Underrepresented Groups in the Cannabis Industry

woman holding a cannabis on her hand close to her chin

Sheena Noire is the Founder and CEO of Cannabis Noire, an organization dedicated to providing education, opportunities, and resources to minorities and underrepresented groups within the cannabis community and industry. She’s also the author of the upcoming book Mommy’s Medicine – An Illustrated Explanation of Why Mommy UsesCannabis, designed for children ages 6-16. In Sheena’s own words:

“Cannabis Noire is an organization dedicated to helping underrepresented groups and minorities enter the cannabis industry. We also provide resources and education on how to safely enter the space. A big part of what we do is destigmatizing candidates from marginalized communities. We work with LGBTQ groups, veterans, the African-American community, amongst many others, to continuously make the cannabis industry a more equitable space for everybody.”

Sheena Noire Cannabis Noire

So, to give a little bit of context. Cannabis Noire operates in Pennsylvania, in particular around the Greater Philadelphia area. In 2016, Senate Bill 3 (SB 3) was approved and signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf. SB 3 effectively made medical marijuana legal in PA, removing state-level penalties for the possession, use and cultivation of cannabis by those with a valid medical marijuana recommendation. Tom Wolf has also indicated his support for recreational cannabis, calling for three actions by the state legislature:

  1. Passage of legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis
  2. Passage of legislation to expunge prior cannabis convictions
  3. Debate and consideration of legalisation to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

Sheena continues, “I went into a variety of different advocacy missions, campaigns and initiatives, including helping communities and ex-offenders who were victims of the criminal justice system to enter the cannabis space. We act as liaisons between them and the community, and we also work closely with the cannabis industry to help give them opportunities to enter the legal medical market.

A big part of our mission is to make sure we help create a better message that resonates with the audience; something that’s more genuine. Cannabis is a new thing in Pennsylvania, so as it grows, we want to see it becoming a more equitable space. A genuinely medical, patient-focused space.”

Sheena Noire Cannabis Noire

We here at Leafwell have always supported and promoted those who have either been forgotten about or left behind in the cannabis industry, so we appreciate people like Sheena, who are working to see that the cannabis industry doesn’t end up looking like the rest of corporate America.

“I come from a very social equity-focused, community-driven space. It was non-profit work. It was social services. It was community networks. So, that part of me is a part of everything that I do. I got into marketing. I was Regional Marketing Director for Chick-Fil-A for quite some time. I was in charge of the entire South-Eastern Division, and got to cut my teeth in corporate America.

Cannabis Noire is two years old now, after I went to a conference and it was a cannabis conference that I didn’t really know much about. I thought to myself, ‘For me to be a part of the things that happen in my city so much so often, a well-connected network, it’s unusual for me not to know about these things.’

So, you know, obviously there’s some kind of area I didn’t know, and that there’s a cannabis conference sitting in the biggest Convention Center in Center City! And so I thought ‘Okay, we’re definitely going to want to go check this out. I don’t know how we missed it.’ 

When I got there it was nothing but white men. It was actually a business opportunity conference, not like a cannabis conference. I’m like well where are the snacks and the treats, things are like the wares. 

So I wasn’t expecting what I saw. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to stumble across this because the conversations were about infrastructure, manufacturing, distribution, shipping. This was about advocacy, inflation, decriminalization. This was about a much bigger conversation, and it was very telling that nobody, not women, not black people, not black women. the underrepresented groups weren’t anywhere to be seen. The vets weren’t there, the LGBTQ community wasn’t represented.

So immediately I was like, “Okay, this is weird. So I’m going to tell everybody about this event. If I don’t know, other people don’t know. So I started some information sharing. I hosted a few events and people got very interested in it. They wanted to learn more about it or they were already cannabis users, or a new cannabis user, or had some other interest in it. This wasn’t as foreign or scary as going to a space like Chick-Fil-A. That’s very, you know, Christian focused and very focused on appearance and, you know, perfect posture. 

So the, more we talked about it, the more we reached out, and the more engagement we got. People really wanted to know about us. They want to know how to grow it, they want to know how to cook it. They want to know how to get registered.

We connected businesses like yours that are offering information and resources. We regularly host patient education events and classes. So it’s grown exponentially, but it’s all been on the curve of what people have wanted from us.”

Sheena Noire Cannabis Noire

We asked Sheena about her experience of what it’s like to be a black woman working in the cannabis industry.

“I mean, there’s always those existing challenges as a black woman and in corporate spaces, or in spaces where you essentially are by yourself and the only represented woman or black person. So it can be very heavy and it can feel very burdensome very regularly, where most people won’t find such weight.

But it’s also a very empowering place because you’re also constantly sort of self-motivated, and want to find new ways to better represent your group. I enjoy doing what I do, though, and I meet a diverse range of people. You’re also the new person, so you have to bring a certain energy to prove yourself and make your mark.

I also want to show people that there’s more to the cannabis industry than running a dispensary, and that there are many opportunities in the cannabis industry. There’s marketing, there’s business development, there’s security. There’s more to aspire to. There’s so many moving parts to this industry, that I had to reevaluate what the obstacles were.

There are opportunities to get into dispensaries, but we don’t want those aspirations to be limiting, and that we can scale and move into a variety of different areas. There’s lots of different opportunities out there, all with their own unique challenges.

So, initially, very frightening, but eventually more and more insightful and empowering.”

We ask Sheena more about what a person can expect when they come in contact with Cannabis Noire:

“We host a variety of different opportunities for cannabis investing. So we do community investing. I think a lot of people are, ‘Oh I don’t have enough money,’ so we do a collective community investment.

Right so we have people with the right energy and time, as well as expertise. We stockbrokers in the states who have mastered this area who also have learned about the cannabis space or are very knowledgeable about the cannabis space and want to learn more about how to intentionally intricate integrate that into their businesses right.

So one of the first things we did was work with a stockbroker who was very interested in bringing in more cannabis clients. We partner with him, and he’ll get a free education event. 98 people showed.

We were slightly taken back because so many people came in for this first meeting and realised, ‘OK they really want to know about this.’

So from that we formulated programming and we started creating initiatives and started connecting other people who worked on the Stock Exchange. People in stock market who knew about this and understood investing and understood money and financing.

We connected the people in the cannabis community to them and created opportunities. Sort of funnel folks through so that they got the best volume they could for whatever event it is that they need because we know that they don’t have a thousand dollars free to just throw away. We also wanted to make sure that it was something that was well thought out. The business was well planned.

We do regular registration events. We partner with different doctors. We’ve even partnered with a church!”

We were curious about this, so we enquired further:

“OK. So one of the reasons we do that is because it’s a community safe haven and people feel very comfortable coming to the church, even if it’s not their church. Those in the English-as-a-second-language community doesn’t feel threatened or worried about their immigration status.

We tell them about the dangers of pharmaceuticals. We have nurses come and talk to them and do health screenings like benefits screenings so they get an understanding of what cannabis can do for them.

We do advocacy work. We are helping write legislation. We’re working with senators. We’re working with the Criminal Justice Department in ex-offender programs, and more!”

Sheena Noire Cannabis Noire

We go on to question Sheena if she thinks that enough is being done to help minorities:

“I would say, ‘no’. 

One of the things we do is we have a business incubator program and a business development space. We use this or foster and you know minority businesses in their infancy, but who have trouble getting off the ground due to other issues.

We have a lot of obstacles that are easy fixes if other folks who claim to step up did so. A lot of what happens is we have people who make very broad blanket gestures to appease what they think the outcry is about just for the sake of saving face.

So they’ll go like paint a mural or they’ll hang a basketball court. While it’s OK, it almost feels like it doesn’t do anything tangible for our community.

So now in a sense you’re getting a pat on the back right like you’ve made you broadcast to the world about this mural right. But yet there are children who have no summer programs. There are children who lack Internet access to simply online work. There are families who are like in need of transportation, assistance, food, housing.

So now we have these tangible obstacles that we can directly fix. We have the resources and the proper support, but nothing’s connected. I think we miss the mark when we don’t have conversations like this, as this is how the obstacles to growth are alleviated. By having a conversation with someone who knows the right people, who is working with these families and communities, and who understands what they need. What needs to be addressed and understands how to fix it. 

Once these obstacles have been overcome and they can start working properly again, ultimately they’ll become self-sufficient and help us later better improve the circumstances for someone else, which will in turn lessen your own burden.”

Pennsylvania is no stranger to the idea of medical cannabis. Dr. Frederick C. Hollick, a PA doctor working in the 1870s, actually patented an aphrodisiac containing hashish. In fact, at the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, there was a Turkish hashish stand where it was possible to try out Hollick’s product! In fact, cannabis was listed as having medical properties in many medical textbooks all the way to the 1950s!

Of course, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, 1914 Harrison Narcotics, 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, 1961 Convention on Narcotics, and the 1970 Controlled Substances Act put a stop to this. Whilst it is arguable that some legislation was needed (listing all the ingredients in the product makes sense), there is no doubt that much of the legislation against cannabis was and is based on political and ideological grounds rather than rational and scientific ones.

The War on Drugs certainly helped criminalize marginalized groups and political opponents, where cannabis was lumped in with substances like cocaine and heroin, and is now deemed to have no medical use. Policies like these meant that even non-violent cannabis users were often put in the same bracket as hardened criminals, and imprisoned as such. In some instances, punishing non-violent offenders and putting them in such environments have done nothing but create more hardened criminals.

The other impact these policies have had is on scientific research. Making cannabis illegal has made it extremely difficult to take a deeper look into its medical properties. We ask Sheena if she uses cannabis for medical reasons:

“I use cannabis for medical purposes, but I wasn’t a new user.  I never started as a medicinal user consciously. I was a junior in college at the time, and I was very anxious about exams.. A worrywort. I was like, ‘You have to learn to relax. You’re not going to survive the next two years if you don’t find a way to calm down.

So, I was introduced to cannabis and was told, ‘This will help you not freak out’. So, I started in college and I didn’t realize that I was actually using cannabis in a medicinal manner until I started working in the space. I think a lot of people don’t.

That’s our mission: to educate people and help them identify the medicinal properties. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh well I smoke pot to relieve stress and wind down,’ and you’re like, ‘No they might have anxiety or PTSD or under other under-addressed issues or things like that. There’s a locating force.’”

Life in lockdown has brought with it many issues, one being that you are at the mercy of both technology and the weather being nice to you. Unfortunately in this case, neither was. There was a storm in Pennsylvania, making it very difficult to have a proper conversation. Even so, we carried on as best we could. Much of the interview was difficult to pick up due to the quality of the recording, but hopefully, we have gotten you to think about getting in touch with Sheena and Cannabis Noire if you’re a minority-run business or have an idea and need some further help, advice or even potentially funding. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Sheena’s book, Mommy’s Medicine – An Illustrated Explanation of Why Mommy Uses Cannabis, due to be released later in the year.

Sheena Noire Cannabis Noire

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