This year may be viewed as one of racial and social reckoning, but Colorado’s cannabis industry was going through growing pains well before protests erupted in Denver. After more than six years of retail weed, minority communities are still working toward more seats at the table, with surveys showing that about three out of four cannabis businesses in Denver are white-owned.
With no formal past around the plant, John Bailey seemed like a newcomer to the cannabis social equity conversation last year after founding the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative, but the longtime political consultant has experience with public policy and social change, working for former Mayor Wellington Webb, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and the University of Colorado Boulder student government before moving to the East Coast and back again. Bailey, who has continued bringing together state lawmakers, businesses owners and other cannabis stakeholders with his BCEI Zoom chats during the COVID-19 pandemic, joined us for a conversation about where Colorado’s cannabis space goes next in its path toward more diversity,
Westword: You’ve worked in politics for a long time now. What led you to take on social equity in cannabis?
John Bailey: After almost seven years and $8 billion in sales and seeing there was no social equity legislation, my premise was: Why wasn’t there more black representation in such a lucrative cannabis industry? When I did the research, it became obvious that although the folks [who wrote Amendment 64] were initially well intentioned, it didn’t deal with social equity — but it did deal with social exclusion, or those who couldn’t be involved because they were felons.
As a consultant and black community advocate, it was important to step forward to fill that gap. After talking to a number of folks in the legislature and city government, I entered this space — not necessarily with big-league boots, but a background and expertise that was well-suited to raise questions, be the reasonable adult in the room, and engage these young white kids dominating the industry with the conversation that they’re drinking from a well they didn’t dig, and there are certain social equity things they don’t know about. Part of my entree is being an educator and being an advocate for black participation in the industry at the same time.
What’s the response you typically get from white industry members about social equity?
I have to be authentic, because I want them to recognize this isn’t about being the smartest. Sometimes, that’s how they approach this, but I want them to see who’s the most knowledgable about the current circumstances, and how to move this situation forward. I don’t think they’re privileged to the fact that there are two Americas here: I come from a time…