Nearly a century ago, U.S. federal lawmakers began to examine cannabis legislation, which eventually led to its prohibition in 1937. The reason? At that time, an influx of Mexican immigrants were entering the country following the Mexican Revolution, bringing with them bits of their culture, which included “marihuana,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The flow of new immigrants brought a wave of xenophobia, which eventually led to the demonization of cannabis as a way to quell Hispanics entering the country.
Fast-forward to today, and the Denver-based National Hispanic Cannabis Council (NHCC) is still working to fight that stigma, both outside of and within the U.S. Latino community. The NHCC was founded in 2021 as a way to educate and empower Hispanics who are interested in both cannabis use and entering the industry. The organization currently has 40 paid members, as well as corporate members who consist of some of the largest players in the cannabis space, including Cresco Labs, Curaleaf and more.
Here, NHCC President Brian Vicente (who is also a co-founder of law firm Vicente Sederberg), and NHCC Executive Director Antonio Valdez, both of whom co-founded the organization, discuss how they’re working to break down barriers for Latinos who want to enter the industry in light of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15).
Theresa Bennett (TB): Can you tell me a little about how the organization got started and its biggest initiatives to date?
Brian Vicente (BV): The world is becoming sort of familiar with how cannabis became illegal, and it was largely just through racist legislation passed to discriminate against Latinos. Last year, in the height of the [Black Lives Matter] movement and all these really important conversations in our country, we said, ‘You know, it’s just sad that Hispanics are underrepresented as owners, as consumers and as staff of these facilities. Let’s organize and see if we can do something about that.’ So, we’re working on education, and we’re doing that in a very organized fashion. We have subcommittees that hold webinars that are really well-attended. We’re working with a lot of our board members, who are some of the biggest cannabis companies in the world, to provide bilingual materials to encourage hiring Latino staff, but also highlighting their Latino staff. So, just this kind of destigmatizing and empowering is how we’re spending our time now.
Antonio Valdez (AV): We’re still in the wild, wild west here in the cannabis industry since [the federal government] is not involved. It’s really a jigsaw puzzle, and a lot of Latinos are embarking on it, but it’s not a uniform approach. There [are] social equity programs out there, but I think at the end of the day, for us, it’s to have more seats at the table in terms of representation and to demystify it from all angles.
For example, one of the biggest things we did was a white paper on the state of Hispanics and cannabis. We wanted to get a pulse on [a few] things: Number one, total market availability, and what does that slice of the pie look like for Latinos? Number two, for those Latinos that are currently in the industry–for the 560 that we unearthed– where are they? Who are they, how did they get in this, what made they get in this? And what did their mom think when they got in this? [Laughs.] You know, those cultural taboos.
One of the other things we managed to do was launch a chapter in the tri-state area [New York, Connecticut and New Jersey]. Our goal is to launch other chapters throughout the country …. We’re still in our infancy, but we wanted to have a presence in New York.
TB: Why target New York for your first chapter?
BV: I’ve been working on cannabis policy for about 20 years. I think there are three big things that have happened in our lifetimes with cannabis policy: California legalizing medical marijuana because they were the first place to do it; Colorado legalizing cannabis–now I ran that campaign, so I’m a little biased–but it was the first [recreational state]; and then New York legalizing. If I’m a guy in China or Bolivia, I’ve never heard of Denver, but everyone knows about New York. It’s an amplifier for culture around the globe, and it’s also the tenth-largest economy in the world. So, if we can do it in New York, if we can do legalization right and make sure Hispanics are part of the movement there from the ground up, which is going on before our eyes. That’s the place for NHCC to be.
TB: What do you think of the social equity programs you’ve seen in different states and how they could help bolster Hispanics in the industry?
AV: … We had an opportunity to present to [federal lawmakers] our white paper on the state of Hispanics and cannabis, and the impact it [could have] on the Safe Banking Act and why it’s so important. So, we had an audience of over 70 state legislators that happened to be Latinos in Brooklyn, and they were very curious. State legislators now are getting on board. They know the train is leaving, but they don’t have the insights. So, when we brought these little nuggets [about] this 5.7% of Hispanics that are in the cannabis space, they were hungry for it. … The best question I think they posed was, in our experience, which state has the best social equity program out there?
BV: We now have many states and municipalities trying to figure out the best way to remediate the harms of the drug war in terms of giving new cannabis business licenses to people of color, or those that have been disproportionately impacted. That was not the case five or 10 years ago. So, it’s wonderful. And, you know, there are some success stories out there. I mean, Illinois now has a very high chunk of their licenses in the hands of people of color as owners, and New York is really doing their best to attack this as well.
There are some interesting ideas, and it’s fun because we don’t exactly know what the best solution is. … Good intentions are trying to guide us, you know? Some of that’s access to lower fees for people of color, or those who have been disproportionately impacted; some of that’s mentorship programs, some of that’s loans. We’re just really trying to peel the onion back and figure out how to get these programs to function well.
TB: Do you think one state in particular has a good social equity program?
BV: I guess I’d have to point to Illinois because they’ve been effective at getting a lot of business licenses to be owned by people of color, which I think is a very important step. There [are] critiques of that state too, so it’s honestly sort of hard to figure out. We believe it’s best to have expungement of criminal records and then provide some sort of head start on licensing to allow these folks to really be successful. New York’s attempting to do that, New Jersey’s attempting to do that, so places are really trying to tackle it.
TB: Can you talk a little more about the stigma against cannabis among the Hispanic community that you mentioned earlier? Do you think it’s more prevalent in the Hispanic community than other communities?
AV: Everyone has their story. One of the things we’re working on is doing primary research with Hispanics to understand their attitudes and perceptions of cannabis … [and] really go deep to understand what I consider the nuggets of the barriers. Is it because you come from a narco-state? Is it because your mom always told you it was bad? Is it because of the Catholic church? There are all these prominent things in our culture. But I’ll tell you, being down this road now for a year and a half, I’ve met Asian groups, I’ve met African-American groups, and we share very similar commonalities towards the argument of cannabis. African-Americans might [have] a different reason, but the immigrant story is very much alive.
BV: Hispanics and blacks are getting arrested and prosecuted at four times the rate of whites for cannabis in our country. So, I think a lot of Latino leaders are like, ‘People are getting arrested for this. It’s bad.’ And they’re not necessarily [thinking they] need to get rid of the criminal penalties for this, so we’re kind of bridging that. But then [Valdez] also spoke about immigration consequences, which is pretty unique to the Hispanic culture in our country, being the largest group of immigrants by far. There are very serious immigration consequences to people being found with even a very small amount of cannabis. So, I think there’s hesitancy around cannabis, and now that we are really regulating it and bringing it into mainstream commerce, we need to work hard to convince Hispanics, like, ‘Hey, this can be a positive. It’s been a negative historically because of these crazy laws, but let’s make it a positive. Let’s get you involved in this new economy.’
TB: Can you talk about other top challenges facing Hispanic business owners in the industry?
AV: The biggest challenge is funding. We have our economic committee structured around trying to find [funding] solutions. We don’t know what that looks like yet, but something to support small business owners with cash flow.
The second thing is the hard skills that these folks need, especially recipients of social equity licenses. They might know how to be great horticultural growers, but when it comes to running a business, they might need some hard skills. … Some cohorts who signed up as members personally have called me and said, ‘Hey, I won the social equity license. What do I do? How do I begin?’ So, … we start them there, but then it’s really the networking. … It’s the community supporting each other.
… The empowerment [section of the survey and white paper gave us insights into] the hard skills they need, what the networking opportunities are. We asked questions such as when they started and asked them to rank certain skills, what they would need, what they would love to be more ‘in the know’ of. And [the responses were] basically in the wheelhouse of a making business plan, marketing, finance, compliance, all of those nuggets. That has given us the opportunity to go find those subject matter experts and put them on video talking to those entrepreneurs [to teach them the step-by-step process].
TB: After speaking with legislators, how do you feel about the future of Hispanic participation in the cannabis industry?
BV: It’s been a long road, but I think it’s arcing towards progress at the federal level. Once we’re able to remove federal criminal penalties and allow state programs to really flourish, there will be more opportunities for all parties, including Latinos. I think we’ve made a lot of progress as an organization in the last year and a half. We’ve created a good foundation for Hispanics to have somewhere to come to learn about the industry, to network with peers, to begin to engage in advocacy. So, I think we’re on the right path.
We’re also getting more and more large cannabis businesses joining the NHCC and recognizing that these are their consumers [who may] want learn about these products in their native tongue of Spanish, which is spoken in a lot of places in this country …. So, there’s a market reason why we think this is important, but also from a policy perspective, it’s [heading] in the right direction.
AV: I have 30-plus years of experience marketing to the Latino community, so I consider myself a consumer behavioralist in the Latino space as an expert. What I was not an expert on was the industry itself. When I did research, … the thing that fascinated me the most [was that respondents’ confidence levels in the industry] align very well with culturally with Latinos and their spirits. Your roof could be caving in, but you’re still optimist. … We are the most optimistic group because we believe so strongly in hope. So, the folks that are in, they’re in it for the long run. They’re not looking to cash out.