The militarized law enforcement of the Drug War has wreaked havoc on countless communities across the United States, and its impact has been especially devastating in low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods.
Leo Orleans is a farmer actively working towards transforming the industrial landscape of East Oakland: the dream is a community garden and collective gathering space, and to fully achieve this dream, Orleans is taking a bet on cannabis by establishing a unique delivery service and dispensary that would offer both ganja and groceries.
As a fellow in the Hood Incubator, Orleans is learning the skills to succeed within an industry that, in California alone, saw $2.7 billion in sales for 2015. Orleans is also organizing a network that will help them navigate an industry still struggling to live up to the Golden State’s reputation for racial diversity.
The Drug War and cannabis criminalization are both the product of racist rhetoric and anti-immigrant hysteria. And while data shows that white people in the U.S. use drugs at a slightly higher rate than their non-white peers, Black people are far more likely to be imprisoned for drug-related crimes.
But despite having suffered the slings and arrows of the War on Drugs more than any other community, reports show that Black ownership in the legal cannabis industry sits at less than 1 percent.
Hood Incubator was developed to grow that number and ensure people of color don’t get left behind as marijuana continues on its path towards Main Street USA.
Formed in 2016, the Hood Incubator is a pre-seed accelerator program devoted to encouraging Black-owned businesses in the cannabis space. It helps entrepreneurs currently operating within the underground to gain a share of the economic boon “by translating and augmenting their existing capacities,” while also providing education to those, like Orleans, who are interested in applying their skills to the cannabis industry.
Its first and current group includes 15 fellow — a mix of men, women and non-gender conforming applicants who vary in age and level of education. Most of the fellows are based in Oakland.
At the conclusion of the intensive four-month program the Hood Incubator will ensure that each fellow has a pitch deck presentation and be able to network with lawyers. In addition, the program will provide its fellows with the ability to either self-finance or run a crowd-funded campaign.
Co-Founder/Director Ebele Ifedigbo said that the organization is designed to develop leadership and entrepreneur skills, while also addressing persistent racial and class disparities inherent to cannabis prohibition; for the Hood Incubator the ideal cannabis community would be built on integrity, equity, fairness, justice and common sense. And when it comes to cannabis prohibition, Ifedigbo keeps it honest.
“All of this just started off with racism,” Ifedigbo said. “These people that were wronged in the past [need] to have the ability to move forward.”
At the core of this Oakland-based business accelerator is a dedication to community organizing. As the state transitions into a regulated model for medical marijuana and establishes rules for a new adult-use marketplace, Oakland is taking a unique stance by implementing a recently amended equity program that aims to prioritize licenses for people within neighborhoods that have been the most negatively affected by the War on Drugs.
In addition to regular weekly meetings and presentations, the Hood Incubator is devoted to developing community awareness and action. Organizers recently canvased communities in Oakland that are directly affected by the city’s cannabis policies and the equity permit program.
Ifedigbo and Co-Founder/Director, Lanese Martin, said the reception to the canvasing was mixed, with some people already aware and interested in the equity program and others voicing some resistance.
The aim of the canvasing, Martin said, was to inform people why they should be interested in the program and aware of the actions to take.
“[It was] really grassroots awareness building,” she said.
Martin has a background in community organizing and non-profit work and believes in “people power.” In explaining the aims of the Hood Incubator, she noted the difference between diversity, equality and assimilation.
Martin said to survive in the space, people of color must navigate the implications of racism and what it means. She said even those in the cannabis industry with the best of intentions cannot fully understand the barriers that come with working in a predominantly white space as a person of color, which means right now, assimilation is the default option — and that needs to change.
“It only works if that person has the wherewithal to be able to assimilate,” she said. “[But] our idea of equity is to meet people where they’re at.”
Orleans lives within a collectively-run organization devoted to sharing sustainable practices and promoting social justice known as SOL. To them, the answer to achieving more green spaces and establishing healthy holistic food systems goes hand in hand with the development of the cannabis industry.
Despite the cannabis plant’s many dark historical connections — from the racist roots of prohibition to the racially biased enforcement of drug laws — Orleans said it can become a transformative force for creating economic and medicinal opportunity to heal scarred communities.
“This is a way our communities can be uplifted economically,” Orleans said. “We’re rebuilding our relationship with it.”
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