As the cannabis industry continues to grow, so, too, does the realization that black and brown, poor and working-class communities most harmed by the so-called war on drugs do not have access to this new gold rush.
The profiteers of this war—this storefront operation created for the sole purpose of laundering the institutional, systemic, coordinated assaults on black and brown communities—are primarily white men with access to capital who navigate society unencumbered by the intentional violence of the carceral state. This, subsequently, gives them the freedom to be legal drug dealers, while jails across the nation continue to be filled with black and brown people incarcerated for low-level drug crimes—if police officers don’t get to them first.
That might be how this white supremacist capitalist system was intended to function, but the Hood Incubator has something else in mind.
Formed in 2017 in Oakland, Calif., the Hood Incubator, founded by Ebele Ifedigbo, 29, and Lanese Martin, 32, was created in response to the state’s marijuana legalization in order to create pathways to ownership in the cannabis industry for black and brown people most harmed by the drug war.
The community-centered organization is committed to “building economic and political power for black and brown communities,” and is well on the way to radically transforming an industry guarded by white gatekeepers.
“While marijuana use is roughly equal among black[s] and whites nationwide, black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession,” the Hood Incubator states on its website. “Now that cannabis is a thriving $8 billion legal industry [pdf], black people make up less than 5 percent [pdf] of founders and business owners.
In the interview that follows, Ifedigbo talks to the The Root about the difficulties they’ve faced in shattering racialized stigmas attached to cannabis, breaking through institutionalized barriers, abolition, and why it’s necessary for black and brown people to be at the forefront of the cannabis industry.
The Root: When I think of the word “incubator,” the concept of incubation in the context of the hood, I think of distilling, healing, growing, becoming, protecting. Explain to me why it is important to you that black people, who have been most severely harmed by the drug war, have access to the growing cannabis industry?
Ebele Ifedigbo: It’s important that black people have access to the growing cannabis industry precisely because we have been the most harmed by cannabis prohibition. There’s the adage of “more risk, more reward” when it comes to economics and investments. That same principle should hold true when it comes to the marijuana industry: Black communities have objectively taken on the vast majority of the risk and negative consequences associated with marijuana being illegal. We are four times more likely to be arrested for weed-related offenses than white people, despite the fact that marijuana use is equal across races. We have taken on those consequences and it has had heartbreaking systematic outcomes for our families and communities. So, now, as the industry is legalizing and growing like wildfire, projected to be $20 billion by 2020, black communities should be at the forefront of accessing the rewards and resources that come along with that legalization and growth.
TR: In a nation that renders economically exploited black and brown people disposable, what are some of the institutional barriers you’ve faced in trying to arm our communities with the knowledge and licensure it requires to sell cannabis legally?
EI: In the process of developing the model for the Hood Incubator, we did extensive research and perspective gathering to make sure our work effectively addresses the barriers that our people are truly facing. Between Lanese using her background in community organizing and political organizing to do on-the-ground community organizing—hosting early member meetings, attending council meetings with impacted residents, connecting people in different parts of the informal industry—and my census and economic-data-based research, we were able to really hone in on the institutional barriers our folks are up against.
We found that, almost across the board, black and brown communities face barriers in accessing the 1) networks, 2) technical support and assistance, and 3) financial capital it takes to thrive in the legal industry.
The legal marijuana space is still very new, so “who you know” is still a primary success factor. Are you connected to lawmakers? Are you connected to influential investors? Are you backed by community members? It is very difficult to thrive and compete in the marketplace if you are operating in isolation.
Given the state of the market, it is imperative that business owners surround themselves with a community of advisers, subject-matter experts and supporters who can help the business successfully navigate and make decisions in a rapidly growing and fast-paced, but also highly regulated, volatile and risky industry.
Oftentimes, black and brown people are cut off from these networks and knowledge bases, or it takes us longer to build the relationships, and that dampens our [collective] ability to keep up in the marijuana industry.
At the same time, the networks and knowledge bases that we have been able to resiliently amass over time in the informal marijuana industry are often judged negatively when assessed within the traditional frameworks of “entrepreneurial success,” and that is used to justify our exclusion from industry opportunities.
Access to financial capital is key, too. The marijuana business is capital intensive. The fact that the industry still operates in a gray area only adds to the cost of doing business and makes it more difficult to attract investment across the board. Entrepreneurs need financial capital to endure the ups and downs of the market and grow their businesses over time. But nationwide, less than 1 percent of venture capital funding goes to black founders. From our experiences, black founders in the marijuana industry are facing similar financial barriers.
That said, right now we have a wide-open opportunity to address these institutional barriers and shift the narrative. The key question is: How do we create a marijuana industry that fundamentally centers the interests of communities that have taken on the risks that have allowed for the legal industry to even exist in the first place? That is the work that the Hood Incubator takes on. We are working to make that vision real by centering black and brown communities in all the work we do.
TR: One of the things that I’ve witnessed is a kind of internalized hatred and fear and stigma that attaches cannabis to poverty and black criminality. There are some in our communities who believe “just saying no” is what “respectable” black folks do. Have you witnessed this in your work—and, if so, how have you worked to dismantle those perceptions?
EI: Yes, we have come across these perspectives in our work. We welcome people with all different perspectives because we recognize that everyone is coming to this marijuana conversation with different experiences and assessments of what marijuana represents and what the promise of the industry is (or is not).
We know that, at the end of the day, if you are black, you have experienced negative impacts from the drug war, either directly or indirectly. And that gives your voice, your questions and your concerns an inherent weight and legitimacy that cannot be denied.
We create a culture at the Hood Incubator where any of our community members can come to learn and discuss the plant and the industry amongst peers. As a community, when we share our stories and perspectives amongst ourselves, we are all able to both teach and learn in equal measure.
When engaging folks who are wary of cannabis and what it represents, we center the core promise of the industry. For the Hood Incubator, the marijuana industry represents an opportunity for our communities to build tangible economic and political power, especially given the fact that we have paid and continue to pay the costs that it has taken to get to this moment in the legalization movement.
We believe it would be a huge mistake to shy away from doing the necessary groundwork to ensure that we actually access the tangible economic and sociopolitical benefits that the industry can offer our communities.
Whether an individual chooses personally to consume the plant or not, it is hard to deny the opportunity we have to build something greater from this industry—a legacy of intergenerational wealth and economic sustainability for black families and communities nationwide.
TR: This is not just about policy; it is about restorative and transformative justice—and what you are doing is revolutionary. So many black people are still incarcerated, communities decimated, while white people reap the benefits of a narrative shift that has taken place on the backs of black folks. How important is abolition in your work?
EI: As an organization we’re deeply rooted in an understanding of the atrocities of mass incarceration and over-criminalization of black people. When it comes to marijuana, black people are 4 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related offense then white people, despite equal rates of use across races.
Our work is rooted in a commitment to creating the kind of future where prisons are completely unnecessary. We believe that people are inherently motivated to make positive contributions in society as long as they have all of the resources and support they need. If we can create the set of conditions where everyone has what they need, then we will have no need for a prison system. In our work, we center the principles of access, healing, opportunity and restorative justice.
TR: Where do you see the Hood Incubator and the cannabis industry in five years?
EI: In five years, we see the Hood Incubator operating nationally. Our growth strategy is to go deep in Oakland, in the Bay Area, and in California so we can learn what works, what doesn’t work, and create models of best practice that can be replicated and implemented in cities and states around the country over the next five years. We want to play a key role in shaping what equity means in the marijuana industry, and we plan to support the various stakeholders—community organizations, lawmakers, industry operators—to be effective in the implementation of cannabis-equity initiatives.
We don’t want initiatives and frameworks that just sound good, we want frameworks that can fundamentally transform power dynamics and effectively turn the marijuana plant from a weapon that has been used to decimate black and under-resourced communities, into a tool that can help to repair the harms we have experienced from the drug war and mass incarceration.
The Hood Incubator is working to make sure that 20, 30 years down the line, when it is all said and done, our community doesn’t have to look back and say, “What a missed opportunity.” Instead, we will be proud of the work that we’ve done collectively to shape the industry in a positive way that ensures justice and real economic opportunity for black and brown communities.
Click here to support the Hood Incubator by becoming a monthly sustainer.
Photo via Ebele Ifedigbo
Kirsten West Savali is a journalist with TheRoot.com.
This piece originally appeared on TheRoot.com.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.