Erik Range, Orlando, Florida

Art was the point of entry into cannabis advocacy for Erik Range. In 2015, after a trip to Colorado, where he saw the expansion of the cannabis industry, Erik began wondering how, as a minority, he could take part in the economic benefits.

His solution was Art420, a company that uses fine art exhibitions to challenge cannabis stereotypes. He put on shows a couple of years in a row, including one in the Florida state capitol and pop-up shows in California.

“As I was promoting the exhibitions, I quickly realized that minorities were not participating,” says Erik. “They weren’t at conferences, weren’t at events, not part of the conversation.”

In his second year, he used the art shows as a platform for outreach with a “Black Market Brunch” that brought in experts to educate community members. While he was promoting that event, someone who attended suggested to Erik that he connect with Roz McCarthy, who had just started the group Minorities for Medical Marijuana. It turns out they live in the same city, and, in September 2016, Roz asked him to serve as chairperson of the organization’s board.

With Florida voters soon to decide on Amendment 2, a citizen initiative to expand medical access in the state, that became the focus of their organizing efforts. Once it passed, they were making the four-hour drive from Orlando to Tallahassee once or twice a week to participate in shaping the rules for implementation in the state.

“As much as we wanted to talk to state officials about social equity issues, it was a nonstarter in Florida at that time, so we focused on diversity,” Erik says. “We coauthored language now in the law to include diversity requirements for equity, staffing and contracts.”

After that initial success, Erik and Roz saw their organization explode seemingly overnight. From a handful of volunteers, in just a few months they expanded to 15 chapters nationally. Now, there are 24 U.S. chapters and ones in Toronto, Jamaica, and London.

“It was an amazing experience working with elected officials helping to craft laws that allow minorities to participate,” Erik says.

From there, they turned their attention to work in Black and Latinx communities, hosting forums on medicinal cannabis efficacy and boot-camps on licensing. In 2019, they travelled to Illinois, New Jersey and Missouri to put on workshops on licensing and business practices for sustainability. Since the onset of COVID-19, they’ve switched to virtual events, with one scheduled for the end of this month for Massachusetts, which for the next two years will only offer delivery licenses to social equity applicants.

“We’re working to help Black and brown communities overcome barriers,” says Erik. “We’re bringing attention to the lack of diversity in many areas of the industry, training suppliers and educating businesses on closing that gap.”

Some barriers are structural, Erik notes, pointing to the differences in how Florida regulates medical cannabis and hemp. Erik serves on Florida’s industrial hemp committee.

“Florida’s medical licenses are limited in number and require vertically integrated operations from cultivation to manufacturing and transport, which cuts people out who don’t have the experience or capital to cover all operations,” he says. “It’s a night-and-day difference on the hemp side -- the state has taken an open-market approach, with no cap on licenses and no application fee. If you meet the requirements, you get a license.”

Achieving social equity is more than just giving a license to operate to members of communities that have borne the brunt of cannabis prohibition. The community outreach and education Erik has been engaged in is aimed at addressing the underlying social effects.

“We’ve got to expand our view of equity and create structures for success in Black and brown communities,” Erik says. “That means affordable legal services, access to low interest loans and capital, and using taxes to rebuild the infrastructure that supports communities.”

In Erik’s view, that work starts with education, bringing trusted sources to speak with stakeholders to build community and political capital.

“To reframe the conversation, we have to recognize the stigma,” Erik says. “We need to recognize how close people are to the war on drugs, how many ills it has created.”

This profile was originally published in the July 2020 ASA Activist Newsletter