In North Portland, Ore., Jesce Horton owns the property for his cannabis business, LOWD, and has been granted state licenses for cultivation, retail, and processing and extraction. Horton’s engineering expertise, devotion to continually improving pheno-hunting and cultivation practices, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, are some of his passions that have played into his success in connoisseur cannabis.

So, how have Horton and other people of color navigated the burgeoning cannabis industry as prohibition continues to disproportionately harm their communities, and what more does he believe must be done to ensure true equity?

“I’ve been called an eternal optimist by some people, and I am in a lot of ways, in that now, I think things are progressing in the right direction because it’s very difficult to discuss legalization without having some social equity framework or having some focus on that,” Horton said. “So, I think that’s a big win, and that’s an important step that we need to claim, and rightfully so.”

However, Horton said there still needs to be more diversity among business owners in the cannabis industry to further the industry’s betterment.

“I think you see the traditional hurdles of entrepreneurship for communities that don’t have access to capital, that do not have a history of entrepreneurship or entrepreneur success,” he said. “You see that in the cannabis industry. So, there are a lot of those typical hurdles that other people like me, black and brown people, who don’t have those resources, experience. But in this industry, that’s definitely compounded by the lack of … bank funding and things like that.”

Equity in Oregon

In Oregon, people of color who are working toward owning cannabis businesses face many of the same financial obstacles as others throughout the industry, Horton said, rattling off some of the main culprits: the banking issue, legal and compliance costs, high taxes, and legal payments.

That said, Horton said he supports Oregon’s position as an open market without license limits that accommodates small businesses through lower licensing fees, compared to other states. Those aspects of the market have allowed him to succeed, and have done the same for other people of color who own Oregon cannabis businesses, such as Will Perry and Adriana Ruiz Carlisle at Magic Hour Cannabis, and Seun Adedeji at Elev8 Cannabis.

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“As much as I think Oregon could do better, I think places like Oregon that focus on small business opportunity through lower licensing fees and no license limits and no license lotteries, give people like myself the best shot, even though the odds are still stacked against us in a lot of ways,” Horton said.

While the state of Oregon does not have a social equity program, and a 2021 bill to create one failed, Horton said the city of Portland does have a successful social equity program.

“Under the leadership of Dasheeda Dawson, one of the most outspoken and well-known people from a cannabis social equity standpoint in the country, the cannabis program does work from, just recently, providing grants to people who have experienced hardships through COVID and some of those other issues, prioritizing communities from these targeted areas, reduced fees,” Horton said. “… [Portland was] … the first city in the country to allocate some of its cannabis tax to help black and brown business owners specifically in the cannabis industry. [The program] has been robust in a lot of ways, in giving out grants and 0% interest loans through NuProject, a non-profit partner with the city of Portland.”

Envisioning Federal Legalization

Looking ahead to federal legalization in the U.S., Horton said there are multiple social equity components that he would like to see in a bill.

“Without a doubt, I think expungement or record-clearing, clemency, whatever it may be, is something that is absolutely a must when you look at some level of federal legalization,” he said.

Additionally, Horton said federal cannabis taxes should be used to create a fund to repair communities that the war on drugs targeted. He added that a fund should provide career opportunities, as well as business and economic opportunities. Any involvement from the Small Business Administration or from banks would need to follow specific regulations to ensure equity, he said.

 “I think ensuring that access to federal licenses—however they decide to go forward if they decide to make that happen—[is] not stacked with a bunch of barriers that make them inaccessible for traditionally targeted communities or communities with less financial capital and political capital [is vital],” Horton said. 

The Importance of Supplier Diversity

Across the cannabis industry, it’s also important that people of color can succeed economically by supplying products and services across the supply chain and having their products on retail floors, Horton said. He adds that’s where retailers display the products they’re proud of.

“As you’re selecting, who are you buying your [business’] products from?” Horton asked. “What is that mix? Do you have diverse suppliers? As you’re placing your products in your dispensary and you’re talking about them and educating your consumers about them, are you talking about these same companies?”

Horton pointed out that there’s an economic incentive for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in the cannabis space.

“A lot of times, these issues end up being confused as purely moral issues, or doing the right thing,” he said. “I think that because of the robust legal market, because of the strong diversity of cannabis consumers and users, and then the buying power, if you look at this from a holistic perspective, you’ll easily see that this is definitely an economic argument, and about the growth and sustainability of our entire market, and the power of the cannabis industry lies in inclusion and diversity.”