Los Angeles weed dispensary owners on social equity journeys

In the wake of California’s legalization of recreational-use cannabis, many cities — including Los Angeles — put in place programs designed to help budding cannabis entrepreneurs who had been unduly affected by the war on drugs get a leg up in the legal weed scene. L.A.’s program attempted to right past wrongs by considering three factors when awarding new cultivation, manufacturing and retail (dispensary) licenses: prior marijuana-related arrests, income level and the length of time living in an area of the city disproportionately affected by cannabis convictions.

The keyword is “attempted,” because from the moment the application-filing process for the first 100 new dispensary licenses opened in September 2019, the city program has been a clown car careening off a cliff thanks to computer glitches, backlogs and charges of mismanagement at the city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation. It all came to a head in 2020 with a well-publicized lawsuit that resulted in L.A. adding a second batch of 100 social equity dispensary licenses to the mix — all before any had even opened. In the meantime, people with cash, established investor connections, and family funds were operating pot shops all across L.A., cashing in on this green rush. Finally, the first social equity dispensaries opened in April 2021, just 20 months after the city accepted applications.

A year later, we now have a new understanding of which social equity applicants successfully navigated the process, from application to ribbon-cutting, and their experiences competing in a city that’s become the center of weed culture. It has not been easy. There’s universal agreement among these dispensary owners that the regulatory hoops, high tax rates and lack of resources make it hard to survive and thrive — even for those lucky enough to have cleared the licensing hurdles.

That’s why these trailblazers are adamant they didn’t get to this point alone. Behind each trailblazer is an army: family members, investors, partners, attorneys and investors who helped them go from pipe dream to reality. While their names are public records, not all program beneficiaries wanted to share their story with The Times. Many of those we spoke to declined to share their stories, citing privacy, safety, and lingering stigma as reasons. Despite their difficult journeys however, the people we did speak to were still optimistic.

Aja Allen, Sixty Four & Hope Mid-City

Allen, an exotic dancer-turned-phlebotomist-turned luxury retail manager, was working her way up the ranks at the Cabazon Outlets near Palm Springs when her tax attorney said something that changed the trajectory of her career. “He saw the progress I was making,” Allen said, “working my way up to district manager, and he was like: ‘You went from being a sales associate to making some good money. Now what are you going to do?’ And that’s when he told me about what Karim Webb was doing.”Webb is the chief executive officer of 4thMVMT in Los Angeles, which provides financial and training support for social equity applicants. To date, the company has forged partnerships with dozens of cannabis entrepreneurs — including more than a dozen in the first group of 100 to receive dispensary licenses.)

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

She was already familiar with Webb’s name, she said, because he’d been responsible for bringing a Buffalo Wild Wings franchise to her neighborhood. “I grew up in South Central, and a lot of stuff would pop up and then close down within a year. So when a Buffalo Wild Wings opened, it was good for the community — for our community.”

After being introduced to the concept of the social equity program and how 4thMVMT was trying to help applicants open dispensaries under the Sixty Four & Hope nameplate (the numbers refer to Proposition 64, which legalized recreational weed), it didn’t take her long to seize the opportunity.

“At the very first [information] session, I was sold,”She spoke. “I had chills, and I was just like, ‘Damn, this is crazy.’ And it felt good. … I used to run a flagship store that did $12 million a year [in sales], and I wasn’t even getting paid a hundred grand a year. If I could make a million dollars a year for this company, imagine what I could do for myself and my community. It was a no-brainer for me.”

In September, the first of the Sixty Four & Hope dispensaries opened — with Allen as majority owner — at the high-traffic corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Guthrie Avenue in Mid-City, just two blocks from the 10 Freeway. (The second — with a different social equity applicant — opened on Melrose Avenue on New Year’s Eve.)

Allen said that although the Sixty Four & Hope shops will have a mostly uniform look — a clean, minimalist Apple-store vibe with pops of faux greenery — each will have details that subtly reflect its owner’s aesthetic. “So for me, as a part of the LGBTQ community, I’m going to eventually put some artwork of Queen Latifah’s iconic performances up on the walls,” Allen said. “I want it to feel powerful, feminine and soft in here.”

Whitney Beatty, Josephine & Billie’s

Beatty’s long journey to owner and operator of one of the coolest-themed dispensaries in the Southland was marked by roadblocks. Beatty was left without a storefront for almost a year after her initial investors lost business. The single mother of one, whose other job was creating cool cannabis humidors (you can find one featured in The Times’ 2020 gift guide), was struggling to stay afloat while navigating the process.

A woman dances a little in a gif

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

In October 2021, thanks to new investors (including the Parent Co.’s Jay-Z- and Desiree Perez-led social equity ventures fund, which chose the dispensary as its first investment) and the efforts of a kindred spirit (Chief Operating Officer Ebony Andersen), Josephine & Billie’s opened its doors in Exposition Park. It was named after Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday and was designed to serve the needs of women of colour and to focus on the health- and wellness aspects of cannabis. This made it difficult to raise the capital.

“I was yelling at every investor because they were telling me the same thing about [appealing to the] general cannabis consumer, [appealing to] white male cannabis consumers. I was like, ‘Black women are trendsetters. Black women have spent money on health and beauty for years. Black women spend $1.5 trillion annually. We spend money. Women control household spending. How are you telling me we don’t matter?’”

Beatty and Andersen had already opened the 1,500-square foot space. They also planned to expand into the nearby 3,000-square foot laundromat. In this space, in addition to additional retail space and a delivery hub, they plan to add a consumption lounge. The store concept will be expanded to other states.

Rayford Brown, the Green Paradise

A dozen years ago — long before recreational cannabis was legal in the Golden State — military veteran Brown decided to sell cannabis to make ends meet. He was sentenced to three years in prison for his decision, which was the third year of a five-year sentence. “I got started because of the recession,”Brown said. “And they caught me with 38 baggies in my bag.”He calls it a hard lesson, but a good one. “Because I probably would have never been to college [otherwise],”He said. “It really occupied my mind — made me think about another avenue. I look at things differently now, compared to before I went in.”

A person doing a double point

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

He would go on to earn two associate’s degrees from Santa Monica College (one in solar technology and the other in the field of environmental sciences) and graduated in 2017. He was trying to start a solar business and was being introduced to Santa Monica College by his brother. Evelyn Scott Scott-Brinson and Brandon Brinson were a married couple who were struggling to get their dispensary project off the ground. They would eventually become business partners in the Green Paradise dispensary located in Mid-Wilshire.

“When this [opportunity] first came along, I was like, ‘Are you serious? Are you really trying to help us?’”Brown said. “The more I talked to them, and the more I learned [about the program], the more I realized it’s giving me — all of us — an opportunity to have a second chance in life and to actually do something to impact the community.”

Brown and his business associates point out that they were extremely close to not being given the chance. Scott-Brinson claims that they were granted license No. 200 — the very last one.

January 1st marked the official opening for their 1,600-square-foot office on busy La Brea Avenue, Mid-Wilshire. Scott-Brinson runs day-today operations. Brown meets with them weekly for sales, product mix, business strategy discussions. When he’s not focusing on the dispensary business, Brown works on solar projects “as kind of a hobby right now.”He hopes that eventually, the income from his dispensary stake will allow him to turn this hobby into a fully-fledged business.

Brown shook his head slowly when he was asked if being majority owner of a cannabis dispensary felt like compensation for his past run-ins with the law. “No, man. I saw some stuff in there. I can never get those years back,”He said. “But it’s like I said to a friend of mine, ‘I get a chance to right a wrong, [to] turn a negative into a positive.’”

Brett Feldman, Wonderbrett

Feldman, the namesake of the Wonderbrett brand, has been on the Southern California weed scene for a long time, getting his start as a grower in the late ’90s medical-only days, leveraging a chance encounter with a cut of OG Kush into a cannabis empire built with business partner Cameron Damwijk around fruity-sounding strains such as Beyond Blueberry, Orange Sunset and Pineapple OZ Kush, and music industry collabs with the likes of Atlanta rapper Russ, singer-producer Poo Bear and rapper B-Real.

A person raises their arms

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The cultivation (based in a 22,000-square-foot Long Beach facility) and manufacturing (including vape pens and prerolls) sides of the business aren’t part of the city’s social equity program, but the La Brea Avenue storefront, which opened in July 2021 (with a star-studded bash that included a Snoop Dogg pop-in) is, thanks to Feldman’s early-aughts run-in with the law.

“It was 2 in the morning, and I was sitting in my parked car in front of my recording studio using my laptop, because that’s where the Wi-Fi worked the best,”Feldman was recalled. “And the cops who were driving by turned around and parked their car and knocked on my window. I smelled like weed because I’d just been smoking in the studio.”

His arrest on suspicion for marijuana possession with intent distribution (he carried a scale with his) was the beginning eight months of legal wrangling that, he says, ultimately led to the case’s dismissal. “I feel very blessed and lucky to have made it this far,”Feldman says “and to be unlucky enough to get myself arrested and qualify for the social equity program.”

Randy Hill, Erb & Arbor

When we first reached out to the social equity stakeholder in Panorama City’s Erb & Arbor dispensary, the first thing Hill said was he wanted his attorney (Joseph Adeife), as well as his co-owners (Sev Toroussian and Mauro Lara) to be involved. This wasn’t because he feared legal action but because he felt their efforts — particularly Adeife’s — were key in landing him his license.

A person waves their arms

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

“I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this without them, that’s for damn sure. They’ve helped me so much,”Hill stated. “And Joseph was even doing it pro bono.”

Only after he was convinced that the rest of the team’s contributions had been duly noted did Hill seem comfortable talking about his own backstory, which began in late 2016 (or early 2017, he’s not exactly sure) when a friend persuaded him to leave his job helping third-graders at the after-school program L.A.’s Best to try his hand at cannabis cultivation.

“At first, I wasn’t really interested — I really loved working with kids,”He said. But his friend’s persistence won out and, before he knew it, Hill was working at the L.A.-based grower THC Design. “My first job was helping manage one of the warehouses — two little flower rooms,”He said. “It was small, but it was a good start for me, because it pushed me to get to know everything. … And I found out I had a green thumb, so I ended up loving it.”

His cultivation connections eventually put him in the same orbit as Lara and Toroussian, and the threesome’s effort to open a dispensary began. That joint journey would continue for nearly three years and culminated in the dispensary’s opening in December 2021. While Hill is happy to let his partners handle the day-to-day business, he says he’ll tend to weigh in on things that key into his cultivation background, such as trendy strains to stock. “Double Stuffed Oreoz is one of those,”Hill stated. “And Rainbow Runtz is another.”(The former describes a sweet and creamy aroma with chocolate undertones; the latter is earthy with notes berry and pine.

Eventually, Hill wants to pursue his passion for the plant — on the cultivation side — beyond the Golden State. “I’d like to be a multistate operator,”He said. “One of my old bosses moved to Colorado and Oklahoma, so maybe one of those states.”(Colorado is the first state that legalized recreational marijuana. Oklahoma, which is medical-only, has fewer regulations and a lower barrier to entry. This will make Oklahoma more attractive if cannabis becomes legalized coast to coast. But for now, he’s focused on nurturing a 4-month-old seedling of sorts.

“You want to keep your cultivation facility disease-free,”He said that he likened the dispensary with a grow facility. “That means no viruses, no insects, no powdery mildew. You have to focus on plant health; the healthier the plant, the better the product.”

Cynthia Hurtado, Pirate Town Cannabis Co.

Hurtado was born and raised in Mexico. She immigrated to the U.S. as a 17-year-old, became a mom at 18 and began her career at Los Angeles County at twenty. As a social equity applicant (and still an employee of the county), Hurtado took a second job as DoorDash driver at 46. She also tapped her credit card to the limit and borrowed small amounts from family and friends. She also opened the doors to the Pirate Town Cannabis Co. earlier this month at 50. It is located in San Pedro, two blocks from the 110 Freeway’s southern end, between a sneaker shop, and a Chinese fast-food joint.

A person makes a face at the camera

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

People believe that “social equity”This means that it was given to us. It was not given to us. We worked hard for this space.

— Cynthia Hurtado

“People think that ‘social equity’ means this was handed to us,” Hurtado said. “It was not handed to us. We worked hard to get this space. I put a lot of work into this dispensary.”

She says that the most memorable moment in the whole process was when she discovered that her four-years of hard work had paid off. “I remember exactly where I was when I found out I got my state license,” Hurtado said. “I was at the grocery store with my mom when I got the email at 2:21 p.m. on March 8, 2022. I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or if I wanted to run or jump. There were so many emotions inside of me. I was excited, but it was bittersweet, because I’d been through so much….”

Kika Keith, GorillaRx Wellness

Perhaps the most prominent face — and loudest voice — of L.A.’s social equity scene belongs to Keith, the fairy godmother of the movement, who has arguably done as much as (if not more than) the city itself to shape the dispensary landscape thanks to her role as co-founder of the Social Equity Owners and Workers Assn. (SEOWA). That’s the group whose lawsuit against the city highlighted the troubled application-processing system and ultimately led to The settlementThis doubled the number of social equity licenses granted to date to 200. On top of that, she’s the founder of the Live Development Group, which by late January had helped more than 70 applicants; 15 of them have been granted licenses.

A person swings their hair

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Keith learned business skills while slinging a different type of green before she embarked on her adventures in cannabis commerce. She says that her 2008 success in getting her brand’s chlorophyll-enhanced water onto Whole Foods shelves taught her a lot about business, wellness, and perseverance. That earlier company, Gorilla Wellness, also inspired the name of her Crenshaw Boulevard dispensary — Gorilla Rx Wellness — which opened to great fanfare on Aug. 25.

Keith is a joyous, vibrant, neighborhood-proud shop with a Crafted on Crenshaw neon sign. But Keith knows that it was not the end of their fight.

“We need to be proactive,”Keith said. “We need to have a whole flourishing supply chain for social equity brands.”She envisions a future in which brands made by and for people with disabilities, women, and the LGBTQ community are promoted, promoted, and lifted up by social equity dispensaries to further level the playing field.

“If we just get a hundred of us open, with all of us having that extra consciousness about supporting our fellow social equity entrepreneurs … then we’ve created a vertically integrated social equity ecosystem,”Keith said.

“Yes, I think 100 dispensaries is the sweet spot. That gives us the ability to properly compete. That’s why I continue to organize. That’s why I continue to educate.”

Mike Saghian from Artist Tree Koreatown

The Koreatown outpost of the Artist Tree art gallery-meets-weed shop concept was one of the city’s first social equity dispensaries to open — in April 2021 — thanks in large part to majority stakeholder Saghian’s ability to navigate the process. (Saghian’s partners in this space own and operate three additional Artist Tree shops, none of which is part of the social equity program.)

A person gives two thumbs up

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

“It did have its complications,”Saghian said. “But I guess you could say I was a little bit lucky that I was [already] so involved in the licensing process and in the know. I’d done my research and was just waiting for that [first] round of licensing to open. And when it did, I just went ahead with it.”

His familiarity, he said, comes from the job he’s been doing pretty much since he graduated from high school — helping businesses with all the important but mind-numbing minutiae that come with being a business. “DBA filings, setting up corporations, getting city licenses, camping outside the courthouse,”He said. “I liked it, I was good at it and I’d built a loyal clientele.”

A few of these loyal clients wanted to know how to get into medical marijuana.“back in the medical cannabis days,”He says that he was a researcher who spent a lot of time researching. He claims that he helped clients set up dispensaries before the city established them. Temporary moratorium on the creation of new ones in 2007. “When the new [recreational] regulations came out in 2018, I just kept doing the work.”

He joined forces with the Artist Tree team (Avi Kahan, Lauren Fontein and Mitchell Kahan) after the real estate he’d lined up fell through. (“You need a property lined up to apply,”He said, “and time was running out. I reached out to some friends and family, and a friend of a friend introduced us. The rest is history.”)

Saghian claims that he spends most time working on his Van Nuys-based consulting firm, the Biz Shop. However, he makes frequent visits to the dispensary. “I come in from time to time to check up on stuff, but I’m mostly involved behind the scenes. I’m involved with all the big decisions — marketing, sales and product procurement.”

He thinks the general public has a skewed perception of what it’s like to be a player in L.A.’s legal weed business.

“It’s not all it’s made out to be, as far as being on the business-owner side of it,”He said. “It looks a lot easier than it is, and people think it’s a license to print money — but it’s not.”

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