About Boardroom

Boardroom is a media network that covers the business of sports, entertainment. From the ways that athletes, executives, musicians and creators are moving the business world forward to new technologies, emerging leagues, and industry trends, Boardroom brings you all the news and insights you need to know...

At the forefront of industry change, Boardroom is committed to unique perspectives on and access to the news, trending topics and key players you need to know.

All Rights Reserved. 2022.

Meet Dasheeda Dawson, NYC’s Cannabis Czar

Last Updated: June 30, 2023
Boardroom sits down with Dasheeda Dawson to discuss her history in cannabis, how she got to where she is today, and what she hopes to accomplish in New York City.

With New York City legalizing adult-use cannabis in March 2021, a lot of changes have been going on as the market gets up to speed. In October 2022, the city appointed Dasheeda Dawson as its official cannabis czar.

Boardroom recently caught up with Dawson to discuss her history in cannabis, how career opportunities came about, and what work she and her team strive to achieve for a market that has the potential to become one of the biggest hubs of the cannabis industry and culture in the world.

Who is Dasheeda Dawson?

Image courtesy of Dawson

Dasheeda Dawson is a long-time cannabis advocate that is famously known for her brand, The WeedHead, where she provides education and information about cannabis. The brand and website started when she first entered the industry as a medical patient in 2016 and has now grown into a hub for education, equity, and e-commerce.

In addition to the WeedHead, Dawson has worked alongside the government in Arizona, been Portland’s cannabis czar, and now works as the founding director of Cannabis NYC, aimed at making sure that the New York legal cannabis market sets up its social equity applicants – and truly the state’s industry as whole – for sustainable success.

Now, let’s dive into the Q&A.

The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Danté Jordan: What has your background in weed been up until this point? I’d originally heard of you some years back with The WeedHead, but you’ve blossomed a lot from there since then. 

Dasheeda Dawson: Thankfully, I am still the WeedHead. It’s refreshing to recognize that I’ve been doing that for a while just being myself, which is really a cannabis patient with dignity. I entered the industry unofficially almost 15 years ago now, really using cannabis through the legacy market primarily to deal with auto-immune issues, which we now know as early [multiple sclerosis]. 

Almost eight years ago, I actually became a legal patient, and that’s how I transformed my trajectory from a standard senior corporate executive at companies like Target to a senior executive, senior consultant, and leader in the cannabis space. A lot of my experience starts from being a cannabis patient first and recognizing a lot of gaps in the market that didn’t benefit communities, didn’t benefit consumers, and patients. As a result, it largely didn’t benefit the businesses and therefore the government either.

After doing some consulting for some pretty large companies, small companies, Native American tribes, and government entities across the country, trying to develop frameworks, do political strategy, and education, I got tapped during [the COVID-19 pandemic] to oversee the city of Portland’s market. This is not my first time in government, but it is really a continuation or expansion or leveling up of the work. Portland was like riding a bike with training wheels; [New York City] is like riding a motorcycle, in terms of pace and market difference.

I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York, and my experience with cannabis really starts with prohibition and the experiences that we had here in New York as the cannabis arrest capital of the country. The neighborhood I grew up in was part of five neighborhoods that represented 80% of the prison’s population at one point, and a large percentage of that coming from cannabis arrests. It’s a deeply personal thing for me to be working in the industry. I’m thrilled to be working in New York because it’s aligned with the overall equity-centered mission that I’ve had for the last 7-8 years in the industry.

DJ: That’s interesting: One of my questions was where your passion for cannabis advocacy comes from, and for you, the answer is your life, right?

DD: Yes, absolutely. That’s a lot of people with cannabis and I’m often reminding everyone that we have to give each other grace. Many of us came into the industry as advocates and entrepreneurs primarily because of medical issues. The whole country has dealt with trauma from the War on Drugs. I think it’s a human rights issue that cannabis has not been available to us as medicine.

DJ: Is that why you moved to Portland? Was it about access to the medicine and Oregon coming on early?

DD: I moved to Arizona first. That’s where I became a [medical cannabis] patient. That was my first legal state, it was also my first state that I worked on legislation. I didn’t move to Portland until 2020 when I got selected as the lead in the industry for the city. 

DJ: When did you create The WeedHead?

DD: The WeedHead was created the minute that I got into that industry as a patient. I felt that it was necessary to chronicle this experience. Me being new to the legal market, I was just fascinated by everything. I created The WeedHead, and theweedhead.com as a blog. That blog transformed over time into a place of education and empowerment, and ultimately a workbook. 

“How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry” was really a culmination of years of consulting in the industry, being a patient, and just seeing a hole in everyday learning about and breaking down the industry beyond buying and selling.

The WeedHead was created in 2016. It started out as a video blog, but it was really me accounting for all the experiences I was having in the industry.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get on our list for weekly sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

DJ: How was “How To Succeed in the Cannabis Industry” received when it first dropped? It’s in its third edition, I saw.

DD: I think it was really well received. The first edition was a good way to test whether it would do well. The third edition was the most comprehensive. The fourth edition is going to be a refresh with the inclusion of equity conversations that are not included in the third edition. Other states have legalized since 2019, so we need to add to the book as well.

DJ: What is a cannabis czar and what are your responsibilities?

DD: A czar is truly just the policy lead for a given government jurisdiction on a particular topic. In this case, cannabis czar means you’re the highest policy leader in a government jurisdiction focused on cannabis. The official title I have in New York is Founding Director of Cannabis NYC, which was established by executive order and Mayor Eric Adams. The official title I had in Portland was Cannabis Program Manager. 

DJ: What were you able to accomplish in Portland and how did that translate to some of the work you’re doing in New York?

DD: Portland, I think I took them by storm. What I love about Oregon and Portland was the fact that it had some of the most progressive laws that had passed in legalization. We have a new conversation in cannabis that is really post-George Floyd. Prior to that, Colorado wasn’t talking about social equity, we only had little cities here and there. By and large, it wasn’t really discussed.

The most equitable entry to the industry was actually in Oregon because of low prices and cost of licensing. So when I entered the market, I was very excited about the fact that I knew there were unlimited licenses. But I also knew that there was a statute that had passed an initiative in Portland that basically makes the city take the 3% excise tax of the cannabis retail sales and reinvest it in communities that have been disproportionately impacted [by cannabis prohibition] — minority and women-owned businesses, and veterans.

Until I got involved, they were not actually allocating much of the money to communities — 80% of it went to public safety, which is essentially the police bureau. So that was an insult to injury. It didn’t make sense. The leaders at the time before me didn’t have an intentional plan on how to execute.

One of the first things I was able to do was educate the city council on what this tax revenue is supposed to be used for, leveraging our cannabis policy oversight team to put some pressure on the city council through letters and testimony, following up with reporting around the cannabis tax revenue, and really create a framework for how we would be equity-centered and manage the cannabis tax revenue in a way to get a return on equity investment. I’m proud that we had the Social Equity and Education Development (SEED) initiatives that were launched and we were able to get $1,000,000 annually that was allocated just for funding. 

Another thing I was really really proud of: After a pandemic hit and there were wildfires, of course, cannabis-touching businesses did not qualify for federal government relief. We were the first (and only) jurisdiction to provide government-backed cannabis emergency relief (CERF), and that came from that tax revenue. Those grants kept a lot of businesses afloat at a time when cannabis was not receiving anything from the federal government.

I hope, as we get tax revenue going in New York City, to have a lot of comparable programming. It’s very clear that cannabis tax revenue needs to be reinvested, not just in the communities disproportionately impacted, but the actual businesses themselves. When emergencies happen, I think it’s a fiscally responsible thing that, for the businesses that are propelling that industry, you have a safety net for them.

DJ: Was there any work with Housing Works?

DD: No, I started after the licenses were already submitted. The way New York rolled out, they rolled out with conditional licensing only. There are about 600 licenses in total across the supply chain. Now, we have 215 approved retail dispenses, of which 103 are in the New York City jurisdiction. Housing Works was the first one to open. They represent a unique thing in the New York model that I fought for as an advocate before becoming the czar and that’s nonprofits participating in the industry as a means for creating sustainable and perpetual income for that nonprofit. It creates a win-win-win scenario.

A lot of people ask why New York has launched a [Why Buy Legal New York] campaign. I buy legal for three reasons: 1) I know the cannabis tax, by virtue of the state law, 40% is supposed to go back to communities disproportionately impacted [by the War on Drugs]. That doesn’t happen when I purchase illegally. 2) If I am purchasing from a dispensary, I’m supporting a business that in and of itself is supporting the community that has been disproportionately impacted, and 3) I’m supporting their workforce. 

DJ: What are some of the greatest challenges you’re facing?

DD: We’re mostly really challenged with this new-founded gray or illicit market. We’ve seen a proliferation of what folks dub smoke shops. They’re not exclusively cannabis stores. I hate when people say illegal cannabis stores, they’re not. These stores, more often than not, they’re using any type of cannabis marketing to get people in stores, but then we walk in, and there’s a lot of look-alike packaging and other products besides cannabis like a lot of illegal tobacco products.

That is the biggest issue — they’re conflating these unlicensed smoke shops as the legal industry we fought for. They couldn’t be further from it. It’s not a representation of the legacy market that we’re fighting for. It’s a real problem because it’s so dynamic.

DJ: I see you’re the keynote speaker at the [Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition]. Tell me about what’s happening there.

DD: The Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo, or CWCBE, is one of the longer-running B2B conferences. I’ve been participating since 2016 in the expo. I’m thrilled to come back now full circle as the Cannabis NYC czar/founding director.

My keynote will really focus a lot on how we’re investing in equity to achieve the return. For a lot of people that already live a privileged existence, they think equity is just giving a good deal to people that have a bad deal. It’s not that. It really is truly giving people what they need where they need it, when they need it, and it’s a very hard thing to do without intentionality.

DJ: What are some events you have going on with Cannabis NYC that people can get excited about, and even participate in?

DD: I‘m thrilled to still be going with our Lift Off! Cannabis NYC Tour. It’s a five-borough listening-and-learning tour. We’ve been on the road already through multiple boroughs. I’m finally going to get Staten Island on the map. This is a 40-plus date tour that will be going on through October.

As we move into Q3, we’re going to be seeing it more as demand-driven. We’re having partnerships with community organizations that want to co-host and have us come to their community. We’re partnered with [New York City Housing Authority], the Sheriff’s Department, the Mayor’s Office of Equity, the [New York City] Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Administration for Children’s Services — not your usual suspects. I think it speaks to how focused New York City and agency leaders are on getting cannabis right.

We are dropping our newsletter soon; it’s going to be our digital hub called The Plug. We want people to get plugged into what’s happening internally from the city perspective, as well as externally on everything education and equity in New York City.

Last, but not least, I’ve been really hard at work on the Cannabis NYC loan fund. We’re working with our partners at the Economic Development Corporation to ensure these loans go to social-and-economic equity licensees. We probably won’t see that until the beginning of 2024, and I just want folks to know that we are focused on securing bags. 

More Cannabis:

Cannabis April 20, 2023

Welcome to The House of Cannabis

New York City plays host to The House of Cannabis, a first-of-its-kind cannabis experience blending art, music, and fashion with the emerging industry. With the proliferation of legalized cannabis around the country, cannabis culture…