Bonita Money is exhausted. Worn out, she tells me, from a string of speaking engagements that had her traveling the world last year promoting her cannabis-based skin product, That Glass Jar. But the self-promotion helped to serve a larger mission that’s become Money’s true passion: ensuring that black people gain a foothold in the burgeoning cannabis business. For Money and other advocates, bringing black people in at all levels of what promises to be a billion-dollar industry—from cultivation to distribution to retail—is nothing less than racial justice. Not to mention, economic justice in a society that has routinely frozen black people out of the higher ranks of virtually every important and lucrative industry.
Money is determined to not let that happen this time. She sees her home base of Los Angeles—which recently started licensing recreational dispensaries and is the largest cannabis market in the world—as ground zero for her mission. “Cannabis is the new tech industry,” she says. “It’s going to be the business. We have to make sure that we have equity and ownership.”
To that end, Money is involved in several organizations working to involve blacks in the business, including Women Abuv Ground and the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance— both of which she founded—and Blaq Star Farms, a growers’ collective.
Promotion and branding come easily to Money. She got started in the entertainment business early: raised in Monterey, CA by a Korean mother and African-American father, she moved south to L.A. when she was eighteen. She attended USC and did some acting, but ultimately found her niche in managing and producing—the business side of entertainment. Her extensive resume includes casting director, talent management, and music video production as well as film and television projects.
Currently, she’s developing a cannabis reality show. Money says many networks have attempted such a show, but they tend to embrace the racially tinged, netherworld stigma of cannabis associated with blunt-smoking gangsta rappers (something she knows about firsthand; she’s worked with Dr. Dre). “When networks do a focus group, when they see an audience, they still see cannabis as outlaw and dangerous,” she says. In other words, they see an old and negative brand.
But that stigma is still a reality in the minds of many, legalization notwithstanding. And that stigma can actually be most entrenched in communities of color.
Money admits that many black folks she tries to educate about the business opportunities offered by cannabis are resistant. This doesn’t just include community members but also those who have cultivated quality cannabis underground for years.
Decades of being disproportionately punished for marijuana possession, coupled with a strong belief among older blacks that cannabis use is a social scourge that limits the already fragile odds of success—especially for young black men—makes the idea of opening cannabis shops a bit of a hard sell. During a presentation in Washington, D.C., Money says that “black people were screaming at me, ‘This is going to tear down our neighborhood!’” At another recent outreach event in Watts, people had a hard time simply accepting the fact that blacks and Latinos selling cannabis at all could be legitimate. “Many folks don’t even believe it’s real,” she says. “They’re suspicious. They think it’s a trap. They say, ‘Why would the government give us anything?’” She says such attitudes are part of the psychological fallout of the decades-long war on drugs.
“Black folks have been so traumatized by that war, this is their response to legalization,” she says. “It’s really the government that’s criminalized us and marijuana, put us in prison.”
The best way to combat the trauma, Money believes, is to get educated. “People have to understand that you don’t have to get high to enter the industry,” she says, laughing a bit. Other kinds of resistance include blowback from those who see a black-focused effort as too exclusionary. Money has no patience for such criticism; she’s made the rounds at cannabis conferences over the years and seen up close the virtual absence of black faces in what’s essentially another white-dominated American business.
“I got an email from a woman in Massachusetts who said I should immediately take ‘diversity’ out of the name of my organization because we don’t target disabled people,” she says. “I get emails from whites who accuse me of being racist. It makes me understand that we have a lot of work to do.”
Los Angeles, as well as Oakland and San Francisco, have adopted social equity plans to potentially make that work easier. The plans call for issuing specific percentages of recreational business licenses to people of color, particularly those who have been convicted of marijuana offenses—modest reparations. Money says it’s about time. “This is something we can make generational wealth from,” she says. “This can really change our community for the good.”