BY TAYLOR ENGLE | Image courtesy of Amber Senter
Pride Month is a time to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community, and in the cannabis industry, there’s even more reason to be proud. Thanks to the advocacy of Dennis Peron and others during the 1980s AIDS crisis, medical cannabis was legalized in California, launching a movement that would eventually sweep the nation.
Since then, other LGBTQIA+ cannabis advocates have continued to stick up for the plant and ensure that a most-necessary space remains for Black, Brown, and queer people in the industry. Cannabis entrepreneur and industry visionary Amber Senter is one of these pioneering advocates, working tirelessly to restore social equity and justice to the Black and Brown communities wrongfully targeted and impacted by the nation’s failed War on Drugs.
Today, Senter is widely recognized for her role in changing the landscape of cannabis and revered across the industry, not only as a dedicated cannabis activist, but a leader and mentor for new minority operators in the space. We spoke with Senter about her profound experience in the cannabis industry and her continued game-changing efforts for equity.
Senter’s interest in cannabis began years ago, when the plant was still stigmatized and much of the industry was still operating in the shadows. “Cannabis was initially very much for the misfits,” Senter told Ember. “It was a bad kids club. And now to see cannabis today very normalized and with lots of corporate interest coming in, it brings [with it] this very heteronormative culture." As a queer Black woman navigating a predominantly white industry, she expressed, "I feel like my existence is resistance.”
Although she’d always been aware of cannabis, Senter’s real interest began with her own positive experiences with the plant. After beginning to feel the symptoms of her autoimmune disease lupus, pre-diagnosis, she shared that cannabis was the one natural medicine that was able to ease her symptoms.
“I always had a fascination with the plant and everything about it: its healing properties, the versatility of it,” Senter mused. “I’m really fascinated with how the plant looks and smells. I’m just a fan of cannabis!”
After an opportunity to work at an edibles company in California, Senter soon realized her ambitions were much beyond making a career out of her passion for cannabis. “I really wanted to see what I could do outside of just being a consumer. I wanted to be able to make cannabis products that were helpful to me, and to people who deal with similar issues,” Senter said.
With over twenty years of experience in marketing, project management, and cannabis leadership, the powerhouse entrepreneur currently acts as founder and CEO of distribution and infused cannabis products company Breeze Distro, and co-founder and Executive Director of Supernova Women, which works to empower, educate, and advocate for Black and Brown operators to become self-sufficient cannabis industry shareholders.
In addition to her personal experience with the plant’s healing properties, Senter served 3 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, which opened her eyes even wider to the importance of improving easy access to medical cannabis.
As passionate as Senter is about ensuring there is space in cannabis for the communities who have been wrongfully targeted by the War on Drugs, she also believes military members—both veterans and active duty personnel—should have necessary access to the medicinal plant.
Veterans consume medical cannabis at rates far higher than the rest of the population, and yet there still isn’t a program in place that allows all veterans to access and consume it safely. Ongoing studies show promise in the usage of veterans' medical marijuana programs as an opioid substitution in managing PTSD and chronic pain, with Disabled American Veterans (DAV) pushing for more much-needed research.
Senter's experience as a Coast Guard veteran has deepened her perspective on veterans' cannabis affairs, and has spoken out about this topic across the nation. “It’s an issue of harm reduction,” Senter said. “During my time in the military, I saw so many folks get caught up with alcohol, suffering from alcoholism, getting in bar fights or getting DUIs while on leave… I see cannabis as a solution to a lot of these issues.”
Senter co-founded Supernova Women in 2015, her first foray into nonprofit work that created pathways for POC operators to exist in the legal market. “We saw we were being left behind, and we needed support to succeed,” Senter told Ember. “We decided to work to lower barriers of entry to help more Black and Brown folks have opportunities in the regulated market.”
With this intent, Senter and the Supernova team partnered with the city of San Francisco and Senator Steven Bradford on SB-1294, the California Cannabis Social Equity Act of 2018. The bill helps fund social equity programs throughout the state, setting a standard for the rest of the legal industry to prioritize justice.
The organization did similar work with the city of Oakland in 2017, developing the country’s very first cannabis social equity program at the EquityWorks! Incubator Training Center. Senter has worked with the program ever since, providing resources and education to budding cannabis entrepreneurs.
“EquityWorks! Incubator… is an incubator,” Senter laughed. “We incubate social equity operators, manufacturers in particular, and help them create branded, infused cannabis products. From there, we help get them to market.”
The incubator works as a launchpad for new brands who are breaking into the industry, especially Black and Brown operators whose communities were most severely hit by the War on Drugs. Their aim is to help bridge the gap in cannabis and keep the industry as equitable as possible.
Senter’s team assists these businesses and entrepreneurs with marketing and branding, analyzing market data to ensure they create products and fully-fledged brands that really resonate for consumer demand, with clear missions. The goal is to bring visibility to the brands that deserve to have a platform and seat at the table, but have systemically been denied access to the resources they need to succeed.
MedMen's Head of Product Vision, Tyson Rossi, said, "MedMen is partnering with Amber and EquityWorks! to provide opportunities for the cohorts she's incubating, from shelf space in our retail stores to marketing opportunities." The brands under Amber's incubator that will have an upcoming showcase at MedMen retailers include Congo Club and and MAAT Apothecary, whose artisan-crafted Infused Spiced Honey gets its kick from natural turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon.
Rossi has also met with brands under the EquityWorks! Incubator for hands-on mentorship on brand and product positioning, pricing strategies, and overall best practices when doing business with retailers like MedMen. “Amber and I talk regularly, sometimes about business, and sometimes about the best strategies for amplifying Black and Brown communities and operators in the cannabis space," Rossi said. "She is an awesome partner and an even better human.”
Not only does Senter work hard to lower barriers of entry for POC operators—she also aims to ensure that LGBTQ+ people have equal access to the industry they helped destigmatize and create. “The regulated cannabis industry came to be because of the LGBTQ+ community. It started in the Bay with Harvey Milk, Dennis Peron, Brownie Mary. Those people helped get us where we are today,” Senter said.
These trailblazing advocates were the first in the Bay Area to stick up for cannabis, its healing properties, and the people’s right to access it. As one of today's leading advocates who continue that fight in honor of these industry heroes, Senter told Ember, “I’m hoping that conversation never gets lost, and people really understand how critical our community was in the normalization of cannabis, especially the medical side of the plant.”
As cannabis continues to legalize, Senter recognizes the overwhelmingly white corporate shift that threatens to strip these communities of their legacy, but she utilizes this to continue challenging the “new norm” being forced on the industry—resisting by existing.
“I feel like my queerness challenges the status quo of what cannabis is turning into,” Senter said. “And I really encourage other folks that are LGBTQ+, or come from diverse backgrounds, to consider a career in cannabis, because there is still room for us. We built this, and we need to stay here.”
Taylor Engle is a freelance writer, editor, and public relations/marketing specialist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her free time, she loves to cook, do yoga, and hang out with her cat.