Cannabias & Other Obstacles to Diversity: A Conversation with Betty Aldworth



Last week we brought you the first part of our two-part interview with Betty Aldworth, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. In part two, we talk with Betty about cannabias, diversity in the emerging industry, the baggage of the drug war, and how organizations like SSDP and Women Grow can help promote inclusion and equity.


Weekend Review Kit: Would you speak about “cannabias,” a term I believe you coined, vis-à-vis gender, but also diversity more broadly within the industry?


Betty Aldworth: When early leaders of the marijuana industry talk about what they’re doing here and when we talk about building a new kind of industry, those are ways to encapsulate this notion that there has never been an opportunity like this to build a legitimate industry essentially from scratch – but also very much not from scratch. There’s all of this baggage that’s coming along with it. There are two types of baggage in particular that I think we need to reckon with – with open eyes – before we can, in fact, build the kind of industry that I can be proud of saying I had anything to do with.


The first is that, while we are in many ways building this industry from scratch, there is an existing market for marijuana, and that market is defined by the subjugation of people for the pleasure of others: whether it’s poor cultivators in Mexico or whether it’s poor people of color in the U.S. who are not only enlisted to become part of the underground market but are essentially given no other options about what’s going to happen to their lives because of the way our communities are constructed and because of the way that we police these communities and because of the ways that we distribute opportunity. So there is this existing market, and when we talk about the marijuana market – the cannabis market – being built from scratch, we are ignoring this reality. And for the last 80+ years, black people in particular and brown people in particular but now – today more than ever – also poor people have been suffering for the recreational pleasure of people with more – more money, more opportunity, more of the various checkboxes that make it a bit easier to move through this world.


That manifests itself in a lot of ways. In regulation, in social expectation, in the ways that the industry is being built, in the ways that people are being presented with opportunity but also their willingness to take it or not. So you see regulations where the amount of investment capital to become involved at any level in the industry is so outrageous that it’s just concentrating more wealth and power into the hands of those who already have wealth and power.


WRK: Like in Ohio, for example, that kind of for-profit initiative?


BA: Sure, right. But even in other places where you have insanely high licensing fees. And not everybody needs to be an owner or an entrepreneur, but if the fee to receive a license to become a budtender or to start up any kind of small business that is ancillary is so outrageous, if the entry costs are so outrageous, then we are divorcing people from opportunity.


So there’s that piece. And then there are regulations around whether or not people can have drug-related criminal records. We’ve got that regulatory problem as well. And when we say that you can’t have been busted for small level distribution because we’re concerned that you’re connected to a cartel, well, those aren’t the people we would need to be worrying about being connected to cartels. It’s people at that ownership level, and that’s the whole point of regulation. You can ferret that out, and we’ve seen it happening in Colorado.


The fear mongering that has driven prohibition for so long is now being used to continue to drive the exact same social controls that have been keeping people subjugated under the auspices of the drug war for such a long time. And that’s really disappointing.


And then you’ve got this decades-long enforcement issue where one of the reasons that we see many more white men engaged in this work is because it’s the lowest risk for them. It’s far riskier for a mother to step out, and we’ve seen many mothers in the cannabis industry and in the cannabis movement, even just patient advocates, suffer with the threat of or the actual loss of guardianship of their children. You have to be ready for that; you have to be trained for it.


Imagine if you are a Latino mother in Denver with a great idea for a marijuana company. What are the odds that you’re actually going to pursue it? Exceptionally low. Because you have all the baggage of CPS and those other issues, plus the elevated risk levels that just make it not worth it. It’s an incredibly complex set of issues, and we’re not having the dialogue we need to be having as a community to really start fixing it.


But one of the really great things about SSDP is that we’ve got all of these young people who are brave. They’re brave enough to address these questions, and they’re ready and they want to have these conversations. They are people of privilege. They are people who get to go to college, so they are wrestling with that already. They are thinking about these questions in their academic life. That’s one of the really exciting things that’s happening with SSDP.


We are becoming more and more diverse by any measure all the time, but one thing that I’m really proud of is that we’re about 50/50 men and women, and at the leadership level, at chapters, it’s somewhere around 45-48% women in leadership positions. At the organizational level, it’s me and Stacia [Cosner], and our Board chair and our Board vice chair are also both women. So we’ve got a very strong foundation of female leadership here. We’re creating a space for the future of drug policy reform and the marijuana industries to both have more balance.


That being said, it is very difficult for me to imagine wanting to encourage young women to enter the cannabis industry when I’m seeing what I see – at conventions, at parties, in my interactions with industry people. It makes me very nervous, and I shouldn’t have to talk about the possibility of sexual harassment when I’m bringing a female student with me to one of these events.


First you have all the baggage of the drug war, that social construction. And then you’ve got, on top of it, cannabis culture, as envisioned in the last 40 years: women, when portrayed in relationship with cannabis for so many of the last 40 years, have pretty much exclusively been scantily clad bong holders. So there’s this acceptance of that kind of imagery that many of us now are speaking out about. One of the really exciting things – it’s incredibly heartbreaking to start this conversation and have people come to you on a regular basis and start sharing these stories of really grotesque things that have happened to them – but the fact that we’re talking about it and we’re calling people out on it and that this has become a much more public dialogue over the course of the last six or eight months is fantastic, because it means we’re putting the right pressures on to end these behaviors. Sex as part of the marijuana industry is not okay. That’s what it really comes down to.


WRK: Why such an easy conflation of the two?


Because it’s everywhere. Sex sells, and all that. But they’re trying to build a product and a consumer base and a voter base and all of these things at the same time, and these businesses that are in charge of their imagery and the branding and marketing must realize that they have a responsibility to help advocates continue to do the work that we’ve been doing. Not alienate women across the country with their shitty sexualized imagery.


And, in fact, if they are being smart about the images they are portraying, they’re going to be able to invite more women to begin to explore the benefits of cannabis for wellness, medical, or social purposes. It’s just such a no-brainer, it’s stunning to me. Both on the commercial level and on the business level there are many things that need to be fixed here, and, just by talking about it, I think that we’re bringing a lot of attention to the issue and empowering women both as consumers and as professionals to be more discerning about how they are going to interact with these cannabis businesses and these cannabis business people.


WRK: That leads to my next question: Something I’ve found fascinating about this space is that if you’re in the cannabis business, you’re in the politics business. So you’ve got these two prongs that are mutually dependent, and it seems like, in some instances, they’re working against each other. I’m wondering if you can speak to ways that the business sector and the advocacy sector are supporting one another? Do you feel like there is at least a climate for that kind of change?


BA: Yeah, absolutely. The founders of the National Cannabis Industry Association, those businesses that have been supporting MPP and SSDP, that have been supporting advocacy efforts for a very long time, those that weigh the value of rolling out a new product or a new message not just by its commercial success but also by the message that it’s sending. There are many businesses like that out there. This is why I worked for NCIA, because I understood that business can be a vector for reform. There are, certainly, especially among the more established businesses, a higher percentage of those sorts of folks. We do see, too, in some of the newer businesses that are forming now a similar understanding of their importance as reformers, not just as business people. It’s a little more rare, but it’s out there and it certainly is something that we need to keep talking about.


Because there’s no question that, while I’m disconcerted by the amount of attention the media is paying to the commercial aspects of post-prohibition Colorado and Washington, it is a very interesting story and it’s a story that people will look to when they’re weighing initiatives in their own states. I certainly wish they were talking a lot more about the social justice benefits and the public health benefits that we’re seeing in Colorado. But we’ll get there, I’m sure. It’s tremendously important that we are painting pictures for voters about what kind of future their state can have if they end marijuana prohibition.


WRK: What’s the biggest hurdle to diversity, to building the kind of industry we can be proud of?


BA: The biggest hurdle to fixing the diversity problem in the marijuana industry is the exact same biggest hurdle to fixing the diversity problem everywhere. In any business, in any industry, in any group of people, anywhere. I think, though, that the biggest fixable hurdle is that we aren’t having the kind of dialogue that we need to be having, yet, still. Especially when it comes to ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.


WRK: That’s actually something that’s surprised me in the cannabis space. I spent most of my “previous life” in progressive schools, where diversity and white privilege are things you talk about all the time. I’ve noticed that people aren’t as fluent in those conversations or onboard with those ideas, that I’ve had to do more convincing than I’d imagined.


BA: How do we go about injecting that now? Aside from within our community here, at SSDP – I know how we do that here at SSDP and we’re working on it. And we’re having lots of conversations with allies about how to do a better job of that within our organization. But how that happens on the industry side of things, or within other advocacy communities, that’s a different question that they’re going to have to figure out how to answer for themselves. But as more and more SSDPers are entering into those worlds, who have had the practice of having those conversations, I’m hoping that we’ll begin to see some change there.


WRK: That’s what’s really exciting to me, the new generation of activists, the people who “get it” already and just want to propagate that message, and it seems like that’s exactly what you’re up to here at SSDP. You’re also one of the founding members of Women Grow. Can you talk about how that relationship developed and what you see as their role in adding to diversity in the industry?


BA: Women Grow was sort of born out of this group of women in Colorado who I had been working with for four or five years, and took the coalescing power of Jane [West] to really turn into something big. She enlisted many of us who were active in that community to be part of the founding Board of this organization, and I was one of them.


What I really love about Women Grow is that it does provide that professional space that is so important for women, to be able to connect with each other and support each other and talk about what their challenges are. It also provides a space for those engaged to really become more well educated about the kinds of invisible bias that are going to be affecting them and figure out how to empower themselves in their companies and in their professional lives. The opportunities for mentorship, the ways that women can connect each other to great jobs at their businesses and other businesses that understand how to do this right, the ways that Women Grow is so open to absolutely anyone who understands the power of women in the workplace and why having strong women in the workplace is so important. Those are some of my favorite things about it.



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  1. Pingback: The Future of Legalization: SSDP's Betty Aldworth | Weekend Review Kit

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