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The High Cost of Being a Black Entrepreneur in the Cannabis Industry

Raft Hollingsworth III on being one of the few men of color in the so-called Green Rush

Until very recently, it was a serious and often life-ruining crime to possess pot in America. That’s all changed obviously. In 2012, Colorado and Washington voters passed laws to legalize cannabis, becoming the first states in the nation to do so. Legalized cannabis offers tremendous benefits to the country, but it’s still a complex issue — one where race, class and corporate influence greatly influence the conversation.

The racial element, of course, is impossible to ignore for minority-owned cannabis businesses, a group of individuals who played a significant role in cultivating the industry, especially when it was an illegal market. Evidence of their early entrepreneurial efforts, in fact, can still be seen in U.S. prisons and jails, where incarcerated people of color remain locked-up for crimes that are now no longer crimes. Even in states like Washington, people of color are still getting disproportionately locked up. According to the latest data from a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, after legalization, “the arrest rate for black people in Washington is double the arrest rate for other races and ethnicities.”

Earlier this year, I interviewed a number of black men and women in the pot business about what the new weed economy — the so-called green rush — was doing for their bottom line and their place in it, which is statistically exceedingly small. Like, 1 percent of all storefront dispensaries small. One company really stood out — the Hollingsworth Cannabis Co. (THC, natch), a family-owned business in rural Washington State that even Anthony Bourdain sought out during his travels there. The moneyman is the family’s pot patriarch, Raft Hollingsworth, while his daughter, Joy, runs the processing side of the product. For the piece, I spoke at length to Joy, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to her brother, Raft Hollingsworth III, and THC’s master grower. Luckily, that changed a few weeks ago when he and I spent considerable time on the phone discussing what I like to call “the black market blues” among the green rush.

The youngest Hollingsworth is a black man raised in Seattle, college-educated and ambitious. He was 25 years old when legalization passed in Washington, and he saw opportunity. Here was a rare chance for him to build a family business (and generational wealth) by doing what so many other young black men and women have done in America — sell pot. Essentially, as much as there is still one to discuss, the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company represents what many would call the New American Dream.

But how real is this dream for Hollingsworth? How costly are the sacrifices to realize it? What’s it like for a black family attempting to re-energize an economically depressed rural white community in Trump’s America? (Their homebase of Shelton is a small, forgotten spot that’s struggling to survive after the town’s mill closed back in 2015, which left hundreds suddenly jobless.) Not to mention, their farm sits in a pristine forest just a mile away from the state’s largest prison. What must that feel like?

To these questions and everything else I asked him, Hollingsworth kept it all the way candid and real.

The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company started with a conversation between you, your sister, your mom and dad. Your family gathered in a basement. You presented them with your 32-page PowerPoint about why this was a good idea. And you turned out to be correct. Now it’s a legitimate, successful business. What gave you the faith in yourself and your plan that you’d be proven correct — that a black man could start a family cannabis business?
Well, I don’t know if we’re proven correct yet. (laughs) So far, we’ve… Man, yeah, I think so far… What gave us faith? I think we were naïve about it. We were stupid enough to think: We can. Just because… we didn’t know all the challenges we would face. But at the same time, we’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot together. I knew that it would only work out if we were all together. I said that at that meeting, “Look, if you guys aren’t in, there’s no way I can even think about pursuing this,” ‘cause I just wasn’t in a position to do this without them.

How did you win your family’s support, convince them to risk it all and start growing pot? Not many men could convince their whole family to go all-in like that on such a risky venture.
It’s a dynamic that’s unique. I knew we could be frank, honest and open with each other — unlike with anyone else in my life. That’s really what gave me confidence: their opinions. I know my sister’s extremely smart. My dad has problem-solving abilities. My mom’s incredibly detailed. So I said, “Why not us? Why can’t we be successful? People started from far more humble beginnings and have grown much larger things. Let’s apply our innate abilities to this situation and see what comes of it.”

You started growing in 2013. Five years later, what are you most proud of now that you’ve figured how to make it work as a grower?
Our family working together, man. Everybody leaning on each other, emotionally. Everybody’s strengths are really coming to bear. That’s what I’m most proud of. And being able to be closer to my family — my dad, my sister, my mom, my aunt, my cousins — and everybody figuring out where they fit in the dynamic. Manifesting that into an actual functioning, growing business that nobody really had experience doing — until now. That’s what I’m really proud of — how our family has come together.

A man can learn a lot from tending the earth. How has working hands-on with plants affected the rest of your life?
It’s taught me how to delay gratification, and how to plan really far ahead in the future. I used to think in very short-term sprints: 10-minute, 20-minute, one-hour, two-week sprints. Now, I’m thinking in like, six-month, 12-month runs. I’m already thinking about Memorial Day. Like, how is this all gonna look on Memorial Day? It’s like a container ship. You want to make a 90-degree turn? You do that over the course of several miles. Growing plants and working on a farm has taught me how to map ahead for the future and plant seeds, literal and figurative, that are gonna pay off sometimes not for six or 12 months. It’s taught me patience, and it’s taught me planning.

To achieve your dream, you had to make sacrifices. Namely, you had to leave Seattle and relocate in the middle of nowhere, in a super-white part of Washington. What’s it like for you to live and work in Shelton, a rural community of mostly poor white folks who have been left behind by an ever-globalizing economy?
It was jarring at first. ‘Cause I moved here from Capitol Hill in Seattle, which is probably the most like nightlife part of Seattle. It’s like bars, restaurants, nightclubs and shit. Out here, it’s very sparsely populated. Even though it’s only 90 minutes from downtown, it feels so much further away.

We’re in the middle of the woods. We’re on an easement, not even on a public access road. We don’t really even have neighbors for miles around us. It’s all wooded. We’re in the middle of a forest lot that we developed. Our closest neighbor is a couple of miles down the road. It’s a lot slower paced. There’s one store we shop at — it’s a Walmart. We moved to a Trump county, basically. And we’re black. They aren’t. But you know what? They’ve been pretty accepting, and I haven’t had any real incidents of — I’ve had less incidents of blatant racism here than I did growing up in Seattle and going to school in Capitol Hill.

I remember the first time I came back to Seattle. I was only six months out here. I was driving on the freeway, and I had to pull over because there were so many lights, so much noise. It was a trip. I just wasn’t used to that. My eyes were kinda shot. But out here, my biggest fear when I’m walking out to the trailer is mountain lions, cougars and shit. (laughs) I’m always on alert. You know how people move to the big city, and they’re like, “Gang violence and guns,” and it’s like, “Come on, bro, relax.” (laughs) But out here, people probably laugh like that at me, about basically the same shit. So there’s a lot more similarities than differences.

Like, one thing, there’s more extreme poverty out here. I didn’t recognize just how extremely poor. They closed the mill down in Shelton. It probably employed 700 or 900 people, if you factor in the residual employment from the restaurants and the supporting ancillary businesses. It was like the whole town just shut down overnight. Everybody was like, “What do we do now?”

It’s a problem, right? Coming from the south end of Seattle, though, which is the blacker part of Seattle, and you’d be like, “Okay, people talk about the ghetto and shit.” Well, I’ve seen the most ghetto shit out here.

Do you think that’s because of cultural biases, like how most American people don’t seem to recognize that white people are the greatest recipients of social welfare in the nation? Somehow people miss the fact that white Americans constitute the majority of people in the U.S. who daily use EBT and food stamp programs —
Hell, yeah.

People don’t seem to recognize this, instead they expect that people of color are —
People recognize it. I think other white people know. But it makes them feel better. It’s like, “At least I don’t have it as bad as…” But I’m telling you, this is the most extreme poverty I’ve ever seen. Like, New Orleans and all over the South? It’s not like this.

That brings up an interesting question — we have all these cultural stereotypes that shape our expectations and our public policy. Like the popular stereotype that pot was this drug that only black and brown people and college-aged white people used.
Before it became legalized, I didn’t think so many white folks smoked weed.

Obviously now that stereotype is gone. We see how everyone loves cannabis. But this shift in public awareness hasn’t been reflected in the justice system. How does it feel to be a black man succeeding in an industry that was once illegal, an industry that in some places is still being used to justify mass incarceration of so many black men?
How does it feel? It doesn’t feel good.

We were at a meeting that we probably shouldn’t have been in. People at the table had $200 million of private equity. They were on the board of several banks. There was a congresswoman — I don’t wanna say a name — but we were in a meeting with a congresswoman, bank board members and then us. I’m like, “Why do you think I’m here? I know what you want me to talk about. But I’m not going to do that.” You know what I mean? I’m not gonna tell you how diverse and great it is; I’m gonna tell you how we’re a mile away from the prison — the largest prison in the state of Washington. I know they can smell our farm. That’s not lost on us.

The irony of us being so close to them — doing something that several of them probably are in jail for right now, doing it legally, just down the street, only now we’re taxed and accounted for… We’re licensed. What does that even mean, really? Criminalizing their behavior — because that’s all we’re doing — while here we’re doing the same thing.

Anyway, how does it feel? It’s bittersweet. ‘Cause you wanna be successful, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to affect a cultural shift or change, but be a good example for others. Each one teach one.

So I want to share knowledge. I want to be a good example of what a successful, legal cannabis business looks like for a black or brown person. I’m acutely aware that there aren’t that many. I know how hard it is gonna continue to be — and how difficult it is to get access.

Are banks willing to do small business loans for cannabis businesses yet?
Nope! (laughs) But now there’s private equity. But a bank, like a traditional lender? Hell no! Not at 4 percent. Or 5 percent. Or 6 percent. Private equity is willing to give you money for big percentages. And you have to have significant collateral. You have to be ready for some loan-shark rates. I can get money. But at 18 percent? I don’t want that. But there’s no banks out there. It’s fucked up. Capitalism is a beast.

Are you worried that the cannabis industry, specifically, the growers, may soon become swallowed up by a wave of corporatization? Are there any movements to counter that trend? Are people creating collectives of growers or distributors, organizations that can compete with the larger players crashing into the industry?
Yeah, there’s that movement. But the consumer is gonna tell you what they want. And right now, they don’t want brand loyalty or anything like that. They want cheap weed. And they want a lot of it. They want a $50 ounce. They want a $40 ounce. They don’t care so much about the quality. The middle-tier guys that grow cannabis — there’s no space for them right now. And I don’t think there ever will be.

You don’t think as more white, wine-drinking suburban moms start vaping and smoking that won’t create a bespoke, artisanal level of pot distribution?
That’s a tough question. I think it’s already happened. More people smoke weed than you realize. I mean you go to a store, and you just sit there for 30 minutes — some stores, their entire clientele is retirees. I didn’t expect that when legalization happened. It’s gonna be up to the consumer to really decide how this industry plays out. Are they willing to spend more money on a quality product? How often are they willing to do that? And how much diversity do they want to see in the marketplace?

So yeah, it’s definitely getting corporatized, but the consumers have got to decide what they want. And licensing is gonna have to be a lot less restrictive. We’re the most restricted industry in the country — on the face of the earth. More than pharmaceuticals. And we’re growing plants. It’s crazy! I’ve got 42 cameras on my property. Everybody’s wearing a nametag even though we all know each other. Every gram is tracked and traced, and we’re growing a plant — one that can’t really kill or harm anybody.

Is consolidation gonna happen? It’s already happening. There’s mergers, and they’re continuing to happen at a record pace. Really what’s going on is that the stores decide who gets to see what. Chains are coming. Some chains have 10 stores. They really decide who gets to smoke what. ‘Cause I can’t sell to the public, not directly. Not until the law changes. ‘Cause when you have direct-to-consumer purchasing, that will change everything. When you can buy online and ship to the consumer. If they like it, they’ll buy again from you. And if they don’t, they won’t.

A little before he passed, that beloved icon of open-mindedness, Anthony Bourdain visited your family pot farm. He shot a segment for his show, Parts Unknown. Obviously, he’s greatly missed now. He left us running shorter on our supply of good examples of men in pop culture. What was it like for you to hang out with Anthony Bourdain, man-to-man?
It was surreal, man. We’ve been Bourdain fans since No Reservations. Especially since he was this woke-ass white dude on TV. He was unapologetic about it. I remember I was watching an episode — I was watching a Houston episode, I think — and he was like, “No white people, or any white people. This is the most diverse city in America, we don’t need any white people on this show.” (laughs) And I was like, “That’s dope.” He’d go to these Southeast Asian countries to talk about modern-day colonialism! He was just cool, man.

I think that’s what traveling and seeing the world does. Bourdain was a shining light, just an example of somebody who you can aspire to be. You think about him, and you just have good feelings. Everyone loved him because he was so authentically himself. He didn’t denigrate anybody else. He was about what he was about.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown Sneak Peak Seattle

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown Seattle CNN Tonight. 9PM

Posted by THC Co. The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company on Sunday, November 19, 2017

As far as what comes next, how do you feel about the near future — specifically as a black businessman in the U.S.?
You know when I look at the macro sense of the shit, like what’s going on around the world, what’s going on in America, I’m less optimistic. Because you look at the big picture and there’s still institutional racism. It’s 2018, and I’m dealing with shit my grandmother used to deal with. It’s still degrading to have to deal with institutional racism and institutional barriers to entry, barriers to access capital and opportunities.

And our reality is so much different than our peer groups, because not everybody is living in a coastal city, in a booming economic city. We’re kinda blocked off from the plight of the rest of the world, unless you travel. When I go down South, or I go back East, I see my people that are struggling.

That said, am I hopeful about my personal future? Absolutely, I’m so blessed. And we’re very fortunate. I never lose sight of that. This could have gone any way. You know? Any way. Like, I could have gotten locked up. In college, I could’ve had to drop out, and my life would be totally different. Over what? Two grams? But it didn’t happen like that.

Am I optimistic for the rest of the country? After Trump was elected in 2016, the next day, we were working, and half of the people out here — ’cause they’re all from the community — half of the people were happy. I watched that shit in my office like, “What the fuck?!?!” Before that, I didn’t understand how he could win. But then I come to work the next day, and the guys working on the farm were like, “Yeah, Trump won,” and I’m like… [silence]

That day was so strange. Because I’m not gonna sit up here and despise you, just ‘cause you’re a Republican. But it was like, “What’s going on that you would support this dude?” Especially ’cause I know how much they make. I’m not trying to be shady, but there’s nothing he’s gonna do for them. He’s gonna take away their entire social safety net. How are they so excited about this? But then it’s like, “Oh, oh, oh, it’s racism.” You know, I’m not tripping. But yeah, that was a wake-up call.

So I’m still optimistic, but it’s not like this is a new feeling. We’re gonna still make progress, and I’m glad it’s come up to the surface. We can see what the hell is going on. We can address it. And then we can exorcise it.