Portland’s Office of Community & Civic Life named Dasheeda Dawson as its new cannabis program supervisor earlier this month, in some ways ushering in a new chapter of the city’s Social Equity Grant program.
Portland voters passed a 3% tax on adult-use cannabis in 2016, and since then, more than $6 million of the tax revenue has funded infrastructure improvements, drug rehabilitation, small business support, economic opportunities and technical assistance for business owners from communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Dawson, who has over a decade of business development, strategic management and brand marketing experience, as well as more recent experience as a cannabis industry educator and strategy expert, hopes to build on the city’s existing vision of equity to further strengthen the Social Equity Grant program.
Here, Dawson discusses her new role and her goals for expanding the program to support more underserved entrepreneurs.
Melissa Schiller: What is the Office of Community & Civic Life’s role in Portland’s cannabis program?
Dasheeda Dawson: Portland, or Oregon in general, was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana and then adult-use, so the program’s been around since 2015. [I believe] where cannabis regulation happens is often the mindset in which it’s regulated. Portland has put the regulation of the program under the Office of Community & Civic Life, which also oversees liquor and noise and other community-based components. The cannabis program, since its inception, is the core licensing and compliance oversight for the cannabis industry in the city of Portland.
MS: What was your background and experience prior to joining the Office of Community & Civic Life?
DD: I am a former Fortune 500 senior executive. I spent some time at Target and Victoria’s Secret, so my expertise is more in consumer and retail strategy, business management, supply chain and the like . I transitioned into the industry [five years ago] as a strategy and management consultant. I’ve worked for and with a lot of different entities as it pertains to cannabis in the United States and abroad. I have been for a long time working with municipalities as a consultant as they roll out the regulatory frameworks.
Before becoming the supervisor, I have been the chief strategy officer for Minorities for Medical Marijuana. I’m on the board for Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, which is the first organization of physicians to support legalization, and I’m one of the only non-physicians on the board. I’ve been on the Oregon Cannabis Commission Subcommittee. The commission is put together to advise the Oregon state regulatory bodies of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Health Authority. I’m on a subcommittee of that Oregon Cannabis Commission around regulatory frameworks.
I’ve been talking for a while in terms of what we can do better to set up a policy and a regulatory structure that’s more equitable and successful for the cannabis economy. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past four years or so, and now I’m excited to be joining the city of Portland and really leading the charge with creating equity for cannabis, particularly given its history.
MS: What does the cannabis program supervisor role entail, and how will it allow you to accomplish your goals surrounding equity?
DD: The role is very similar to any other state’s cannabis regulatory oversight leader. I believe Toi Hutchinson is called a special advisor to the governor at the state level [in Illinois]. Cat Packer is another woman of color who’s doing it in L.A. for the [Department of Cannabis Regulation]. It varies because every market is different, but I’m the creative and strategic lead for the city as it pertains to cannabis regulations, compliance, policy recommendations, equity [and] education, [which is] 360 education [for the] workforce, consumers, general community and city.
I’m excited because I have the ability to take everything I’ve learned, the various experiences and learnings and insights, and build on the vision that’s already been in place in the city of Portland. In 2016, Portland was one of the first cities to vote on and begin to implement a social equity grant fund that was based on the cannabis tax revenue in the city. So, in some ways, Portland—although not a lot of people know about it because we talk a lot about California and Colorado as far as thought leadership on equity and creating an open market space—it’s certainly been at the forefront for our country.
MS: What is the Portland Social Equity Grant program? Who qualifies for the program, and what resources does it provide?
DD: It’s still in its infant stages in that it’s only been three cycles that we’ve delivered against. In the statute, it’s very clear there are three areas where the cannabis tax revenue needs to go. Over the last [few] years , 80% of the cannabis tax revenue has actually gone to the police department. In light of the recent climate, the [Portland] City Council voted for a divestment of those funds from the police department, so whereas we’ve only really historically been able to give out a half a million in grants, going into this new fiscal year, that has been increased to a million.
The grants are really global as far as equity—they’re not directly for cannabis companies or people of color, Black or indigenous folks who want to open a business in cannabis. There are a lot of different programs, so these are educational and development initiatives, meaning that the devastation related to prohibition has been very global and intergenerational, so our goal is to give support to the cannabis industry directly, for sure, as part of it, but our grants have really gone the distance on expungement and more wraparound reentry services around housing. We’re supporting some cannabis workforce educational development. Grants have been utilized to also provide support to nonprofit organizations that are helping POCs enter the cannabis industry. So, again, it’s a portfolio that we’re hoping to balance and expand as we get more access to the cannabis tax revenue.
MS: What are some of your broader goals for the Social Equity program going forward? Are there any specific areas that you’re looking to expand with the additional funding?
DD: Of course, we’d love to give out more grant funding, so we’re excited about that opportunity. I keep calling it SEED initiatives, and SEED stands for social equity and educational development initiatives. I think that they are more inclusive of a broader perspective of what we believe equity is. People are so focused on: How many owners do we have in the industry? And that’s the start of a broader conversation, but as a person who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, which is overpoliced and targeted for some of these same things we’re discussing, it’s been the community-based organizations that suffer the most, and their constituents. So, the initial goal will be to continue to identify community-based organizations on the ground in Portland that are working specifically with these communities that have been targeted. In Oregon and Portland specifically, that is definitely Black and indigenous populations. While we identify them, we’ll be identifying opportunities, perhaps, to fund their work further.
We’re also really in need of educational development for new and developing businesses that have never worked with government before, so we’re hoping to build a technical assistance program pilot that allows us to help facilitate folks as they’re trying to apply for a grant and then manage a grant. Some of the things I think we assume is that if we just give money, then there’s going to be some significant difference, and I think there’s more to the ecosystem of equity in order for us to impact it, so we have to start building out what that looks like.
I think it’s really important just to reiterate that any cannabis regulatory program, for the most part across the country, has a lot of the same core function or core competency. Ultimately, it’s to license businesses and then to ensure they’re in compliance. We’re doing that, and that is what we should be doing, but I think the vision of the program is really to be a leading industry framework that’s designed to capitalize on the reparative and restorative potential of this global cannabis legalization movement. In other states and other jurisdictions, I think the design is really to capitalize on what they believe the tax revenue will be, and in this case, I feel the vision of the program has always been, how do we take licensing and compliance that we do so well, which actually funds the program itself, and assure that we’re feeding it to the cannabis economy in a positive way that one, drives more cannabis tax revenue that can be used to support these cannabis SEED initiatives?
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.