse staff.

Soliciting applicants who represent the true diversity of your neighborhood isn’t just a feel-good approach to staffing; it’s a time-tested and proven approach to fostering teamwork, innovation, and trust. As numerous staffing experts have written over the years, building diversity in your workforce has a real dollars-and-cents impact. And it sends a strong signal to your customer base as well: That cannabis is for everyone, regardless of their ethnic background, gender, or age.

How do you begin the process? Begin with a top-down approach, say most experts. Quoted in Marijuana Business Daily, KindColorado president Courtney Mathis urges dispensary owners and operators to dig deep into their assumptions and motivations: 

“I don’t know that you get to be a diverse and inclusive company without doing some of that uncomfortable work of figuring out why do you even want to go there.”

In other words, seeking the mere appearance of diversity is a short-term goal. Starting by taking stock of existing leaders, employees, and vendors and designing a “staffing map” that promotes and balances their diversity is a longer-term, and ultimately more sustainable goal. 

This typically entails some self-education on the hidden signals that your language and actions might be sending. Websites and apps such as Textio and Gender Decoder can help you uncover and correct subtle anti-diversity messages in your job postings and communications. But ultimately, building true diversity is a bigger process than running your want ad copy through an analyzer; it’s orienting yourself towards inclusivity, and then committing to the hard work of recognizing where your efforts may have fallen short up till now. 

Cannabis Dispensaries and Social Equity: Fostering a Rising Tide


Seeking out a diverse staff is essential, but it’s not the end of the process. Creating a work culture in which all employees feel they have a stake in the business’ success (and are confident that their voices will be heard) isn’t just good for those employees who come from a different background than you. It’s an effort that will continue to reap dividends far down the road as your business grows, expands, and diversifies.

Quoted in the same Marijuana Business Daily article, Lisa Raja of infused ingredient producer Vertosa said: 

“The employee experience is important for retaining diverse candidates—and that starts during the onboarding process. As silly as this sounds, having an office buddy or being linked to someone who can help answer questions where you don’t feel judged and who you can lean on when you don’t have the answers can be super helpful.”

In other words, anything you can do to create a sense of inclusion and safety for your employees—especially those who have found their voices marginalized in the past—is a worthwhile investment in your business’ ultimate strength and longevity.

That’s a lot to take in, and it can’t all be tackled in a single blog post. If you’re interested in the important and necessary work of fostering diversity and social equity in your dispensary, we strongly encourage you to reach out to an organization invested in social equity, such as:

Minority Cannabis Business Association: The MCBA is an Oregon-based not-for-profit created for the express purpose of advancing the cannabis industry by increasing the diversity of owners, employees, and consumers.

Cannabis Doing Good: This Colorado-based not-for-profit is committed to creating opportunities for cannabis businesses and their communities to collaborate. Their stated goals include inspiring “purpose-driven cannabis” entrepreneurs. 

Cannaclusive: A group founded to challenge stereotypes of cannabis consumers, Cannaslusive aims to facilitate fair representation of minority cannabis consumers. You can get a taste of their groundbreaking work on Instagram.

Think BIG: An organization working towards cannabis legalization, police and criminal justice reform, and economic reinvestment into the communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition, Think BIG is an audacious project co-founded by CJ Wallace, son of late music legend Notorious B.I.G.