This past year has been a gratifying one for Kika Keith, co-founder of the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association (SEOWA), and most recently, owner of Gorilla Rx Wellness Co., the first dispensary in Los Angeles owned by a Black woman.
You may recognize Keith from Uprooted, Weedmaps' 2020 docu-series highlighting California's long and complex road to cannabis legalization. In episode three of the series, she discussed the lack of equitable cannabis regulations when it came to licensing, particularly for people of color. The constant rule changes, high taxes, and underdeveloped social equity programs have made it extremely difficult for Black and brown Californians to succeed in the cannabis industry, continuing the history of systemic racism tied to prohibition.
Like many other applicants in Los Angeles' Social Equity Program, Keith struggled to obtain a license for her dispensary for three years. During this waiting period, the retail properties that applicants were forced to secure in order to apply sat unoccupied. At the time of filming Uprooted, Keith's storefront on Crenshaw Boulevard had been unused for nearly two years as a result of this botched application process. “We had to end up filing a lawsuit through [SEOWA] and ended up settling about nine months later for 100 additional retail licenses,” Keith said.
“And even after that process, it was another 230 days after my application was in … all the while paying an exorbitant amount of rent on an empty property, so it has been a long, hard-fought battle to get doors open and be the first African-American woman to open up a dispensary and operate it in Los Angeles.”
Growing up in the area where she now operates her dispensary, Keith was welcomed with open arms by the community on opening day. “I always call it the house that people built because so many people fought side by side with me going back and forth to city hall, making sure that we were able to keep our doors open while waiting to actually get a license.”
When asked why she chose to open up her shop in her own community, she explained that urban communities are often not considered to be profitable locations for business, but this is simply a fallacy. For Keith, it's not just about building wealth for her own family, but about reinvesting in the community she loves through education. “We've hired folks in the community. We intend to support programs in the community as well, for arts for the youth and wellness in our community, it's just been so well received,” she added. “I think we're creating a new model of how the cannabis industry should look.”
The grand opening of her dispensary is a huge win for Keith, and for other Social Equity Program applicants, but there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the cannabis sphere is more equitable and accessible for the very communities that were intended to benefit from legalization.
How to ensure a more equitable future for cannabis
In order for there to finally be a level playing field within the over-regulated cannabis marketplace in California, lawmakers and regulators must also make a commitment to reinvest in the communities that have been harmed by this system.
Keith believes that it all begins with education and outreach. Without training in areas such as fundraising, operations, and investor relations, Social Equity Program applicants are being set up to fail.
“I had to force myself to have a seat at the table. I have yet to see progressive policies in which they have a Stakeholders Oversight Committee that is actually a part of the implementation of actual policies that are affecting the communities most harmed. So if we're not at the table being a part of the development of policies, there's no way that they can create a program that's aimed to benefit us.”
In addition to having a seat at the table, individuals seeking retail licenses need access to resources. “The city really has to start looking at how they implement these programs, not just opening them up. At the heart of that is a budget, and you can't name me one city that has had a substantial budget to open up a social equity program. In 2018, the city of LA had $10 million allocated to social equity, and about five months into the program, it was re-budgeted to police enforcement,” Keith explained.
“I think two things have to be done. First, the state doesn't even have a definition of social equity. And if you're saying you have a state-wide interest in social equity, but the state can't even outline a clear definition of it, that's a problem … There is also an issue of lack of oversight with the funds that the states allocate to these cities. I would easily say we need more money, but we're not even getting access to the money that's been given.”
As for what we can do on an individual level to affect change in the realm of social equity, Keith suggests supporting Black-owned businesses, for starters. While the state may hold a lot of power over how equitable the cannabis market is, we as consumers possess the power to vote with our dollars. “Ask where the Black and brown brands are, where the social equity brands are, because you'll find that most retail stores don't even carry Black-owned brands, except maybe one or two, the popular rapper brands or the athlete brands.”
Lastly, Keith urges consumers who support social equity to speak their minds, whether it be at city council meetings or on their social media pages. Her final piece of advice: “Keep questioning what's being done to communities affected by the War on Drugs as the cannabis industry continues to grow.”