Ga. medical marijuana law offers new opportunities for minority businesses

Tianna Smith speaks at a Women Grow Atlanta event in April at Kouzina Christos Restaurant in Marietta. Smith advocates for women entrepreneurship in the medical marijuana and hemp industries. Clarence Gabriel Photography

Tianna Smith sounds like a marketing executive when she talks about the entrepreneurial opportunity she sees in once-forbidden products like medical marijuana and hemp.

“As a startup, how can I get connected with a cannabis attorney or a CPA that is going to understand this cannabis space?” said Smith, as she describes her vision for business opportunities as Georgia begins to slightly ease some if its marijuana prohibitions. “The Hemp House is more on a consulting level, focusing on how to help entrepreneurs build their companies by connecting them to other cannabis entrepreneurs.”

Black women like Smith and other Georgia’s minorities are gearing up for a potential economic windfall when the state’s medical marijuana industry one day takes off.

To that end, Smith created an Atlanta-based nonprofit called The Hemp House to work with women entrepreneurs getting into the marijuana business.

Georgia legislators this year approved a law that legalizes the manufacture and sale of low-potency THC oil to treat a limited number of medical conditions, including cancer, seizure disorders and Parkinson’s disease. Families brought children suffering from seizures to the Capitol in recent years to wear down opposition to even a limited easing of the state’s strict pot prohibitions.

While Georgia recently eased its longtime bans against some products containing too little THC to produce a high, the opposition to recreational marijuana remains strong among top lawmakers.

State leaders have yet to appoint the commission called for in the THC oil legislation signed into law this year. That panel will license and regulate the industry and once that happens businesses owned by black women and other minorities should stake their claim, Smith said. She also leads marijauna advocacy organizations NORML Women of Georgia and Women Grow Atlanta.

Atllanta’s Morehouse College hosted a forum late last month designed to educate more minorities about ways to make money in the legal cannabis industry. Attorneys, a handful of state legislators, black business owners and others spoke about the emerging THC-related business opportunities.

“It’s not exclusive to black people, but the statistics show that we have been marginalized by this war on drugs,” said legislative advocate and attorney Josiah Young. “Now, that (laws are changing) you see these entrepreneurs and people who didn’t have this criminalized baggage they’re able to bring their money forth and treat it like an Apple Store. We have to act the same way.”

Georgia’s medical marijuana law contains a social equity clause that requires companies with production licenses to have a minority, a woman or a veteran as a co-owner, or to have an ownership stake in a business that provides goods or services to that company. Once the commission is appointed, it can license up to six private companies to grow medical marijuana.

Other states created diversity policies in their new medical marijuana laws, including Maryland where the race of the owner is considered during the application process.

And California passed a law that provides loans and grants to the economically disadvantaged as part of its recreational marijuana program.

In Georgia, it’s important that its historically black colleges and universities work to ensure students are broadly prepared for opportunities in the industry, state Rep. El-Mahdi Holly said at the Oct. 24 panel discussion.  

Fort Valley State University, an HBCU in Peach County, along with the University of Georgia are the two colleges the state is allowing to grow and manufacture medical cannabis. 

“Building out that demand requires we not only look at in terms of a sense of cultivation, not just in terms of harvesting and putting on shelves, but also all of the chain businesses that must take place in order for this industry to grow,” said Holly, a Democrat from Stockbridge.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.