San Jose: Black-owned cannabis businesses move to front of the shelf
Harborside, a cannabis dispensary on N. 10th St. in San Jose, is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

As the country grapples with structural racism and ensuring equity in Black communities, a San Jose cannabis company is helping people of color — many of whom were targeted in drug wars — in a new way.

Harborside this month launched an initiative to highlight Black-owned cannabis brands such as Oakland Extracts, the Congo Club, Cannabis on Fire and Viola. Harborside dispensaries across the state, including those in San Jose, are promoting Black-owned brands with promotional materials and displays.

But even if the campaign brings them more attention, Black-owned business owners say it took the eruption of protests against racism nationwide to see this change and much more still needs to happen.

“I know buyers are definitely looking for Black, brown and social equity brands. I will say that prior to (the protests) it was really, really tough to get on shelves,” said Amber Senter, founder the Congo Club, a cannabis brand and Supernova Women, a coalition for women of color in the cannabis industry.

“Even when I know the dispensary owners, it’s still hard to get on the shelves because the buyer is some kind of white guy with an agenda and the agenda is not adding Black or brown or women-owned brands, whatever it may be, to the shelves,” Senter added.

Business owners say it’s an exhausting grind to move up in the industry.

Having entered the cannabis industry as a budtender, Terryn Buxton understands how the day-to-day tasks of being a guide to customers in dispensaries can stifle people of color trying to cultivate a business.

Buxton and his business partner, Aaron Tran, own Oakland Extracts. He said he hopes Harborside’s campaign leads to upward mobility in commercial marijuana.

“It took the company a minute to realize that I was actually kind of worth promoting because it does start to feel like when you’re a budtender it can be a dead-end job,” Buxton said.

He said he routinely gives advice to budtenders of color on moving up in the business.

“We felt like it was really important to highlight the fact that cannabis’ diversity is one of our core values because as a leader in this space we’ve always been advocates for normalizing the plant and taking the stigma away from it, but also supporting the folks who make the industry as amazing and fantastic as it is,” said Alexis Mora, the head of marketing at Harborside.

In 2018, California retail stores sold $2.5 billion worth of cannabis products, according to the business development firm Cannabis Business Plans. By 2022, the cannabis market in California is projected to jump to $5 billion, according to the firm.

Buxton, who is Black, said customers’ perceptions of people selling cannabis would anger many people of color he worked with and often hinder their progress in the industry.

“They expressed a lot of frustration, feeling like they were being locked out of the industry because they were being perceived as drug dealers,” Buxton said. “They’re in a room full of other people who have duffel bags full of weed but the perception is they don’t actually grow it, they’re not connected to the plant, they’re just trying to make fast money as opposed to the cool guy who looks like a ‘hippie’ is actually a real cannabis person. That was a little more prevalent 10 years ago.”

With the demands for social equity sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, Buxton said Black-owned cannabis brands have gained much more attention.

“So any club, especially any professional club, they can really choose who they take and who they don’t take, and even in general it can be tough for anybody,” Buxton said. “But that has been flipped on its head recently with the whole George Floyd thing because now it has become a real serious issue of what Black-owned brands are out there because we talk about equity in the cannabis industry and what’s open. Let’s actually see what’s out there and there are very few out there.”

Buxton and other cannabis equity advocates say the legalization of recreational marijuana has created new layers of bureaucratic and economic barriers.

Equity advocates have criticized Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use in 2017, for catering to big corporations rather than small businesses because of high fees for state licenses.

“Harborside is one of the companies that really pushed for Prop. 64 to happen even though Prop. 64’s language was very much about a corporate takeover of cannabis, like a very elitist way of regulating the cannabis industry,” said Nina Parks, an equity advocate and the chair of the San Francisco Cannabis Oversight Commission.

Parks said Harborside promoting Black-owned brands is a good first step to create more inclusivity for people of color.

“Because Harborside was part of that push, it is their responsibility to reach back and ensure there is space at the table,” Parks said, adding Harborside’s co-founder and chairman emeritus Steve DeAngelo has a duty to involve more people of color.

However, Senter said retailers including Harborside should look for ways to expand equity initiatives by hiring more diverse staff, carving out more shelf space for brands owned by people of color and conducting internal audits to make sure they meet those goals.

She described it as “things companies can do to ensure this is not just a fad.”

“I think it’s fantastic, and I think everybody needs to do it,” Senter said. “We’ve got to push them a bit farther, until they really, really build an inclusive supply chain.”

Buxton said as the country grapples with racism and police killings, he aims to continue investing in his community and helping people of color advance in the recreational cannabis industry.

“This isn’t the first time Black folks have had to make something positive out of … tragedy,” Buxton said. “(My mom) reminded me that every decision that you make is going to be about the betterment of your community.”

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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