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Black Market Blues: The Forgotten Black Men and Entrepreneurs of the New Weed Economy

“I lived in the South Central part of L.A., near Watts. It was a high-gang-traffic, high-drug-traffic area. Growing up, I was familiar with marijuana,” the 20-year veteran of the cannabis game tells me. He doesn’t want to use his real name, so he goes by his alias, Spam Not Ham. “As soon as it was understood that it wasn’t about selling pot but about growing it, and controlling your own destiny — and the market — I took full advantage of that. Then, understanding that once you grow it, you have to push it, you have to have buyers for it. Those are the people you have to connect with and meet.”

Listening to his mind work, you easily hear his business acumen. For many, his black South Central accent obscures his natural talent for generating profits. But if you’re not blinded by bias, you can’t miss the fact this man is a hustling-ass entrepreneur. The same sort of business person you’ll find at any conference at an airport hotel or some weekend sales seminar on a Caribbean island. He talks that talk. Sadly, though, there’s no space for him in that legitimate business world. “To be honest with you, there was no real way — because of my background, because of my level of formal education, because of my race, ethnicity and class culture — that I’d be taken seriously so that I can advance past a certain point,” he says, without a trace of anger. “I have this knowledge, but without money, there’s no way to move forward. And with no one willing to take a chance to invest in me, to progress forward with me, there’s no way to attempt anything. There’s nothing you can do — you’re just waiting on the sidelines, waiting on your moment.”

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One would think that his moment is finally here. Pot is now legal in California. And here is a black man, raised in L.A., who’s worked in the cannabis industry, both legally and illegally, for 20 years. In fact, during his nine years as a staffer at a hydroponics store — which is where he learned to grow tomatoes, and then cannabis — he became known in the industry as someone who could answer your strangest, most perplexing questions about your hydroponic system. Over the years then, as people sought out his advice, he made contacts and connections, not only across L.A. and the greater SoCal area, but all across America, and around the world. He even helped the Mexican cartels to increase their quality and yield.

“In certain cases it was like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Because if I don’t keep my wits about me, I could be kidnapped.’ That was one of the longshot things I felt could happen. But in another sense, when you see development of the quality of the product on the street that you may be fully responsible for — because these people keep coming back to you and telling you that their results show the new process is working properly, that’s when your head gets really big. I’m not gonna say that I’m single-handedly responsible for that, but I’ve had conversations with people who told me about how what I said influenced the cartel’s ability to grow and their ability to develop strains, and they showed me the results. So…”

If Mexican drug cartels are looking to you for advice growing cannabis, it would seem a no-brainer that you could find legit work in the newly legalized cannabis industry in California. Right? Alas, no. “I’ve tried to switch avenues, go corporate and work for larger companies, but I was denied and it felt like it was because I’m black and because of my background. Everybody knew who I was, where I worked at, who I worked for, and for such a long time. Still, I felt like I was denied a level up, a chance to get to a higher plateau.”

He continues, “When I put in my applications with businesses — there are places for cannabis businesses, you can go through the job listings, you can find cannabis jobs all over this area — I get zero responses. They say, ‘Send a photo or video of yourself explaining why you want to work at this company.’ I do, and I get no replies back. I feel like as a black man, that I’m locked out of the cannabis industry.”

“But what about your skills as a grower, and all your connections in the industry — all the people who know how talented you are, how you taught them to grow back in day?” I ask him. “Have none of them reached out and wanted to hire you as a master grower, or as an assistant grower?”

“I’ve been denied on two separate occasions where I was to be an assistant grower to a master, due to the lack of my formal education. I don’t have a bachelor’s degree. So I’m deemed unable to understand the nuances necessary to be an assistant to a master grower. Even with my proven track record, it’s still just a matter of, ‘if I was given the opportunity I would be able to shine bright…’ But I’m not, and I don’t understand why. Is it because I’m a black man in this culture?”

So now, he does what he knows. He still operates his own private grows. After 20 years in the industry, he’s still relegated to being a black man in the black market. I ask him, with the sudden influx of new money and new players, is he able to at least operate in the grey market — to sell his product to smaller dispensaries on the low. Or has legalization made that more difficult due to the added costs like required independent lab testing of the cannabis?

“If I ever have a meeting with a dispensary, I’ll let you know.”

Then he explains what the new changes to the law mean for a black-market grower like him. “In my own small operation, I’ve had to scale down, just to be able to keep up with the quality level so that I won’t be denied on looks alone. Thank God for social media. That’s the only thing I can say. I continue to grow and show my own, show myself off, based on social media.”

“What about black-owned dispensaries, or cannabis cultivators?” I respond. “Surely there must be some in the SoCal area.”

“As far as black-owned businesses, I’m not sure. As far as a brown business, a minority business, there are a few companies I’d like to work with. There are ones that I wouldn’t mind putting my pride aside, so I could stop having to privately grow for the black market. To actually put my grow skills to use in the legal market. But I wouldn’t say there any black companies that I’m aware of.”

They call their business The Hollingsworth Cannabis Co. (Abbreviated, it’s THC.) Working together, the Hollingsworth family has created an opportunity for themselves. Family patriarch, Raft Hollingsworth, invested his life savings into the pot farm. His daughter, Joy, the former Seattle University basketball coach, manages the processing of the product. His son, RT3, is the master grower, and runs the plant-side of the operation. RT3 once grew cannabis illegally, but now with the help of his family — and a change in the law — he’s able to lead a successful black-owned business, as a modern farmer. Together, they opened up their family-run pot farm in rural Washington, where there are few black people, let alone, black families.

Still, they’ve found a happy home there. In fact, the Hollingsworth family has hired many of their unemployed white rural neighbors, who used to work at the now shuttered mill. They’re helping to revitalize a forgotten corner of America. You could say the Hollingsworth story is rather unique. So much so, they once attracted the attention of Anthony Bourdain who’d featured them on his show Parts Unknown. (Some statistics speaking to their rarity: As BuzzFeed News reported back in March 2016, “Based on more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders and salespeople who interact with a lot of pot shops, it appears that fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people — about 1 percent.”)

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

To see how things are going for the Hollingsworth family, I talk to Joy. She’s practical, optimistic and realistic about the obstacles to overcome for black people and other POC in the cannabis industry. “There will never be a right time to start a business,” she explains. “You just have to do it. We were extremely fortunate that the stars aligned. When I-502 recreational cannabis passed in Washington in 2012, our parents were toward the finish line to retirement, and we all were committed to this new venture. It wasn’t ever about making money, it was always about the opportunity to help create generational wealth.”

This is something that far too often gets denied to black families. But the cannabis industry is a super competitive market these days. Not exactly the safest place to grow your generational wealth. “Farming will test your inner soul,” she says. “It will test your spirit, and it can break you sometimes. We’ve been broken before and had to pick ourselves back up. This hasn’t been easy. You have to be mentally prepared for everything. You’re going to have failures and problems, but it’s all part of the process. And we’re all addicted to the process.”

I follow up by asking how steep the learning curve has been going from basketball coach to COO. “It’s been a massive learning curve — how to source different materials, manage people, payroll, taxes, operations, HR, scaling the business, profit margins, break-even points, managing inventory, distribution, sales, sourcing, compliance and so much more,” she explains, her enthusiasm readily apparent. “The biggest thing we’ve learned is to continue to improve every day. As long as we continue to improve and navigate the industry, we can survive.”

I ask if she feels the same about other black-owned weed business. And better yet, if she feels the cannabis industry is getting better about helping black people get started in the legal side of the business in the first place.

She strikes right to the heart of the matter: mass incarceration of POC. “Our farm is located close to one of the largest state prisons in Washington state. We realize that there are people who look like us who are incarcerated for doing the same thing we’re doing. That’s been in the back of our minds since we started this journey together as a family. We don’t take for granted the position we’re in. We understand the responsibility that we’ve been given as black farmers growing cannabis in the industry. We hope people can be inspired by our story and feel as if they can start a business as well.”

To that end, she says, “We answer emails, phone calls, text messages and social media questions all the time. We encourage people to send us specific questions they might have about how we got started, things we learned about the industry. I wish we could do more, but right now, we’re focused on our business to make sure it’s sustainable, growing and can continue to improve the process.”

Charlo Greene is about to start a criminal trial in Alaska. If she loses, she’s facing 54 years in prison. You may remember her name. She’s the TV news reporter who announced that she was secretly operating a medical marijuana collective in Alaska, and then said, “Fuck it! I quit,” while she was live on the air. After she walked off that TV set, she walked into international fame as a newly-born cannabis advocate.

But in a move that many feel is retaliatory, the state of Alaska is seemingly aiming to make an example of her. The state’s criminal justice system is pushing forward with her trial, even after citizens of the state voted to legalize cannabis, thanks to her advocacy efforts. Greene’s story highlights the racist attitudes and issues that still shape the cannabis industry and the business world, in general.

Currently located in L.A. as she prepares for her upcoming trial and continues to work on her daily cannabis-themed talk show, Greene talks to me by phone. She’s characteristically plain-spoken, intelligent and confident in her abilities. To start, I ask about the moment she became a national figure for the cannabis advocacy movement, after she made the choice to confess on live TV that she was the owner-operator of Alaska Cannabis Club.

“I’d been planning to quit publicly for months,” she explains. “At that point, my focus was on helping to get Alaska to pass legalization. We had a vote coming up in a couple of months, and as the state’s leading cannabis reporter, I knew I was likely the only one in a position that understood cannabis enough to be willing to sacrifice, to get the job done. So I decided to use my position to bring awareness to the coming vote. Because of that, along with lots of other actions taken, after I said, ‘Fuck it!’ we were able to go from about 40 percent supporting legalization to 53 percent support, which passed the vote, in a matter of maybe six weeks.”

When I say that she wound up being the Paul Revere for the Alaskan cannabis movement, Charlo laughs. “Well, a lot of people don’t understand why I did what I did. After seeing the need for Alaska’s medical patients for a community where they could look to each other for information and resources, I knew that, without this passing, all of the people I was helping weren’t going to be able to get access to the medicine that they really, really needed. Not without full legalization.”

What was Greene’s reward for her bravery, for her compassion for her fellow citizens, for her stand against the status quo? She was hounded by the state.

In June 2016, for example, state authorities raided her Alaska Cannabis Club, discovered illegal sales, attributed them to her as the owner/operator of the member-run collective and busted her. That’s why she now faces 54 years in prison.

In a story about her, Greene mentioned to Forbes that, on the same day as the raid, two blocks away, there was a murder. And now, two years later, she’s facing more than five decades in jail while that murder remains unsolved. I ask Greene if she were a white woman in Alaska, would any of this be happening?

No,” she says, followed by a dramatically long pause.

In the space of her silence, I ask her if it pisses her off that the racial bias is so blatant.

Being pissed off about racial bias would…” She stops herself and laughs. “I’d just be walking around as a really angry black woman because I have to deal with that every time I walk into a grocery store,” she continues, her words heating up as she starts each new sentence. “I have to make sure my hands are shown, so that I’m not stopped, questioned and demeaned. That’s something I have to deal with in every aspect of my life. Does it piss me off? No. Because that would put me be in a bad place. Is it frustrating? Is it disappointing? Absolutely!

“For instance, the fact people in Alaska are unwilling to see how much of a factor race is playing in my prosecution. It comes up when people say, ‘She’s trying to play the race card.’ And: ‘She tries to say that’s what this is all about. But really it’s…’ But really, what?! What is it about? Is it about the fact I fucking legalized it, and a year later the state decides to come after me? So, what is it really about?”

But what about the cannabis industry, at large? Have they supported Greene, stood by her and financially assisted her during her trial?

“After ‘Fuck it!’ happened, High Times flew me out,” she replies. “They introduced me to their advertising department. And they personally thanked me. Now, they won’t even share the fact that I’m going to court. Why? It’s not sexy. I’ve been directly in touch with the decision-makers there, and they don’t think the story is a good fit for them. That pretty much sums up the industry.”

Why wouldn’t her legal fight be a good fit for them?

With a sigh, Greene says, “I honestly couldn’t tell you. I know it’s disappointing for me. Because I need people to know that this is what’s happening in Alaska. If they don’t know, then what’s happening up there gets to happen behind closed doors. And that could lead to the worst possible outcome with no one to hold anyone accountable. I don’t want it to seem like I don’t have support, because I do. But it’s mostly been members of the [Alaskan] community who are actually helping.”

I ask Greene if she and her legal team are remaining optimistic. Her answer is as candid as ever: “Um, nope. Well…”

In the space trailing her words, I offer a follow-up: Are you remaining realistic?

“If a jury of my Alaskan peers — that now profit off the sacrifices I’ve made and the stance that I took — decide to throw away my life, then that’s what it’ll be. It’ll be unfortunate. But it is what it is. I want this trial to be over and done with. It’s just a huge roadblock between me and anything that I want to do. So, I’ve got to end it.”

I ask if she were to not get the result she wants, are she and her legal team planning on continuing the fight with years of appeals. For the first time in our conversation, the warmth and easy wit, the media-trained voice, falls away. Her voice grows distant, separate from time, and she answers, clearly imagining herself behind cold iron bars.

“I don’t plan — I don’t know. I’m not planning on losing my case. When we get there, then we’ll get there. But, um, in all honesty, if I was sentenced to 54 years, I’d probably just end my life. Because I don’t… Because I’ve thought about this, and I’m a suicide survivor, so I understand exactly what the fuck I’m saying. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go out on my terms, and hopefully my story will change things for other people. But no, that’s what’s going to happen. This isn’t a place I want to be — if that’s reality.”