Equity, justice and Black culture in New York cannabis

9 mins read

New York has created its cannabis industry around social equity, focussing heavily on restorative justice for those affected by the war on drugs. How can new companies celebrate and support the legacy market?

We speak to CJ Wallace ahead of Business of Cannabis: New York, this Thursday. CJ is a social entrepreneur, actor, photographer, and producer. He is the founder of Frank White & Think BIG and is an advocate for cannabis legalization, Black ownership in the cannabis industry, and restorative justice to communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition.

How has New York’s Hip Hop community influenced the forward thinking cannabis policies, and the approach to building the industry in New York today?

I feel like without the hip-hop community there wouldn’t be a cannabis community. I don’t really think it starts with hip-hop. Obviously in the jazz era artists were being prosecuted for smoking Cannabis in the 1920s, that’s what really started the cannabis community in NY and US. A lot of the Jazz musicians that came from the south during that time set the foundation of building the cannabis community and it stayed and grew in the Harlem and NY region.When hip-hop came the cannabis community was already built and strong from Reggae and other forms of Black music. I think hip-hop helped plant a stake in the ground around cannabis as another form of protest, advocacy and fighting to get our brothers and sisters out of jail and over-policed.  

How can the large corporations and MSO’s celebrate Black culture, support social equity initiatives and minority businesses, beyond purely financial assistance?

I think they can show support by hiring Black people and other minorities from the top down. They need our help to be able to speak to our culture and community authentically.  They can’t speak about something they are not aware of and how can you develop products for a community you can’t honestly speak to. We all know the struggle for being prosecuted for having a small amount of cannabis. It’s about bringing people together and finding a way to work together so we can make a genuine difference and create new investment and funding opportunities for our communities to thrive. 

Individuals with cannabis convictions will be the first to get to sell cannabis in New York. What do you think will be the impact of this decision? 

At Frank White we have been advocating for these provisions like this since 2019 and went to Albany in 2020 to lobby and educate the legislature on why social equity had to be central to any legalization in NYC. We wanted to see cultivation, processing, manufacturing and retail  – all parts of the supply chain be open first to anyone with prior cannabis convictions and those most harmed by prohibition to be first to market –  not just retail. It’s a great step with NYS taking the lead but this law has and will continue to have a huge impact on the industry. There is a lot of knowledge people with prior convictions have and can share with the world, people who sacrificed their lives and freedom for this plant. People who helped build the legacy market and made untold sacrifices deserve to be owners and operators in the legal market. 

It will definitely have a positive impact on everything from marketing, delivery, cultivation, etc as they have seen it from the ground up. We also need to make sure they get the resources they need to be successful and support each other to build and grow the industry. LIke we have seen in other states, some of them are setup to fail and then their licenses and business are sold cheaply to white people, we have to make sure they are made whole and can be successful. 

With such a wide range of cannabis consumer goods and brands waiting to flood New York’s recreational market, how can emerging small companies utilize fashion, art, music and other creative disciplines to stand out above the noise?

Obviously, these new companies will be able to follow our lead or other companies like Cookies that are making waves and being authentic in their branding, marketing, and building an audience. Also genuine in the story that they are telling. Authenticity is key. That is exactly what we are doing with Frank White building a way of life brand not just trying to make money like a lot of the companies are and will continue to do. It’s all about substance when it comes to cannabis, art, fashion, and our culture. Companies really need to understand this now as the industry emerges. Building a brand identity and community that can’t wait for us to open our doors, because we know what they want and what they don’t want as far as product, brand and storytelling. We need to feel these companies really want to see the market thrive and include people that look like us as owners and not just consumers. 

Do you think these policies will be uniquely impactful in New York, or could they be rolled out across multiple states with similar results?

I think we could do this across the country, yes NY is a very unique state made up of so many different cultures and people because if you focus on those communities that were most harmed by prohibition. I think we should watch all the states and see how it goes and make adjustments as needed. Most states have gotten it wrong w/ with social equity, California, Illinois, Michigan, pretty much all of them  have done a poor job in really handling social equity in a proper way that benefits Black and brown communities. Let’s see how it goes with NY before I can say if they got it right. So far it looks like it can work because they are making sure our communities are being represented. I’m thankful for Tremaine Wright and everyone in Albany and the office of cannabis management, advocates and policy leaders that helped draft these policies… I’m very eager to find out how it works and continue to help make sure our communities are successful and can build generational wealth. 

CJ will deliver his keynote speech on ‘Equity & Justice in the New York Cannabis Space’ as well as joining the ‘Hip Hop, Cannabis & NYC: The Roots of an Industry?’ panel alongside Fab 5 Freddy.

Business of Cannabis: New York will be held November 3rd at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 5th Ave, New York. Join us and leading speakers, including Fab 5 Freddy, as we deep dive into the New York opportunity.


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