This is the second installment of a look at the state of social equity in the U.S. cannabis industry. The first can be viewed here.
Tiana Hercules is no stranger to the struggles of marginalized communities. As a public defender in Connecticut’s capital, she’s seen “countless” lives upended by nonviolent drug charges.
Now, in an industry at times both lucrative and controversial, she stands at the crossroads of commerce and justice, helping shape social equity in Connecticut’s nascent cannabis market while launching her own cannabis brand.
“Connecticut is not the most progressive state or liberal state,” Hercules told Green Market Report. “I really wanted to keep a better eye on it and figure the best ways to just jump in and kind of figure out what place I can have in this space … and making a small difference.”
Connecticut’s legalization of recreational cannabis has, in many ways, mirrored the national narrative: a green rush of investors and entrepreneurs, eyeing vast profits from a once demonized plant. But beneath the canopy of this new industry, essential questions loom regarding who truly stands to gain.
Enter social equity programs, designed to level the playing field for communities hit hardest by the war on drugs. But as Hercules noted, establishing a genuine and functional social equity framework is a complex challenge, especially against the backdrop of an industry that requires significant capital for entry.
Her entry into the cannabis world was inspired by the duality of seeing many incarcerated due to nonviolent drug charges, while others profit from the now-legal enterprise. The conversation around permits, record erasure, and the collateral consequences of having drug charges became her focal point.
“We are taking on a couple of licenses right now, the first being a large-scale cultivation, and then two retail (applications) as well in the state,” she said. “I’m excited about us getting operational and getting up and going, but more excited about the opportunity to hire people from my community.”
Yet, with aspiration comes challenges. And, the cost of doing business in this space is steep. An application for large-scale cultivation in Connecticut, for instance, might not have an upfront fee, but securing a provisional license demands a hefty $3 million payout.
Hercules partnered with Florida-based multistate cannabis operator Ayr Wellness (CSE: AYR.A) (OTCQX: AYRWF), an established player in the national cannabis ecosystem. Ayr shouldered the fee for that Section 149 cultivation provisional license, with a 65%-35% partnership deal, where Hercules’ contributions extend beyond capital to include community insights and legal expertise, she said.
The license will allow her to open two retail stores in the Greater Hartford area, too. Hercules’ application was among the 16 approved by the Social Equity Council last year.
The Social-Equity Conundrum
While many criticize Connecticut for the corporate concentration in its cannabis industry, Hercules offers a nuanced perspective. In her eyes, the structure of the cannabis business model, which is inherently capital intensive, predisposes the industry to big players.
“The industry itself, dictates a certain type of model,” she explained. “To enter into this industry, you need millions and millions of dollars, not just because of the machinery, but because you can’t go through traditional banking and finance avenues.”
But it doesn’t mean that social equity initiatives are in vain.
“I don’t think one state can disrupt this industry on a national level,” she said. “We can learn from it and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working.’ Maybe the states can come together and say, ‘Here’s a better way to shape this industry.’
“But,” she added, “the train has already left the station with respect to corporate interests and big money guys – and girls, in some instances – dominating the space.”
To Hercules, she is more than just a businesswoman in the cannabis sector. She’s a symbol of possibility for communities that have long been sidelined.
“With a regulated business that has to follow some very, very strict rules, we make community safer, right?” she said. “The more we can get things that are illicit – and that we don’t even know what’s inside of them – (out of the market), the better for our communities.”
The path has had other challenges, particularly around community concerns at planning and zoning meetings. But Hercules believes that education and transparent operations can turn skepticism into support.
“The beautiful thing about it is that with education and with collaboration and partnership, those concerns can be assuaged as people see how this is rolling out,” she said.
Hercules plans to open her new operations with the name of a women-centered luxury cannabis brand she created, Lady Jane.
“Lady Jane really was conceptualized from me not really seeing myself represented in the cannabis space,” she said. “You know, I enjoy luxury things. I enjoy nice aesthetic. I enjoy relaxation and spas and things like that.”
Hercules also wants to create a brand that addresses women’s health issues such as endometriosis and fibroids.
The locations will be designed to offer a unique shopping experience, she said, with products tailored for women and those who might not identify as women but share similar wellness needs.
Hercules imagines employees providing expertise not just in cannabis-related knowledge, such as the endocannabinoid system, cannabinoids, and terpenes, but also in women’s reproductive and sexual health.
“Someone who is expert in the woman’s reproductive and sexual health and can help women to aggregate both worlds in a way that leads to relief,” she said.
The vision also dictates a diverse array of products on her shelves, highlighting social equity brands and ensuring a mix that caters to all consumer preferences. She noted that Connecticut retailers aren’t allowed to have exclusivity agreements.
“I’m hoping that we’re able to help brands go online,” she said. “And so, we would have social equity brands, Black-and-brown-owned brands, women-owned brands.”
“Ayr has a great product mix of brands, particularly Levia, something that I’m really excited about us getting out there.”
Read More Feedzy