As more states legalize cannabis, there’s been growing public concern to ensure marginalized people are getting a fair shot at licenses for the production, distribution, marketing, and sale of cannabis. What seems to be overlooked in the mainstream conversation is the hiring and retention of the people who work in this industry. Job positions are created and are filled with the same people, which creates the problems that other major industries face.
Cannabis has long been stigmatized by the government and society at large, and there have been material, life-altering consequences for its use and distribution. Those consequences have disproportionately affected racialized groups. With the historic and enduring impact on those groups and communities, it’s time we ask: What does social equity look like in a once burgeoning, now towering industry with this kind of social, political, and economic baggage?
This is a question we’ve asked Ciera Parks, a human resources leader at Vangst, the cannabis industry’s top recruiting platform. Ciera specializes in DEI strategy and advocacy in an industry that is not known for diversity, equity, or inclusion. Ciera prepares companies for unique employee relations challenges, from performance management to improving business owners’ and employees’ understanding of the cannabis regulation landscape.
In this interview, Ciera addresses the questions of social equity in the cannabis industry from a human resources perspective. Her insights are illuminating, as she gives a fresh look into how we think about workplace practices in industries and systems that carry a legacy of injustice.
JOSHUA: You’ve been working in human resources for a while. What have you brought from other industries to cannabis?
CIERA: As a tenured HR consultant I bring a lot of structure to the cannabis industry. Think about it––we’re working in a space that didn’t exist, in some states, even just a couple of years ago. How are we training people to work in that type of industry? So, with my background, I help create the type of structure that other large well-established companies have had for years, helping to grow an emerging, new industry and market.
JOSHUA: What are some of the things you’ve seen change in the industry since you entered in 2019?
CIERA: When I came into the industry, everyone still knew that there was a lack of diversity, but people didn’t want to talk about it out loud. It was kind of taboo. In just the last two or three years it has become a very vocal and public conversation.
“Yes, we recognize the cannabis industry has an equity problem. Yes, we recognize the industry is not diverse. Yes, we realize people have been marginalized in the industry, And yes, we want to change.” That was not a conversation just a few years ago. So the fact that people are able to say out loud on major platforms from major players in the industry that this is an issue is game changing for what it looks like for the industry to be able to diversify.
JOSHUA: The legal market for cannabis is burgeoning, but there has been an informal market for a long time. Underground operators have grown and maintained the market so that the sanctioned cannabis market can now take place. Do current owners, operators, and hiring managers owe anything to people who were criminalized and stigmatized in the past?
CIERA: When we look at where the industry is today, we could not be here without the legacy operators. For instance, if there had not been folks figuring out the growth channels, distribution channels, proper methodology, the lighting, etc. So much has happened. There is a direct correlation from the underground, or legacy, markets to the success of the mainstream cannabis industry today.
How can you say that you don’t want to give back or contribute to people who have done this and been very successful although they are no longer on the favored side of the law?
JOSHUA: And this is how you advocate social equity, right? How do you define that?
CIERA: It’s when people who were previously incarcerated or penalized by the justice system can now take part in an industry that is blooming and become a part of the larger economy.
So it’s been said, “We acknowledge there were unfair laws put into place. And in a way we would like to try to remedy this by putting certain types of initiatives and processes in place.” Some of those initiatives are things like if you have a cannabis-related charge that has surpassed a certain number of years, you’re still able to work in the industry.
JOSHUA: Considering the jobs available and the skillset and background required, in what ways is cannabis like other industries and what ways is it unique?
CIERA: The cannabis industry has several parts, and sometimes people don’t consider all the available opportunities. Traditionally, you might think about the farm or a greenhouse. The next part of the cannabis life journey is manufacturing, converting the plant into other products: oil vapes, pre-rolls, rubs, gummies, edibles, things like that. So that’s one side of the business that people usually assume we’re talking about.
Then you have ancillary businesses; these are the suppliers, vendors, and wholesalers who focus on product packaging, and additional oils or sugars.
Then, like any other industry, you have the support businesses. Staffing agencies like Vangst, legal teams who specialize in cannabis, compliance, and quality are essential to this work.
As far as jobs, people assume they have to know how to work with plants or spend extensive time in the lab. That’s not the case. If you are an amazing marketer or a financial analyst, there is a job for you. If you’re a damn good logistics or distribution coordinator, there is a job for you in cannabis. People should consider that you don’t need to force yourself into a “traditional” cannabis job.
The industry has a relaxed culture. I’ll also say that it’s very innovative, and it appreciates people who are innovative, creative, and willing to think outside of the box.
JOSHUA: What are some barriers of entry for non-white people of color that cannabis may share with the traditional corporate space, and what are some that are unique?
CIERA: I think there’s some of the same type of “in network” recruiting and/or forms of nepotism that can be found in other professions.
You also see quite a few family-owned businesses with the mindset of “My family started this, and we’re going to continue to hire within the family or keep it in the family.” There are still quite a few barriers like that. When it’s a private business, I can bring in “whoever I like” and “whatever their relationship is to me.” For people of color, if your network does not include wealthy entrepreneurs or the friends and family of wealthy entrepreneurs who were in the cannabis space, you were left out early on.
What we have seen though––especially in this season of the great resignation––is that the workforce you may have been relying on before is not sufficient to run your operations. So now you are trying to find reliable employees like every other industry. I think if you are really considering coming into cannabis, now’s the time to strike.
When we start to talk about some of the nuances of cannabis, I also think it’s driven by passion. I meet people who have some tie or very specific reason in which cannabis has “changed their life.” Do not discount that fact when you’re coming in to interview for a role in the cannabis industry, that you need to bring that with you, because it absolutely does count. Grow your network and connect with people who are already in the industry because cannabis moves quickly.
JOSHUA: What are some things that people are doing wrong in their hiring processes that are leaving out folks who are not white or male? What do people in hiring positions need to do in order to create a diverse candidate pool?
CIERA: If we’re being honest, it’s the judgment, right? It’s the preconceived notions about who a person is based on how they look, the way they sound, where they’re from, or even things like their hair type.
At this stage in the game, if you’re saying that you don’t want to hire someone because they have an afro or what we consider an ethnic hairstyle, they want to wear traditional attire, or they have an accent or a nose ring, you are losing out on great talent.
The world is changing significantly. If you are ostracizing people because they don’t fit your “culture,” you’re not going to be able to diversify. You’re going to get left behind your competitors who are open to that level of diversity in the workplace.
I also think we need to consider the goal, which is something that I’m particularly passionate about. I don’t think it’s fair for any employer to say that I’m going to go out and find people of color to work in my organization if they have no true intention of making it a space or workplace environment that is inclusive and beneficial for all parties involved.
Do you have things in place like mentorship programs or open door policies that allow people to comfortably voice their opinion?
Do you have an innovative culture that allows new voices and new ideas to be heard?
I say companies should be a better steward in their community because the people you’re looking for absolutely are rarely far away. And if you were in the right places, if you were sponsoring, if you were partnering with organizations that looked like the people that you wanted to hire, you would find great people who fit the description.
JOSHUA: Who should recruitment folks in cannabis be interested in?
CIERA: Scientists in labs, biochem majors, and people with distribution center experience. You should be looking for people who work in kitchens or are in highly detailed and specific roles.
JOSHUA: Is what you just said true the opposite way, too? Like, where people who have experience in the cannabis industry have transferable skills that apply elsewhere?
CIERA: Yes! I can tell you someone coming out of cannabis is very flexible and adaptable. They probably think quickly on their feet. They’re innovative. They’re problem solvers.
JOSHUA: Many people are attracted to the technology space these days; startups, but they’re also interested in Google, Apple, Microsoft. What are you seeing in cannabis and in the general economy that is making people decide to choose one company or industry over another?
CIERA: In the market there’s a dash for good candidates. And I think like every other industry cannabis is responding accordingly. We have too many jobs and not enough talent to fill them. So we’ll see things like sign on, retention, and tenure bonuses, and greater incentives overall. The key is to provide creative benefits packages to attract and retain great candidates.
Joshua McCoy is an Atlanta-based cultural critic who a friend recently described as salted caramel, which is to say that his personality is deliciously complex. Sometimes smiling but always sardonic, he investigates the complex nature of social relations in art, music, literature, history, and politics. An avid reader, he enjoys searching local bookstores for first editions of texts that are obscure and/or out of print.