This year may be viewed as one of racial and social reckoning, but Colorado’s cannabis industry was going through growing pains well before protests erupted in Denver. After more than six years of retail weed, minority communities are still working toward more seats at the table, with surveys showing that about three out of four cannabis businesses in Denver are white-owned.
With no formal past around the plant, John Bailey seemed like a newcomer to the cannabis social equity conversation last year after founding the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative, but the longtime political consultant has experience with public policy and social change, working for former Mayor Wellington Webb, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and the University of Colorado Boulder student government before moving to the East Coast and back again. Bailey, who has continued bringing together state lawmakers, businesses owners and other cannabis stakeholders with his BCEI Zoom chats during the COVID-19 pandemic, joined us for a conversation about where Colorado’s cannabis space goes next in its path toward more diversity,
Westword: You’ve worked in politics for a long time now. What led you to take on social equity in cannabis?
John Bailey: After almost seven years and $8 billion in sales and seeing there was no social equity legislation, my premise was: Why wasn’t there more black representation in such a lucrative cannabis industry? When I did the research, it became obvious that although the folks [who wrote Amendment 64] were initially well intentioned, it didn’t deal with social equity — but it did deal with social exclusion, or those who couldn’t be involved because they were felons.
As a consultant and black community advocate, it was important to step forward to fill that gap. After talking to a number of folks in the legislature and city government, I entered this space — not necessarily with big-league boots, but a background and expertise that was well-suited to raise questions, be the reasonable adult in the room, and engage these young white kids dominating the industry with the conversation that they’re drinking from a well they didn’t dig, and there are certain social equity things they don’t know about. Part of my entree is being an educator and being an advocate for black participation in the industry at the same time.
What’s the response you typically get from white industry members about social equity?
I have to be authentic, because I want them to recognize this isn’t about being the smartest. Sometimes, that’s how they approach this, but I want them to see who’s the most knowledgable about the current circumstances, and how to move this situation forward. I don’t think they’re privileged to the fact that there are two Americas here: I come from a time period where they were arresting us left and right during the drug war, and many of these young folks didn’t live through that; they just heard about it. I lived it, and because I lived it, I can give them those experiences to add value to their decisions as owner/operators, general counsel, marketing heads and public-relation directors.
They need to see that there are opportunities to partner up with black businesses right now in terms of security, printing and any number of ancillary businesses. They need to show the will to do that, but over $8 billion later, something is missing in the will department. So we have to raise hard questions. The same issues happened in the beverage, newspaper and hotel industries. We had to hold them accountable, so that’s why we have a social equity report card for cannabis businesses, because folks are starting to recognize that the black community has been at a disservice.
The hope is what you’re seeing in the streets, where young blacks and whites are working together. There is an opportunity beyond the nonsense, so I have to take that energy and direction and try to bring it to Colorado’s cannabis industry in a progressive, professional manner.
As our country evolves through protests over police brutality and systemic racism, how powerful an example of racial injustices are cannabis arrests and industry ownership rates?
Let’s just start with the fact that there a significant number of low-level cannabis offenders who are still in jail in an environment where that industry is now legal. The governor of Illinois pardoned 11,500 people with low-level cannabis offenses as part of their social equity program. I’ve already sent letters to the Colorado Attorney General and Governor [Jared Polis] suggesting they release cannabis offenders as soon as possible.
There are a number of inequities. You can go from the boards to ownership to relationships with media and other businesses, and it goes on and on.
How would you grade Colorado’s progress in cannabis social equity?
A work in progress. You don’t want to discourage the folks who’ve worked very hard to get us here, but at the same time, you have to acknowledge that there is still so much more to be done, so you have to call it for what it is: a work in progress. The
still has to go through rulemaking, and at the city level, Denver still has to opt into delivery. My role is to try to make sure that rulemaking is clean, clear and impactive, and the same goes for the city level. We need to give the community opportunities to participate in the discussion, and as owners and operators, so we can say we’ve had thoughtful input rather than just doing stuff.
Now, are there thousands of black and hispanic owner/operators waiting in the wings? I don’t think so. But there are folks looking for an opportunity, so we need to identify them and make sure there’s a pathway for them to be successful.
What more needs to be done to reach true cannabis-industry diversity? What initiatives, programs or strategies are you in favor of?
I like the accountability report card, because that’s how the black community and cannabis industry can talk about social equity in good faith without pointing fingers at each other. At some point, more people are going to recognize the very limited participation. We can either disrespect folks and call them racist, which I don’t think is the case, or we can say, “Hey there’s an oversight here, and we need to fill in the gaps. I have some suggestions to do that, so come join me.”
I’ve always wanted a cannabis control commission. I don’t think the regulatory agencies can handle it, even though they’re doing very good jobs. But if you don’t give them more staff and resources for something like this, than that’s just more unfair work. There’s also a need for a cannabis enterprise fund, generated by either industry taxes or contributions. It’d be a fund for entrepreneurs to get the capital they need. And once they get it, they need enough to deal with the learning curve, because owning a business is about falling seven times and getting up eight.
With a lack of remaining dispensary and grow licenses in Denver, the state’s most diverse city, how do you ensure that these social equity initiatives help applicants attain cannabis business licenses?
That’s limited thinking. Anyone who’s had their licensing revoked, those should be open for social equity licenses. There are also going to be delivery and hospitality licenses in the future, which are opportunities for social equity applicants right away. There are ancillary opportunities, as well. I think there will be a limited number of [social equity] applicants, but we can promote and help them. I don’t want to hear excuses after over $8 billion [in sales]. We don’t have to be contentious about it. We just have to be reasonable about creating a business-focused dialogue.