Gaby Febland

Gaby FeBland’s illustration for this story was a finalist for the 2019 “Best Illustration” in a non-daily newspaper or magazine Peter Lisagor award from the Chicago Headline Club

Most cannabis-focused events in Chicago seem to be one of two things: incredibly expensive, or not even in Chicago at all. This made the Cannabis Industry Expo, hosted at Chicago State University in September, all the more exceptional: a free event located not in the Loop or out in Rosemont, but at the heart of the South Side.

It wasn’t until I stepped off the bus, staring at the beautiful glass enclosure of the Gwendolyn Brooks Library, that the full reality of the day hit me. I was standing on the campus of what I lovingly call “Chicago’s HBCU,” because of its pro-Black building names and its largely African-American student population. This university is located just south of Chatham, near Roseland, an economically-underserved community in one of the most segregated cities in the country. The populations of the South and West Sides of this city have disproportionately been arrested and convicted of drug-related crimes, and yet there I was, at a major university, attending a Cannabis Industry Expo—a Black Cannabis Industry Expo. These are the first public conversations that I have ever had about “weed” without fear of arrest or persecution.

I was particularly excited to see a panel on careers in the cannabis industry, focusing on educational opportunities and cannabis career certifications. I was immediately struck by the panel’s diversity: in an industry where barely ten percent of businesses are Black- and Latinx-owned, the panel was moderated by a Black woman, Dr. Joni Jackson, a professor of marketing in CSU’s College of Business. She was joined by two other Black women: Britteny Soto, a senior recruiter with Green Thumb Industries, and Edie Moore, executive director of the Chicago branch of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). They sat on either side of Dr. Devi Potluri, a South Asian man and a professor of plant biology at Chicago State. Bookending the panel were Scott Wells, a white man and Vice President of Talent and Acquisition for Cresco Labs, a major cannabis company with retail operations in seven states, and Danielle Schumacher, a white woman and the cofounder and CEO of THC Staffing.

From the beginning, the panel saw passionate disagreement. The most frequent disputes were between Wells, the panel’s representative of “Big Marijuana,” and Schumacher, a small business owner. Wells, with a well-trimmed graying beard, certainly looked the part of the typical cannabis “pharma bro,” but when he spoke his language focused on diversity and inclusion. This was most obvious in his response to a question about equity applicant hiring, which establishes benefits for companies who set up in and hire folks from communities that were historically disadvantaged. This practice is enshrined in the new Illinois cannabis law, which folks associated with Cresco helped write. Wells truly believes that, through what he called “the most regulated program in the country,” Cresco will be able to help communities not only in Chicago but also in smaller cities like Joliet, where they have production facilities. “It is not an opportunity for one” said Wells. “It can truly be an opportunity for many.”

In response to the same question, Schumacher had a very different opinion about the new legislation. “It was written for business,” Schumacher said, “in a lot of cases by the lobbyists of the big business. We have to be really careful about how this law gets implemented.” She highlighted the plight of immigrants who, she said, could risk deportation by working in the cannabis industry because of a lack of federal regulation. While Wells spoke in glowing terms about the effects of so many new enterprises and the loyalty of his current workforce, Schumacher continued to mention the role the lobbyists had in the crafting of the legislation, which she saw as tilted toward “Big Marijuana.”

Britteny Soto, of Green Thumb Industries, was all warm smiles when highlighting her company’s new offerings. Green Thumb’s new Social Equity License Application Assistance Program (LEAP) is designed to “help educate applicants about the adult-use cannabis business application process and prepare them to apply for the available categories of licenses.” According to an August press release, “GTI application experts will provide start-up guidance to applicants regarding real estate selection and the required application content. They will also advise on accessing the Cannabis Business Development Fund’s low-interest loans and grants for Social Equity Applicants and on obtaining application fee waivers.” Soto said “the satisfaction of what we do far outpaces the income. But, the money is there and that’s nice. I have a twinkle in my eye because there is finally a way to do this, the right way.” 

Soto was graceful even when receiving some pushback in the form of an audience question. A middle-aged black man who described himself as a seasoned grower stepped up to a mic in one of the aisles and asked about another unique aspect of Illinois’s marijuana legislation: the craft grow. Under Illinois law, with a special license, craft growers (akin to craft brewers) are permitted to initially operate a facility of up to 5,000 feet, with the possibility of later expansion up to 14,000 feet. To those of us who are not cultivators, this may seem like a lot of space, but this gentleman argued that even with expansion that amount of canopy space is not enough to develop the proprietary strains that would allow his brand to develop a secure market position. He was worried that this essentially would push out the little guy. Soto responded, “There will always be a space for that craft grow,” but the man shook his head, sighed, and muttered, obviously believing otherwise.

The quote of the morning, though, belonged to Dr. Potluri. Sitting in the middle of the stage, in response to a question about the negative effect of the marijuana business on minority communities, he asked in response: “Do you think communities of color are dumb, that they can’t make up their own mind?”

Because the panel was essentially about job hunting in the industry, the moderator asked the panelists to make themselves available for attendees with longer or more personal questions. After the session wrapped, each took a position close to the stage and let themselves be mobbed by hopeful job seekers, fielding questions and handing out business cards. I saw all of the panelists speaking with conference goers but one. Flanked by an assistant, Wells walked briskly toward the exit of the exhibition hall, with no stop to answer questions or network with the waiting crowd. In contrast with the friendliness of the other panelists, who took time to give the job seekers and would-be entrepreneurs a kind word, his lack of interaction stood out. To be fair, Cresco was tabling at the event and their lead recruiter was extremely affable to those who stopped by the table, but there was a disconnect between the passionate man on stage and the executive who didn’t take the time that day to stop and make personal connections.    

This expo also served to launch Chicago State’s Cannabis Certificate Program. Doing its part to aid cannabis job seekers and cultivators through its Continuing Education Program, Chicago State is the first institution within the city limits to offer a comprehensive cannabis certificate. (Oakton Community College in the northern suburbs is the next closest.) For a total of $445, CSU is offering a five-class certificate, with courses ranging from Production in a Greenhouse Environment to the Pharmacology of Cannabis-derived Compounds. These classes started on October 12, but CSU is promising that there will be future sessions, possibly as early as January. As a part of Illinois’s cannabis legislation, budtenders, the bartenders of weed, will have to be certified (just as their whiskey-slinging counterparts have to be licensed.) Chicago State is still determining if their offerings will satisfy the state’s training requirements.

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AV Benford is one of the Weekly’s Food & Land editors and last wrote for the Weekly about the Poetry Foundation Block Party.

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