(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the California Minority Alliance as the Cannabis Minority Alliance.)
Virgil Grant has been a staple in the Los Angeles cannabis industry since 2002, having run six dispensaries before spending nearly five years in jail.
His legal issues started when one of his dispensaries was targeted in a DEA raid, one of many at the time.
After his release in 2015 on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-spurred federal drug conspiracy conviction, Grant opened a dispensary near where he grew up in south Los Angeles.
And last year, with his legal issues behind but not forgotten, Grant co-founded the California Minority Alliance to help blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities land executive-level roles in the marijuana trade. He noted the fear of jail has discouraged many from joining the industry.
Grant, 49, who began his first collective in Compton in 2002, spoke with Marijuana Business Daily about his quest to increase the minority presence in the cannabis industry – in California and beyond.
What’s the need for the California Minority Alliance?
We felt a need to have a minority organization to represent minorities within the cannabis industry. There are 187 dispensaries (that have been in existence in Los Angeles since the city imposed a moratorium on new, licensed dispensaries in 2007) and only four African-Americans that own any of those. So the minority interests and voice and representation has been underrepresented in this industry.
We created this organization to bring more minority interests into the industry, minorities that don’t have the information or the education or the financial wherewithal to get involved.
Is there one primary obstacle you see in terms of why more minorities haven’t yet gotten into the cannabis industry?
Jail … They’re afraid to go to jail.
You have to remember that African-Americans are four times as likely to go to prison as a white person doing the same identical crime. Latinos are twice as likely. So the fear of going to jail has kept us out of the industry. Not because we didn’t have interest.
And now, since the feds have been pushed back from the industry and a lot of these regulations, with the MCRSA (California’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act) coming in and Prop 64 passing, all of these cities are stepping up and taking a leading role in how their city is going to be regulated.
It makes us more comfortable in getting into the industry, because the safety net is there and the fear of going to prison is less.
How many members do you have?
Right now, close to 300 members. It’s been building pretty quick. And when we say minorities, it’s not just African-Americans. It’s Latinos, it’s Asians – so we’re representing the whole minority interest, and people have been signing up fast.
All those members, do they have their own businesses, or are they staffers? What roles do they have?
They’re people that are already presently functioning in the industry and people who are looking to get into the industry.
The overwhelming majority of our membership are people who are already circulating within the industry, either via testing, concentrates, manufacturing, cultivation, shop owners or whatever.
Aside from those four shop owners you mentioned, do you have any other numbers in terms of what percentage of the cannabis industry in California is made up of minorities?
The minority numbers are represented in the workforce, not ownership. So my main concern initially was ownership, not just being a consumer or a worker, but actually having an equity stake in the industry, like myself. But the majority are workforce. They’re budtenders, they’re blue-collar workers for manufacturers and cultivators.
What I’m looking to do is open up the industry. We’re working closely with the city council; we’re trying to form an equity piece for minorities, similar to what Oakland and Berkeley did, to set aside some licenses for minorities.
The overwhelming majority of L.A. City Council members are interested in an equity stake (for minorities). They want to see more minority representation within the cannabis industry on an owner-operator level. And once we deal with our own backyard and get that squared away, we’re going to start working in other states to make sure that there’s a minority (representative) on the owner-operator aspect as well.
What happened is, there was really no interest at all, period, and nobody spoke on it.
One day, I went to city council and I spoke on the minority interest. The whole time that those speakers were getting up, council members were talking to each other, their heads were down, they weren’t interested or paying attention. Once I got up … their heads popped up, because nobody else spoke about the minority interests. So that interested them.
When I mentioned the minority representation, all of a sudden, (Council President) Herb (Wesson) popped up … and they sent some people over to me and pulled me to the side and said, “We need to talk.” After that, now all the organizations say that’s how we’re going to get his attention.
So everyone else started talking about that minority equity piece. So it got the conversation rolling and got the council’s interest. Their offices are now saying, “What’s up with this minority equity piece? It needs to be implemented.”
How do you think that could work as Los Angeles starts to license cannabis businesses?
We’re looking for a percentage to go to minorities, sort of like how Oakland set aside 50% of their licenses.
Demographics are different up in Oakland, so we’ll probably use population numbers and demographics to find the best formula to represent minorities without shorting us. But it’s still to be determined.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
John Schroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org