Race, diversity, and Black ownership in the cannabis industry: A conversation with SC Labs CEO Jeff Gray
“Cannabis is a term; cannabis is a plant,” said Jeff Gray in an early morning conversation with The PotNetwork. Gray is the CEO of SC Labs, which stands for Science of Cannabis, and is one of the few African American executives in an industry that’s fallen way too short on its promises of social equity. “From a scientific perspective, it is truly an amazing plant in terms of what it produces and the amounts of these compounds that it produces."
“What it's been used for by the people who have the power in order to control has changed,” he continued.
Today, some of the people who make money in the legal cannabis trade are the same forces that made marijuana central to the drug war so many years ago, he said. To Gray, that idea is critical toward understanding the industry’s current climate. And it’s an issue with historical blame on both sides of the political aisle.
“The prominence of cannabis even in the anti-war movement, in communities of color … as a tool to put people — to incarcerate people, that was the way that they were probably going to make the most money at that time,” said Gray, discussing the corporate landscape of the past 50 years.
“And now, there’s a different opportunity to make money,” he continued, remarking upon the corporate infiltration of legal cannabis. “So, let's change it up.”
Gray was born in Gardena and grew up in California, where the atmosphere around cannabis was always progressive. He’s a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose first job out of college was at a government social service agency. Like many, his foray into cannabis began with a general fascination with the plant.
“I cultivated a couple of things but never had a specific end in mind,” he said, recalling his early days in what was yet to be an industry.
A smoker for sure at the time — though not as much now since he’s become a father — Gray’s initial interests in cannabis lie more in the drug’s greater possibilities. As he told The PotNetwork, there is a robust cannabis movement rooted in activism, safe access, and patients. According to Gray, having more control over treating oneself for certain things than with conventional medicine is a powerful form of self-autonomy.
And cannabis spoke to his independent, entrepreneurial spirit as well.
The marriage of the ideal with the entrepreneurial is what brought Gray, along with three partners, to found SC Labs. Labeling themselves as four activist-entrepreneurs, they sought to give consumers a way to trust the brands they were being sold by bringing cannabis out of the Wild West and developing the industry’s first testing standards. Together they succeeded, with the guidelines they devised having been adopted into extensive use across the cannabis space.
Gray is modest when it comes to his accomplishments; however, crediting his partners as the backbone of SC Labs. “I am not the I'm not the visionary behind this,” he said. “One of my partners was the first lab director at the first cannabis testing lab of its kind.”
The lot of them convinced him that together, they could make a difference. “I learned more than I had about areas that I hadn't even considered in 10 years that I've been participating in cannabis prior to that,” said Gray, praising his partners and the work they do at SC Labs.
Jeff Gray is proud of the work he does at SC Labs and is invested in his role in the cannabis industry at large. But as one of the few Black men to break through the barriers of minority ownership in the legalized cannabis trade, he carries the burdens of racial disparity to often overlooked in everyday conversations about seed-to-sale, marijuana banking, and the like. As Gray explained to The PotNetwork, the political moment may finally have arrived at more in-depth discussions on race in America, but he’s been a Black man all of his life.
“I was reading James Baldwin, who said to be conscious and Black in America is to be in a rage every day,” said Gray, speaking straightforward. “My experience as a Black man in this country hasn't changed since these recent events.”
Those events, of course, are the brutal police murders of Black men and women like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed across the country. As Gray explained, watching the video of George Floyd’s murder was so visceral it was akin to a snuff film. “If you're not upset, if that doesn't hurt you, if you don't empathize somewhere something's wrong,” he said.
As down-to-his-bones angry as Gray is at this moment, however, he hopes it can be an opportunity for change —the kind of change that goes beyond surface-level distraction and reaches a meaningful discourse within the zeitgeist. He sees the work of younger people who are taking to the streets and prays that the moment isn’t missed.
Feeling a responsibility to speak, Gray recently took to Instagram, joining in what he hopes will be a larger conversation about race, equality, and cannabis. “It feels like the appetite for the destruction of Black bodies is insatiable,” he told his followers before speaking some necessary truths to the legal marijuana trade.
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“With money comes the exclusion of people of all backgrounds who helped build this,” he continued, calling cannabis “[a]n industry devoid of people of color in positions of power.” They were harsh words for a community that built itself on what’s transformed into a facade of social justice and racial equity. Still, the statistics don’t lie.
African Americans have been shut out of the cannabis industry. According to a report by NBC News earlier this year, less than one-fifth of owners or stakeholders are people of color. In the United States, Black-owned cannabis dispensaries make up less than one percent of the entire industry. Minorities are underrepresented in boardrooms across the globe as well.
Yet, Black communities continue to be persecuted for cannabis use. As the ACLU has pointed out, Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than their white counterparts, even though both groups use the drug at similar rates. Even in states that have legalized the plant, African Americans still face over-policing for public nuisance crimes concerning cannabis at a rate higher than whites.
“If you don't have capital, you don't have access getting into cannabis,” said Gray, speaking from his own California-centric experience. He explained that as much as the situation has improved — for example, he noted the lack of police helicopters searching for heat signatures to make large drug busts is a net positive — it’s only improved for certain classes of people. Cannabis shifted from an all-inclusive economy to the same, uniform dynamics of every other capitalistic industry.
“It all gets consolidated among the few, and the many get left out,” he said.
But efforts at inclusiveness that look to uplift the Black community within legal cannabis mostly miss the point, according to Gray. Governments, activists, and industrialists who push for equal treatment now, as sincere as they may be, still ignore 400 years of racial disparity.
“Economic equality is also critically important in the industry because without it getting into this industry is like starting a Monopoly game and somebody already owns half the property — the disadvantage is on you,” he said. “We could be at such a disadvantage competitively for so long and then for everybody just to go ‘okay, so we're good,’ even if we got to the point that we have equal treatment. We can't just start from there.”
As Gray said in his Instagram video, however, diversity is marketed as a brand, especially in the cannabis industry. At the height of protesting in June, a group of African American women from Cannaclusive put out The Accountability List. It tracked every major cannabis brand’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. While it’s perhaps difficult to gauge sincerity from a single Twitter post or Facebook feed, the women insisted that the industry put its money where its mouth is.
Cannaclusive followed up with each brand to see who was donating to the cause, and how many Black employees and Black executives they had in their ranks, among other markers. Too many brands were content with posting a blank square on social media and calling it social justice.
Gray doesn’t want to judge sincerity either necessarily but is also too invested in the gravity of this moment to let surface gestures rule the day. He sees that for many in the industry, what they’ve done is a marketing play; their efforts will be short-lived.
“It's such a sad thing that it's going to take this moment and make it that it doesn't achieve its potential,” he lamented.
Unlike others, though, he is doing something about it and has been for a while now. He and his team and SC Labs work with SACNAS or the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, and UC Santa Cruz to recruit minority students in STEM majors into the cannabis industry. At SC Labs, these students gain valuable scientific and technological experience in the cannabis industry.
It’s essential work to Gray, who noted the difficulty in finding talented scientists to work in the cannabis field. According to him, many people would shun the work for fear of what it would mean for their future career prospects, with those who took internships going as far as leaving it off their resumes.
“There's the development of the talent on your team and the openness and commitment to elevating those people when giving them those opportunities,” said Gray. “We grow their careers. That's always a treat.”
In the end, Gray stressed that he doesn’t want to lose this moment for what it is, an opportunity.
“We don't know the experiences we don't have, and that's okay,” said Gray. “Policing, the arrest rate, pre-trial cash bail for Black people stopped by police that affects the poor and people of color disproportionately. This system is largely oppressive for poor people, as well as sentencing disparities, the rates of parole. Then you have to put all this post-prison, securing employment, accessing the social safety net. I mean the right to vote. We’ve taken away the right to vote for people.”
“All those things are part of that system,” he continued. “And where we sit in cannabis, we have this sort of extra responsibility.”
Images: SC Labs lab employees (Courtesy SC Labs)