Opportunities and Barriers: Understanding the Black Experience in Cannabis

    Over the past two decades, cannabis legalization has remained a divisive topic. This fall, The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 48th Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) presented “The Black Experience in Cannabis.” The ALC is a premier public policy conference that brings together almost 9,000 people to explore issues affecting African-Americans and black communities around the world. The conference featured 70 policy sessions, a National Town Hall, a job and contract procurement fair, the Phoenix Awards Dinner, and more. ALC provides a unique marketing and collaborative opportunity for companies and organizations, providing access to attendees representing significant consumer markets at the local, state, and national levels.

    “The Black Experience in Cannabis.” was the first international representation of people of color’s narrative in cannabis with panels comprised of industry experts, scientists, physicians, politicians, and advocacy professionals. By discussing a wide range of cannabis market topics, the program sought to provide attendees with education that would lead to a deeper understanding of the cannabis industry.

    At CohnReznick, we promote and embrace diversity and inclusion. Through educational programs, thought leadership, and a culture that leverages individual qualities, we seek to drive growth, innovation, and value for our people, our clients, our profession, and our communities. CohnReznick’s participation in the “The Black Experience in Cannabis” included members of the Cannabis Industry practice and the Firm’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative.

    Michael Harlow, Tax Partner – CohnReznick, was a keynote speaker discussing the 280E Bill as well as regulatory barriers to entry in various cannabis markets across the country.  Following the event, Harlow sat down to interview Kia L. Jackson, CEO of W.O.M.M.A.N LLC (Word of Mouth Marketing and Networking) and Founder of “The Black Experience in Cannabis.

    CRMH:  What inspired you to do a Cannabis section at the CBC Annual Legislative Conference?

    KJ:  My inspiration began in 2017 when I produced an unofficial CBC ALC session event that was held offsite at a venue on 9th Street NW, Washington D.C. That event was a panel discussion with the title "Disrupt the Divide” which aimed to identify the problem and solution for African-Americans wishing to enter the cannabis industry. Fortunately, great relationships were established between the panelists and exhibitors who returned to make this event a success. After the 2017 CBC ALC event, I set a goal for 2018 to be recognized as an official CBC ALC third-party event held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The goal was to convene a targeted audience and have an honest discussion about cannabis as a medicinal plant that would include legislators from the U.S. as well as international countries.

    CMH:  Did you get any pushback?

    KJ: Differing opinions among people of color exist because of the lack of information/ education and the fear of being targeted for so many years during the ongoing "War on Drugs." It is critical to have conversations with people who do push back and give them facts and supportive resources to help them embrace a changing culture that embraces a biological and human right to medicate with cannabis legally. Cannabis advocates must also have conversations with people who advocate cannabis law reform and a policy that facilitates and perpetuates ongoing change. It all goes back to education. We can’t just talk to people we already agree with. For “The Black Experience in Cannabis” session, it was necessary to begin building a background of facts on the history of cannabis in the U.S. The audience needed to understand how and why cannabis ended up as a Schedule 1 Narcotic. After establishing this, other discussion topics focused on creating a narrative for people of color in cannabis. The global population needs to understand why the black community is so cautious about coming out of the cannabis closet.

    CR: What made you center your focus on social justice and equality?

    KJ:  Legalization of cannabis is a social justice issue. You can’t talk about the black experience in cannabis without talking about social justice and equality. There is a blatant unjust system of policing and law enforcement in the U.S. when it comes to black and brown people – both historically and currently. In the 1930s, there was a War on Marijuana designed to evoke fear of black and brown people. Then, in the 1970s, President Nixon enforced a War on Drugs that specifically targeted both black people and hippies. The War on Drugs has devastated black communities. Data shows that while cannabis usage among blacks and whites is relatively the same, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana. This stricter sentencing has created barriers to both jobs and schools, leading to generational poverty. Legalization helps to repair some of the damage done by The War on Drugs by expunging criminal records, keeping rights to Section 8 housing, and maintaining access to jobs. This is a system that will make many young white millionaires after years of making poor blacks felons. Legislation needs to consider all the pain, suffering, and loss of revenue for black and brown people. It needs to disrupt the divide among blacks and create a level playing field in the cannabis industry.

    CMH: Although the event was not specific to the medical market, you clearly had a focus on viewing cannabis as medicine. Why is that?

    KI: The focus on medicine is intended to change minds and cultural issues that persist around cannabis as a medicine. When we think of the plant as a medicine, we can re-frame the discussion as a biological and human right to medicate. Polling data shows that the public is supportive of cannabis as medicine, but education is still needed for them to understand exactly what this means. For a long time, marijuana was referred to as an illegal drug (states)and once it became legal, (state) the scientific term cannabis emerged to help change marijuana’s perception.

    The Black Experience in Cannabis’ global narrative leveraged the topic of cannabis as a medicine for two main reasons. First, focusing on cannabis as a medicine is essential to the story line of de-scheduling and decriminalizing. The second reason is to make it personal for the targeted audience. When we can begin to talk about the medicinal components of an endocannabinoid system and cannabinoid health advantages that can benefit just about everyone, people are more likely to listen in and care because they know it can directly affect their own health.  People are less likely to invest in things that do not impact them directly. If we can teach you about the plant as a medicine, its benefits to your health, and how your genetic make-up has its own endocannabinoid system and daily supplements of CBD to feed that system, you want to listen and know more. Healthy living and environmental sustainability are extremely popular globally. The U.S. must catch up. Education is the way to change minds and change a culture.

    CMH: How do you feel the event went, and what are your goals for next year?

    KI: I gauged the success of this event by the feedback I received from the CBC ALC staff, general attendees, targeted audience attendees and other participants. Success occurs when the goals of an event are met and ideally exceeded. Our call to action was clear. We wanted attendees to go back to their respective states and be able to advocate or participate in any policy reform by their understanding of how blacks and people of color are faring in this emerging cannabis industry. Just bringing together a diverse panel of industry experts from the U.S. and Jamaica signified success to our goals of a global narrative. New relationships and alliances were formed because of this event’s success. “The Black Experience in Cannabis” came together by the combined efforts of many different people and organizations whether through financial, resources, or physical support.

    As a Firm, CohnReznick believes our clients benefit from our best ideas when we maintain an inclusive, multidimensional firm culture. Our diverse viewpoints will help drive growth, innovation, and value for your company. The unique beliefs, backgrounds, ways of thinking, talents, and capabilities of our employees are strategic assets to the firm and our clients. As such, we were honored to participate in the “The Black Experience in Cannabis”.


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    Michael D. Harlow

    Michael D. Harlow

    CPA, Office Managing Partner – Bethesda and Managing Partner - Cannabis Industry

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    CohnReznick's Cannabis Industry Practice

    This has been prepared for information purposes and general guidance only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. You should not act upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is made as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this publication, and CohnReznick LLP, its partners, employees and agents accept no liability, and disclaim all responsibility, for the consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this publication or for any decision based on it.