Accelerating Equity in Cannabis

Credit Sander Gusinow
Adrian Wayman, founder of Green Box

Marijuana business accelerators target African American entrepreneurs who face discrimination in accessing capital.

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When the law would not allow Adrian Wayman to run his business, he decided to roll up his sleeves and change it.

A former budtender at a medical marijuana dispensary, Wayman had the dream of opening a cannabis delivery business after legalization. At the time, no cannabis shop could be within 1,000 feet of another, which made finding a location difficult.

Since Wayman’s new company, Green Box, was a delivery service, he met legislators and made the case that a separate license category for delivery businesses should be created.

“I reached out to the mayor’s office; I reached out to city council. After a while I met with every single member of city council, every single commissioner,” he says.

Eventually, in 2016, officials created a new license category, which allowed Wayman’s business to operate.

The company still faced an uphill climb. Wayman heavily invested his own money into Green Box, as well as getting loans from his family. Location scouting was still difficult because landlords treated him as though he were “sketchy,” he says.

Wayman says securing capital investment was also difficult. His business was regularly passed over for investment opportunities in favor of other marijuana companies that have not had the same commercial success.

“Sometimes I hear about company X, Y or Z getting funding and I wonder how it’s possible. They have no track record,” he says.

“And here I am, having made actual regulation changes, and can’t get the opportunity to even pitch.”

When asked if he thought being an African American business owner played a role in his company being passed over for investment opportunities, he says he could not see many other reasons.

Wayman persevered, finding unconventional ways to reduce overhead, including wiring the security system for Green Box himself.

His determination paid off when The NuLeaf Project, a cannabis nonprofit aimed at building businesses in communities of color, announced that Green Box, along with cannabis retailer Green Hop, would receive the 2019 Justice Grant.

The grant is funded by Portland’s cannabis tax and aims to support businesses in communities disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition. The grant includes $30,000 and a 16-week advising and education program.

The lopsided effects of cannabis prohibition on the African American community are well documented. A review from the University of Michigan finds African American defendants are nearly twice as likely to face charges from cannabis-related arrests than whites, and receive consistently longer prison sentences for the exact same offense.

One argument made by pro-legalization activists, including Sharone Mitchell, the deputy director of the criminal justice reform nonprofit Illinois Justice Project, is that access to the cannabis industry would provide economic opportunities to communities of color.

While the concept might work in theory, less than 5% of cannabis business owners are people of color nationwide.

Some legislators, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents Oregon’s 3rd District in Congress, say the cannabis industry must provide business owners of color the opportunity to create wealth for their communities.

“Millions of young African American men and their families have had their lives turned upside down by prohibition,” he says.

“We’ve worked with the Minority Cannabis Business Association to support model legislation for set-aside business licenses for people of color, particularly African Americans.”

Jeannette Ward Horton, executive director and co-founder of the NuLeaf Project, says that while setting aside licenses can help get entrepreneurs of color involved in cannabis, she says the largest hurdle to African American entrepreneurs breaking into the cannabis industry is access to capital.

“The cannabis business is very capital intensive, in addition to the high cost of compliance and regulation,” she says. “This makes it very hard for groups that have been unfairly discriminated against for cannabis crimes. Historically, they have less access to capital.”

Portland’s cannabis tax helps to fund the NuLeaf project, which, according to city development agency Prosper Portland, makes the city the first local government in the U.S. to invest cannabis tax revenue into communities disproportionally harmed by prohibition.

Additionally, cannabis tax funds are used to support a social equity program aimed at providing technical assistance, such as business and accounting advising, to businesses in communities of color.

Ward Horton says her organization helps businesses of color secure capital to reduce prices and reach a wider market. It also provides networking opportunities for business owners to meet and make connections.

“A big part of this industry is who you know,” she says.

As for Green Box, Wayman was recently accepted into another business accelerator program, funded by the cannabis delivery service Eaze. The program provides an additional $50,000 in funding. It also gives recipients the chance to pitch business opportunities to investors.

Eaze is actually a competitor of Green Box, but Wayman’s success was hard for the San Francisco-based company to ignore.

“We are the only Oregon company participating,” says Wayman. “It makes us unique.”

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