Pubdate: Thu, 05 Feb 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: ChemTales
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

The Cannabis Industry has a Diversity Problem


Solo walks through empty industrial areas at night aren't part of my 
usual routine. But I had a good reason to wander through a lonely 
warehouse district at the foot of Potrero Hill last week.

I was looking for millionaires.

In front of a brick building a block away from a freeway overpass, a 
solitary man wearing a wool poncho sat shivering on a bench next to a 
plastic garbage bag filled with his possessions. Today's nouveau 
riche are eccentric; I knew I had the address right - the three BMWs, 
one Mercedes, and one Maserati parked on the street hinted I was 
headed in the right direction. But this couldn't be it.

Of course, it was. Around the corner from the expensive imports, in 
front of a crowd of attractive people dressed in dark clothes, I 
found it: the cannabis velvet rope.

This was the afterparty for the invite-only cannabis investors' 
association Arcview Group. At the Fairmont Hotel on the top of Nob 
Hill, eager fortune-seekers had spent the previous two days pitching 
their products to capitalists eager to make the right bet on a pot product.

Now is the time. The American legal marijuana market nearly doubled 
to $2.7 billion last year, according to Arcview's own estimate, with 
just under half of that in California - without full legalization. 
Just imagine the extra zeroes once another 38 million people live in 
a state with fully legal green.

So who's in the driver's seat? No Birkenstocks here: A cannabis 
investor looks an awful lot like every other investor in San 
Francisco in 2014: crisp dark jeans, a fresh button-down (sometimes 
with the tell-tale creases straight from the package), expensive 
sports coats - and, with very few exceptions, white faces.

Silicon Valley gets a lot of heat for being a rich white man's club, 
with the ranks of board members, top-paid engineers, and other 
lucrative gigs consisting overwhelmingly of white men.

The scene in Mike Judge's Silicon Valley - in which techies achieve 
diversity by adding one Indian guy and one Asian guy to the mix - is 
playing itself out in the marijuana industry. And somehow, the weed 
industry is even whiter, so much so that, according to an attendee, 
one of the Arcview execs attempted an uncomfortable joke: "This is 
the most white and male convention you could go to."

Some of these investors aren't pot smokers. Not even casually. 
("There were a lot of guys there that knew nothing about cannabis," 
one entrepreneur told me, noting that their "value add" would be 
monetary). But they know a profitable thing when they see it.

There are exceptions: San Francisco-based Poseidon Asset Management 
has a woman principal. But the heavy hitters, including the people 
who will decide if California can legalize next year, prove the rule.

It will take somewhere between $10 and $20 million to qualify, run, 
and win a legalization initiative in California in 2016, political 
watchers say. Who will fund this effort is still unknown, but the 
short list of names - capitalists, Silicon Valley billionaires - is 
also short on diversity.

Cannabis is gentrifying. And the people taking advantage of the 
once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity presented by legalization 
aren't the same people who paid the price during cannabis's lengthy 

Seibo Shen is a safe bet. The 38-year-old spent over a decade in 
sales for top software companies, and he's also been an early 
employee of four startups that have been acquired or gone public. 
This earned him the title of "serial entrepreneur" at the Arcview 
event, and played a role in his product's victory in ArcView's pitch 
competition. His company makes the "VapeXhale," a high-end, more 
portable $650 vaporizer that works on both flowers and concentrates.

Shen has already raised $500,000 since he started making the vapes in 
2012, and he's hoping that Arcview interest will help get him to the 
$3 million mark. He's a rarity in cannabis circles - a smart 
businessman who is open and proud about his cannabis use and has a 
solid idea with a business plan and a product prototype ready to 
demonstrate. He's also Asian, which makes him one of the very few 
minorities I can name who are poised to do well in a legal marijuana 
market. He's well aware, and it doesn't make him happy.

"I understand we do need more diversity," he told me, adding that 
women aren't doing great in the weed business yet either. As any walk 
through a HempCon or High Times Cannabis Cup shows, women are indeed 
"leaning forward" - but while wearing low-cut tops to entice the 
(mostly male) customers to stop by booths.

"I'm the father of two women," Shen told me. "If my daughters got 
into this space, I'd be concerned - it seems like some of the only 
roles available are ones where you walk around with weed leaves on 
your tits. It makes me sad."

Sad, but true. Legal marijuana, which was partly expedited by the 
AIDS epidemic that plagued the Castro in the 1980s, is now the 
provenance of straight, white men. And the black and brown people who 
did, and are still doing time for weed, are not representing the 
activists or capitalists who are playing a huge role in weed today. 
Of San Francisco's 27 dispensaries, I can name only two or three that 
are operated by people of color. Berkeley's black-owned dispensary, 
40 Acres, is the subject of a shutdown effort by the city.

It's a white man's rush.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom