Hey, You’re Cool! Shaleen Title

With federal laws, state laws, local laws, and medical versus recreational policies varying across the country, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding marijuana reform. “”The most important thing I could be doing right now is helping people understand of what’s happening in plain language,” says Masschusetts-based attorney Shaleen Title. “It seems like if we don’t no one will.” Title played a key role in drafting and pushing through new marijuana laws in Colorado and Massachusetts—and in helping make sure the new legislation addressed racial discrimination as well as drug policy. Since then Title co-founded the THC Staffing Group, which is all about creating economic opportunities within America’s booming ganja industry. Today they’ll be launching a Cannabis Career Fair to help guide minorities into cannabis entrepreneurship. MASS APPEAL caught up with her to see where how more people of color can get involved in the green economy.

You are working in the marijuana industry full-time. How did you get involved in this?

Yep, right. I got involved in college and went to law school because i was interested in drug policies, specifically a change in drug policy and understanding it and then I worked at a non profit at first for a few years and in 2012 I felt like it was time that marijuna was going to be legalised for the first time so i temporally moved out to Colorado and I worked on that campaign then came back here to MAssatutess and i’ve been working on a combination recruiting and legal consulting and  business consulting ever since

So your whole career has been in the marijuana industry?

Yeah [laughs] basically.

A lot people are inspired by marijuana but your career depends on it. What was the inspiration that got you into it?

You know people always ask that and I wish I had like a good personal story but I don’t. What had happened was I was in college getting my accounting degree and I had just joined a bunch of different progressive organizations. You know, what people have to do in college when you are learning about the world, when you’re trying to get involved in different things, and I co-founded the student drug policy organization and we had a speaker come and I didn’t know how serious the issue was until the speaker came. I thought it was all about marijuana and everybody should be able to have fun and everybody should be able to use marijuana. The speaker told us that a human rights Washington report had just come out that in Illinois, which was the worst state for racial disparities at the time, if you were a black man you were 57 times more likely to be incarcerated over a  marijuana offense than a white person. Not 57% more likely—57 times more likely! I wouldn’t have been so shocked if it was a smaller number, but 57 times more likely?! Like, that blew my mind. And really that was 2004 and just from that moment I made it my top priority to work on this issue.

Wow. Do you think people know this? What do you do about that? How do you make a difference?

Yes, that’s a great question, I do think people in general tend to be aware of those statistics but what I don’t see is after legalization has happened in 2012 I have not seen an intentional way to address that within the legal marijuana industry. Because the truth is people are making money, right? Or if they are not now, then they are going to be making money. It’s estimated to make $1 billion per year in Massachusetts alone by 2020. And so how are we going to make this fair in a way that it addresses whats been going on here  in the war on drugs? We can’t just say “Oh, we ended the war on drugs. We’re sorry.” And then pretend like it never happened. So I feel like a lot of people are aware of the statistics, but I don’t see a lot of people taking a step further saying “What are we going to do about it in the situation we are in?”

You are actively doing these things. I heard about this job fair you are having. You are trying to get the word out so people of all backgrounds are able to come along and see if they can have an opportunity in this industry now.

That’s right. And like we said at the beginning of the conversation I think that the most important thing we can do right now is help people understand what the new law is and what opportunities are there. Most importantly in terms of Jobs, career, starting businesses and innovation—because as much as people think that businesses are already set and it’s going to be really hard to get into the industry, which is somewhat true for a lot of reasons, there is also so much room for innovation, so many needs that haven’t been met. I want everybody to feel like that’s accessible to them and making those decisions is accessible to them.

Can you give examples of what the opportunities are for a person who doesn’t have that much money to back them? How would they go about getting involved if they don’t have thousands of dollars stacked away in the bank?

That’s a great question. So… it’s not clear yet. We have the medical program already in Massachusetts. The stores will be selling to anyone 21 years of age and over. That’s the law that just passed in November. The regulations are not set for that yet, so we don’t know exactly what that will look like, how competitive it will be, how much money it will make. But we did try and minimize those barriers in the law. So the number one thing that people should to do is stay involved in the process.

There is a joint committee on marijuana policy in the Massachusetts legislature and they just held a hearing last week. It was open to everybody to come and give their comments about what the program should look like, because you know they are doing this for the first time. They are doing this from scratch and a lot of people showed up to the hearing and they said ‘This is really important to us that this is acceptable here. And for me some of the most important things would be skill base, job training and educational programs, and possibly a re-entry program. We don’t know what that will look like in the legislature but we have to show them that we are watching them and we really want these things to be implemented. So that’s the first thing: to be watching and participating. Because if you don’t go to the hearing and it’s just the lobbyists, the lawyers, and the investors who are arguing at the hearing, then if we are left out of the process that’s our fault.

The second thing I would say is you don’t have to be just selling plants to be innovative. If you don’t have thousands of dollars and lawyers to go into that process you can look into starting other companies such as a recruiting companies. Like I started. I didn’t need any kind of special license. I just got a $500 placement agency license in Massachusetts so I would be able to start recruiting. There’s room for software, technology, equipment for people to use. If you are creative and you know what people who use marijuana want to see, like an automatic joint rolling machine—I haven’t seen one of those that work great. There’s a lot of opportunities because people who perhaps haven’t used cannabis since college maybe they want to see a way where it’s easier for them. There’s a lot more opportunity now that you don’t have to have a ton of capital behind you if you have a good idea and you’re not willing to touch the plant.

What does your recruiting company do? Do you look out for people and fit them together in the industry where you see a gap? Do you focus on people of color?

That’s right. So, my company is called THC staffing group, been around since 2015 and I actually recently quit business consulting because I felt there’s too many lawyers and business consultants there’s not enough people that are filling the existing needs. And one of those needs that I saw is helping to match together companies that are looking to hire and people that might be interested in entering the industry, but are still not sure. So I have a focus on diversity and in inclusion in particular. We just exhibited at the Minority Business Expo in Dorchester a couple weeks ago and I talked to people who are like “Really? You can do this?” They had a lot of questions about it and I’m trying to explain to them: if you want to and you’re interested then there’s a lot of really good opportunities. It’s the fastest growing industry in the United States. I answer their questions and I talk to a lot of people who otherwise would not have been interested, but maybe now they are keeping an eye on the industry. Now they’re probably coming to the career fair. So just coming back to the theme of making this information available to everybody.

So say I was interested in getting some type of job and I came to someone like you, what would the process be? Do you put me on your books? See what my strengths are and see how you could match me in something that became available? Is it as simple as that?

Yes, that’s exactly how it works. In the future we’d like to expand into career coaching services, but right now we are just taking people’s information and then our clients will list what they want. Like managers or someone with chemistry experience or quote unquote “bud tenders.” Any of those skills and we find somebody with the right match for them.

At the moment you’re saying those jobs are not available because we don’t know what the laws are for those exact things. When will that change?

Well we already have plenty of jobs available. We are nationwide. My partner is from San Francisco. Most of the things that we do are in other states so far. But there are 10 dispensaries in Massachsetts that are open and there are plenty more that will be opening through the next year and hiring. So at the career fair we have a few that are already open and hiring. We have a few that aren’t open yet but they want to start collecting resumes so there will be a lot of job openings in MA and there already are. What I would like to branch out to is career coaching, so once our industry is more firmly settled I’ll be able to hold seminars, teach people what the dispensaries are looking for to prepare yourself, what kind of skills you need.

Just for the record, what is the law on marijuana in the U.S. right now?

You have to break it into state law and federal law. Marijuana is still illegal federally, but there are 8 states including Massachusetts that have legalized it recreationally. Also the majority of states now have some kind of medical marijuana law on the books. And so it all varies from state to state. In Massachusetts marijuana is currently legal for medical marijuana patients. There’s also a separate system if you’re not a patient, if you’re over 21 you can possess up to an ounce. So its very convoluted what the law is. There’s the federal level, the state medical level, there’s the states non-medical level. And you may also have local laws as well. That’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to understand depending on where you are.

So your advice for people who are interested is to keep on top of all these changes because that’s the only way to not feel so scared I guess?

Exactly. And the resources are out there if you look for them. In Massachusetts there is Patients’ Advocacy Alliance which will help patients who are unsure what the law is. There is a long time organization called NORML, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and they kind of represent consumers. They have on their website what all the possession limits are. It can be kind of confusing, but if you really try to find the information it’s out there.

You had something to do with the laws that were passed in Colorado and Massachusetts. What was your exact involvement in that?

In Colorado I was a senior staffer for the campaign in 2012 and in 2016. I was one of the co-drafters or authors of the law. It definitely helps that there were multiple women in the room and that there were people of color in that committee, so we didn’t have to feel like there were fewer people that had to represent all under-represented populations, you know? So it was a really good process and I think that most of the committee understood and knew the statistics. They didn’t really know how to address them, but there were a few of us who felt really strongly. So we drafted the provisions in the Massachusetts law—the first of its kind that said there has to be some kind of policy and program that will encourage people from the communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs to be in the industry, and to positively impact those communities. We’re not sure what that will look like, but it’s in the law. And we have to hold the legislators and the implementers to making sure it gets implemented in the right way.

What is an example of people being harmed?

When we say communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs we are talking about black people and brown people. The medical law blocked people with felony drug offenses from working in the industry and in this new law people who have past marijuana convictions will not be prevented from entering the industry.

If you could make any other changes to the law, what would you like to see?

I would like to see automatic expungement of all past marijuana convictions, and I would like to see people who are in prison for marijuana conviction to be let out.

How does the new Federal government affect the marijuana movement?

That’s a great question. It kinda remains to be seen because the new administration has given mixed signals so far. When president Trump was campaigning he said he would respect the state marijuana laws but the new Attorney General is a very strong prohibitionist. So it’s not clear what direction it will go in. But it is clear that when you look at the polls and the popularity that marijuana is much more popular than Trump and his administration. Politically speaking it would be a big mistake for him to go after it.

Or maybe it would be the best thing that could happen, just to show up why this herb wins again.

That’s right [laughs].

It’s really amazing to speak to you. How does a young person get involved to the extent that you have?

It’s a funny thing in this industry because i’m 34 and really there couldn’t have been someone who’s been involved in this industry for longer than maybe 10 years. Because we haven’t had an industry longer than that. In this industry if you are older it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are more experienced. It’s cool there are a lot of young people who are leaders—especially the ones who have run a lot of these campaigns over the past few years. I have mentored such ground-breaking inspiring people. There are people who are in college at the time they led changing the state marijuana law. For example, like passing the medical law. And it’s just a really beautiful thing to see. Sometimes I feel like the grandma [laughs].

Whats your background?

I am a 100% Indian.

How do your parents feel about you being in the marijuana industry?

Yeah, that was an interesting few years of my life. We grew up in a family where we don’t even drink. So the idea of marijuana and working with it was like very foreign to my parents at first. What happened was that my mom and my dad really came to understand the social justice aspect. And over the past 15 years that I have been doing this there’s been a really strong cultural shift where now my mom sees marijuana when she watches Dr Oz or whatever. And she’s like “Cool, my daughters been working on that for a long time.” And now she understands and she’s proud. But before she was a little more bewildered—but still trusted me.

Im sure when you come from a tight-knit community parents speak about what their kids are doing and what they are getting up to. But it seems like you managed to win them over.

Oh yes [laughs].

What motivates you? Is it the economic opportunity? Is it recreational use? Is it the medical potential?

For economic empowerment I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing that you would see a whole industry built from scratch. The things that are entrenched in other industries are not entrenched in this industry yet because it is so new. We have this narrow window of opportunity to set a status quo that’s different.

Who do you think is getting money in this industry at the moment? Are they rich kids, people with money behind them, and that’s why they can do this? Who is actually benefiting? iIs there a certain type of person or community who is benefiting from this right now?

I would say two things. Firstly it’s definitely easier for somebody with a lot of capital from their friends and family to enter this industry because there’s no traditional financing or vape loans that you can get so we do see a lot of those types of people. The second thing that I would say is that its a common misconception that there are a lot of rich people getting richer in this industry because it’s actually not that profitable. There are a lot of risks anytime you try and get real estate, your landlord will charge you more because of the risk. You have to pay maybe double the amount of taxes because it’s federally illegal so you can’t deduct your business expenses.

We’ve talked a lot about the racial imbalance in this industry. What exactly is making this imbalance?

Hmmmm. It goes to the racist society, the racist history in our country. I think they’re all connected and I’m not somebody who thinks that if you change marijuana law its going to fix racism. I know that it’s not. But I think it’s an important opportunity to make a dent, but at the same time we have to be addressing the causes of racism head-on.

Is it exciting for you? You are able to actually set these new laws up. We live with laws all around us and sometimes you sit back and think “That’s the law. Who wrote that stupid law?” Because it doesn’t make sense. But you are building this law so you can make it better. That must be exciting.

It’s so exciting. It’s like a 16-year-old where you are like, “I could do this so much better!” So, like when you get an opportunity to do that it feels really good.

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