Business

Portland’s New Cannabis Chief Dasheeda Dawson Has Big Plans

avatar Hilary Corrigan / Jul 9, 2020

Dasheeda Dawson, the new head of Portland, Ore.’s Cannabis Program, believes it’s essential to disseminate accurate information about the plant, and the costs of prohibition.

She joined the regulatory side in May, after stints in cannabis advocacy and consulting, as well as the mainstream business world. “It’s different, but it’s also empowering,” she said of the new position, calling herself an advocate “within the system.”

In the role, Dawson, 41, oversees Portland’s cannabis regulatory, licensing, compliance, policy, education and equity initiatives. She took the post as support for Black and Latino cannabis entrepreneurs — a concept generally known as “equity” — has received increasing attention nationwide, but the industry remains largely white-owned. Nationwide, equity programs face significant challenges.

In an introduction she wrote when she started the job, Dawson notes that she’s the third Black woman in the U.S. to hold a leadership role in cannabis oversight. The city’s cannabis program, she wrote, “recognizes the overwhelming damage caused by 80 years of cannabis prohibition and the major restorative potential of legalization.” She describes George Floyd’s recent killing by police as “an alarm clock ringing for long overdue change and action.”

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‘A powerhouse’

Before advancing in the cannabis world, Dawson did business development and brand marketing work for Target and Victoria’s Secret. Subsequently, As a cannabis advocate and management consultant, her clients have included MSOs, Native American tribes and municipalities. 

She authored “How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry,” and founded lifestyle brand The WeedHead & Company, an education and e-commerce site for those looking to join the cannabis world.

Dawson, who graduated from Princeton with a degree in molecular biology and then earned an MBA from Rutgers, said she was attracted to the cannabis industry “after the catastrophic and unexpected death of my mother. She was a lifelong cannabis user and educator, understanding that it is medicine first.” 

She says her corporate experience helped her see potential growth and opportunities in the market. “And growing up as a Black woman in Brooklyn made it clear that cannabis prohibition had been used as a tool for police harassment, arrests and incarceration of Black, Brown & Indigenous populations,” she wrote in an email. “The intersectionality of my life as it pertains to cannabis was very difficult to ignore in the wake of my mother’s passing.”

Stephanie Neil, who serves on the city’s Cannabis Policy Oversight Team, called Dawson “really skilled at big picture, strategic thinking.”

Neil actually interviewed for the supervisor job. But she came out of it nervous, thinking it wasn’t the right fit for her.

“She’s a powerhouse,” Neil said of Dawson. “She’s perfect. She’s just what the city of Portland needs.”

Growing beyond grants

Funded by licensing fees, Portland’s program manages all licensing and compliance for MED and REC in the city. Dawson calls it one of the most user-friendly regulatory programs in the U.S., one that can help businesses navigate the system. 

According to the program’s website, Portland has a total of 361 active licenses as of early this month. Of those, 182 are for marijuana retailers, none of which are MED dispensaries. However, all REC stores can sell tax-free MED to adults with MED cards. The other licenses include nine delivery services; 60 growers; 57 processors and 53 wholesalers.

The program also gets some funding from a 3% tax on REC in the city. It uses those funds to support organizations working to help those who have suffered because of prohibition. “My goal is to figure out how do we expand that,” Dawson said in an interview.

“It’s not about reinventing the wheel,” she said, noting that those entities are already doing the work. Organizations have received grants between $50,000 to $150,000 for work such as getting criminal records expunged and finding housing for people coming out of prison.

Within a couple of weeks, the program will announce grants awarded to six such entities for fiscal year 2020. That’s expected to increase to $1M million for fiscal year 2021. The boost comes from the city council’s move last month to approve a city budget that shifts some cannabis tax revenue away from the police. 

That’s a move that the city’s Cannabis Policy Oversight Team had called for in its 2019 Annual Report. It warned that Portland risked squandering a rare opportunity to nurture a developing industry while supporting wealth creation in communities of color.

The team complained of a patchwork of decision making and regulatory policies adopted without data analysis. Instead, it called for developing a cohesive strategy for cannabis and the reparative use of cannabis revenue.

“Cannabis should be used as a tool to pour capital resources into [Black and brown] communities for the purpose of more thorough restoration and wealth generation,” the report says.

Education pilot proposal

One of Dawson’s ideas is a pilot program to teach health professionals, lawmakers, those in child services and other fields about cannabis. The curriculum would include the endocannabinoid system, the difference between hemp and marijuana and the history of cannabis, before and after it was “demonized and made illegal,”

Racial justice plays into that, as well, Dawson said. Beyond the well known disproportionate cannabis arrest rates for white and Black Americans, Dawson said there are disproportionate impacts in other areas of life, such as employment opportunities.

Dawson, who sits on the board of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, doesn’t know exactly what form the course will take, but she expects it to involve an online element. “It will be small at first, and very much a pilot,” she said.

In an interview, she also emphasized the importance of the MED market. She wants people to know the potential health benefits of cannabis and expects that to benefit the entire industry. Oregon’s MED program has withered since full legalization. 

“We’ve seen this decline all over,” Dawson said of REC’s growth pushing MED aside. She thinks more demand for MED would help ensure a supply chain with the best cannabis at reduced prices. It also has protections REC lacks as cannabis remains illegal at the federal level.

Oregon—No. 1?

On the business side, Dawson is bullish on Oregon.

She said the state offers the assets of a top-tier market, including reasonable prices, strong product selection and excellent quality flower. She wants to see the state lead not only on social equity, but also on REC and MED functioning in an open market without a need for license caps. 

“Oregon, in my opinion, is Number One,” she said. The state’s market has matured since its early days when a product glut complicated life for businesses. In May, sales topped $100M for the first time.

She recommends bachelorette parties hit Portland for food, breweries and cannabis. People travel to Colorado, California and Las Vegas for the cannabis experience, but “hands down, Oregon has a better market,” she said.