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Is Identity Politics Impacting the Cultural Landscape of the Cannabis Industry?

Do you remember the first time you bought a bag of weed? For most of us, this question elicits a wave of fond memories of how and why we sought out that beloved bag of the sticky icky! As a Gen-x smoker that grew up in a small Ohio town, I recall being grateful to get my hands on anything I could get whenever it was available. I didn’t have any qualms about who or where I got it from as long as I trusted the seller, and the herb effectively got me where I needed to be.

Sometimes it would come through my music manager, a blue-collared white male that worked in a car factory. Sometimes it was from a Hispanic friend in Toledo that just got a fresh brick of Mexican Brown from a source in Detroit, or maybe it was from one of the aspiring black artists I worked with at my studio and record label. Either way, it was always about getting our hands on the bud, and there was never any concern or thought given to the identity or ethnicity of the dealer it came from.

Fast-forward to 2023, and just about every sector of commerce is setting sights on reaching a broader audience by tapping into the social constructs by which people choose to identify themselves. With the rise in society of identity politics, which refers to the practice of organizing people into groups based on shared characteristics like race, gender, and sexual orientation, more industry professionals are changing the way they do business based on inclusion. Activists from underserved communities have been advocating for policies that prioritize social equity and ensure that historically marginalized groups have access to business opportunities and resources.

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Cann launched its brand with a nationwide ad campaign using transgender models to show their support for the LGBT+ community. Photo Credit: Scott Von Heldt

“Everything is political. I will never be a politician or even think political. Me just deal with life and nature. That is the greatest thing to me.” — Bob Marley

Companies are also recognizing the importance of diversity and are creating products and branding that cater to the needs and preferences of these specific groups. Some businesses are even taking it a step further by only doing business with brands that fit into specific ideological parameters. Although there is organically a huge amount of support for this, the push for social equity inclusion has sparked some controversy and raises the question. Is identity politics changing the cannabis industry, and if so, how relevant is its influence over our use of a plant for health and wellness?

A good example of how a major brand has injected specific ideological marketing strategies into their efforts to attract more young new customers to their brand is the recent release of a Bud Light can commemorate a transgender male’s first year identifying as a woman. Anheuser Busch has received quite a bit of backlash for this marketing strategy, which even led to the termination of the entire marketing team. As more powerhouse companies like Anheuser Busch enter the cannabis space, it will be interesting to see if they will have an effect on how brands choose to market their products to diverse groups of consumers.

Despite these challenges, I believe there is a need for more balance and diversification in the industry, and we can all do our part by embracing and supporting different groups and communities. Let’s celebrate and promote the unique qualities and experiences that each individual brings to the table. After all, isn’t that what makes the cannabis industry so special in the first place? A community of diverse, like-minded individuals coming together to enjoy the plant and all it has to offer.

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Owned by actor Woody Harrelson, The Woods takes a bold stance on social equity issues and sustainable farming. The leaf in their logo remains upside-down until all those wrongful incarcerated for cannabis are released. Photo Credit: Scott Von Heldt

“An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.”
– James Baldwin

However, this drive for social equity inclusion has caused some to go as far as to view some competing brands as racist. The need for more women-owned companies has spawned a new wave of self-proclaimed “badass boss bitches”, and in some cases, disclosure of a brand’s preferred preference or views on gender identity is now becoming a prerequisite for consideration in some chain stores. So how do we embrace these underserved segments of the market without damaging the cultural vibe of unity and inclusiveness that is already inherent to the pure enjoyment and benefits of cannabis? How far do we need to push the envelope in the name of inclusion before it tears apart the relationships and brand loyalty the industry was based on?

Here are a few open-ended questions we should be pondering when it comes to diversity, unity, inclusion, and social justice.

Social Equity Brands: Should dispensaries only purchase from brands that were founded under the principles of social equity, and if so, what is the expectation from the consumer? Are they asking for social equity brands specifically when making a purchase?

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Women Owned Brands: How can we be helping to create more executive roles and power positions for strong and empowered females to help us grow and nurture the industry into an even and balanced playing field? What percentage of consumers come into dispensaries looking specifically for woman-owned brands?

Gender Identity Brands: Does one’s sexual preference or gender identity really play any role at all in determining whether a product is good, effective, or worthy of market success? Should we shift that focus and creative energy more toward embracing the unity and diversity of all walks of life that imbibe cannabis as opposed to singling out specific groups with targeted branding?

As our experience of life on this planet becomes ever more challenging, it’s glaringly obvious that there is a need to open more opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds, and we must right the unjust segregation we have seen in the industry over time. May we also be mindful not to further divide the community by limiting the validity of a company, brand, or product based on how they are identified in the marketplace?

It will be interesting to see, as more states open up with legalization, just how much local, state, and federal politics, policies, and preferences will play a role in the way that cannabis is marketed and sold to consumers.

Feature Photo Credit: Scott Von Heldt

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