Through Oct. 19, the NuLeaf Project will be taking applications from minority-owned businesses in Portland for a program called NuFuel. Using $150,000 from the city’s 3 percent sales tax on cannabis products, it’s offering grants of up to $30,000 to help these businesses thrive. We talked to Jeannette Ward Horton, NuLeaf’s director, about why NuFuel is necessary, and what it aims to accomplish.
Why is a program focused on minority-owned cannabis businesses necessary? There is a history of criminalization of the plant, and the policies and practices around that history have specifically targeted African Americans, first, and Latinos, second. In Portland, African Americans only were targeted, so we’ve seen an arrest rate of something like 4.3 times that of whites, despite the fact studies show whites and blacks use cannabis at similar rates. And that has real, documented economic impact that can last for generations — impacting people’s ability to earn, the schools their children can attend and so on.
What’s the NuLeaf Project strategy for attacking this? The work we’re doing is twofold: We’ve got the direct investment of the capital and the resources, but we’re also working with the city on the licensing process that will happen I think the first of October, where they’re making it easier to get through the licensing process and are creating pathways for small businesses in general to get through that process quicker. There’s really a good story in Portland about how various groups and bodies and the city are working together to solve challenges that small businesses can face.
What are you looking for from applicant businesses? There’s no restriction on type of project or what they want to spend the money on, except they have to be able to describe to us how the investment will bring a return to their company. That could be hiring someone. That could be implementing a new technology system. As a business owner, you need to connect the initiative with ROI. We are super flexible to say that once we find these smart, sharp innovative businesses that are bringing something special to the market, we want to fuel their growth.
How does this fit into the larger picture of the seemingly inevitable, if halting, move toward federal legalization? Small business is key. Portland is a great environment for small business in general, and Oregon’s cannabis regulations don’t have the barriers to entry we see elsewhere. When you layer on tax investment into these cannabis businesses of color, I think we have a petri dish to show that this regulatory environment plus this investment is what it takes to build an equitable cannabis industry. As cannabis goes federal in the next two years, we can say here’s what this can look like, and we can influence regulations in such a way that we pick the right environment for small businesses and minority businesses to thrive.