High Pride: Cannabis Must Be Inclusive

by Carolyn DeBarra

“I don’t think there is proportional representation as far as the industry goes. When I go to conferences, I tend to be the only gay in the village.”

As a queer journalist who has spent the last few years in the cannabis space, I have often written about the importance of LGBT+ inclusion in the industry. There are so many brands that are queer-owned, operated or do great work including LGBT+ people in their business. 

However, when it comes down to it, a lot of these brands are based in America. If you examine the UK market then it becomes a different story where it is more difficult to find activists, brands or entrepreneurs within the cannabis space who are openly out -loud and proud.

But why is this the case? What makes the UK market so different in comparison to the US and more importantly, why does this matter?

Visibility, inclusion and respect are important when it comes to creating real diversity within an industry. If we do not see LGBT+ people rising to managerial, CEO or entrepreneurial roles then we assume that those doors are closed to us. If they can’t do it, then I more than likely won’t be able to either so why try?

Yet, many companies realise the power of the pink pound when Pride month rolls around every June. The predictable rainbows and social media content are quickly packed away in July along with all the mentions of change, diversity and inclusion.

Including the queer community must be more than slapping a rainbow on a CBD bottle. It must start from within companies with hiring policies that recognise the benefits of hiring beyond a person’s qualifications. As an emerging market in the UK, the cannabis industry is perfectly placed to put this into action.

Carly Barton is one of the most prominent medical cannabis activists in the UK and the founder of Cancard. Cancard has been designed by patients, doctors and police to help those using cannabis avoid unnecessary law enforcement persecution. She believes the industry needs to be more diverse and also, that it’s currently not representative of how many LGBT+ folks there are in society.

Carly said: “I don’t think there is proportional representation as far as the industry goes. When I go to conferences, I tend to be the only gay in the village. This is not representative of how many LGBT+ people we have generally in society. There are a lot of barriers generally for LGBT+ people but you would think that would filter through but for some reason, in this industry, it doesn’t.”

She added: “If you look back at LGBT+ history in terms of activism around wanting to be seen and represented in society, then there are a lot of similarities between that kind of activism and the community that has developed around medical cannabis access.”

In the US, cannabis activism and the LGBTQ+ movement were intertwined as many patients during the AIDS crisis relied on the plant for pain relief or appetite stimulation. There are many historic LGBT+ figures who played prominent roles in the fight for legalisation such as Brownie Mary and Denis Peron. 

Carly said: “There were a lot more parallels in America around self-medication and the AIDS crisis than there was here. When the AIDS crisis came, we weren’t consuming cannabis but the US understood the power of the medicine back then.”

Carly does believe that visibility is important when it comes to creating an inclusive cannabis market. Although, she stressed that there needs to be an invitation for everyone to join in. 

“It’s important for LGBT+ people to be involved in every aspect of life – not just the cannabis industry. There needs to be room for everybody and there shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing any industry because of your sexuality or gender.”

She added: “It’s about inviting people in. When forming a team, you need to have people around you that have different life experiences to you so you and your business can benefit from that. Be honest with yourself about where your privilege lies, your own bias and where you stand in the world. What are you lacking? Do you know anything about selling to people of colour or trans people? The first goal should be to create a team that can provide insights as to how you inform, respect and treat people with different life experiences. All of this starts with the question, who do I want on my team.”

Charlie Lyons is the Chief Creative Officer of GrowLab Organics. He is passionate about establishing his business to be as diverse as possible. He recognises that the industry has an opportunity to learn from other established ones about how to get it right.

“We are right at the start of our journey as a start-up cannabis company. We are about to go hiring people and building a company. We have a duty of care not to import a lot of the inherent biases and faults that have grown and existed in other industries because cannabis is new. We have a real opportunity to not replicate privilege based hiring systems,” he said.

“In hiring people that are from different socio-economic backgrounds or cultures, the discussion and creative process may be quite stressful as everyone is seeing things differently. You will take longer to find the answer however, it will be so much more well rounded because of the different perspectives.”

“Diversity is one of the most complex challenges that businesses face in terms of making sure we are building fair, equitable environments for people to feel safe at work. How can I best set up my environment to allow people to feel empowered to express themselves and do great work? It’s one of those things that require listening and ongoing education,” Charlie explained. 

When it comes to job creation, the cannabis space has a lot to offer. In the US in 2021, job creation in the cannabis industry exceeded six figures with 107, 059 new jobs created compared to 32,700 in 2019. As of that year, there are an estimated 428, 059 people employed in the cannabis space compared to 321,000 the year before.

Inclusion will be incredibly important when it comes to reaching patients, activists or consumers in the Gen-Z age group. Gen-Z is defined as those born between 1997 and 2012. They are also defined as digital natives that have grown up with social media. 

In a recent report from Quantilope on what consumers want to see from brands, Gen Zers made it clear that they want to see more diversity around age, gender and sexual orientation. It revealed that 76% of those surveyed in that age group felt diversity and inclusion was an important topic to address for businesses in comparison to 46% of baby boomers born 1946 to 1964.

This isn’t just relevant for businesses looking to sell a CBD product or two but it is important in reaching a younger generation with education around cannabis.

It is about time we had real representation, authentic inclusion and genuine change while we can. We have a real opportunity to make these changes now and learn from the mistakes of other industries that have excluded the queer community. 

Caroline DeBarra is an Irish journalist based in Nottingham, England. They are also a medical cannabis patient who writes extensively on how it can help neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD, tech and also LGBT+ interest. Tweets @CarolineDebarra


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