When Earl Carruthers was captain of the Wayne State University football team, he cracked his pelvis, leading to chronic pain. After graduation, he worked as a resource supervisor for UPS and then a financial adviser for JP Morgan before starting a credit repair business. Next, he wanted to start another business that was more product-focused and kept customers coming back rather than serving them just once.
Since he'd been looking up natural remedies for the pain associated with his cracked pelvis, he thought about creating an anti-inflammatory supplement for athletes. In his research, he learned about cannabis. He hadn't actually heard of it before and didn't even know it was marijuana. But it sounded like it could be a fit both for his business and for his own personal use, so he signed up for an eight-week course at a local cannabis college.
That was where he learned what cannabis was, as well as some basic facts like the difference between indica and sativa strains. He also learned how to start growing it legally in his home state of Michigan.
Carruthers had avoided smoking because he'd been taught negative things about cannabis, such as that it was addictive. But his girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife, smoked cannabis daily. She rolled his first blunt, and he smoked for the first time with her.
Once he'd learned about the technicalities of growing cannabis and realized it wasn't the life-ruining drug he'd been taught it was, Carruthers became a caregiver — someone who provides medical cannabis for up to five patients and oneself.
His patients included himself, his girlfriend, his mother (who had been diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia), and his father (who was recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery). Once he started growing more than he could use, he considered starting a delivery service.
“I took what I'd learned as an entrepreneur and ran a delivery service that way,” he explained. Once it got busy, he realized he needed an office, so he repurposed the office he was using for his credit repair business to take appointments. “It kind of got weird, because the smell doesn't go away,” he said with a laugh.
To avoid suspicious questions from credit repair customers, he got a separate suite for each business. Other caregivers also began using his medical cannabis office to meet with patients, so it turned into a collective of sorts. He called this collective the Green Greener Grow, and it later grew into the G3 Cannabis Therapy Network. This was technically a dispensary (legally called “provisioning centers” in Michigan), making him the first person of color to own a cannabis dispensary in Michigan.
Trouble with the Law
That was not an easy position to attain. While he was selling cannabis brownies to patients, Carruthers was arrested and sent to jail on the premise that the edibles were illegal narcotics. Rather than count how much cannabis they contained — which was within the limits of the law — the prosecution counted the total weight of the brownies.
“I was confused as to why they were trying to create a criminal,” he recalled. “I thought there were enough black people in jail.” The labels on his products that designated them as medical marijuana were blacked out with marker, and the trial was treated as if he had been selling drugs for recreational purposes.
On top of that, an undercover cop with a fake medical marijuana card, cashier's check, and ID pretended to be a medical cannabis patient and signed his membership agreement, leading him to get raided. “The jury perceived me as another black guy with marijuana, and I was found guilty and had to go to jail,” he remembered. He was there for 33 days, then was sentenced to five years probation.
Even after the conviction, he continued to fight the brownie case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. While there wasn't a change to his charges, the case inspired new legislation in Michigan that included a mathematical equation to calculate the amount of “usable material” in cannabis products such as edibles and oil extractions. He also continued to fight the dispensary case involving the undercover cop for almost four years until all charges were dismissed.
Not Easy Being Green
Needless to say, Carruthers, who now runs the Cannabis Therapy Potcast, has learned that “the grass is not always greener on the other side” (no pun intended) — working in cannabis isn't easier than working in another area.
“You have to have a nice risk tolerance because it's a very volatile and risky and changing environment, and you will have to step in and be in it for the long haul,” he said. “I think the only way to be really strapped in is to really have a purpose other than to make money.”
For him, that purpose was combatting the war on drugs and the racism implicit in it, plus advocating for personal autonomy. “It was more about furthering the movement of normalizing cannabis,” he said. “And when you have that purpose, you can handle a lot of the bumps and bruises that you're going to get.”
However, he wishes he'd been more prepared for how fast-paced the industry was so that he could gather the resources, education, and network to weather the storm. “One year in the cannabis industry is like seven years,” he said. One thing in particular he didn't realize he'd need to learn was how the government and the law work, both on the federal and local level, since the cannabis industry is so heavily regulated.
Tiffany Hoven, director of operations at The Grove, a vertical cannabis operation that includes cultivation, production, distribution, and retail stores, agrees that education is key for entering the cannabis industry.
“The more you know about this plant, the better you can understand each and every position within this booming industry. Understanding cannabinoids and terpenes is vital to understanding the products,” she said. “The stronger your base when it comes to education in this field, the easier it is to transition into a solid employee in the cannabis arena.”
There are lots of opportunities relevant to many different skill sets, though, so you don't be intimidated if you don't have previous experience in cannabis.
“The cannabis industry is huge and growing and includes all parts, including but not limited to cultivation, production, retail, sales, and distribution,” Hoven said. “All of these positions are trainable, so when a candidate is able to adapt easily, learn, and grow quickly, even better. Computer knowledge is a plus when it comes to managerial or admin positions, and of course, experience in your field and management when it comes to department lead positions.”
If you can handle the challenges that come with transitioning into the cannabis industry, Carruthers believes they will ultimately benefit you.
“I'm thankful for the obstacles and for the setbacks and the hurdles you have to overcome because you build character,” he said. “You build perseverance, and no one can take that away from you. They can take your money, take your bank account, they can change legislation, but they can't take away your perseverance. They cannot take away your will.”
After running up against many obstacles of his own, Carruthers has only become more determined to stay in and change the industry.
“You will not hear the last of me,” he vowed. “I am in this industry to stay. I will adapt, and I will adjust, and I will go from there.”
Feature image: Earl Carruthers, second from right, stands with Democratic Michigan state Rep. Jewell Jones, third from right, and Michigan Medical Marijuana Association Director Jesse Riggs, right. Carruthers, a former college football player turned financial adviser and entrepreneur, is the first African American cannabis dispensary owner in Michigan. He is also joined by Margeaux Bruner, Political Director of the Michigan Cannabis Industries Association, second from left, and two Students for Sensible Drug Policy members wearing National Expungement Week T-shirts. Taken at Oakland Community College in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan during National Expungement Week 2019. (Photo courtesy of Komorn Law)