With each passing year, cannabis has become more mainstream as states expand medical and recreational options. As an industry, cannabis has rapidly grown into a multibillion-dollar industry. According to Adweek, legal cannabis is expected to become a $30 Billion industry in 2022.
But for people like Neffer-Oduntunde Kerr, executive director of the NorthStar Minority Cannabis Association, the cannabis industry is not just a way of getting paid but a space of empowerment and opportunity. The Chicago-based cannabis professional believes it is her duty to ensure that those impacted by cannabis receive justice and opportunity within the cannabis industry.
Speaking with NewsOne, Kerr shared her own entry point into the cannabis industry and the benefit she has experienced regarding her mental health and overall well-being. Kerr also said that as much as she enjoys being a part of the cannabis industry, she cannot move forward without bringing other people into the fold.
She sees advocacy around legalization and decriminalization as part of bringing people into the fold. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, hailed by representatives as a “racial, economic and criminal justice” victory. Civil rights leaders praised the bill and encouraged the Senate to take up the legislation. While it is unlikely to pass out of the Senate this session, Kerr says it’s important for advocates to keep pressing for changes to existing law.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you shift into cannabis equity and teaching? A couple of years ago, I remember seeing you starting to post about some of the stuff leading up to legalization coming to Illinois.
Basically, I just landed in cannabis. So my cannabis journey was very non-traditional. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, and PTSD in 2008. But the medication they put me on caused a horrible reaction. And when I say horrible, I’m talking about like, you know, when you hear the commercial and they say side effects include suicidal ideation, trying to jump off buildings, right? All that.
After I cycled off the medication, a friend of mine was like you might want to consider marijuana. This is before medical legalization. So I was using different products and things, and I found that it really helped me greatly. I mean, to the point where I was functional.
Because of that, I became interested in learning more about it. So then I saw a workshop and a local Black-owned establishment, and they were like learn about medical marijuana 101. It was like a five or six-week program where you could get a certificate and basically learn the basics of medical marijuana because we were still just a medical state. And so that kind of was my introduction to be interested. Because I’m like, well shoot, if this has changed my life in this way, and my mental health in this way, I wonder what it can do for other people.
Fast forward to right before legalization, I was presented with an opportunity to apply for a dispensary license. And, you know, I had investors. I was with a group of people. We were a cohort together and had the backing we needed. And we were really going hard because we saw an opportunity for being in this industry. When that didn’t happen after legalization in 2020, that’s when I was like, well, I might not be a dispensary owner. But I know this is where I want to be professionally.
I believe in the power of the plant. I believe in how it can change lives. I believe I’m a living witness of what it has done for me and my mental health. So I didn’t see myself ever leaving. I was just like, okay, where do I see myself? What are the gaps? And what do I think could be most impactful? And it led me to education. It led me to being a community leader.
It’s 420. What do people need to understand about cannabis in the future and where we’re trending towards, besides just another day to smoke.
Legalization isn’t sh*t without decriminalization. We’ve got people like, ‘Oh, wow, we can do this. We can do that.’ But it isn’t decriminalizing—the housing industry, for example. Now, we’ve gone legal in terms of cannabis in our state. However, it’s still illegal if you’re in subsidized housing or you have a landlord. A lot of these leases still say no cannabis use, no drugs. You also have veterans or seniors in assisted living who might qualify for a medical patient program, but because decriminalization has not caught up with legalization, they’re still at risk.
In terms of future trends, I need more people to be more active in decriminalization efforts. For example, making sure certain jobs are no longer testing for THC and reverse things. Looking at how these sentencing laws are still being handled, cannabis arrests are still highly disproportionately arresting Black and Brown people across the nation in legal states for cannabis. I think the focus moving forward for many people should be on what decriminalization efforts are going on simultaneously with legalization and what is being done to move it forward. People are being treated and dealt with more equitably.
People have storefronts. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. What I find so fascinating about what you’re doing is helping people gain access and entry points. Most of us don’t have wealthy investors. What does it feel like to be a part of helping to inform, engage and break down the barriers to entry for folks?
Barriers to entry are so real in this industry. We know that that’s not uncommon. But it’s important to show individuals the opportunities available and give them access to it. I have always believed that education is the great equalizer. That is how to get people who are normally disenfranchised get in the doors. But also, it’s showing them different ways to do things.
You may not have $1.5 to $2 million to get a cannabis business off the ground. But you might already have an existing skillset that can be pivoted to the industry. We’ve got people graduating with degrees in chemistry and other sciences. You can work in a cannabis lab. Every cannabis company in our state needs third-party testing. That’s an entry point for somebody who may not have a lot of capital.
It doesn’t matter if I have an opportunity or if I’m doing well in this industry if I can’t bring other people with me. That’s why it’s important as I advance myself, I need to always bring other people with me. I need to always be putting other people on.
Any final thoughts?
If you live in a state that has legal or medical, know the law. You can look it up on Google. Know what you can and can’t do because not all states are created equal when it comes to cannabis legalization. We can’t walk down the street smoking legally in Illinois. You can smoke outdoors in New York. Know that the law changes from state to state. Know what you can and can’t do based on where you are and where you travel. Because you don’t want to get arrested for something you thought was legal.