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On 4/20, let’s not forget Black entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry

April 20, 2021, 10:15 AM UTC

Will Perry was working at an ad agency in Los Angeles when a friend came to him with a proposal: Did he want to earn some extra money picking cannabis for his company after work?

Perry, a Bronx native, had no experience in the cannabis industry, but as soon as he started tending to the plants, he was hooked. He soon ventured out on his own, cofounding organic cannabis producer Magic Hour Cannabis with longtime girlfriend Adriana Ruiz Carlile.

“It was really a leap of faith quitting my corporate job,” Perry said. “My family was kind of like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”

The cannabis industry in L.A. was crowded, so the pair, low on money but ready to learn, moved to greener pastures in Portland, Ore., where they worked on other people’s farms across the state.

“We went from, like, nice white-collar jobs getting decent salaries to then working for near minimum wage on random farms in Oregon,” Perry said.

The business partners started out small, with less than $200,000 from saving money and taking out loans. When the spread of COVID-19 reached pandemic levels in March, the duo were about to have their first harvest. They were afraid they would go out of business before even getting off the ground, but the pandemic actually boosted sales.

“It was definitely a scary time because, imagine, you’re starting your first business then all of a sudden there’s a global pandemic,” Perry said.

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Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014, and more states followed suit, including New Jersey, Virginia, New Mexico, and recently New York.

The legal cannabis industry is growing rapidly across the United States, but the number of companies owned by minorities and women is lagging. Black people are especially underrepresented among owners of cannabis companies, even though Black people are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession.

A 2020 report by the ACLU found that, on average, a Black person is 3.64 times as likely to be arrested as a white person, even though white and Black people smoke cannabis at similar rates.

Perry and Ruiz Carlile are part of a small cadre of owners who belong to minority groups (Perry is Black and Jewish; Ruiz Carlile is Guatemalan and Scottish) and are working to bring other people of color into the cannabis industry.

Riqua Hailes, like Perry and Ruiz Carlile, never planned to go into the cannabis industry. She studied communications at Norfolk State University, a historically Black university in Virginia, and built a successful hair-extension salon business after getting her master’s at Georgetown.

After a client mentioned she was using a CBD rub for her arthritis, Hailes decided to develop her own CBD product for staff at her salons. She developed a few of her own prototypes with different ingredients, and was making good progress, when her mom, Gwendolyn, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Hailes sold her extension salon company and moved back home to be with her mother, who was in constant pain and had lost feeling in her hands and feet from neuropathy, or nerve damage. Hailes gave her some of the CBD balm she had been developing one day to see if it would help her.

“Oh, my God, it changed everything for her,” Hailes said.

The balm is now the first product in Hailes’s line of THC- and CBD-infused beauty and grooming products for her Los Angeles–based company, Just Cannabis.

A big part of her company’s mission, she said, is helping bring Black representation to an industry dominated by white people, while at the same time several of her friends and neighbors are suffering from the consequences of marijuana possession charges.

“When I’m looking at the cannabis industry, I see a whole bunch of white men, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, that doesn’t even work in terms of people like me being able to relate to it and understand it,’” Hailes said.

Perry and Ruiz Carlile have also focused on hiring people of color and bringing them into the industry, including two people of color who recently joined their staff. Most of all, though, Perry said, they want to be known for the quality of their cannabis, which is grown in organic soil, deploying beneficial insects in place of pesticides.

Although the other minority-owned companies in Oregon are technically their competitors, Perry said there are so few of them that they all support one another.

“At the end of the day, if you have a good product, it’s going to sell,” he said.

Clarification, April 20, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between Will Perry and Adriana Ruiz Carlile

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