The People's Ecosystem Have Taken "Social Equity" Into Their Own Hands

Frederika Easley weighs in on the overlooked nuances of cannabis social equity today.
Frederika Easley weighs in on the overlooked nuances of cannabis social equity today. /

The term “social equity” has become incredibly common in the cannabis industry, but what does it actually mean?

The idea pursues justice for those who’ve been negatively impacted by the War on Drugs and shut out of the legal industry – largely BIPOC operators. But while recent legislation is quick to include the phrase in its language, none of these programs have actually been successful, let alone impactful.

Legacy operators and advocates are vocal about this issue, but very little has been done in terms of improvement. 

As a result, the cannabis community is taking matters into their own hands, turning to experts like community-driven The People’s Ecosystem as a wise guide towards what the industry’s goals really should be.

The Legal Cannabis Industry Still Doesn’t Accurately Reflect Its Legacy Origins

Co-founded by CEO Christine De La Rosa and CINO Charleen Caabay, The People’s Ecosystem is the industry’s answer to a brighter future in cannabis that challenges stereotypes, spreads education, and attempts to undo the damage of the country’s War on Drugs.

Made up of a team of legacy operators, the brand was founded for one simple reason listed on their website: 

“We did not see ourselves reflected in the adult-use cannabis industry, as People of Color, women, queer people, disabled, veterans, formerly incarcerated, and people with chronic illnesses.”

Anyone with basic knowledge on the legacy cannabis industry and its origins understands the deep irony in this statement: while these marginalized communities were among those brave enough to push this plant forward during an extended period of prohibition, they’re the same ones who’ve been boxed out of reaping a legal profit in cannabis.

“That’s the heart of it all – preserving the wellness of cannabis culture, and by that I mean the people and communities behind it. This is our ancestral medicine,” said Frederika Easley, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The People’s Ecosystem.

“This is a plant that has been used in religious and spiritual ceremonies throughout the centuries. It has been used for healing, focus, and overall wellness practices, right up until it was demonized in the U.S. But that early work centered around the community and the people – specifically BIPOC people – and that is the heart of the industry.”

The Importance of Legacy Input For Cannabis Legislation That Works

Despite the fact that today’s successful version of legal cannabis is all thanks to the legacy market’s blueprint, the legal industry has been inundated with white collar operators who happen to have the fattest pockets – and also the least amount of experience with weed.

Enter social equity programs: the industry’s supposed solution to this stark imbalance of power, wealth, and control. However, many legacy operators have been quick to point out how short these programs actually fall – and in many cases act more as a hindrance than a form of help.

Easley’s role at The People’s Ecosystem aims to specifically address these issues. She analyzes cannabis legislation with an “equity lens,” looking for areas where language can be strengthened, and where it may unintentionally be repurposing harm.

“There’s a big difference between theory and practice. You have these words on paper, and they may mean well, but how does it really look when you dig into it? What actually happens with implementation? More often than not, you come away realizing there are a lot of unintended negative consequences for operators seeking reparations,” Easley said. 

“A lot of our lawmakers do not come from the legacy market. They’re not operators, and may not have come from communities that have been impacted. That’s where the People’s Ecosystem comes into play. We are a team that is supermajority women and POC, and we bring all of our lived experiences to the table.”

Some Major Issues With Today’s Social Equity Programs

The term “social equity” sounds like a positive step forward on paper, but behind the well-intentioned words are programs that are oversaturated, underfunded, and nearly impossible to succeed in.

“Most government-run programs quickly become bastardized. ‘Social equity’ becomes a term that is thrown around but doesn’t necessarily have any teeth, or carry out what it was initially set to do,” Easley said.

Easley attributes a major flaw of these programs to the fact that many of them are structured as if people are receiving handouts.

“To be clear, social equity is what we are owed. We have paid for this. People are still in jail right now for non-violent cannabis offenses,” Easley said.

“The reason we’re still regulated in this industry is because the legacy market showed everyone just how profitable cannabis can be, and the U.S. government wants in on that.”

But rather than be rewarded for setting up the framework for what would eventually be the legal cannabis industry, the legacy market is faced with constant obstacles that both make it nearly impossible for them to operate successfully and keep them away from a safe transition to the legal space.

“What we see through a lot of these equity programs are limits in terms of what equity applicants even have to do to get assistance in the first place,” Easley said. 

“In San Francisco’s equity program, money was made available for equity operators to help them get up and running, but only on a reimbursable basis. Like, ‘We’re going to help you, but you have to come up with the funds on the front end.’”

To add fuel to the fire, these programs also have nearly impossible-to-meet requirements in place, like poverty level or being close enough to someone who has been convicted with a cannabis crime.

As a result, Crunchbase released a 2020 statistic revealing that of the $87.3 billion nationwide social equity funding, Black and Latinx founders received $2.3 billion – a whopping 2.6 percent.

“You’re saying you want to help us, but tying our hands at the same time. These equity programs are riddled with constant catch-22 situations,” Easley said.

How Brands Like The People’s Ecosystem Can Impact From the Inside

As discouraging as these programs have been so far, legacy operators like The People’s Ecosystem team are able to identify exactly why they aren’t working, and what needs to be done. It’s just a matter of handing over the platform to people who actually understand the industry.

In the meantime, operators will do their best to make things right from the inside, like The People’s Ecosystem’s various programs and offerings to help the legacy market get that leg up they need to succeed.

“We have our Founder’s Institute launching soon, specifically for legacy operators who want to streamline and improve their operations,” Easley said.

“Then we have the People’s Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), which is us coloring outside of the lines – building a community of people interested in amazing new cannabis projects that combine crypto, NFTs, and Web3 to take things to the next stage.”

In the meantime, Easley encourages all cannabis operators to recognize how crucial it is for the legacy market to make a peaceful and fair transition to full legality.

“The regulated cannabis industry’s growth and sustainability depends on the successful transition of legacy operators. We know the legacy market is still out-performing the regulated two to three times over,” Easley said.

“If we can start to shift and really look at things like amnesty, providing incentives and doing this in a respectful way that motivates legacy operators to transition, the sky is the limit.”

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