The U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC) is on a mission to create a diverse and inclusive cannabis industry with equal opportunities for all entrepreneurs, which means shattering what USCC Director of Social Equity & Inclusion Tahir Johnson views as the biggest barrier of entry for Black business owners: lack of access.

“U.S. Cannabis Council’s goal or mission is to make sure it’s a diverse and inclusive industry that’s prosperous for everyone, not only in equity and license ownership, but also in making sure that the cannabis industry itself is diverse,” Johnson told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.

To improve access to the industry for Black entrepreneurs, the USCC is operating a new internship program in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), as well as launching its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) task force, which is about to launch a tool to assess member companies’ success in these areas.

‘A Strong Pathway to Future Leadership’

The Spring 2022 Pathways to the C-Suite internship program will partner Black college seniors and recent college graduates with eight of USCC’s member cannabis companies and organizations, including ACHEM, Canopy, Columbia Care, Curaleaf, Holistic, Marijuana Policy Project, USCC, and Weedmaps.

The deadline for applications was Dec. 3, and the internship program officially kicks off in January.

“When you look at hiring, a lot of folks have not had the opportunity to really get exposure to roles at some of these companies,” Johnson said. “What this [internship program] does is removes the barriers to entry by being able to introduce [interns to] folks that can [put them] on a strong pathway to future leadership.”

The CBCF already has “an amazing program,” he added, which the organization has historically operated in partnership with companies outside of the cannabis industry.

“We’re just mirroring things that we know work,” Johnson said.

CBCF will lead the recruiting efforts and select a group of finalists from the pool of applicants for the internship program, which is open to students in all majors. Once CBCF names the finalists, USCC will interview the candidates and select the nine interns that will serve across the eight participating organizations.

The interns will gain hands-on experience working in various departments, such as government relations, corporate responsibility, marketing, and finance. The program also includes cannabis facility visits to give interns an inside look at the industry.

“There’s a professional development program that the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation offers,” Johnson said. “We’re also developing our own curriculum of education on cannabis that really spans everything from the history of cannabis to basic business principles and everything like that. Again, we want them to get close to the companies, but also be educated on cannabis and be prepared to be future leaders of the cannabis industry.”

Johnson said the spring 2022 internship program is the first of many that USCC hopes to operate in partnership with CBCF. As the program grows, he hopes more of USCC’s member companies will participate.

“I’ve already had conversations with other people in the industry that have been inspired to want to take on interns,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, … we’ll make a big difference in the industry.”

As a historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) graduate, Johnson would like to work with HBCU institutions in the future.

“We want to continue to do outreach to all different areas, just to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the cannabis industry at all different levels,” he said.

Last week, Johnson spoke at Tuskegee University’s 79th Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference. USCC also recently hosted a panel and a breakfast at the National Black Caucus of Legislators’ 45th Annual State Legislative Conference to discuss how lawmakers can, through legislation, focus on social equity efforts that benefit communities that have been hardest hit by the war on drugs.

“It was something to continue the work that we’re doing, to really have outreach and educate and build coalitions with other communities that traditionally hasn’t been done in cannabis,” Johnson said.

A Dedicated Task Force

While Linda Mercado Greene, the chair of USCC’s DEI task force and the owner and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based dispensary Anacostia Organics, applauds USCC’s cannabis internship program, her main focus is advancing the goals of the DEI task force, which was originally formed in 2019 under the Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF). USCC has now re-launched the task force after merging with CTF.

In addition to Greene, the task force members are:

Ngiste Abebe, Vice President, Public Policy, Columbia CarePeter Barsoom, CEO, Nuka EnterprisesKaren Boykin Towns, Vice Chari, NAACPVince Canales, President & CEO, CLG & AssociatesYolanda Caraway, President & CEO, The Caraway GroupRev. Delman Coates, Ph.D., Founder & President, New Abolitionism Campaign and the Black Church Center for Justice and EqualityCarlos Curbelo, Former U.S. CongressmanDr. Patricia Frye, Founder & Medical Director, Takoma Park Alternative CareJudge Shelli Hayes (Retired), Co-Founder & CEO, TetrasolWade Henderson, President, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human RightsHirsch Jain, Director, Government Affairs, CalivaDerrick Johnson, President & CEO, NAACPDakeana Jones, Vice President, Human Resources, LivWell Enlightened HealthTony Lee, Managing Partner, Dickerson Insurance ServicesEugene Monroe, Diversity Consultant, Green Thumb Industries and retired National Football League playerMarc Morial, CEO, National Urban LeagueLaura Murphy, former Director of ACLU Washington, D.C. office and President, Laura Murphy & AssociatesKim Napoli, Director, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Vicente Sederberg LLPAkele Parnell, Head of Equity Partnerships, LanternCaroline Phillips, Founder & Executive Producer, National Cannabis FestivalMykel Selph, VP, Social Equity, Cresco LabsAshesh Shaw, Director, AkernaTracy Syphax, CEO, From the Block to the BoardroomIsiah Thomas, CEO, Isiah International, LLCKhadijah Tribble, Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility, CuraleafNick Turner, President & Director, Vera Institute of JusticeHerb Wilkins, Jr., Managing Director, SCI Ventures

Ranging from civil rights activists to athletes to medical professionals, Greene said the task force brings together a diverse group of industry stakeholders with a wide range of expertise.

“The basic reason for the formation of the task force was to ensure equality and opportunity for people of color, particularly [those] that had been the most affected by the war on drugs, to be able to get into this industry and be successful in the industry,” she said.

The task force is working on developing an overall strategy to diversify the cannabis industry and ensure that the communities most impacted by the war on drugs can reap the benefits of legalization, especially when federal prohibition is lifted.

The group is also tasked with developing benchmarks and goals to measure the industry’s progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“[The task force members have] all agreed to doing an assessment tool, sharing their diversity figures, diversity goals, diversity achievements, and diversity failures in an in-depth form, so that we can help them and they can see where they can improve,” Greene said.

The assessment tool will collect data on USCC member companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and provide a baseline for where the industry can improve in these areas, according to Laura Murphy, former director of the Washington, D.C. office of the ACLU, president of Laura Murphy & Associates, and a member of USCC’s DEI task force.

“The recent legalization of marijuana for health and recreational use creates a new industry, but the communities of color have been left behind,” Murphy said. “I think the task force is so important, and the assessment tool is so important because communities of color have disproportionately bore the terrible price of the war on drugs. There should also be pathways created for this community to be part of the prosperity that’s going to be generated by the legalization of marijuana. I think we’re at an important juncture, and the DEI task force is here to say, ‘Yes, we want this industry to prosper, but we also want this industry to be equitable and inclusive.’”

The assessment tool will launch in early 2022. Greene anticipates that the task force will have enough data by mid-2022 to advise USCC member companies—and the broader industry—on employee recruitment and retention best practices that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The task force will ultimately issue DEI scorecards to measure how businesses are performing across the following criteria: recruitment/retention, procurement, governance, and philanthropy/community engagement.

Isiah Thomas, NBA Hall-of-Famer and CEO of Colombia-based cannabis operator One World Products, joined the task force to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to experience the wellness side of cannabis. He said he wants to see the group eventually work to open international borders to the cannabis market.

“The immediate goals are … to allow us to operate as most businesses do in the world, where you’re dealing with banks and all the rules are the same across the board, federally, and statewide,” Thomas said. “You want the rules across the board to be applicable, so everyone has a level playing field to play on.”

Thomas also hopes the task force can help expand cannabis education to help advance the industry as a whole.

“I’d say that the task force, the work that it has done and is doing is invaluable in this space,” he said. “Five years from now, 10 years from now, people will look back and look at how the industry that has grown, and there will be a couple [of] spaces you can point to that have impacted the industry and helped the industry grow, and the task force will be one of those places.”