Bringing the Worker Co-Op Revolution to Legal Weed

    It turns out that folks would rather be the CEO of a dollar than the co-owner of one thousand dollars,” said Lanese Martin, co-founder of the Hood Incubator. “When I first started organizing folks in the legal cannabis industry in Oakland, CA, I realized I couldn’t always teach people to fight for justice rather than the opportunity to oppress someone else.”

    Martin spoke on November 9 at the 2019 Reform conference in St. Louis, during a roundtable of cannabis activists, regulators and researchers focused on repairing the harms of marijuana prohibition. She continued, “But I did see an opportunity when people started miserably failing. There might be a glimmer of hope that they would see, ‘Maybe we should come together.’”

    Martin’s Hood Incubator launched in 2017 to help provide business training, opportunities and resources to Black and Brown entrepreneurs fighting for a cannabis business license in Oakland’s new legal cannabis market. But the licensing process in her city has been notoriously difficult.

    Even after it implemented its first-in-the-nation social equity program, intended to reduce barriers for disadvantaged applicants, Oakland has struggled to award licenses quickly and easily. It only issued four equity permits in January 2018, though as of September that year over 600 people had applied to the equity program.

    So if the legal cannabis industry has stumbled on its promise to create justice and equity post-prohibition, is there another way forward? For Emily Ramos—co-founder of ¡High Mi Madre!—the answer is clear: worker co-operatives.

    Worker co-operatives, or “co-ops,” are businesses where employees and workers own an equal part of the business, share in revenues or profits, and vote on how the business is run. Ramos distinguished between “producer co-ops,” like Ocean Spray, and “consumer co-ops,” like the Park Slope Food Co-Op in Brooklyn, New York. Consumer co-ops require their customers to become members to enjoy certain benefits and incentives.

    Then there are the hybrids. “We’re fighting to be a hybrid worker-/consumer-owned cooperative where all our workers are owners of the business,” Ramos said. “But our consumers, the people from our community, can also buy membership in our co-op to have a discount on our services and products.”

    In anticipation of cannabis legalization in New York, Ramos and her business partner, Pilar DeJesus, are building the groundwork for cannabis and hemp co-ops. ¡High Mi Madre! has been educating communities around New York City about the legal cannabis industry, while also joining forces with the Drug Policy Alliance to advocate and lobby for statewide legislation.

    Ramos credited Green Worker Cooperatives, a co-op incubator and training academy in the Bronx, for giving ¡High Mi Madre! the knowledge and resources to grow. Even after graduating its five-month Co Op Academy, Ramos says the incubator has continued supporting her business and even furnished it with a grant.

    “Funding is a big barrier for us. We don’t want to sell ourselves to corporations or sell off our business, so how can we use our community to gather the funds and leverage capital?” Ramos asked. “In our advocacy in New York, we’re fighting for more money for business incubators in our community. We’re demanding free attorneys for trademarking, incorporation, and contract services. We’re asking for money for organizations in our communities that fund worker co-operatives and women- and minority-owned businesses.”

    Co-ops can be a valuable economic alternative for people of color, low-income communities and other marginalized people who face various barriers or discrimination in employment or entrepreneurship. They offer workers a chance to own their labor and resources and have a say in how they are used. Ramos noted that undocumented immigrants, who might be excluded from or exploited by traditional businesses, can also find empowerment in co-ops.

    Ramos and DeJesus want to make co-ops more central to the cannabis legalization debate, and to help develop a nationwide network of cannabis co-ops at every step of the supply and production chain: growers, retailers, distributors, brands, CBD, hemp and more.

    “Cooperatives will remain strong. They’re not going anywhere. Their goal is not to get bought.”

    Legislation for cannabis co-ops already exists in states like Massachusetts and California, but progress has been glacial. Massachusetts state law allows for cannabis farmer “craft cooperatives,” but not a single one has been licensed. In California, farmer co-ops band together to offer a quality product, but have trouble competing with increasingly consolidated corporate operations.

    Ramos proposed that when the federal government legalizes cannabis, it should offer more money for states that support and encourage co-ops. But the hard work, she emphasized, must come now, at the state level—pre-legalization—to mold future federal policy.

    Ramos sounded a profoundly hopeful note in a panel that otherwise laid bare the broken promises of cannabis legalization. Cannabis regulators Cat Packer, director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation, and Shaleen Title of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission acknowledged the slow progress of cannabis social equity and stark racial disparities in ownership of the legal markets in their states.

    Meanwhile, Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah of the University of Toronto detailed his difficulties studying racial disparities in cannabis arrests in Canada—mostly because the government neglected to even collect data on it. If cannabis co-ops do not eliminate these systemic inequities for people of color, they could at least empower them to greater economic autonomy.

    Lanese Martin acknowledged this potential. “If—as I believe to be true—the cannabis industry consolidates like all other industries, cooperatives will remain strong,” she said. “They’re not going anywhere. They will have a strong percentage share wherever they’re based. Their goal is not to get bought. Communities will continue propping them up. 

    “It’s good to know you’re creating this foundation so when folks get desperate, they can tap in,” she said to Ramos.

    The sooner people of color educate themselves about legal cannabis, Ramos urged, the sooner they can reclaim what was taken from them.

    “A lot of people of color are told we should tokenize ourselves and go work for a white corporation so they can benefit from our creativity. I think it’s total bullshit that we think that is our only option. Our communities have always run the marijuana industry in the legacy [illicit] market, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be running it now in the legal market.”


    Photo, courtesy of Shaleen Title, shows from left-to-right: Queen Adesuyi, a policy manager for Drug Policy Alliance who chaired the panel; Shaleen Title, a commissioner on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission; Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, University of Toronto; Emily Ramos, founder of ¡High Mi Madre!; Lanese Martin, co-founder of the Hood Incubator; Cat Packer, executive director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation, City of Los Angeles. 

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