Comment: Paying homage to legacy cannabis players

Gbemi Maiyegun explains why weed-focused businesses need to look back and consider the people who paved the way for their success.

Gbemi Maiyegun is co-founder of Weed For Black Women, a community hub that fights for change in the cannabis industry.

If there was ever a time to jump into the cannabis industry, it's now. But as more and more new companies try to get their piece of the pie, not everyone is getting an equal share.

There's no denying that the criminalization of cannabis has severely impacted the access black and brown people have to build equity. Most executives at the largest US public cannabis companies are white men, which means resources to build their companies are more accessible. Many are backed by investors who want to see an immediate return on investment. 

This isn't always doable for aspiring business owners without the same resources. While there are many benefits to operating a legal cannabis business, high startup costs and regulation have created a huge barrier to entry for many operating in the illicit market. 

While legalization for medical and recreational cannabis continues to spread, the illicit (unregulated) market has thrived for many years with legacy growers, cultivators, product developers and dealers still operating today. Cultivation and production methods have become more refined and efficient, and yet, despite their wealth of knowledge, individuals operating in the illicit space are still unable to bring their brand stories to the forefront. 

Oftentimes, they're the first introduction to cannabis for many people and, with destigmatization being one of the key ways to normalize cannabis use, they're ironically leading the way to legalization. They've not only built a lot of the demand, but are also the backbone of cannabis culture. While legal market operators may have the funding, their counterparts have a community that can't be replicated. It's more important than ever for newer, legal brands to pay homage to the individuals who've led the way. 

Firstly, be a true believer in social equity. Brands that want to succeed in the industry must acknowledge the need for social equity. It's important to have a clear stance on the social injustices that take place in the industry, so companies should actively make their workplaces more inclusive, and support causes and legislation that advocate for black and brown people. 

The average person today makes purchasing decisions based on their values – don't get left behind by not making social equity a priority.

You also need to establish a consumer relationship built on trust. Don't overpromise and under-deliver. Whether it's the consistency of product quality or lack of investment in social equity programming, people are feeling disappointed. Yes, the industry is still in its early stages but, while brands navigate a constantly changing environment, they need to be honest about their mission and business goals. 

Lastly, learn from the legacy market. Many new brands are trying to go after cannabis-naive customers. While it's a good tactic to grow market share, you could learn a lot about customer acquisition from those who've been selling for years. They're the industry veterans who have the most knowledge on what products, services and experiences people want.

When full legalization comes, high-priced products in legal markets will no longer be a valuable commodity. While many new brands are trying hard to separate themselves from the legacy industry – and existing cannabis communities – the most successful brands will listen, learn and understand what kept (and is keeping) underground markets alive. We need to not leave the people who built the industry behind.

This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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