Two years after Canada legalized recreational cannabis, Black and Indigenous people, and women, are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions at licensed cannabis producers, new research shows. And experts say there needs to be more effort to bring racialized people, who have been disportionately criminalized by cannabis prohibition, into the legal fold.
White people are overrepresented in leadership roles at cannabis companies across Canada, making up around 84 percent of executive and director positions, according to new data released Wednesday by the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation that provides the first snapshot of the gender and racial breakdown of these roles since legalization.
This mirrors similar racial disparities among cannabis companies in the U.S., where around 80 percent of legal cannabis businesses are run by white people.
“Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised by the findings,” Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, the report’s senior author and sociology professor at the University of Toronto, told VICE News. “It's disheartening that so little progress has been made in this respect.”
Owusu-Bempah and his team analyzed publicly available information on 700 executives and directors at 166 licensed cannabis producers and 56 parent companies.
Just six percent of these company leaders are South Asian, two percent are Indigenous, and one percent are Black. White people comprise 73 percent of Canada’s general population, according to census figures, while Indigenous and Black people comprise around five percent and three percent respectively.
When it comes to gender, women make up 14 percent of the top cannabis roles analyzed by the report authors; only two percent of these are non-white women.
VICE News first reported in 2017 that nearly all of Canada’s licensed producers at the time (which were then only allowed to sell medicinal cannabis) were run by white men. In 2018, the Montreal Gazette revealed that people of colour made up three percent of the management staff at the top five legal cannabis producers and distributors in Canada.
A lack of diversity among execs and directors continues to be a problem across many industries beyond the cannabis sector.
Though there’s a limited amount of data available on the issue, a 2019 Osler report found that women held more than 18 percent of board seats in 2019 on TSX-listed companies that disclose the gender makeup of their boards. An analysis by the Financial Post from earlier this year found that racialized people made up just 5.5 percent of 255 director roles at publicly traded companies in Canada.
What makes the legal cannabis industry unique, however, is that it stems from a previously criminalized substance for which Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have been disproportionately targeted for decades.
“What is disappointing here is the fact that there are groups of Black and Indigenous people who are still heavily criminalized, and they continue to pay social and financial costs associated with that criminalization,” Owusu-Bempah said. “And they don't get to benefit from legalization.”
Unlike a number of American states that have legalized cannabis, the government of Canada did not implement measures to promote equitable hiring practices within the legal industry, nor did they provide ways for people who faced criminalization for cannabis to enter the field. Higher-level positions at cannabis companies regulated by Health Canada require employees to pass criminal background checks.
The Liberal government implemented a program in 2019 to grant pardons at no cost for people convicted of simple cannabis possession. Estimates suggested tens of thousands of Canadians would be eligible for it. However, fewer than 300 people had been granted one year later, much to the chagrin of critics who have called the process an “abject failure.”
The report cites Illinois, Massachusetts, and California, which implemented various funding and policies in tandem with legalization to support those who were disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization to start their own businesses.
The researchers call for similar solutions to be pursued in Canada, including programs at all levels of government that provide financial support for people from underrepresented groups and government policies to promote greater industry diversity. They’re also calling on private cannabis companies to adopt strategies to diversify the makeup of their boards.
Caryma Sa’d, the executive director of cannabis advocacy non-profit NORML Canada, said it’s disheartening that the people who helped make cannabis legal by suffering criminal consequences are largely shut out of leadership roles in the legal industry.
"As a new industry, one would think that there was an opportunity to create a landscape that didn't replicate the typical power structures. And that didn’t happen,” Sa’d said in an interview. She also referenced the long list of former police officers and anti-drug politicians who have recently jumped into legal cannabis businesses.
“Aside from being unfair, I think it’s a detriment to the growth of Canada's cannabis industries, because we're shutting out people who have a lot to contribute. And that's just a shame.”
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