When she’s talking about cannabis, Anya Nicola’s voice is electric.

The Renfrew, Ont. mom of four has a long history with the plant, first as an herbal adjunct remedy, something her family practiced frequently growing up in Jamaica.

As a teenager, she used cannabis for recreational purposes. And later, it became even more meaningful—it was and continues to be a crucial tool in recovery.

While she has many of the qualities of a passionate cannabis entrepreneur or a star employee, Nicola hasn’t felt like she can find her place in the industry.

Cannabis pardons are inaccessible for many

“I’ll admit it,” Nicola shares on the phone, carefully. “I was selling dime bags just to pay my rent as a student here in Ontario.”

“And because of any trouble that I may have gotten into, there’s a possibility that I may never even be able to legally work in the cannabis industry.”

The trouble she’s referring to resulted in a criminal record, something she has looked into getting pardoned before applying for jobs. She was warned that the process could take up to five years, if she hires a consultant, the process might be expedited.

But it’s not cheap, nor guaranteed.

As a Black woman bringing up four kids on her own in a pandemic, the stakes feel too high for the level of risk required.

“We need to give back to the people that paved the way, even though it was an illegal industry at the time. This industry wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

Trang Trinh, CEO of TREC Brands.

But she’s still holding out hope that the Canadian government and the industry work to reduce the barriers to those impacted by prohibition and policing practices that have unfairly impacted Black and Indigenous communities.

Failure to include racialized groups in legalization

Equity problems in the Canadian cannabis industry—race, gender, access to capital, to name a few—aren’t new.

As more states south of the border legalize and legislators debate the details of federal cannabis reform, equity, inclusion and repairing the damage of the war on drugs is top of mind for many legislators, advocates and members of the burgeoning industry.

Something that many are pointing out was not as much of a priority when Canada’s Cannabis Act was being created. But it’s not too late, say drug policy researchers and industry reps.

For folks like Nicola, the pardon process is lengthy and difficult. (Adobe Stock)

“While there have been some limited initiatives to facilitate greater industry diversity, there is a notable absence of government regulation and adoption of programs that would structurally address the underrepresentation of racialized groups that were disproportionately targeted and punished under prohibition,” reads a 2020 report by University of Toronto’s Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation.

It urged all three levels of government to create social equity programs to provide entry points to those who qualify and provide business mentorship and financial support.

Government initiatives needed for an equitable industry

The Cannabis Council of Canada and its membership of hundreds of licensed cannabis companies are also pushing for more government initiatives designed to create a more equitable sector.

The organization, headed by former Ontario Liberal MPP George Smitherman, included equity issues such as record expungement and investing in diversity programs.

Prior to the recent federal election, the council created a Cannabis Voter Checklist to educate MPs and candidates. Smitherman says part of the problem at this stage is that MPs aren’t aware enough of the inequities of the sector.

“Right now, in Ottawa, the cannabis relationship is entirely delegated to Health Canada, and we need more interested members of parliament,” he tells Leafly by phone.

“Highlighting to them the range of issues that includes unmet social progress concerns is really helpful because those issues really resonate with a lot of members of parliament of different political stripes.”

But he concedes that so far, the effort hasn’t resonated with MPs and candidates.

Non-profit cannabis organization left on read

The government also hasn’t yet responded to advocacy group Cannabis Amnesty, which has long petitioned to expunge criminal records.

Last September, the organization requested the creation of a Racial Equity Impact Assessment of the Cannabis Act as part of the planned three-year review of the Act.

The report examines its impacts on BIPOC communities in areas such as mental and physical health of consumers; policing practices; industry participation and its barriers.

“Answering these questions is critical to determining whether the Cannabis Act has decreased the disproportionate way in which cannabis laws have negatively impacted BIPOC communities, or whether it merely continues this unacceptable legacy of system racism,” they stated in the report.

Although they have yet to hear back, Cannabis Amnesty’s director of research, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, said he still hopes to hear back in the coming weeks.

Companies driving social equity are few and far between

There are some, but not many, companies that have built equity and social justice into their business plan.

One example is Toronto-based TREC Brands. They donate 10% of profits to organizations like SickKids, University Health Network, and Cannabis Amnesty. TREC picks specific causes within their communities to donate to and actively encourages their consumer base to make nominations as well.

“We listen to our employees about what organizations they want to support, and also our consumer base,” Trang Trinh, CEO of TREC Brands tells Leafly. Diversity and inclusion are fundamentally important to Trinh—something she was heavily involved with at both Loblaws and Deloitte, where she previously worked.

“We need to give back to the people that paved the way, even though it was an illegal industry at the time. This industry wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” she says.

Delayed inclusion shouldn’t be ‘good enough’

For Anya Nicola, being able to learn online from her community has been exceptionally valuable.

To stay involved, she joined Afro Canada Bud Sistas, a community of more than 800 women who aim to normalize cannabis.

She says it makes her feel less alone, particularly as a person in recovery who needs support. “Who else is out there supporting us?” she says. “We’re all we’ve got. And unfortunately, no one is looking at us and making us a priority.”

It will take her five years before she can pursue her dream, due to the lengthy pardon process. So for now, she’s holding off on a career in cannabis.

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