Black and brown women working in cannabis accuse New York City-based Medly of mistreatment and threats to steal intellectual property
byAlexandra Martinez February 24th, 2023
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When Danielle Cruz first learned of Medly, a New York City cannabis brand, she was convinced that it was an LGBTQIA+ and brown-led cannabis company based on their marketing and website. It was May 2021, and the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which allows recreational adult-use cannabis in New York, had just been signed into law two months prior. Despite Medly lacking a license to sell—New York did not begin approving licenses until November 2022—Cruz was excited to help form part of an industry that was freshly legalized and being run by a progressive and BIPOC-friendly company. But, after four months of packaging, preparing, and delivering orders for the company, Cruz realized that the company’s image was artificial and that they engaged in harmful practices toward Black, brown, and immigrant workers.
“I was on board right away,” Cruz said. “But they said that I will have no space in this cannabis industry because all I want to do is save the hood.”
The first time Cruz felt uncomfortable with Medly leadership was when she says they told her that she is only creative because she “grew up in poverty.” But, according to Cruz, she did not grow up in poverty, and she says the leadership team had made a racist assumption because she is Puerto Rican and born in the Bronx. As of Feb. 23, Medly’s website and social media no longer include pricing information, but Cruz alleges that the Bronx required a $300 delivery minimum while Manhattan only required $100. Cruz said she had always made it clear that she was from the Bronx, especially when she pointed out to her managers that their delivery maps mirror the city’s redlining maps—deeming the Bronx, a predominantly Latinx and Black New York borough, too “risky” for investment.
On Feb. 1, the Black-led brand Black Girls Smoke confirmed Medly’s mistreatment and lack of respect toward Black women-owned cannabis companies in an Instagram video. In the video, Black Girls Smoke founder Vic Styles said Medly founders threatened to copy Puff in the Park, an intimate community event held by Black Girls Smoke, without crediting the organization after Styles refused to partner with Medly on the event. Styles explained that she had worked with Medly on events before, but that it quickly became apparent the Medly team was not genuinely invested in the community Styles had spent years cultivating—they were only interested in profiting off of their proximity to a Black-led cannabis brand and gaining credibility in BIPOC markets. Styles said when she pushed back against this, the Medly team became “infuriated much like a toddler who doesn’t get their candy.” Styles alleges the Medly team began to verbally attack her ability to run a company, plan an event, and rally an audience. Before the call ended, according to Styles, the Medly team double downed and said they would host the event anyway, even without her approval.
“Immediately, I understood what it meant to be a culture vulture,” Styles said in the video.
The Medly team has not responded to Prism’s request for comment or an interview.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act notes the importance of social equity, expunging cannabis convictions, and providing resources to community members impacted by prohibition and policing. New York’s law includes a social and economic equity program to encourage individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis policing with a goal of awarding 50% of licenses to social equity applicants.
“You cannot operate in the New York City cannabis space [like Medly has] while we have the most progressive bill in the country that is based around social equity,” Cruz said. “There are so many progressive values that exist in this bill. You cannot exist under the guise of being all inclusive and equitable when you’re paying your employees minimum wage and you’re being racist and throwing microaggressions at them.”
The cannabis industry is quickly growing, with nearly $3 billion in retail cannabis taxes collected in 2022. Twenty-one states have legalized recreational use of cannabis, and another 10 states have decriminalized its use. According to MJBizDaily, the industry is projected to pull in more than $45 billion in annual sales by 2025. But the industry is marred by a racist precedent—while Black and white cannabis users have comparable usage rates, Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. In a 2020 American Civil Liberties Union analysis, the authors reported that in every single state Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. In some states, Black people were up to 10 times more likely to be arrested. A 2021 analysis of marijuana-related arrests in 2020 in New York City’s five boroughs reported that people of color constituted 94% of those arrested. Meanwhile, the legal marijuana industry is overwhelmingly run by white men. According to data from MJBizDaily, only 12.1% of cannabis executives were non-white in 2022, falling from 28% in 2019.
Black Girls Smoke and other Black-owned cannabis companies like Styles’ are hoping to disrupt the market and create a safe space for Black and brown cannabis users in an industry that has historically harmed their communities. While Medly presents itself as brown-run, Styles and former Medly employees say their actions perpetuated racist harm—including remarks from one of the main funders of the company, which Styles shared screenshots of in her Instagram video. The funder has not responded to Prism’s request for a statement.
“Medly continuously parades themselves as an ally to women and people of color; in reality, they operate from misogyny and racism,” Styles said in her Instagram video. “In order to get in good with the culture, they have been actively preying on Black and brown influencers and tastemakers, baiting them with free weed and seats at tables that honestly we could build better ourselves just to access the Black dollar and the Black audience.”
During the short time that Cruz worked at Medly, she earned 10-20% off deliveries and an hourly rate for working on packaging the product. Cruz said she did not have any paid time off or benefits, but when she first started working there, Medly gave them free cannabis to take home, and lunch was provided. But within four months, the freebies were taken away. Her biggest concern, however, was the lack of sanitation and standardization practices in the warehouse when handling cannabis and psychedelic products. The lack of regulation on their product meant that customers were not always receiving the advertised product.
“They would be packaging cannabis and mushrooms with the same bowls without cleaning them,” Cruz said. “I would be sitting in the room with them, and they would be creating new names for the strains. They would pass the bag around and have everybody smell it and say, ‘Oh, what strain do you think this is?’”
Without a human resources official, Cruz had to share her concerns with one of the company’s three founders.
“When I had raised that concern, I was told that my position is one of an Uber Eats driver for weed and that I should stay in my lane essentially,” Cruz said.
By the time the Met Gala came around in September 2022, Cruz had reached her limit. Medly was providing free cannabis for one of the event afterparties, and according to Cruz, Medly leadership instructed her to change labels on the edibles so they could charge people more and package them in glass containers—much heavier than the usual material.
“That is what our delivery drivers had to ride around with,” Cruz said. “It was so heavy that in that same amount of time with the glass bottles, two of my coworkers had gotten into accidents, one of them getting a broken arm, and then the second one damaging her bike so badly that I had to go and pick her up and take her home.”
Soon after, Cruz was told they were ending the Bronx delivery zone, and Cruz quit. During her time, Cruz alleges that she witnessed owners refusing to speak Spanish to a Spanish-speaking worker, routinely loading Black and brown delivery workers with more than the legal carry amount, and seeing the introduction of hiring and exploiting undocumented workers.
“If the police pull them over and find out how much weight they’re carrying of unregulated product, they’re going to get hit with a misdemeanor,” Cruz said. “I told them, we need to put a cap on how much people can order, we need to change the packaging. I brought it up to them so many times. But they did not listen to that; [they] feel untouchable.”
Styles is hoping community members watch her video on Instagram and divest from Medly. Cruz hopes Medly will get their licensing so they can abide by regulations and prioritize the cannabis experience and expertise of the team that works for them.
“This is coming at a good time when we’re questioning the integrity of the companies we’re putting our money into,” Cruz said. “Where is that money going?”