Mary Pryor, chief marketing officer of Tonic CBD and co-founder of Cannaclusive, is a major force for change. Raised in Detroit, Pryor is now a bicoastal media expert and outspoken voice in a cannabis industry that needs more strong women speaking up for diversity and inclusion.
Her work with Tonic and Tricolla Farms, a hemp-growing collective in upstate New York, focuses on sustainability and delivering authentic products to people. In the process, Pryor proves that transparency and educating people about plant medicine with compassion is the best policy.
Pryor co-founded Cannaclusive to fight racism that she experienced in the cannabis industry, and to focus on inclusive marketing and business advocacy in cannabis. She also serves on the board for Possible Plan (a Cura Cannabis social equity effort), is the New York chapter president of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and advises several cannabis and hemp companies including Kanna, Dieux Skin, and Flor De Maria Chocolates.
We spoke with Pryor about racism in the cannabis industry, her personal journey with the plant, changing the language of cannabis, the War on Drugs, the road to legalization, and the absolute importance of getting involved.
Q: How did Cannaclusive begin?
A: The original co-founders and I came together as a response to trying to find ways to work in the industry, and really encountering straight up-and-down racism. In a way it was a lot of microaggressions of people being surprised we were smart and Black, that we actually had real experience coming from our worlds.
Q: Wow, that’s amazing you did it. Was the goal, “Hey, we need people of color and women and all different kinds of people in this space?”
A: Definitely that–but in general, the War on Drugs and racism and institutionalized prison systems are all tied into really diminishing and trying to affect melanated lives. So, when you’re coming from pockets of mostly Black and diverse audiences and experiencing a whitewashing, it’s kind of crazy. A lot of that happens in terms of how people market cannabis, how they consider naming brands. I recently saw a brand named Black Market. We try to educate and deal with the fact that inclusion needs to happen with big businesses and outsider businesses, within marketing, within hiring. We are now looking at an industry that has less participation from women and only around two percent of Black ownership in cannabis. While most people who are in prison are Black or brown.
So, access to capital, access to resources, access in general is on a really weird bell curve and it mostly affects people of color. Even in my work, when it comes to working at Tonic as a chief marketing officer and currently sitting in a role where I am an equity holder, and advisor in three companies, I’m super aware that I’m the first-ever Black chief marketing officer for a hemp company.
Q: What’s concerning is, this is not an unusual experience for a person of color to have in America. Also troubling is that in cannabis, a lot of the language is about inclusion. Weed is about sharing and breaking down barriers between people.
A: And understanding the science; how this is plant medicine. At Tonic, we have a sustainable organic farm in New York State, where we make our own botanical blends, and provide education, access and cost-effective CBD products. We’re an all-women-founded company. We work very hard to make sure people understand what they’re consuming, and have something they can trust. Honestly, that’s rare in this business. To be able to say you work somewhere where everybody on the team agrees you want to provide something that people find relief with. That’s why we’re so careful to make people understand there’s a level of trust and authenticity in what we do.
That transitions into what we’re talking about with inclusion. Like my background — my dad had substance abuse issues, and actually died of an overdose on my birthday in 2007. I know what it is to visit your father or your loved ones in and out of jail. I am a result of the War on Drugs, even though I am very lucky to be someone who has done what I have with my career and education. But that’s not everybody’s story. That doesn’t mean access to those people shouldn’t be provided.
Look at the failings of imprisonment, and what people are allowed to do when they get out. If you are operating a dispensary, you are doing something someone was doing 10 years ago and punished for, but now it’s all good for you. It’s just wild to me. I care about being a voice, no matter what role I am in, whether it’s when I was working in tech or advertising and marketing, to drive home advocacy. To say that Black and brown people are being left out. I feel like Chicken Little screaming at the sky. This is going to become a commodity. The government is already trying to make it so buttoned up. It’s mostly straight white men doing whatever they want.
Q: My brother works with incarcerated people and it’s so troubling that once they get out, they are screwed. If they tried to get into cannabis, many people would say they are getting back into drugs.
A: Exactly. I think it’s crazy. I don’t like using the words black market or underground, because we live in this world where the undertone of what people mean when they say that is always driving to a melanated image. It’s not driving to the hippies that are white and have been growing in Eureka, California who are disenfranchised because they’re too poor to be in this industry. But I want to point to the fact that you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t buying from the legacy market in the first place. So, when people use terminology like black market, I’m like, you mean legacy?
Q: That is such a good word, legacy.
A: I don’t know why people think social equity is welfare or a joke. I really want to get away from using that word too. It’s very obvious that social equity is not being taken seriously and that the industry is trying to commodify it.
Q: When you talk about social equity, what do you mean?
A: Social equity needs to start on Day One in every state when they start a cannabis program. It’s not an, “Oh we’ll get to it later” thing. It shouldn’t be this hard for people who have been disenfranchised and grossly affected to get into this space. Why would you not want someone to have the opportunity to go legit?
Q: If anything, the people who have been the most negatively and unfairly impacted through policy and institutionalized racism in America, should be the communities that are getting the most looked after.
A: We’re not foster children, we just need to be offered opportunity. You can’t open a dispensary. Do you have 20 million dollars? Are you able to pay 10 thousand dollars for an application fee? Do you have the ability to just throw money in the air and hope that something happens? So, everybody is affected by whatever game this is. And the end result is people not getting access to medicine. Someone like me, being in New York, I’m not really able to use New York dispensaries, because I have Crohn’s, and I need flower, and I can’t get flower from a New York dispensary.
Q: How do you think people can be educated and have their minds opened to all of this? I think many people are blissfully unaware.
A: Yeah, we’re all blissfully unaware in general about a lot of things. I see it every day. On Facebook, I post three times a week where I’m saying, please read the articles you are posting. The world is just not paying attention. If you’re interested, you need to find a way. There are enough interested people that want into this space, but you don’t have a government that is willing to do educational programs, you have people who take advantage of people who want education, you have schemes and scammers. There are a lot of people that are at a disadvantage by not knowing what’s real. I never thought I would have a library of cannabis books, but I do. I went to seek those things out when it applied to my health, and the health of loved ones. I was able to support people through my knowledge and get them access to medicine.
I think people are so unaware of the real honest, good items that can be brought out of the marijuana plant. To where most people, especially if you were taught by the War on Drugs, think cannabis is like LSD. It’s not. That whole campaign really put a damper on a lot. “Reefer madness” started early in the 1900s. So, you have a hundred-plus years’ campaign against the plant to fight. This is going to be ongoing.
Q: Not only is that propaganda against the plant, but then it’s the generational trauma and impact the War on Drugs had on people’s families and lives. So, you’re fighting it on many levels.
A: Well I’m fighting it on levels of trying to talk about access, and just not feeling confident in the government. I just want people to be able to participate. This needs to be decriminalized, and people who want opportunities in this industry need to have their records expunged.
Q: What does a potential bright future for cannabis look like to you?
A: I am a realist. So, I’m going to talk about reality. It is my belief we are not set up to do what really needs to be done for this plant. The industry is going through its first bubble, so let’s see who shakes out of that. But it’s turning into Hunger Games, and I am not a fan of that because it usually means the quality of things shift. And I am also not a fan of the fact that there is still not a lot of participation from people that are melanated and mostly affected by criminalization efforts against this plant. If things stay where they are now, knowing social equity most likely will not be a federal concern, I don’t want it to be legalized today.
A: I know people will be like, “Oh my god!” But for me, looking at how many people are Black, brown, really anybody who is of minority status are being treated in this country, we’re in trouble. There is a lot that is not just moving in a way state to state, where people can actually make money.
Q: You’re saying we need to change certain things about our society before we move forward with legalization?
A: I feel we definitely need to decriminalize across the board, that’s what matters. But I don’t want us to get so far under this current administration with regulations and legalization that doesn’t include people. Decriminalization would greatly support the industry. That means people can use vapes, people don’t have to worry about getting pulled over, people can use cannabis without feeling guilty about their jobs, people can try it if they’re not so worried about the law for medical treatment.
Q: I think you have so many people who have used cannabis for so long and felt the stigma, felt the prohibition, that they just get so excited and want to rush forward full steam ahead with legalization. But they don’t really stop to think of some of these larger issues and who it’s affecting.
A: Yeah, though I think if anyone is in this business and they don’t understand what’s happening governmentally or regulation-wise, I don’t know how they’re making money. You need to make it your job to know. I’m reading the proposed cannabis regulation bill for New York State right now.
Q: Isn’t that what you’re doing? You’re helping educate people who may not seek that out on their own.
A: We’re trying to do that, but it’s not easy. What’s missing is consistency, and people willing to take things seriously. If I’m into something, I look it up, I learn. If people want this to work in their favor, they have to start paying attention. You have to make sure you’re involved.
This interview was edited for clarity.
All images rights of https://www.cannaclusive.com/
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