Marijuana use has been roughly equal among blacks and whites nationwide, yet black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Given that people of color have been so disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, it only makes sense they should gain economically from legalization. Sadly, however, the legal industry is not even close to being representative: black people make up less than 5% of founders and or owners of cannabis businesses today.
In response to that problem, Oakland-based nonprofit, The Hood Incubator, launched in 2017 with the mission to build economic and political power for black and brown communities and to, ultimately, increase their participation and leadership in the industry. Founders Ebele Ifedigo, Lanese Martin, and Biseat Harning brought together their varied backgrounds in business, community organizing, and economic development to forge a movement toward social justice through weed.
“Marijuana was historically used as a weapon to tear our families apart and over-criminalize us, so our thought was: how do we turn it into a tool for prosperity?” says Ifedigo. “These communities took on the majority of the risk during cannabis prohibition but now that it’s legal, we are not seeing the same amount of rewards.”
In this historical moment of legalization, many people who operated (or are operating) in the illegal market would like to transition to a legal business, but there are barriers, including difficulty securing enough capital, having the proper resources, or not being connected to the right networks. The Hood Incubator runs several initiatives to help aspiring entrepreneurs, including its Cannabis Business Accelerator Program, which provides diverse startups with mentorship, technical assistance, business education, access to industry resources.
Last year, the first 15 participants graduated after nearly 100 hours of instruction and pitched a group of investors organized by The Hood Incubator. The next accelerator program is set to begin in March, with a cohort of 10. In the future, Ifedigo said, the organization would like to also be able to provide direct financial support to entrepreneurs—an effort that’s currently in the works.
Another large part of The Hood Incubator’s work is advocating for legislation and policies that promote social justice and racial inclusion. One of the policies that the organization fought for—successfully—is Oakland’s equity permit program, the first of its kind in the country. The program is intended to address racial disparity in the cannabis industry by providing permits to those who lack the capital to get a cannabis business started or are unable to because of past marijuana convictions. Specifically, the program targets people living in certain neighborhoods that have been historically impacted by drug law enforcement as well as those convicted of marijuana related crimes in Oakland in the last 20 years. Every non-equity permit awarded must be matched with an equity applicant, for a 1:1 ratio.
With the equity program up and running, The Hood Incubator has been focused on a massive community outreach campaign to get the word out and make sure people know about the opportunity through phone banking, holding information events, and going door-to-door. If someone is interested, they will help them learn more and get the process started.
“People are excited and are taking advantage of the opportunity that they wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the program—it’s definitely open up doors for folks,” says Ifedigo, who notes that while the program still has kinks to work out, it’s overall been a huge step forward.
Since Oakland passed such historic legislation, more cities have followed suit, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. San Francisco also recently announced that it will dismiss, en masse, more than 3,000 marijuana convictions dating back to 1975, with the move likely to spread across the state. Seattle is moving toward a similar action.
Over the past year, The Hood Incubator has been decisively focused on Oakland, but moving forward, they have plans to expand their efforts.
“There’s no doubt that Oakland has set the precedent, and cities across the country are looking to us for ideas to use in their own communities,” Ifedigo says. “We want to bring a diverse set of stakeholders together statewide to discuss marijuana equity and why it matters.”
Clara Hogan is a freelance writer and editor based in Oakland, California covering food and drink, cannabis, travel, and more.