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Golden State Green Rush

Golden State Green Rush: Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs?

Co-published by Fast Company
Oakland’s cannabis equity program may have gotten off to an awkward start, but it is spreading across the state and beyond.

Donnell Alexander




Illustration: Define Urban

No state has a relationship remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We annually consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug and produce more than 13 million pounds of it.

Co-published by Fast Company

The summer mixers had not done the trick. Last year Oakland, California, which was launching the partnership component of its groundbreaking Cannabis Equity Assistance Program, found that City Hall meet-and-greets between the street-level victims of the war on drugs and those who had gotten rich by growing and supplying marijuana weren’t going to instantly result in legal-weed deal-making whoopee.

As part of California’s 2018 adult-use marijuana legalization, Oakland sets aside half of its marijuana business permits to grow, test, manufacture, transport, deliver and dispense pot for equity applicants — — newly up-from-the-underground residents who make up to 80 percent of the city’s median income ($53,000) and either have “a cannabis conviction out of Oakland or [have] lived for 10 of the last 20 years in police beats that experienced a disproportionately higher amount of law enforcement with respect to cannabis.” The city’s cannabis equity program has a tiered qualification system, as do California’s other three existing programs in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

Oakland’s cannabis equity program may have gotten off to an awkward start, but that hasn’t stopped the idea of equity in adult-use marijuana economies from spreading even beyond the state. However, if this bold concept is to cohere into a concrete approach that can work both statewide and nationally, the challenges of addressing wildly mixed signals at the federal level, relations with the still-illegal cannabis market — whose economy and membership dwarfs legal weed in size — and embedded bureaucratic forces must be overcome.

Oakland earmarked $3.4 million in interest-free loans for those whose experience with pot had been demonstrably more toxic than those of white residents.

“General applicants” (the mostly white entrepreneurs who have conducted business at a remove from Oakland’s worst drug war suffering) gain improved marketplace access by partnering with equity applicants — who are mostly black, but not always. Cannabis Equity bureaucracy most shared asset is physical space — which the moneyed entrepreneurs can offer the city’s disadvantaged pot businesspeople. Cannabis equity can appear to be the nearest thing, conceptually, to reparations in America.

However, last year’s City Hall mixers had failed to create much chemistry between the cannabis haves and have-nots. Darlene Flynn, the city’s director of the Department of Race and Equity, realized that between the mixers’ interactional awkwardness and municipal government’s usual bureaucracy, Oakland’s cannabis office would have to farm out the matchmaking.

“We needed some tools for helping people meet,” Flynn later acknowledged in an email.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. While an illegal market nearly five times the size of the legitimate marketplace comports itself in the shadows, less than 10 percent of the state’s adult-use market is legal. Relations between the cannabis underground and California’s above-board pot sales sector haven’t been more tense than in recent memory.

Still, governments had begun to follow Oakland’s lead in assuring that the newly legal marijuana market will be open to historically discriminated-against populations. Oakland earmarked $3.4 million in interest-free loans for those whose experience with pot had been demonstrably more toxic than those of white residents.

Only about three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 American storefront marijuana dispensaries — among the more scalable categories in cannabis — were black-owned in 2016.

Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland all have cannabis equity programs in development, under those states’ medical marijuana laws. Advocates from all over are studying the approach.

“I used the work on equity in cities like Oakland as both a technical starting point and conceptually,” says Shaleen Title, a member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, “to wrap my head around how to approach the question of equity in the context of the war on drugs.”

Oakland isn’t the only California city playing in the cannabis equity space. In San Francisco, all new permits, with a few nuanced exceptions, are run through that city’s Equity Program — for cultivation, manufacturing distribution, testing and retail. “Not until 50 percent of each permit category reflects permits from the Equity Program will permits become available for new business,” says Nicole Elliott, director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis.

Los Angeles has started its Cannabis Social Equity program, while Sacramento is preparing to launch Cannabis Opportunity, Reinvestment and Equity. These programs are primed to issue permits before 2018 is done. Among the 34 California legal adult-use cities — representing 12percent of the state’s population — is Berkeley, which has a cannabis equity program in development.

But as the newcomers amended Oakland’s program, the founding municipality was still contending with the matter of hooking up general and equity applicants. Early in the fall Darlene Flynn asked two volunteers with the innovation nonprofit OpenOakland, Richard Ng and Angela Gennino — respectively, a social impact consultant and an information architect — to build a digital tool.

Last August the pair began developing a back-end software application. Throughout the fall of 2017 there were mock-ups and beta tests.

A journey that began with one “Where the weed at?” shout-out had evolved into a credible business plan.

“The concept was, really, a dating site,” Ng, told me over breakfast at Awaken, a café just around the corner from City Hall. The code beneath the weed biz interactions was about the same as that of Craigslist. Functionally, CannaEquity, as the site would be called, was brass-tacks eHarmony. Instead of the user’s status, pot entrepreneurs list their application stage: not submitted yet; submitted; received an inspection card. On the Partner Search page, rather than the object of consideration’s profession, their type of business is put out there: cultivation or delivery, dispensary or distributor — you damn sure wouldn’t want to be in bed with someone who doesn’t know the difference.

“The most important qualities in an equity partner are: honest and open communication and an ability to learn and grow as a partner,” writes CannaEquity user ecooke, a cannabis manufacturer and distributor.

Rolling up among the site’s potential partner profiles was Linda Grant, 49. Mother of six, grandmother of two. Purveyor of marijuana since eighth grade. She was looking for a partner in her non-storefront dispensary — a delivery service. The cost of renting space in the East Bay would be the difference between her working legit or returning to the black market.

“I’m the poster child for cannabis equity,” Grant said in a telephone interview.

Though educated largely in the local weed trade, Grant clandestinely moved, by her estimation, millions of dollars of the stuff that now fuels the Green Rush, as Wall Street calls it. She started at the age of 12, dealing out of the girl’s bathroom at Elmhurst Junior High School. Instead of advancing through high school, Linda Grant sold weed.

She worked for her older brother. The cops once busted her for a $5 bag of weed. Of course her brothers were arrested and did time, too. Years ago, she spent time at Alameda County Jail in Santa Rita for dealing. She was pregnant. Thereafter, she would pull back on her participation in the marijuana marketplace.

“I didn’t want to lose my kids,” Grant said.

The people trying to connect with Grant on shared few such stories. That chasm is an open and ugly secret among Americans who’ve chosen to look. Last year, Oakland produced a report showing that 77 percent of cannabis-related arrests in 2015 were of black people, who in that year made up around 30 percent of the city’s residents. (At the height of the government’s drug crackdown, the city’s population was about 10 percent blacker than it is today.)

While San Francisco was sparking a national trend by expunging felony convictions, Oakland’s no-interest loans were failing to materialize.

People of color who’ve been anywhere near the approximately $7 billion North American cannabis industry still talk about Buzzfeed’s 2016 reporting — based on 150 interviews with dispensary owners, sales people and cannabis insiders — about the unbearable whiteness of the U.S. game. About three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 American storefront marijuana dispensaries — among the more scalable categories in cannabis — were black in 2016.

Three dozen. The prevalence of black celebrity brands and front men can make the industry seem racially diverse when it’s actually profoundly exclusive. Since the jazz age, black people have been foundational in the development of American cannabis culture, and that fact makes the low stat especially egregious.

Although she was looking through CannaEquity for a partner to provide her with space for an office and inventory storage, Grant already had a partnership with the Hood Incubator, a local nonprofit with Ivy League credentials that at its outset sought only to improve the presence of brown and black people in a cannabis industry that, according to a Marijuana Business Daily survey, is 81 percent white.

The aspiring entrepreneur had made the connection with Hood Incubator co-founder Lanese Martin before there was a website or even the City Hall mixers. In 2017 Grant posted on Facebook about a scarcity of grass for purchase on Oakland’s streets. Instead of a mere comment on how to score quickly, she found herself talked into attending an open house for Hood Incubator. It was here that she began seriously entertaining the idea of wading into legit waters.

“We want you to own a business,” Grant said Martin told her.

Grant was unsure whether the neighborhoods she’d lived in, going all the way back to Elmhurst, had been city-designated as unfairly policed. Perhaps equity wasn’t for her. She thought longer on the matter, figured she was indeed an eligible resident, and then tracked down records to prove it. More paper chasing followed. For six months Grant attended pro bono legal workshops put on by lawyers affiliated with Hood Incubator. (Beyond the development of marijuana enterprises, Hood Incubator was beginning to expand its scope to include criminal-records expungement clinics and business workshops, as well as policy development for local municipalities. The tech company Haze entered into a million-dollar partnership with the incubator earlier this year.)

“Close” is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug when one’s trying to ride the 2018 cannabis wave from blueprint into an actual business.

Grant was incubated — given commerce-minded nurturing — twice by Martin and her crew. The office space and legal access took the street dealer’s concept for a delivery business, Herbin Collective, from sketchy idea to business reality. A journey that began with one “Where the weed at?” shout-out had evolved into a credible business plan, one that looked to be finalized in time for California’s adult-use legalization date, January 1 of this year.

CannaEquity had been up and running by December 2017. A crush of participation followed. Gennino and Ng knew they had a hit matchmaking site on their hands when ancillary businesses — CPAs, attorneys, security companies — began popping up on the site. In the first quarter of the year, 300 equity applicants were currently on, with about 600 suitors.

Would-be bride Linda Grant linked up with AmeriCann, a B-Corp company that bills itself as “a national leader of sustainable cultivation and processing infrastructure for the medical marijuana industry.” Its flagship brand is Gummi Cares. The edibles company wanted to hook up with Herbin Collective.

It was something like a love connection. Gummi Cares offered Grant 1,000 square feet near the city’s airport to help get Herbin Collective off the ground. As business rentals in Oakland go for more than $50 per square foot, she was instantaneously with that plan.

“I wouldn’t mess with anyone else,” Grant told me over the phone. She focused on getting her delivery service in compliant, above-ground business for her March 1 launch. Meanwhile, AmeriCann would get to move its cultivation and processing operations ahead of those outfits that lack newly privileged partners such as theirs.

“The incentive was very high for the general applicants,” Gennino said, “because they want to get pushed to the top of the list.”

Speed bumps on this road to equality began popping up in February. While San Francisco was sparking a national trend by expunging felony convictions, Oakland’s earmarked $3.4 million in no-interest loans was failing to materialize. And Linda Grant was scrambling. Yes, she had the physical space provided by AmeriCann and Gummi Cares, which was  now up to 1,200 square feet. Her product would be purchased on consignment, so that wasn’t a primary concern. But there were branding and peripheral start-up costs to going legit that were making the March 1 dispensary opening date seem less realistic. On there had been numerous come-ons from general applicants. Yet Grant felt they sought her partnership for her oppressed face, not to fully embrace all that Herbin Collective might become.

“This system they created is punishing the cannabis industry, not the police . . . It creates a sharecropper system for young black people.”

It’s innocent in a way that only those completely outside the cannabis industry can be innocent, the notion that one’s partners have to like you for you.

Transitioning street dealers “have the business sense of cannabis, but maybe not of the environment,” Hood Collective’s Martin told me by phone. “You have to understand what the weather patterns will be.

“You engage white people you don’t like all of the time,” she continued. The trick is figuring how to engage those at least complicit in your social marginalization. Still short on cash and less than two weeks out from Herbin Collective’s launch date, Grant’s outlook had taken a turn for the fatalistic.

“I’m in a fish tank full of shit,” she said in a February 18 phone interview.

When I passed on word last month that the program was, in the words of one critic, “in a slump,” Darlene Flynn’s assistant administrator Greg Minor claimed not to know the meaning of that assessment. This month Flynn acknowledged that the $3.4 million in loans that was to sustain the program had not materialized.

Minor explained that the first loans will come from future cannabis tax revenue, “So there was no money to give out at first.”

“We wanted a sufficient baseline amount, $3.4 million, which was how much our non-cannabis small business commercial loan program requires to serve 30-35 businesses, for the loans to be meaningful,” he explained in an email. “Now that the cannabis tax revenue has been collected we are working on selecting a consultant to administer the program and begin implementing the revolving loan program later this year.”

“We are just beginning to put that part of the program together,” Flynn wrote in an email. “It is phase two because it has to be funded by new cannabis revenue and we are getting close.”

“Close” is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug when one’s trying to ride the 2018 cannabis wave from blueprint into an actual business. In the Trump era, close is a risky thing to be. Some have taken this month’s news that the White House promised to pull back on interference with state marijuana laws as a sign that threat is diminished and improved relations with banking are ahead. Others remain wary.

“The President has made numerous promises to the public and then failed to deliver on those promises over and over again,” said Elliott of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, “either by walking back his promise or not succeeding in getting Congress to deliver.”

But there are other considerations, too. One municipal cannabis administrator told me that a strict reading of federal policy could make it difficult for jurisdictions to provide funding through loans to new operators in some circumstances, “because at the end of the day, everything associated with cannabis has a tinge of risk based on the federal government’s stance.”

“If that funding,” the official continued, “is focused towards meeting the rigorous regulatory standards established by the state, then it could present less of a conflict with federal policy, but loans spent on other things could potentially prove to be a bit more complicated.”

So, the feds are a hindrance to the empowerment of cannabis entrepreneurs. But what about that overwhelming California weed wealth: the illegal marijuana market. Multiple seasoned — although presently unpermitted — California marijuana figures told me throughout the reporting of this story that the four cities with equity programs are hamstrung by their lack of relationships with the black-market marijuana world. Old illegal pot people know people who know people who can barter goods and services, and Hood Incubator, for all its unique set of skills and great above-ground network, cannot access this tantalizingly low-hanging, multimillion-dollar fruit.

With too many California legal dispensaries closed or slowed by paperwork, early 2018 was a fine time for unsanctioned pot. That any up-and-comer might be struggling in the midst of the Green Rush would be laughable were it not so sad.

That’s the take of 20-year cannabis vendor-space vet Chip Moore, owner of the 4&20 Blackbirds lifestyle brand and delivery service. He applied for a dispensary application last year, but didn’t qualify for equity status. Veteran business people like Moore are shouting that California’s storied tradition of pot independence and innovation is being ignored in this process of creating equity. These critics say that a dramatically improved road to compliance must be established, so that, beyond the loans that entrepreneurs like Linda Grant spent the winter waiting on, pot’s illegal mainstream can contribute ideas and — most importantly — meaningful amounts of space in which to develop their businesses.

“It can’t just be a thousand square feet. That does not equal equity within cannabis,” Moore told me at his West Oakland warehouse, his baritone gravelly from years of cannabis enthusiasm. “It creates a sharecropper system for young black people, where I’m giving you a thousand square feet to compete in one of the most competitive cannabis markets in the world.”

Beyond the malleability of land value in cannabis industry terms, there’s the inherent punishment that comes with rewarding only those who dwelled in demonstrably overly policed Oakland or who managed to elude arrest there. If cannabis equity programs are to ever be more than a fig leaf, this built-in bias will need to be addressed on a statewide basis.  (California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control will consider such an action when it meets in Oakland next month.)

“This system they created is punishing the cannabis industry, not the police,” Moore said. “I’m a black man, underfunded, undervalued in the market, but I live in Berkeley [Oakland’s northern neighbor]. I don’t get the point allotments to become an equity applicant and participate in the program. I have to go up against the big-money guys.”

Open Oakland’s Angela Gennino described the purpose of cannabis equity as being “to right a wrong and change the balance.” The notion is lofty, the means to achievement simultaneously complicated and mundane. At press time, Linda Grant’s Herbin Collective was not yet more than a name on the Internet.

Tomorrow: A Grower’s Story

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Golden State Green Rush

Golden State Green Rush: Cannabis’ Promise and Problems

Will the marijuana El Dorado bring new wealth to California and its inhabitants, or will it produce an historic buzz kill?





Although medical marijuana use had been legal in California since 1996, it wasn’t until New Year’s Day that adults in this state could lawfully light up a joint for the sheer pleasure of it. Yet unlike the end of Prohibition 85 years before, the response was surprisingly subdued, and ever since then life in California seems to be business as usual. Except that it isn’t.

Everything is going to radically change, and probably sooner than later. For the legalization of pot is slowly unleashing a new gold rush — the so-called Green Rush — that, like many gold rushes before it, will likely lead to environmental dangers, racial injustices and economic disparities that we can only dimly perceive today. Will the cannabis El Dorado bring new wealth to California and its inhabitants, or will it produce an historic buzz kill?

Nearly two years ago Capital & Main presented a series of stories examining some of the possible effects of legalization, and this week, as the reefer-centric date of 4/20 approaches, veteran journalist Donnell Alexander looks at the ways some Californians are preparing for the coming wave of change. As he notes, “No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana.” Partly that’s because annually we consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug, while producing more than 13 million pounds of it.

In a report from Oakland and copublished by Fast Company, Alexander writes of the attempts by that city to legislate “cannabis equity” in order to prevent marijuana’s perennially victimized neighborhoods of color from being completely left out of the Green Rush. The strategy is to give would-be pot entrepreneurs there a leg up on deep-pocketed competitors.

Alexander also profiles an African-American grower, Bryant Mitchell, whose journey has taken the University of Chicago MBA from being a Chevron consultant to a master grower whose Blaqstar operation in East Los Angeles has produced an artisanal strain of weed called Birthday Cake. (Also co-published by Fast Company.) And, in a third story, Alexander interviews an Emerald Triangle bud trimmer, a woman living on the lowest-paying and most exploited rung in the cannabis hierarchy. “Matilda” describes a world of guns, loutish bosses, outhouses and wild bears. And yet marijuana’s legalization may offer the nomadic workers employed by larger pot farms hope in the form of state-enforced workplace protections and the chance to join a union.

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Golden State Green Rush: A Grower’s Story

Co-published by Fast Company
Bryant Mitchell drove the 450 miles between Los Angeles and Guerneville twice a week, learning, among other facets of horticulture, how distillation practices could be applied to making marijuana concentrates. In time he would become a master grower.

Donnell Alexander




Photo: Pandora Young

“This is not something people welcome a lot of blacks into. We’re the guy who’s selling it. That’s all we are, and that’s the way they look at us.”


Co-published by Fast Company

A slim hall leads into a dark room where one enters the soul of the Blaqstar Farms cannabis grow, an 85-light operation rooted in East Los Angeles. On the other side of this warehouse where the lighting is standard luminosity, a couple of cool brown cats in their forties trim a strain called Birthday Cake and fill bags with the fluffy, freshly coiffed green nuggets. But it’s in this dark room where Blaqstar begins. Its owner Bryant Mitchell, 40, shows the soul of his business, a clutch of genetics — prime cannabis plants for breeding.

Dah-nale,” Mitchell says in his Texas drawl, “all these plants here come from those plants back there.” He points to some weed that’s ready to join the cool brown guys at the breakdown table. The plants, he says, “come from buddies, from respect, from people trying to see if I could grow their old stuff.”

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If the cannabis equity movement in America is to ever be more than just Green Rush theater —an inconsequential sideshow to the emerging multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry — it’s going to need a lot of anomalies like Mitchell. Black people didn’t get our 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War, and we’ve yet to gain the trust and money to be brought into the cannabis industry at a foundational level. In a world where black celebrities endorse cannabis brands that people of their racial heritage don’t own, Mitchell is the rare black grower operating at the 85-light level and in the light of adult-use legal scrutiny. Necessity brought Mitchell from dispensary owner to grower after he hired someone who couldn’t repeat what he’d previously cultivated. In only a few years, Blaqstar has earned the endorsement of the popular rap act Migos and the admiration of cannabis equity supporters.

This grower is not blind to the turnabout he represents.

“This is not something people welcome a lot of blacks into,” says Mitchell. “We’re the guy who’s selling it. That’s all we are, and that’s the way they look at us.”

The enabling real estate, money and cannabis have not come together for the hundreds of aspiring legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs presently struggling to get in.

Who is this cash-rich black dude whose eyes shine with intelligence? He’s not a rapper or actor or a man who plays with a ball. Bryant Mitchell is a master marijuana grower. Cross the street from his warehouse for a cup of coffee — where his neighbors “know, but they don’t know” — and the joy that folks show from just seeing him is apparent. They won’t let him be, and it’s not just because of the pot.

Sit down with Mitchell over that coffee and see him let loose a single tear while running through the list of family and friends he’s lost to the war on drugs. That lone tear tells a story with dimensions the nation’s only beginning to comprehend.

Mitchell comes from sales, but in a first-class sense. The son of a cop, he’s taken operations and strategy as the basis of his training. After graduating from historically black Prairie View A&M University, just outside of Houston, he received an MBA from the University of Chicago. Mitchell flew around America pointing out to corporate executives whom to fire, telling his clients the time while using their own expensive wristwatches to do so.While he was in the Bay Area in his twenties and consulting for Chevron, Mitchell complained to a colleague that travel aggravated his sciatica, and the colleague introduced cannabis to his world. Not long after, Mitchell began buying and growing for himself, both in California and at his home in Houston. His oil industry consulting after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill brought the trove of money that allowed Mitchell to buy and invest in cannabis so heavily. In a sense, that Birthday Cake in East L.A. comes from hours billed to British Petroleum, a kind of bonus treat.

Women Abuv Ground CEO: “Most underground growers don’t want to come out. It took me years to find a lot of black growers.”

He bought a medical marijuana dispensary in the San Fernando Valley called Valley High. It was a smash hit, but Valley High was raided at the end of 2013. Mitchell says he lost $250,000.

But he had $400,000 banked, he says, part earned from consulting, part earned from his dabbling in the marijuana market. He’d put another $400,000 into building an indoor grow. But Mitchell’s cultivator was proving unable to repeat the dope work he had done for Valley High.

“Here’s my chance to do it,” he said. “I don’t know how to grow at this volume. As a consultant, one thing you learn is how to learn. I’ve got to learn fast as I can, and I can’t learn from my grower because he doesn’t know how to grow.”

Mitchell resigned from his day job and decided to go all-in on cultivating cannabis, big time. Then he headed to Sonoma County and Guerneville, California, 75 miles north of San Francisco.

Most Californians couldn’t find Guerneville on a map. Mitchell drove the 450 miles between Los Angeles and Guerneville twice a week. He started off watering outdoor plants on a partner’s 78-acre property. He also volunteered at Sonoma County wineries, learning, among other facets of horticulture, how distillation practices could be applied to making marijuana concentrates. In Sonoma County the newbie Mitchell unearthed the goods to become a master grower.

After Bryant did a second harvest, this MBA learned that he still needed to learn.

“I’d go out with the guys and would be like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna help,’” he says. “They’d say, ‘Come on in.’ No roadblocks. I’d be out for a week and would be one of the best trimmers. Never told ‘em I was growing.

“I wanted to see the plant from start to finish.”

Back at the East L.A. indoor grow, the first post-Guerneville harvest came in. The first large-scale weed came out larfy — immature and lacking in structural density.

“You ever cook eggs?” he says. “Easiest thing in the world, right? Ya throw ‘em in the pan, you get ‘em out. But cook eggs for 200 people, it’s a lot more complicated — even though it’s not that complicated. You’re not going to be consistent.”

He did a second harvest. The pot came out better. But then the thing that sets this MBA apart kicked in yet again. He learned that he still needed to learn.

“I’m doing these damn [harvests] every six months,” he says. “I gotta change that shit. Why does everybody do it that way? It’s a project. So why don’t I make every room a project —stagger it, and make sure I can deal with cash flow issues. It was out of necessity, but when I staggered it, guess what? My learning curve turned over so much quicker.”

It’s a characteristically African-American approach, turning necessity into productivity. Improvisational like basketball, if not as innovative as jazz.

“Bryant represents what we want to see in the culture, someone who’s compliant and doing business the right way,” said Bonita Money, CEO of Women Abuv Ground, a networking organization assisting people of color enter the cannabis industry. “Most underground growers don’t want to come out. It took me years to find a lot of black growers.”

Compliance has come because Mitchell’s money is cleaner than most. His techniques are organic, so his marijuana is also compliant. He says that living in the warehouse with his product nudged him toward clean growing; if spraying chemicals made him sick, the stuff could not in the end be good for customers, he surmised. Most black-market growers don’t know what he knows.

The legion of small-time pot farmers knows nothing of Guerneville tactics. Certainly, they don’t have multi-acre, outdoor Cali grow money, prompting this question: Until the state’s cannabis equity programs set aside opportunities for those with no legacy of having land, are we just doing theater?

“They are; I’m not,” Mitchell says. Cannabis equity programs “don’t know how to make sure social equity is delivered. Not defined, but delivered.”

The enabling real estate, money and cannabis have not come together for the hundreds of aspiring legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs presently struggling to get in. Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have defined the strategy of a business initiative, but the means for realizing the goals aren’t yet in place. Help connecting investors and developers and building relationships with money sources is still missing in action.

So, too, are relationships with the weed veterans still deep in the black market.

“You treat adult-use marijuana like a business, then forget that there’s been a business here for 35 years,” Mitchell says, growing animated. The fact is that the underground pot market, in large part popularized by Californians of color, is far, far older than that.

“Today I’m gonna learn how to do this,” he continues. “And I’m going to share this. We need an ecosystem. That ecosystem doesn’t preclude white people participating. I want to include. But I want them to understand: You’re coming to us, ya dig?

“We made it because once they got our shit, they had to keep getting it,” Mitchell goes on. “Once you get into a motherfucker’s spot, and they’ve got to have your shit? They’ve got to have it. You turn from a want to a necessity. That’s what I had to position Blaqstar as — a necessity.”

Tomorrow: The Trimmigrant’s Tale

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Golden State Green Rush: A Trimmigrant’s Tale

Trimmers make from $100 to $300 for a day that can run 15 hours. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are stressed out and high.

Donnell Alexander




Photo: Pandora Young

What’s to become of trimmers, the untold thousands of minimally skilled laborers who haunt the new cannabis horizon, is one of this industry’s most compelling issues.


Matilda reclines on a Northeast Los Angeles couch she’s paid $25 to sleep on for one night. The young woman, who earlier in the day had returned to the U.S. from Mexico, talks about her job as a cannabis trimmer. Matilda—not her real name—gives a heads-up on her epilepsy, and through the night she’ll make a number of unusual, loud sounds in her sleep.

Matilda has worked most in Mendocino on trimming jobs good and bad. At most black-market marijuana grow operations, she’s found there are guns. She grew used to the constant, noisy whirr of the high-powered generator that powered the lights growing the plants. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are stressed out and high.

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She left one trimming gig where the volume of open gunplay made her uncomfortable, and moved to another one in the Emerald Triangle–– Northern California‘s Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties –– that featured consistent pay. The farm’s generator operated at lower decibels and the guns were out of sight. Sweet gig. Except for the bathroom, which sat a good 30 yards from the house. Every midnight tinkle run was an adventure.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about bears on the way to the bathroom,” Matilda said.

Briefly, about five years ago, I trimmed for room and board in Oakland and Marin County. My top boss was a retired Russian circus clown who tooled about the Bay Area with a briefcase full of many thousands of dollars and, of course, a heater. While riding with — let’s call him Yuri — it became clear the industry could not function without trimmers, who are generally unseen and often as high as the strain they’re cutting will let them get. What’s to become of these untold thousands of minimally skilled laborers who haunt this new cannabis horizon is one of the industry’s most compelling issues.

The adult-use and medical marijuana markets may collectively think pot magically goes from a plant in the soil to that jarred nugget in your local dispensary display case. But that eye-catching product was prepared by a worker who’s been at the mercy of their employers. Unlike growers, whose value derives from the training and practice necessary to grow pot on a large scale, trimmers are often regarded as disposable. Almost any stoner—or even nonstoner—can do their job. The profile of this work will only become more visible as adult-use marijuana goes mainstream.

A sizable subset of trimmers like Matilda are called “trimmigrants” due to the nomadic nature of their seasonal outdoor labor. Word of workers like Matilda coming together to improve their working conditions has begun getting out, however uncertainly. Matilda herself was unaware of any such movement; however, trimmers are indeed getting organized in a movement that’s as undeniable as it is necessary.

Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers because their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.

California labor law requires that any cannabis licensees with 20 or more employees be prohibited from operating in the state without a labor peace agreement between the business and a union representing cannabis workers. With the peace agreements in place, labor organizers can then recruit workers to join their union without interference from the employer. If the workers join, union negotiators will seek basic workplace protections: freedom from sexual or other harassment, regular pay schedules, incremental wages, just-cause termination and consistent, scheduled breaks.

Down the road, labor contracts hope to include health insurance and other benefits for the folks who trim California’s cannabis, as has happened with the unionized licensees since 2010. Union negotiators want to make sure protections now in place become industry-wide standards, and that all jobs (including trimming) allow a living wage and mobility.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 consultant Robert Chlala said that by organizing trimmers, “My hope —and what we are seeing in our work already—is that we can avoid trimmers being treated as contingent workers or falsely labeled as independent contractors, that they can get the same protections as other workers.” (Disclosure: UFCW is a financial supporter of this website.)

Along with the Teamsters, the UFCW has greeted California’s adult-use cannabis-legalization era with a spate of organizing among trimmers. “From what I have also seen, it’s rarely just one-off,” Chlala said. “Trimmigrants do this work, but many also work in other aspects of the industry, from cultivators to retailers.”

Trimmers have little recourse to being asked to work topless or perform fellatio to receive earnings.

Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers, and even bud tenders and deliverers, because their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.

Before pot ends up in the hands of a distributor and, in the legal marketplace, a lab tester, it is cultivated. After cannabis “colas”–– the flowering site of a female cannabis plant––are grown, dried, and cured, it’s the trimmers’ responsibility to manicure the plant. Leaves, which contain less tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, are cut away, leaving only the cola’s bud. Bad trimming can be aesthetically unpleasant and a waste of time and product. Great trimmers are a business asset.

Their pay can range from $100 to $300 a day. Some in the off-the-books grows, as mentioned earlier, trim as barter. Work days can run as long as 15 hours. The work is inherently repetitive and often done while high and listening to music and, increasingly, podcasts.

Work conditions can be as varied as the strains of cannabis cultivated in the state. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal reported in 2016 that sexual assaults on female trimmers are frequent and woefully undercounted. Because of the vagabond nature of these workers—many are college students on break and travelers from Europe—there’s little recourse to being asked to work topless or perform fellatio to receive earnings.

However, there’s no single way to summarize the trimmer experience, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “A licensed grow and a trespass grow on wilderness land are two different experiences, and the needs are very different,” said Allen. “California’s a very, very diverse marketplace, with a lot of different practices, from best to worst. And it’s very important to avoid generalizations.”

The arrival of industrial-sized pot farms raises concerns that worker treatment will more resemble that found in big agriculture than the kind seen in traditional mom-and-pop pot growing.

Criminal grows are most likely where openly stored guns are found, Allen told me. Small farms that employ family and friends are more the norm, and firearms are not out in the open. These farms, particularly in the Emerald Triangle, are grappling with the California industry’s volatile changes—new regulations and massive companies—and the demands of finding a path to legal status. Allen compares the concerns of these workers to Detroit just before President Obama’s auto company bailout. Simply maintaining jobs is the primary on-site issue.

Big marijuana businesses such as the Oakland-headquartered behemoth Harborside Farms and the average pot cultivator are incorporating these changes differently. Harborside Farms came factory style to ag iconic Salinas, bringing a 360,000-square-foot grow with it. The typical grow is smaller than 5,000 square feet. Flower greenhouses have been largely replaced by cannabis farms. Land costs have skyrocketed as other cannabis operations have streamed into Monterey County. The Harborside Farms effect has raised concerns that worker treatment will more resemble that found in big agriculture than the kind seen in the county’s previous mom-and-pop pot growing.

“That workforce is a lot more interchangeable with the traditional ag workforce,” Allen said, noting that he’s unfamiliar with the specifics of Harborside’s business practices. “You run into a lot of traditional issues. You run into the same safety and wage issues that you do with criminal grows, oddly enough.

“Big industrial ag is pretty well known for human rights abuses, the same sort of human rights abuses that cannabis workers are used to seeing on those criminal grows.”

At the opposite end from the skeletally policed Emerald Triangle, in a small Los Angeles warehouse, two trimmers luxuriate in just how satisfying the craft can be. While classic rock plays from an old-school radio, Francisco, 44, lovingly prepares a nugget to go out into the world. The cola has just come from the curing room. He and his partner that day were waiting for their boss at the door, eager to work.

“Every time I trim one I’m like… ahh,” he says, clipping at a bud while explaining. “You just make it look the way you like it. Trim it until the little red hairs are showing, until you can see all of the really good crystals. I really enjoy looking at it.”

The two sampled the cannabis and explained to their bosses how the product was working. Two thumbs up. It’s a much more satisfying job than Francisco’s previous work as a landscaper. The closest thing there is to a labor of love that he would do for free.

Yet, the trimmer’s work needs protection and recognition, noted Chlala, who’s also President of Latinos for Cannabis. Southern California, with its vertically integrated cannabis companies—where grows are owned by the same people who sell and move green product—is likely to lead the way in trimmer organizing around the state. Santa Barbara has seen an influx of big pot businesses and is likely to be a big target for unions.

The organized shops could not come soon enough for a workforce too often on the lookout for bears and regarded as an industry stereotype.

“While trimmers are often treated like they do one discrete task,” Chlala said, “their work is key to the production chain for cannabis—no different from any agricultural process like harvesting tomatoes or processing cut flowers or almonds.”

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