The societal stigma that once was attached to cannabis is slowly going up in smoke: 36 states have legalized the herb for medicinal purposes, plus 18 states and the District of Columbia have approved it for recreational use. In addition, a few senators are working to have cannabis removed from the federal list of controlled substances altogether. With more states legalizing marijuana, an emerging industry related to its sale and use in the U.S. is projected to pull in more than $45 billion by the year 2025, according to Marijuana Business Daily. Meet four entrepreneurs who are among a small number of Black women opening cannabis dispensaries and fighting through a thicket of regulatory challenges to stake their claim in a booming industry.
Overcoming the Obstacles
Whitney Beatty, 43, the founder and CEO of Josephine & Billie’s, a South Los Angeles cannabis retail outlet, was not always a consumer of cannabis—that is, until she began using it to treat anxiety and researched how it has been considered medicinal for over 3,000 years while being stigmatized as a drug for the past seven decades. With the passage of the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018 and the establishment of Los Angeles’s Social Equity Program to give eligible entrepreneurs a leg up in launching a legal cannabis business, Beatty saw an opportunity. She wanted to create a safe space for Black women to have access to cannabis and to learn about both its medicinal and recreational uses. She had already transitioned from a successful career as a television development executive when she partnered with Ebony Andersen on a full-fledged cannabis enterprise.
Andersen had been assisting social-equity program applicants in navigating the city’s very complicated requirements before she agreed to join Beatty on her journey to start a shop. “I just happen to have a useful set of skills, because as an urban planner, I was the one helping write the regulations and policies,” says Andersen, 39, partner and COO of the company (its name pays homage to Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday). Andersen’s background in urban planning for Ventura County and her experience working with cities to develop cannabis programs and policy helped the two women traverse the arduous application process.
Financing their business would be another hurdle. “The process of getting a license is like jumping through hoops, but the hoops are on fire and there’s nails coming out, and knives,” says Beatty. “There are hundreds of ways for you to not be able to make it.” Luckily, their first major investor, Jay-Z’s the Parent Company, provided them with most of their start-up funding, and other investors followed suit. They opened their retail location at the end of last October, transforming an old dry-cleaner’s space on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Sharing the Wealth of Information
Kika Keith, 50, grew up in a home where marijuana was considered sacred. “My father, a scholar and philosopher, was a Rastafarian, so I grew up with an awareness of cannabis,” says Keith. “I always saw weed in my household. There was a high level of respect for the plant and its healing properties.” Her mother called it holy.
Keith, the CEO and founder of Gorilla Rx, the first Black woman–owned dispensary in Los Angeles, opened her doors to the public in August 2021 and already has more than 2,000 products for sale on the shelves—everything from infused pre-rolls to extracts. But even before launching her business, Keith selflessly took on the cause of helping others get their own enterprises started—so that there would be at least 40 percent Black-owned businesses in the Los Angeles cannabis industry. “It has literally been a fight,” she says. “From the time that the City of Los Angeles opened their licensing process, they pushed back the social-equity program that was to start at the same time as a general licensing.” Of the nearly 200 dispensaries that were grandfathered in, only six were African-American.
In response, Keith cofounded the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association. “We had to create grassroots lobbyists and learn the political process,” she says. The organization ultimately sued the city and won; an additional 100 licenses were made available for people of color.
It took three long years for Gorilla Rx to become a reality; but during those years, the building where the dispensary now sits housed a community organization that assisted applicants in filing the necessary paperwork and educated them on issues such as predatory investors. “The key is, how can we get our doors open?” Keith explains. “And how can we make sure we thrive once licensed?”
If You’ve Got It, Fund It
Hope Wiseman, CEO and cofounder of Mary & Main, was 23 years old when she won the competitive application process to legally sell medical cannabis in Maryland. Her Prince George’s County dispensary is counted among the 95 listed in the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission online directory. Of those dispensaries, fewer than 43 percent are reportedly owned by people of color. Still, the state’s medical marijuana commission has made major strides from the early days—when they came under scrutiny for awarding 15 licenses to growers, almost none of those businesses minority-owned.
After Wiseman, the youngest Black woman in the country to own a dispensary, graduated from Spelman College with a degree in economics, she thought she’d pursue a career in investment banking. But when the cannabis industry became a legal and viable option, Wiseman decided that it was now or possibly never.
“Maryland was one of the first East Coast states to legalize medical cannabis,” she notes. “This created a really robust application process.” Knowing that her status as a new college graduate with no experience in health care or in running a company could be seen as a liability, she put together a team that she believed would be able to gain the state’s approval. She included two people who had deep ties to the community as well as health-care backgrounds: her mother, Octavia Wiseman, Ph.D., an entrepreneur and dentist; and Larry Bryant, Ph.D., a resident oral surgeon at a local hospital.
The enterprise has been in operation since 2018, with the three founders raising the initial million dollars they needed to start the venture from savings. They are already in the black, earning about $4.5 million in 2021. “I’m glad we funded ourselves, because we don’t owe anyone anything,” Wiseman says. “We’ve been able to grow a business that can pay us decent salaries, and we get to run it the way we want.”
Lee Anna A. Jackson (@LeeAnnaAJackso1) is a New York-based writer and research editor.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.