“We Can Use Cannabis to Pilot Ways to Correct Historical Injustice”

“We won’t get it right the first time, but the best way we can do it is not to perpetuate harm while creating areas for opportunity,” said cannabis leader Ngiste Abebe when BIPOCANN caught up with her to talk about social equity in the industry, “For everything from agriculture to distribution, to criminal justice, to healthcare – we can use cannabis to pilot ways to correct historical injustice.”

Ngiste Abebe is determined to work alongside companies like BIPOCANN to increase the representation of BIPOC in the cannabis industry while helping restore the damage it caused towards targeted groups during the War on Drugs.

Abebe is the Vice President of Public Policy at Columbia Care, one of the largest vertically operated cannabis businesses in the world, covering 18 jurisdictions across the United States and European Union. It was recently announced that Abebe is the recipient of one of six Cannabis Conference 2021 Cannabis Leadership Awards, an honor well-deserved by this powerful cannabis industry changemaker.

A Career Deserving of Recognition

Abebe was meant to do the work that has helped her become the leader in cannabis that she is revered as today. She has a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Chicago, going on to study California’s Proposition 19 and why it failed as part of her master’s research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management. She presented her findings to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

After a five-year stretch at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Abebe again turned her attention to the cannabis industry, deeply concerned with the damage that prohibition was causing.

Although born in Boston, Abebe calls Richmond, Virginia home and has been actively engaged in the state’s path towards legalization with a keen eye towards how the state is rolling out its social equity programs. She was recently appointed to the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Board by Governor Northam. “Ngiste Abebe is one of the best things to happen not just for the cannabis industry in Virginia but the commonwealth as a whole”, says Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas of Abebe’s contributions, “Her presence here in the commonwealth has truly brought a breath of fresh air.”

Abebe also holds positions as a board member for Virginia’s chapter of NORML and a member of the state’s Medical Cannabis Coalition.

The Future of Social Equity in Cannabis

In cannabis, “you get to see and grasp many areas of policy,” says Abebe, which is why her career path fits so perfectly into the industry as it grows across the United States. Abebe dedicates her time and energies to influencing how social equity, economic, criminal justice, and health care policies can be created with an equitable lens.

“Doing social equity licensing is a challenging process,” Abebe acknowledges, “But we’re getting closer to doing it better and more effectively. Illinois was the first state to roll out [social equity licensing] to unprecedented challenges,” she says, “I’m hopeful that New York, New Jersey, and Virginia will learn from Illinois and continue to find justice for impacted populations.” She adds that it’s all about finding new solutions, acknowledging that there are things we haven’t even figured out yet.

One area that Abebe identifies as a way to advance social equity is to ensure that ancillary services are also included in programs that seek to increase BIPOC representation in cannabis while repairing the damage done by the War on Drugs. “We have done a great job of including social equity in plant-touching licenses,” she says, “but can we also include other businesses in the definitions of small and disadvantaged business.”

We asked Abebe about the additional steps that need to be taken to increase the efficacy of social equity programs and policies. “The first step is the expungement of criminal records due to a past cannabis conviction,” she is quick to say of the systemic shifts that need to be made for social equity to actually work, “Beyond that, we have to help people get into the cannabis economy through outreach,” she says, “One recurring theme in outreach is that the people who are supposed to benefit from these policies are the last to hear of them. We need more education campaigns to let social equity applicants know the opportunities are here.” She notes that partnering with businesses like BIPOCANN, which is directly involved with bringing the opportunities to the people through outreach, is crucial to actually achieve social equity.

Systemically, there is a lot more that can be improved. According to Abebe, reinvestment funds and direct licensing processes should not “build bureaucracies that create inherent inequity”. For instance, in Illinois, application fees were waived for social equity applicants. However, they were still required to invest thousands in architectural drawings, which makes people like Abebe question the validity of the programs. “We need to make sure the industry is fully accessible to all people while making sure people can actually navigate the process,” she says, “We can achieve equity by rethinking our systems with a more equitable lens and more inclusive strategies.”

Her Advice for Emerging BIPOC Cannabis Entrepreneurs

Abebe, having been recognized for her leadership through the Cannabis Conference 2021 Cannabis Leadership Awards, which BIPOCANN will be attending, is eager to pass on some advice to other BIPOC individuals considering entering cannabis.

“Resilience really is everything,” she begins, “This is a fast-changing, ever-evolving industry. For new entrepreneurs coming in, have the backup plan to the backup plan to the backup plan. Don’t let one step back turn you off the space entirely. Find your resilience ritual that helps you bust back.”

With her passion for cannabis policy, Abebe eagerly encourages all people in cannabis to get to know, and get involved in, the policies that govern the industry in their state. “Policy is fundamentally changing the cannabis industry,” she says, “All entrepreneurs should find who they should turn to for their policy advice, track elections, and realize that this has real-world consequences on their business.”

Abebe is honored to work with Columbia Care, especially grateful for the level of support she has received from all levels of leadership within the organization as she pursues various policy initiatives that improve patient access across multiple states. She takes pride in being part of a company that was started as one dispensary and now has won applications and opened dispensaries across the country.

We look forward to continuing to track this important cannabis leader’s journey. Thank you, Ngiste, for taking the time to speak with us at BIPOCANN!

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