Sep 16 2021 . 17 min read

Elevating the Conversation with Shanel Lindsay

Elevating the Conversation with Shanel Lindsay

Attorney, inventor, and founder of Equitable Opportunities Now

Attorney, inventor, and founder of Equitable Opportunities Now

Shanel Lindsay is a multifaceted cannabis leader who is a mother, Boston-based attorney, cannabis activist, inventor/entrepreneur, and prominent voice for equity in the industry. As an attorney, she worked with a group of lawyers in 2015 to draft a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. As an entrepreneur, Lindsay invented Ardent FX, the “easy bake oven” of cannabis. As a dynamic leader, she founded Equitable Opportunities Now, a non-profit that has successfully fought for equitable cannabis policies for Black and Brown people disproportionately harmed by prohibition.

How were you introduced to cannabis?

When I was 17 I was out with friends and I wasn't feeling well. That night I had a cyst. Not the same kind that I had after my son was born, but a different cyst that had just gotten lanced and it was really painful. I remember I was not in a good mood. I was fighting with my mom. Somebody was smoking a blunt and I hit it. Afterwards I felt fine and relaxed, and my pain was gone. And I was, ‘I think I've received some misinformation on this.’ Obviously, I was still really young at that time but over the next couple of years, I started dabbling in cannabis more. After I had my son, I started thinking, ‘How do I take this thing that's working well for me and start using this as a medicine?’ Because at that point I had my ovarian cysts and I was wading into this world of having to take pharmaceuticals for that and thinking, ‘How do I avoid that?’ So that was kind of my intro into my exploration into cannabis.

How did you get involved in the cannabis industry? I was kind of thrust into becoming involved in the legal side of cannabis when I was arrested {for possession of trace amounts of cannabis} as a young lawyer. It was an unintentional entrance into the space. That was in 2009 but it wasn't until 2012 that I really made the official decision to venture into the cannabis legal space with my background. And that was when medical marijuana came to Massachusetts, and we were beginning to implement the regulations. That's when I started to be more involved on the regulatory side and finding my place in all of it.

As a lawyer I was watching the regulations and I could see at that point that it was completely cost prohibitive to even think about owning a retail store. Because in Massachusetts when medical came down you had to have $500,000 liquid in the bank to even apply to get a medical license. And the fee was $30,000 non-refundable just to apply. So that wasn't within my reach to apply for a medical dispensary. But I knew this industry was coming to Massachusetts and that this was definitely where I wanted to be. I had already gone through all the harms of being involved in this. I had already seen so many clashes between my cannabis life and my professional life. I was just ready to be done with all that and make both of them the same thinghave my professional life be in this cannabis world. By that time, I had already been making cannabis products for over 10 years. So, I had a knowledge I could bring to the industry even though I didn't exactly know that I was starting Ardent then.

As an attorney, did you have any hesitation about getting involved in a federally illegal industry? Not really because I had already been arrested for this. I knew personally that cannabis had helped me so much in a medical way. I was convinced that medical cannabis is so effective. So I knew that if people started having access to this that we would see the tides turning, which is what has happened. But I wasn't worried about that because, again, either I was going to encounter it on my professional side, or I was going to keep encountering it in my personal life.

A lot of lawyers are afraid of getting disbarred. And the bar doesn't make it any easier. In different states you could potentially get disbarred, but Massachusetts didn't do that. In fact, I'm the co-chair of the Boston Bar Association cannabis industry group. As for potentially losing my law license, I think because it had been in jeopardy before because of my own personal actions I was much more willing to step out on a limb because that is the most legitimate way I could approach it in many respects. I think a lot of other lawyers that I know wouldn't want to touch that with a 10-foot pole, but it was so personal to me I was willing to take that chance.

As a Black woman did you have any hesitation about getting involved in the cannabis industry? I definitely think I saw it as my obligation to speak out on behalf of other Black people who couldn't speak out. Because when I made the decision to open my own law firm that's how my journey started. I had my own clients for the first year or two. Once I opened my own shop, I really didn't have that concern of having a law firm that could fire me. I also saw that there are a lot of other lawyers I knew who used cannabis that could not come out and speak on behalf of marginalized folks who didn't have a voice. So I definitely saw it as an obligation to use the freedom that I had to be able to speak up, and also the history that I had about being arrested. There was a point in Massachusetts when we were fighting for legalization, and the powers that be did not want legalization or were saying things like people aren't getting arrested anymore. I was actually real living proof that people were still getting arrested. I really did become the poster child for that in Massachusetts because here I am this professional who had actually been around after decriminalization. The very thing we're telling people is not happening really did happen to me. So that was something that became really powerful and definitely underscored that feeling of obligation for me to be able to speak out on this.

As you look in your rearview mirror, do you see your arrest for possession as serendipitous? So much so that it makes me think when bad things happen now maybe there is a silver lining to them. I will tell you that day that happened, I went home and just like melted into my bedit was the worst, it was absolutely terrible. Not only did I get arrested that day and my car got impounded but because the cannabis that I had with me I had cultivated at home it put a target on my back.

But talk about serendipitous because that led me to be even more judicious with my material. And be able to stretch it more and understand how to make more things with it. So absolutely, now when things happen in business, whether it's something that I wanted so badly that didn't happen, or it seems like the worst thing that could happen, I think back to that time and remember how bad that seemed, and that there was something good that came of it. So I try to look for the silver linings based on that experience.

Tell me what inspired you to establish Equitable Opportunities Now (EON)? After we fought for legalization lots of different groups were working together on that push for legalization. And I was one of the authors of Question Four. One of the others was Shaleen Title, who became one of the inaugural Cannabis Control Commissioners in Massachusetts. She and I were specifically focused on getting equity into the law. We were able to get a provision in there that said this industry had to positively impact communities harmed by prohibition. So, we were all happy about that.

Before cannabis I was not very political. Sure, I had certain candidates I stood for, but I really was not involved in the political process. So, it was very interesting to see, it's like Schoolhouse Rock, how a bill becomes a law or how a ballot initiative becomes a law and all the things that happen in between. The fact that just getting the law passed is really the first step. Everything that comes after is getting it implemented. And if you don't have the strength of an organized community around a particular issue, that issue will flail out. It will become something that you never imagined and become something that actually hurts you rather than helps you.

What is the mission of Equitable Opportunities Now (EON)? EON is a grassroots organization of equity activists in the cannabis space that were from traditional areasorganizers around housing, criminal justice and academics in Massachusettsjust a really strong group of activists from Black and Brown business that really came together to start EON. Obviously, it's a play on words, we've been waiting eons for equitable opportunities. All the folks in EON either own an ancillary business or own a licensed equity business. We use our expertise to advocate for equitable policies to provide technical assistance. I am personally mentoring six equity applicants right now in all stages, whether that's reviewing their legal documents, going over business plans, helping people make pitch decks, etc. We're using our expertise to educate, help and uplift all the equity entrepreneurs in the space. We've been waiting for cannabis legalization and for an opportunity to reverse the harms of prohibition. So that is what we strive to do as an organization. I think we're a very unique organization because we really are active as business owners as well.

What has EON accomplished so far that has made you proudest? Fighting for the implementation of equitable policy in Massachusetts. Exclusivity is really important. When I say exclusivity in Massachusetts that means a certain time period for equity applicants to be the only ones to be getting licenses. Just last year, we won that for delivery. So, for the first three years for delivery licenses, the only folks that can get those licenses are economic empowerment, social equity, and small micro businesses. So, creating an equitable landscape for Black and Brown businesses and small businesses because that is who gets completely stomped out when you see these big corporate entities come in.

I'm really proud of the fact that in Massachusetts we've made the kind of strides that we have. The kind of ancillary technical assistance that we provide to folks is one-on-one coaching and mentoring on how to not just get a business open, but how to actually sustain that business. It's been about getting people’s foot in the door, but also making sure that there's longevity to equity businesses. That's something that I think that a peer group really helps with, and it also grows our community, which warms my heart more than anything.

What is EON’s end goal? To support and advocate for a flourishing, engaged and healthy equity community. The next step is laying the groundwork of the law. But now it's about the regulations and can people actually make it through. Do these equity businesses have the knowledge and network and support that they need to be competitive? And how do we as members of the board of EON continue to use the knowledge and expertise that we have to give back and continue to grow that. So, I think it's kind of a combination between continuing to advocate and support, and to grow the equity community.

What have you learned about making equity a reality?

We do see more and more data on the fact that equity just doesn't happen organically. I think that's the biggest lesson. I think that was a story we were told a very long time ago, that equity just happened naturally. But again, my whole experience shows that's not true. We heard that decriminalization will naturally lead to less people being arrested. Well, not really. Because people were still being arrested like me, or they were being up-charged, or whatever the situation is, and you have to have these really firm legal carveouts. If you want equity, you really have to have specific equitable carveouts. I think we all have come to understand that by now. And I think anybody who pretends that they don't, just doesn't want to see equity come. If you don't have equity, big business MSOs come in and crush everybody, equitable or not. So, if you want to pay for small business, and you want space for equity, you really have to carve that out. I think that Massachusetts is a great example of that because even with all of these provisions, we're still struggling to make that a reality.

Over the last year there has definitely started to be more equity. I don't know all the equity businesses anymore in Massachusetts, and I used to know every single one. So, the fact that there are now folks who are in this space that I don't even know now means there is starting to be a critical mass of us to be able to do different things. You're starting to see different trade organizations pop up, and other things like that. That's very satisfying. Obviously, there's still a ton of work to be done and a lot of barriers that still exist but it is exciting to see. From cultivators all the way through retail and manufacturing, and now delivery, that's actually become a reality in Massachusetts.

Do you think we will see true equity for Black and Brown people in the cannabis industry in your lifetime? I don't think that is a foregone conclusion. To make this industry truly equitable, you would need to scrap it and start all over, which is not happening. But do I think that we will see meaningful ownership and participation? Only if we continue to fight tooth and nail, and only if we are successful at getting real equitable policies at the federal level. That is still a huge question mark whether or not that's going to happen. In my opinion, that's going to dictate whether or not we're going to see anything coming close to the equity we think we're going to achieve.

Which has been harder, becoming an entrepreneur and inventor and starting something from scratch or being a Black woman in the cannabis space? I think they're neck and neck. I think there's a lot of overlap too. I don't think that you can talk about being in the cannabis space and not talk about being a woman. Or being in the cannabis space and not talk about being Black or being an inventor. And not talk about the fact that there's so little representation for women in patents and other things like that. I see it as all one unique experience that I'm having as an individual person that intersects all these different pieces of race, gender and class.

It's a wild ride and this industry is not for the faint of heart. It is it is one tough ride for everyone involved and then compound that with being a woman and compound that with being a person of color and it's a hard industry. All of those things give me an incredible perspective. I think that all those different groups are so underrepresented on the consumer side in cannabis. For every group that is marginalized, the strength of our groups is continuing to grow. For the people who are lucky enough to make it through these barriers there is a phenomenal other side because you are one of the few people who is serving those folks who are the most engaged.

Attorney, inventor, entrepreneur and cannabis advocateof these roles, which is your favorite? Inventor. It's the most fun. I'm a dreamer. I like to daydream and think about what could be different. I love bringing a new product to life after lots of hard work. I like that feeling that there's something that doesn't exist yet that could make life better for people. Like people say, Advent is my baby. We have two patents now on the product (Ardent Nova and FX). I do a lot of the patent work in conjunction with the patent attorneys and that was very, very rewarding when the first patent got granted. Then we have a second one, so I'm definitely Miss Pac Man for patents. And that was not the type of law that I used to practice. But it's a new skillset that I have because patent attorneys are very expensive. Now, I want more of them.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the cannabis industry right now? I think the authenticity of the industry. I think that ties into equity and all these other pieces, such as what is this industry going to look like? And is it something that's going to be dominated by corporations and suits and people who really don't have a love for cannabis, but have money as the bottom line? Or is it going to be something reflective of all the amazing abilities of this plant. The biggest challenge for this industry is: Are the authentic voices in this industry going to rise to the top or are they going to be snuffed out because of corporate interests? What is our character as an industry going to look like at the end of the day? As a brand-new industry, we have the chance to sort of mold the character.

What has been your most surprising discovery about cannabis? It would be how quickly people can do a 180 on their position about the substance. For example, in Massachusetts once it became legal there were some people who were immediately willing to try it. Or people who have been staunch prohibitionists have someone in their family who has cancer and uses it and has a good experience and they turn their minds around. I think that surprised me a little bit. I think that's a testament to its power and its power in the positive, which is that it really is medical. You have the whole entire scientific community hellbent against it; yet, at the end of the day, it's still comes out on top because it really is that beneficial.

What does your legacy look like?

I am definitely trying to build a legacy of breaking the mold when it comes to the way that people think about cannabis and use cannabis and really being a pioneer of innovation in the space. That’s one piece of it. The other piece is using business for good; not only the voice of the business, but also the financials of the business in order to push equity forward. And to continue to be used as an example, like I have in the past, of the harms of prohibition. And the benefits that can come of it when you do invest in women, Black people, and people of color because when you create pathways there can be a lot of success. That would be the other piece that I would like to leave behind when I'm no longer part of the industry.