Meet Denise Biderman, a Lawyer Creating Social Equity in the Cannabis Space
Her soothing yet thick New York accent indicates a sharp intellect, likely what it takes to be an Assistant District Attorney in Queens County, which she was from 2015 to 2016. For Biderman, social equity is not a buzzword, but the gateway to recognizing the importance of equity in the lives of average citizens -- whether they’re in or out of the cannabis industry.
We got the chance to talk to her about her recently launched company, Mary’s List, a resource for freelancers and service providers to connect. It provides career opportunities for folks to get paid for working in the cannabis industry. This time legally.
How have you been received by your colleagues and family now that you've transitioned into the cannabis world?
It's been amazing. There are so many colleagues from the District Attorney's office that have come up to me saying, "you're doing such wonderful things” or “we want to invest in cannabis – how do we do that?" That's dope. My mom and my brother actually helped to work our booth at this past year’s MJBizCon. They're so supporting and so excited. I've given cannabis products to my family back in Argentina. It's been really surprising because when they were first introduced to cannabis (aka my mom finding my pipe) it was a whole other story. Now my mother sends me articles about cannabis and epilepsy, or cannabis and Alzheimer's and it’s incredible.
What is your personal relationship to cannabis?
I've been using cannabis for a long time. It wasn’t until I graduated from law school that I understood that it really was medical. I've been an insomniac all of my life, and I usually would sleep about two hours a night. But I found that with cannabis, I was able to sleep much more. When I had a knee surgery, that's when it all shifted for me. I did a lot of research. And was hearing so much about it being an alternative for opioids. I asked some friends to send me topicals from California and I flat out told my doctor that, "I'm not going to take any synthetic painkillers, I'm just going to use cannabis." My doctor said, "all right, do whatever you have to do." So I did, and it worked! Honestly, my recovery time was cut in half because I was able to treat myself with cannabis. I was a recreational user and then it translated into medicinal. It's been a beautiful journey for me to understand the plant.
Recreational use versus medical use, what are the differences?
I think that all of us pretty much use cannabis for medicine, whether or not you think you are. There's a reason why you like the way it feels. Sometimes I do worry about recreational use. Yet, it's so hard for me to verbalize how I feel about it. Because you can have a glass of wine [recreationally] and it's considered fine. It’s the same as when you come home and smoke a joint. It's sort of medical in the way that it helps you decompress from your day and whatever anxiety you were feeling melts away. But cannabis research is very complicated in its early stages, which makes it hard to classify what’s medical versus adult use. But that's also the beauty of the plant, right.
Let's talk about your impressive legal background. Have you found any contradictions or problematic issues when it comes to law and your personal experiences with cannabis?
Of course. Initially, I really didn't feel comfortable getting into the cannabis industry and it took me a long time to start Mary’s List. Even though I fully believed in it and used it. I just didn't think it was an option. I guess that's a better way to say it. I knew I could be involved and do something really positive. But I thought it was something that I had to keep separate from the rest of my life. When I decided to stop practicing law and really announce what I was doing. It was this "aha" moment when I realized that I could have both of these things. It was at the same time that I really starting to understand the medicine of it. And I thought, why would I be ashamed of using medicine? So that really changed my relationship with the plant and the notion of it being legalized in one state vs. not legalized in another. It's insane that it's not legalized. And has been very hard to watch people all over the country being put in jail while there are tons of other people that are making so much money.
What we're trying to combat with my company Mary's List is how to help people who have been put away for essential working in weed, get jobs in the newfound cannabis industry.
So how was that sentiment felt when you moved from New York to Colorado, where cannabis is legal?
It was really mind-blowing. When I first went to the National Cannabis Bar Association in 2017, it was my first real experience with other attorneys practicing cannabis law and I was blown away. Like, wtf? How did I not know about this sooner?! Being in Colorado and just seeing a fully developed industry around this plant was insane. Everyone was white. And that was crazy to me. Here I was trying to be a part of this community in a real way and I just felt out of place. I guess I had a different expectation of it. Yes, people are really doing some awesome shit. And there is a lot going on. But what about the rest of the country going through it? Of course, it's not Colorado's fault it's the country's fault.
Speaking of the country – seeing Canada become legal and now Mexico getting close to legalizing, how do you feel about the US dragging behind (or rather sandwiched between) these two countries?
I think it's incredible to be sandwiched between two countries who are looking at the US like, "What are you doing?" It's ridiculous, yet I think there are bigger issues and so many more scary legislative things going on in the U.S. For people in the cannabis industry, it's obviously very very important to get things legalized. But for people who are not in the industry – they just want social equity. In their daily life. Sure, at the end of the day it's a billion dollar industry, but there are not that many people involved. We're looking at about 150,000 that have actual jobs in cannabis. Now with CBD being legal, there’s a new push forward. But I think this country has so many reparations to mend, given the current political status.
How does Mary's List create actual social equity?
It's two-fold. First, we offer an opportunity for people who live in marginalized communities to emerge into the cannabis industry. As a freelancer with Mary’s List, you can work from anywhere. You don't have to be in a legalized state – which I think is really exciting. I'm excited to give people the opportunity to be in this space. The more people that are in the space, the more their community starts talking. Community support is what pushes us closer to mass legalization.
Second, we also donate a percentage of our profits to organizations like CannaClusive, a community organization that offers record expungement services and addresses social equity issues head-on. We wouldn’t be here without our brothers and sisters before us who did a lot of the hard work. Unfortunately many of them are in jail and the rest who are now out of jail and can't do work in this cannabis industry. Which is insane. So first and foremost, we try to get rid of their records because it's bullshit. And then we try to help people get jobs and just feel normal.
First, it was diversity, then inclusion and intersectionality. Yet equity is in the money. That's where and how we actually see folks getting the monetary opportunities they deserve. How does one legally support social equity in the cannabis scene?
It's so interesting. Because the cannabis industry is very political, so you also have to be. I recommend that people get involved with their local organizations, or even national organizations that do work in that space. Support the ACLU, support organizations that change cannabis law for the better.
The current space can sometimes feel like a good ol’ boys club. Where companies selling high end products in high end head shops don't give a shit about intersectionality. How do you assess the cannabis industry’s take on social equity?
I think people are handling their business, making their money and only now that social equity is coming up, people are starting to think about it – which is wonderful. But I just don't think people were mindful about it before.
When I went to MJBizCon, it was amazing. It was incredible how much love and support we got. But there were a lot of industry parties happening outside of the conference. I couldn't make it to all the fabulous cocktail parties because I was at my booth trying to start my business. We've been trying to reach the people who have been in the scene for a long time. Yet it seems that some people just don't want new people in their space. And that makes it really hard. Aren't we supposed to provide medicine to the people? Shouldn't there be as many people involved as possible?
Unfortunately, our society right now works on a public relations system. That's what President T***p is, he's a master of PR and so we realize that it's about figuring out how to get our issue of equity in the spotlight of PR. We want social equity relevant and on everyone's mind. Always.