Considering Cannabis

Exploring services to support marijuana entrepreneurs

March 1, 2024

Illustration of cannabis in many forms and at various phases of production

The legalization of marijuana in many states and municipalities in recent years has created a newly legal industry and budding entrepreneurs who can benefit from the expertise of business librarians. As soon as Washington state introduced an initiative to legalize recreational cannabis use in 2012, Seattle Public Library (SPL) librarian Jay Lyman started fielding questions from potential entrepreneurs.

“Libraries work when they reflect what’s going on in the community, so of course we started getting people coming to us with information needs about cannabis,” says Lyman, who now runs SPL’s Library to Business program, which provides information to entrepreneurs and helps them develop necessary skills.

At the time, Washington was only the second state to legalize marijuana. Since then, 24 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis use, and 14 more have legalized medical use of cannabis.

This cultural shift, and the newly formed industry that accompanies it, brings a new opportunity for libraries to step in with support services. Library workers are also considering what kind of programming they need, how to grapple with the historical injustices surrounding the decades-long war on drugs, and how they can help other institutions navigate this changing landscape.

A growing industry

Jennifer Byrnes, director of the Business Insight Center at Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, New York, which serves both Rochester Public Library (RPL) and Monroe County Library System, says she sees libraries as essential for helping entrepreneurs parse the complicated regulations of this emerging industry.

“Most of these entrepreneurs have nowhere else to go because federal agencies can’t work with them,” Byrnes says, referring to the fact that cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. “We’re the only institution that is able to help them.”

Since cannabis was legalized in New York in 2021, RPL has implemented an array of programs designed to assist entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry. The first was a monthly meetup promoted to cover everything “from seed to sales” that attracts about 25 participants per session. Topics include cultivation, legal issues, intellectual property, and risk management.

In fall 2023, RPL hosted a five-week workforce development course and certificate program in collaboration with the Cannabis Workforce Initiative, a statewide initiative to provide workforce development and legal education in the cannabis industry. The program investigated topics such as working in a dispensary, health and safety, and legal compliance. The roughly 50 participants who completed the program received a certificate in Cannabis Career Exploration and Worker Rights.

In 2022, RPL also hosted an expo to connect entrepreneurs with attorneys, accountants, and other contacts they may need to run a successful business.

Those support industries are where Kyrié Kirkland sees the most opportunity.

Kirkland is founder and CEO of Nuvé, a Chicago-based educational technology company that works with several sectors, including the cannabis industry. She presented a program on starting a cannabis business at Aurora (Ill.) Public Library in May 2023 attended by roughly 25 entrepreneurs.

While dispensaries or growing operations may be the first things that come to mind when thinking about the cannabis industry, Kirkland observes that those are not the only industry needs. “If an entrepreneur wants to provide a support service like accounting, training, legal, things of that nature, they have a lot more opportunity right now than in the actual plant-touching space,” she says.

At SPL, librarians trained in business research are providing patrons with individual assistance via appointments, Lyman says. Librarians field questions covering all aspects of market research, from consumer demographics and competitors to merchandising and branding. The library also hosts free legal consults for business-related questions with volunteer attorneys. While the consultations are not limited to the cannabis field, marijuana entrepreneurs regularly attend the sessions, as legality is particularly important and complicated for cannabis businesses to navigate. “The appointments are for learning, not legal representation, and sometimes we have to help people learn and understand that too,” Lyman says. “We make no judgment with where people are in their learning. We help people learn how to do the things they don’t know.”

Battling bias and stigma

The fraught history of cannabis sales in the US offers some unique challenges for libraries providing services in this area.

“A lot of times the people coming to us for help have criminal records because in communities of color, there are high prosecution rates,” says Byrnes, noting the significant disparity in incarceration rates for cannabis-related charges between community members who are white and those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. (According to marijuana advocacy organization NORML, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested under marijuana possession laws as white Americans.)

As a result, Byrnes notes that librarians should be aware of the potential for unconscious biases related to incarceration.

Lyman also emphasizes the importance of educating white entrepreneurs—and librarians—entering the field about historical and political context. “We go into our work with the understanding that this business that we’re helping might be going into a space where other people who did the same exact thing went to prison for it,” he says, “and that there are members of that community who still have brothers or sisters or parents who are incarcerated.”

RPL partners with organizations Women of Color in Cannabis and NYHempLab to provide access to the New York State Library of Cannabis. This collection of resources is designed to help entrepreneurs, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised and may not have access to institutional support, by offering expert information on every aspect of cannabis, from growing to the supply chain to business development.

Such programs are crucial for entrepreneurs because, as Kirkland explains, many people who joined the cannabis industry early on “aren’t reaching back to keep in communication with people who are still trying to destigmatize, who are still trying to understand what this means for their community.” As such, she says, “libraries have been the most accessible places for finding people and community.”

As legal recreational cannabis becomes more common across the country, SPL’s Lyman says librarians in states where marijuana is legal should share information with those in states where the legalization process is still in progress.

Being aware of history and the law is particularly important, he says, so that when those questions come up, librarians are prepared to help people find an authoritative source to answer their questions.

“With any topic, libraries sharing our experiences helps each other be stronger. That happens internally within one system and then across systems too,” Lyman says. With a complex topic like cannabis, the best way that librarians can serve their patrons is to make themselves aware of the topics that are important to cannabis entrepreneurs and be prepared to help them find the best sources of information. “Even if we can’t answer a question, we should be able to send them to the right person. Libraries sharing, that’s what makes us strong.”


Geeta Halley (left), assistant director Round Rock (Tex.) Public Library and Jennifer Byrnes director of Rochester (N.Y.) Public Library's Business Insight Center, at the "Fostering Economic Opportunity and Advancement with Innovative Programming" session at ALA's 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago.

Handling Business

Library workers discuss programs for local entrepreneurs

Medical marijuana

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Libraries help educate would-be cannabis consumers