How Do You Fix the Cannabis Industry's Diversity Problem?

A few weeks ago, a posh hotel on the top of Nob Hill hosted a gathering of one of the “whitest, malest crowds you'll see,” as the event's main organizer put it.

The self-conscious reflection elicited some nervous laughter from the attendees, but Troy Dayton's honest observation was no joke. He was trying to identify a serious problem.

The event was not a gathering of World War II history buffs, NASCAR enthusiasts, or Silicon Valley executives — it was cannabis industry investor network ArcView Group's big conference.

[jump] White people are arrested for marijuana at rates far below that of black and brown people. To have the burgeoning, billion-dollar weed industry dominated by white people would be only the latest racial bias in pot.

As they'll tell you at any meeting, identifying the problem is a good first step toward finding a solution. The next step will be tougher.

You could make the argument that racial bias is not cannabis's problem — it's society's problem, and to look to a still-illicit drug to solve a problem that's dogged the country since its founding is foolish.

After all, at $2.7 billion in legal sales in 2014, marijuana is big money. And big money is generally white and male.

Dayton, ArcView's CEO is sensitive to this, and at least is trying to get his investors aware and fully onboard with the notion that this is a problem to fix, not an unassailable fact of life.

Participants in a recent ArcView Group event all received copies of Michelle Alexander's book “The New Jim Crow,” Dayton told SF Weekly, and attendees at another event received Dr. Carl Hart's “High Price.”

Awareness is nice, but action is the key. For its part, ArcView is doing its best to hire diverse candidates (“Six of our last seven hires were not straight white men,” he said).

And there is some positive demographic news from the cannabis industry: 21.4 percent of the attendees at ArcView's conference last month were women. That's right about the “industry average” for Silicon Valley… which is to say, not nearly good enough.

“We want to do better because we're a new industry,” Dayton said recently, “but it's good to know we're not doing worse.”

It could be wishful thinking to hope that marijuana's business and activist ranks would be magically filled with the black and brown people who have been persecuted the most by cannabis prohibition. Recall the 2013 report from the ACLU, who crunched the numbers and found that black people are arrested at almost four times the rate as white people for marijuana, despite using the drug at similar rates. 

If you're more likely to be punished for a certain type of activity, would that encourage you to go into business in that activity — or to take it one step further, to seek venture capital for that activity on a large scale?

Dayton thinks that the best way to achieve equality in the cannabis industry will be federal legalization. That will certainly help, but that's still a long way off. 

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