Cannabis & Main: ‘Diversity Is Not Just About Gender and Ethnicity’

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In the latest episode of Civilized’s new podcast ‘Cannabis & Main,’ host Ricardo Baca spoke with Ophelia Chong – Founder of Stock Pot Images as well as the Founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education. Ricardo and Ophelia discussed what diversity means to the cannabis industry, the importance of having diverse voices and perspectives in a new economic sector and the challenges of being a minority in an industry dominated by white men.

Ricardo: Hello and hello. Welcome to Cannabis & Main, a Civilized podcast where we extract one sliver, one tiny little slice from today’s cannabis scape, and go deep. I’m your host Ricardo Baca, founder of Grasslands and The Cannabist, and it’s great to be with you today. Of course, you can learn more about this show, alongside the marijuana news and lifestyle coverage you crave from Civilized found on the worldwide web, at Civilized.life.

And, if you’re looking for another great cannabis podcast, I highly recommend you check out Marijuana Today Daily, a show that brings you industry news every Monday through Friday morning. Marijuana Today Daily is packed with the vital information for the savvy thinker, and it’s available everywhere you listen to this show.

Now, this week we’re going to shine a light on cannabis and diversity with a guest who is an outspoken expert on this subject. Like any other industry, diversity is a pressing and significant issues in the legal marijuana space.

News clip of Desley Brooks: By the end of 2020, this will be a $44 billion dollar industry, and when you look at this industry across the United States…the vast majority of people who are making money in this industry are white males. We need to make sure that there’s equity in this industry.

Ricardo: Whether we’re talking about race or gender or sexual orientation, a diverse workforce is important for any industry, but it’s especially important for cannabis because this industry is the out-growth on an unjust, decades-long prohibition that unfairly punished people of color. Pulitzer Prize winning-fact checking site, PolitiFact, double-checked Senator Kirsten Gillibrand when she said, “Black and Latino people in New York City are arrested at 10 times the rate of white people for virtually the same rate of marijuana usage.” And PolitiFact rated her claim as true. Sure enough the ACLU tells us that despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites.

And while many inside the cannabis industry – myself included – hoped that this particular business sector might be different from every other white and male dominated industry early statistics show us that legal marijuana is trending towards a similar path as every other industry. Which is to say white, male and straight. So, cannabis and diversity, this is a really important conversation. I’m honored to be having it today. Producer Vince, let’s do this.

All right. Today we’re here with Ophelia Chong, who is a dear friend of mine, but she’s also the founder of Stock Pot Images and also the founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education. Ophelia, thanks for joining us on Cannabis & Main.

Ophelia: Hello, Ricardo. Thank you for having me here. I’m glad I’m going to be the banana you’re slicing today. To explain the banana analogy, I was born in Canada, and what Chinese people call North American born Asians are bananas, because we’re basically yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I’m your resident banana.

Ricardo: Speaking of food metaphors, I wanted to start off by talking about one of your favorite ones to utilize when it comes to speaking about cannabis events, or really anything involving the cannabis space and that is marshmallows. So tell me about the marshmallows.

Ophelia: So, I’d like to describe my life in food analogies. So, what I found with the cannabis industry is that walking into a room—and Ricardo, you’d probably feel the same way—is that you walk into a room of cannabis attendees or a conference, and you’re looking around and all I see are marshmallows. So, I’m just looking at marshmallows and here I am, looking for a fellow raisin or a fellow banana, looking in the room. And when I finally find somebody who’s not a marshmallow, normally we kind of look at each other, and if you can picture a stare down at OK Corral, we kind of look at each other, first thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’

We gather and we go, ‘Oh, well you’re doing this,’ and ‘oh my gosh,’ and finally meeting someone who’s someone like me and so, we gather. That led to me starting Asian American for Cannabis Education because there just weren’t enough of us out there. And how it started was, I have a photographer who’s also Asian American – Monica Lo – and we were talking, and the same thing, I had the same conversation with her three and a half years ago. And so we decided to start Asian Americans for Cannabis Education.

My other founder was Tiffany Wu, but both Tiffany and Monica have left about two-and-a-half years ago, so I’ve been running it since. And what I do is I feature other Asian Americans in cannabis. We’re basically normal people, in an industry that is Schedule I, and so it is not really to show marshmallows, so to speak, Asian Americans, but fellow bananas that we contribute to our communities, we have families and that we have jobs and that we actually run businesses or educate people about cannabis, so that’s why I started that out of the whole marshmallow experience of trying to find the rare little raisins and banana together, and featuring them so that I can show my own community who we are.

Ricardo: Of course, and I’m curious, with Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, is there outreach there to let the people who are like you know that there are places in this industry where they can thrive and find a home and succeed, and maybe start anew if they wanted to leave their accounting job, or their job in the entertainment space?

Ophelia: As far as outreach, I’m basically a one-person band here, and I do all the interviews, I do all the updates, I do all the social. So, as far as any in person meetings, I will when I travel cities, I’ll meet other Asians. But right now, I don’t have the bandwidth, and I would love to have the bandwidth, it would help start doing small events or just even having gatherings. The most recent help I’ve gotten is from the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA).

Ricardo: Oh, really? Tell me more.

Ophelia: Well, what they’ve started is the AAP—which is Allied Associations Program—I hope I got that right, but it’s all the growers associations in the states and also, Minority Cannabis, MCIA?

Ricardo: MCBA, maybe. The Minority Cannabis Business Association?

Ophelia: Right. So, they’re also part of it too, and what the great thing about it is that NCIA offered all of us free membership into the AAP, plus we get all the benefits of belonging to NCIA without having to pay for it.

So, we get tickets to their functions, there is a community outreach ally, where we can all have tables at all conferences. So, the NICA has really reached out and is trying to bring us all together and is run by Rachel Kurt.

Ricardo: That’s substantial, yeah. And it’s necessary too, and hell, it’s not uncommon for you Ophelia, to have a microphone in front of your face, but here’s another microphone in front of your face, and maybe you can find some help from this.

So, if somebody wants to help out with what you’re doing with Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, is there an email they can drop you a line and say, ‘Hey maybe I want to run your social media for free’?

Ophelia: Oh, thanks Ricardo. My little banana heart is beating. So, people can reach me at my email ophelia@stockpotimages.com. If you want to reach out to me and offer help or suggestions, or if you would like to be interviewed if you are Asian American in cannabis, I would love to feature you, and bring your story forward.

Ricardo: Good, and hopefully you get some interests—some pro bono work for a good cause. But Ophelia, I’m curious, I’m Latino, I don’t look like it, but I walk into a room, people look like me, that’s been my experience for so much of my life. But do you think that people who look like me can relate to the experience of walking into a room, and not seeing anybody who does look like you?

Ophelia: That’s a really great questions because Asians are considered by other minorities as, ‘close to white.’

Ricardo: What!

Ophelia: Yeah. It is because as we all know—and this has been repeated many times by you in your writings and probably on your show—the War on Drugs has effected mostly African Americans and Latinos. Because African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested than a white person, and then probably twice as many times as an Asian person being arrested, because we’re not profiled in that way.

And so, what happens is other minorities view us as having more privileges. And I do agree with that in some ways, but also in other ways too, we are treated differently in very subtle ways as well. I have been harassed, chased, had things thrown at me, all through my life, even as a child with my father. I’ve been told as a eight-year old to go home to my own country.

Ricardo: Oh my God.

Ophelia: And it’s still prevalent right now. Anyone of color is a target right now, in this period of time. It seems to be almost, as you say, allowed, just by the present climate right now.

Ricardo: You know, in the early days of this industry, people altruistically hoped, that this could be different, that we could see more females, that we could see more people of color, in positions of management and ownership and can we create a different kind of industry. Because here we are, ground zero, lucky enough to be doing this good important work. And the data that’s available, which is by no means complete, is showing us that in those early days, yeah, maybe there were more women owners and managers in these businesses then there were in the traditional industry at that time, but those numbers are starting to look a lot more like mainstream industry numbers. So, can you speak to that? Did you ever think that cannabis stood a chance at standing alone as an industry that respected diversity as others don’t appear to?

Ophelia: With minorities and also women, we have to hold onto this. But right now, I feel that we are a novelty. In some businesses I’ll see, ‘Well here we have so and so, and we have so and so, and see how diverse we are?’ But it is a very small nod to it and a feel good moment. For instance a conference, Ricardo, there’s always a diversity panel, right?

And on that diversity panel is mostly women of color, right? What I don’t like about those is it is the throwaway. It is, ‘Okay, we gotta have this to keep everyone happy.’ Why can’t we have people of color on every panel, right? But, that’s never gonna happen because what we see is mostly white men on panels.

Ricardo: So, do you think it’s too late to try and make a difference, and try and make cannabis a different kind of industry? Or is there still a change that perhaps this ultraism that was present in the last eight or nine years of a legal regulated marketplace, could potentially still poke it’s head out and stand apart from traditional industry, and have higher rates of ownership, management by the ladies and by our colleagues or color?

Ophelia: Diversity is not just about gender and ethnicity. It is about the whole community being in this, and that is the big issue with diversity right there.

Ricardo: Well, and ageism is real.

Ophelia: And you point out a great point because ageism of the people who were on the front lines are all in their 60s and 70s, from late 50s to 70s right now. Like Joanna McKee, who just passed away too up in Seattle, all those people are being lost to history.

Ricardo: We talk about the importance of influencers in this space and without a doubt. Influencers are massively important and they carry a lot of weight, especially on the Instagrams, but you know, there are no social media influencers without Dennis Peron, and without the work that was done by he and his colleagues in California, and Washington in Colorado, and Washington DC, it can be frustrating at times.

Ophelia: Exactly, and there’s a great line from Blade Runner—one of my favorites. It is about Batty at the end, when the last scene when he’s on the rooftop with Harrison Ford, and he was dying and his quote is, “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain,” and to me the history of cannabis is like that too, if we do not keep it alive.

That is a huge part of diversity in this that it’s not about color, it’s about being that person who’s diverse from the mainstream. The one who stood apart and said, “We have to make this legal,” or, “We have to get this medicine out,” and that is also a huge part of what I want to do on top of the Asian American outreach.

Ricardo: You know, as journalist, I’m constantly trying to make myself more and more aware about the diversity of sources that I employ in my storytelling, whether I’m putting together a season of a podcast, like ‘Cannabis & Main’— here we are on our final episode, by the way, Vince. Final episode of season one, I hope it’ll be back for season two.

But yeah, if you look at the list of people who we’ve talked to for this show, I mean, ideally there are varying perspectives and varying types of individuals, certainly genders and race, that’s essential, but I would really hope that you see that and I’m confident that you do, and also, if you’re writing a story, you can’t just keep quoting the same person over and over and over again. Find other people to speak with, who have different perspectives, who can add to the conversation and not make it so bland and generic.

So yeah, that’s a really good point and I appreciate you talking to that. Ophelia, I would love to hear a story from your own personal experience in cannabis about how either the industry’s diversity has benefited you, or how it might have even harmed you. I mean, earlier you were telling these terrible stories about things that have happened to you in everyday life, but what about cannabis? How has your own diversity impacted your experience in this fledgling new industry?

Ophelia: Well, I’m going to quote the line, I think from SNL of the baseball player, “Cannabis has been very good to me.” This community is so multifaceted. It is walking on a beach and finding beautiful shells every day. That’s what this community is to me. I have a skit every other month in a show called Gay DB, it’s basically drag queens and drag kings doing a burlesque show, we have about eight minutes to do this skit.

And so, my skit is Monty Chong, Let’s make a Dealer. So, I have my game show I’ll sit on, and I call audience members up to ask them questions, and this is a completely LGBTQ audience, and so I thought my first question would be answered by every arm in the air for this amazing prize that I had. So, I asked them, “Tell me about prop 215,” and I thought this is going to be great. They’re all going to answer. Not on person in that audience could tell me about prop 215.

Ricardo: Oh, wow.

Ophelia: So, then I went off and I said, “For crying out loud! It was the LGTB that got Prop 215 to where you are now. It was Dennis Peron, he did not want to get arrested for buying cannabis for his partner who was dying.” So, to me that was, again, a lot of people don’t know the history and even the group that brought cannabis to California don’t even know it.

Ricardo: Well, I’m curious about another thing too, because you mentioned earlier as we were talking about diversity in the cannabis industry and where this subject is going and you mentioned that this is in the hands of the business owners, who are themselves diverse and so, you’re a CEO of Asian ethnicity.

You’re a Chinese woman who owns a business and I’m curious, what are you doing to make sure that this situation of declining diversity in the cannabis industry is improving and also, what would be your advice to other people who might be CEOs, might be decision makers, might be the trimers, but regardless, what’s your advice to others as well?

Ophelia: For me it’s find your tribe. I would with so many women and I have developed close and fruitful relationships with a lot of women in the industry and we support each other. There’s so many in my community that are women in cannabis and we all work together. Of course, there’s a few that don’t play well, but the majority we all work together.

I just got off the phone with a female editor of a magazine, and we went through an hour of ideas and just said, “We gotta get together, we have to do this.” So for me, it is finding your tribe, but also having an open heart and giving a hand. You will need a hand up or you give someone a hand up. It’s really being about open-hearted and giving, because you can’t take that money to your grave, but what you can have is really good karma in this life, that when you trip, there’s someone there to help you, and to do that you have to be kind.

I think that being kind is the best advice I can give anyone going into this industry. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of sharks, but to me those sharks have a very short lifespan.

Ricardo: Well, Ophelia, it’s been such a pleasure talking with you. I so appreciate you sharing your experiences and your insights with us, and closing out season one with a bang. Ophelia Chong of Stock Pot Images, and of the Asian American for Cannabis Education. Thank you for joining us at Cannabis & Main.

Ophelia: Thank you so much, Ricardo. You’re such a good man, and I’m so glad you are the shining star of my tribe and I’m so thankful and lucky to have met you.

Ricardo: Aww, the shining star, and to our listeners, thank you for joining us for season one. If you missed any of the 12 episodes, please go back and catch up. I can’t say enough how every voice has been unique and diverse to the points that we’ve been making today, and I’m really proud that the subject matter has also been too, and here’s to season two.

If you want to see a season two drop Civilized a note on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook and tell them you definitely want to see Cannabis & Main coming back for another season. Until then, I’m Ricardo Baca and thank you for joining us at Cannabis & Main.

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