Social justice was an important aspect of the New York Cannabis Reform Act. Social justice and the economy are inextricably linked in the language of the law, as legalizing the fast-growing and competitive cannabis industry also meant allowing the communities most harmed by its historic ban, the greatest possible participation, according to state officials.
To that end, New York has set a goal of distributing half of its licenses to minority and social justice applicants and developing educational plans that target those communities in order to best obtain such licenses. The law also includes low-cost loans and founder programs to help minority entrepreneurs get into business.
While Village of Valley Stream officials discuss the future of local cannabis dispensaries and consumption lounges, Esther Lelievre, 34, an educational counselor with community roots in the village, and Jessica Naissant, 27, a resident and owner of the hemp-based Wake and Bake, provide advice Rockaway Avenue Cafe have already started moving in the industry. Together they formed a five-member black stock and entrepreneurial group informally known as the Cannigroup.
The goal of Cannigroup, according to Lelievre, is to enable minority entrepreneurs to gain a more comprehensive assessment of the developing market through the exchange of professional experience and expertise. Each member currently wants to get into a specific segment of the industry, be it a licensed pharmacy and cultivation or additional opportunities like marketing, transportation and recruiting. Collaborative business groups like this one are helping minority entrepreneurs enter an industry that suffers from a severe lack of diversity and inclusion among its leading investors and business owners, who, according to statistics, are overwhelmingly white. The Herald spoke to Lelievre and Naissant about the prospects and challenges of entering the market.
The conversation was processed and condensed.
Herald: What are some of the barriers to entry or challenges you may identify for minority business owners?
Lelievre: Capital is one of them. Most states have not yet hit their social justice numbers when it comes to making the people affected by the war on drugs socially just.
The current industry establishment has put information very closely on its chests to ensure that more and more of us are not involved in the process. The reality is that we People of Color are the reason the industry is what it is today. They mimic our style and culture to attract people to their stores. We are still a dominant part of the shopping market in the world.
Naissant: Not to mention that there was a lot of misinformation before adult recreational use was legalized, but even more so before medical cannabis. It once seemed a stretch to get into the industry without having millions of dollars or some sort of support from a government program to get into the industry, as there was essentially no information available when to go to a medical marijuana dispensary or a free time -Marijuana pharmacy has opened. There was this whole underground cannabis club that most of the minorities don’t belong to.
Herald: How would an incubator model designed to help entrepreneurs get started in the business help promote social justice?
Lelievre: Personally, I think it would be helpful because there are companies that are investing in small businesses that want to enter the cannabis industry that don’t necessarily have the capital. The application process alone costs tens of thousands of dollars, not even retail space and inventory. With the incubator program, you have a foundation to build on instead of starting from scratch. I don’t think New York has done enough to offer enough people this opportunity in terms of investment, access to grants, and leading industries that put social justice first.
Herald: What are some of the different uses of cannabis products?
Lelievre: As a former cancer patient who has worked with many people who have lupus, traditional drugs are often harsh on your body and people use herbs like cannabis as more suitable alternatives. The military is even looking for cannabis therapy to help veterans with PTSD. You can use cannabis in gels, creams, and topicals.
Naissant: Nowadays there are so many ways to consume cannabis that there weren’t before. You can even condense it and make it into wax and butter. People are getting better trained in how to microdose cannabis and use it for more medicinal components. It helps with migraines, helps with menopause, hormone regulation, appetite suppression, seizures. I mean the list goes on and on.