Conversation about diversity in cannabis has been bubbling for a couple of years in Colorado, and some of that talk is finally about to play out as state and local governments adopt social equity rules that prioritize victims of the War on Drugs, many of whom come from communities of color. But what about people of color who already own cannabis businesses?
Founded in 2019, the Black Brown and Red Badged network is a coalition of Black and Brown cannabis business owners who want to be heard at government hearings and lobbying sessions, and they just hired an experienced politico, Hashim Coats, to speak for them.
To learn more about BBRB and his thoughts on current social equity efforts in Colorado, we caught up with the group's new director.
Westword: What is your personal relationship with cannabis? How was your perspective on it shaped, and how has it evolved over time?
Hashim Coats: I grew up in the church, and my uncles and my dad used — "marijuana" was what we called it at the time. It was frowned upon then, so I went from a prohibitionist mindset, experimented at 21 for the first time with cannabis, and stopped with that experimentation until I was 41. So there was this twenty-year gap, and I [started again] because I had shoulder surgery while working on political campaigns. I didn't want to become addicted to opioids, and they stopped my prescription for opioids while I still had pain. My alternative was cannabis, and from that point I became a believer.
How many members does the BBRB have? Is it hard to find members?
I'd love to say we have 15,000 members, but they're hard to find. The state doesn't keep numbers on Black- and Brown-owned businesses, but we have a core set of business members right now. What I do know is that these businesses represent less than 4 percent of statewide business ownership, and that's really a crying shame. But seeing these existing businesses being suffocated is why BBRB came about in 2019. We were born out of necessity, which is sad in this "post-racial" era of Obama and under the watch of a Black mayor in Denver.
You've been working in politics for a while. What got you interested in the cannabis space?
Cannabis is like the next frontier of fighting for social equity. Growing up with family members who used and sold cannabis, and seeing the harm of the War on Drugs and the Nancy Reagan "Just Say No" era when I was growing up — when I saw cannabis being legalized here and Black people being cut out of it, I was pissed. But now I'm also seeing how Black owners are being cut out of it. It's a strategic push. We're using color-blind language and color-blind laws — but in negating systemic racism, Black businesses have a hard time entering to become owners, and those owners who are there are fighting for their survival.
Can you elaborate on that, how Black cannabis business owners are fighting for survival?
The City of Denver is releasing this whole equity plan on cannabis, and it's bullshit. They're handing out these [dispensary] licenses and claiming there's a bunch of space for retail locations. But there are three BBRB members who've employed attorneys and brokers to look for space in the city where these retail licenses can go, and there's no space out there. So they're essentially saying they'll give you the material to build your dream home with whatever materials you want, but the trick is they won't give you any of their land to build it on. Good luck building that. And they haven't really spoken to business owners about that.
There's also the [proposed] potency-cap bill. It's weird that this is coming from a Democrat, because if it happens, it would kill, like, half of Black and Brown cannabis businesses. Potency is important, because a lot of these Black businesses are working with concentrates, and [extraction] is a way in to an almost-unattainable market. I don't know if it's a byproduct of a well-intentioned act or misinformed, but the cap would hurt Black businesses.
Denver and Aurora are some of the state's most diverse cities, but they're also short on dispensary licenses. How can two large, influential communities like these improve the diversity among marijuana industry ownership?
If Denver were really concerned about it, the city would have Black, Brown and Red-Badged cannabis business owners in these decisions. Instead, you have [Denver Excise and Licenses director] Ashley Kilroy jabbing Wanda James, saying a Black woman is difficult. Well, yeah, when you're fighting to cut off a business that is her livelihood, what do you expect? The first law of self-preservation is survival.
Equitable cannabis licenses and wealth distribution have been issues since legalization started. Why do you think they're getting more attention now?
Now the Senate is looking at making this legal nationwide. It's funny, because everybody hates things until they learn how to profit from them. And then you have these organizations coming out trying to lead the fight on social equity, but they're being led by white men. A new website just came out today, and another white guy says he's leading diversity and other issues in cannabis, and social equity is one of their things. It's a level of irony and hypocrisy, as if that was this big first step.
Outside of licenses, what are some obstacles to an equitable cannabis space that maybe don't get brought up?
The financing part. Everything comes down to money. The fast-tracking of the licensing is another thing. There aren't specific protections for these social equity licenses as they're fast-tracking them. So if a company gives 1 percent ownership to a person of color and everyone else is white, does that mean the company now qualifies for social equity? You have large organizations with all-white boards that are in this fight but taking up space, as they say they're about social equity. Check out the board of the Marijuana Industry Group.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.