With his Oregon-based cultivation company, his numerous advocacy efforts and his newfound role as a cannabis professor, Jesce Horton remains optimistic about the future of cannabis
Jesce Horton is not only committed to building a company that caters to cannabis enthusiasts like himself, he’s also intent on doing his part to build an industry that can open the doors of opportunity to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Through his work with a wide range of businesses and nonprofit organizations, Horton has helped develop policy initiatives, grant programs and educational courses to help industry newcomers, particularly minorities who face steeper obstacles to getting their start in cannabis.
And in the meantime, he’s also found time to launch his own brand in Portland, Oregon.
Horton is the founder and CEO of LOWD, “a craft-focused cultivation facility that’s really built to serve the high-quality stoner market, people like myself,” he says, “who are seeking new genetics, premium genetics and really well-done flower from beginning to end.”
LOWD currently operates 7,500 square feet of cultivation space in Portland and is in the process of building out a new, 25,000-square-foot facility that will allow the company to greatly expand its production.
Horton felt there was a gap in the market for companies focused on the true stoners. While other companies emphasize brand building and attracting new consumers, “LOWD is doubling down on stoners and stoner culture,” Horton says.
Marijuana Venture: What is your philosophy in terms of targeting the high-quality, craft market, while needing to produce at scale? How do you achieve both goals?
Jesce Horton: I think scaling is important, but I also think even at a small level, like we are now, 7,500 square feet, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the cultivation space to be more efficient and really focus on quality. In addition to being a real stoner, my background is industrial engineering, and we’ve spent a lot of time building a facility that allows us to operate with limited people, limited inputs and maximum efficiency. That’s our first focus: to do our best with the size facility that we have and scale up from there once we feel like we have things dialed in.
Of course, there is a need to produce more pounds, but the Oregon market is extremely competitive, and anything you grow, you’d better be able to sell. Growing in a slow, methodical way is definitely the best thing for a saturated market like ours.
MV: What are your thoughts on the Oregon market and how does that influence your cultivation approach moving forward?
Horton: I think Oregon, and specifically Portland, is the most competitive market in the country. It’s brutal on pricing and also one of the most selective markets when you look at the clientele. But it’s difficult to produce premium quality cannabis on a consistent basis. It’s not something for the faint of heart. It’s not something that can be done based on the amount of money you have or the number of licenses you have. So we really focus on those areas where we think we can win, and that is being consistent in our process and being one of the most energy and water efficient cultivators out there, and it has a lot to do with investing in R&D and selecting the right genetics. That’s where we can truly differentiate from the vast majority of cultivators out there. Without a doubt, we invest more than most out there on not just hunting new genetics from different breeders, but also doing our own crosses that we’ll start to release more of later this year.
MV: In addition to LOWD, you’re involved in a lot of nonprofit organizations and various projects. What drives you to be so active in different aspects of the broader industry?
Horton: I owe a lot to the industry, and to those that came before me, the people who got things started. That’s part of why LOWD focuses on stoner culture and waving that flag high. When I first got into the industry, so many people helped me get started.
With my background in engineering, I had a lot of ladders that were put in front of me, where people helped me get to the next level to where I found success in corporate America. I didn’t necessarily see that when I first got started in the cannabis industry. A lot of my nonprofit work, co-founding the Minority Cannabis Business Association and the Nu-Leaf Project, or the NuProject, as it’s known now, has been focused on providing opportunities to others.
The NuProject has given out more than $2 million this year, through grants, 0% interest loans and low-interest loans, primarily to Black and Brown businesses and businesses who have been hurt by cannabis prohibition enforcement. That’s in partnership with the city of Portland and companies like Cookies, Hawthorne Gardening, Wyld — a lot of the largest companies in the industry, but also some of the smallest companies in Oregon and across the nation. Ben Cohen, from Ben and Jerry’s, his organization is a big funder of that nonprofit. This is something I’m very proud of because it provides stepping stones for people like me, who just needed that one open door to get to the next one and to get the next one after that. That’s exactly how I was able to find success, so hopefully we’re giving people success in that regard.
Outside of the nonprofit work, I’m really excited about the work I’m doing in New York at two separate colleges. LIM College is the first college in the state of New York to have a cannabis major, and I helped them design their curriculum and I’m an adjunct professor there this year to help teach about the business of cannabis cultivation. And also, at Medgar Evers College, a historically Black school in Brooklyn, I am teaching a cannabis cultivation class to about 20 different students.
It’s really about paying it forward. I’ve been given so many opportunities that I’m lucky and privileged to be doing these things in the cannabis industry.
MV: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to pay it forward and open those doors for somebody else?
Horton: A massive responsibility. It’s massive in a good way. It excites me.
When I was in corporate America, I was praying to find something I was passionate about. At the time, I was in Munich, Germany, really at the height of my career at Siemens, a German engineering company. I was 29 years old, the youngest guy at their headquarters, and I hated it.
I had no thought about the cannabis industry at the time, but Siemens happened to move me back to the U.S. And when I got to Portland, I started growing cannabis in my basement, and I quit my job a year later. Without a doubt, I have a massive responsibility now that I’ve been gifted this cannabis industry and this cannabis plant, to help others win and, at a bigger scale, to help us to make sure that we’re creating not just another industry, but a better industry.
MV: You’ve been involved in the cannabis industry for a long time. How has the space changed over the years?
Horton: I’ve seen so many things change as far as the growth of the industry. When I first went to Amsterdam, there was the Green House Coffee Shop. I got a chance to smoke a joint with Willie Nelson during the High Times Cannabis Cup. He didn’t know who I was but I passed him a joint and he passed it back.
But then the last time I was there, I went to the most famous coffee shop in Amsterdam and it’s been turned into a Cookies. You’re looking for a sign that says Green House and instead you see a Cookies sign. Very quickly, the American cannabis industry has infiltrated Amsterdam and they’re selling grams at twice the price. That’s a major shift that opened my eyes to the real potential of this industry.
Another interesting shift is that when I first got started social equity in cannabis wasn’t even a thing. When Oregon passed its legalization measure, there was no social equity plan. When we started to talk about that stuff with MCBA, it was very radical in a lot of ways. I’ve had articles where I had to come out against all of the negativity about social equity programs because of the argument that social equity isn’t needed because it doesn’t work. Even though not enough people are getting licenses and businesses aren’t opening fast enough, there are still many people who are finding their way through equity programs.
MV: What has the experience of teaching been like for you?
Horton: It’s been really amazing.
It’s definitely coming full circle in so many ways. My dad spent time in prison for cannabis possession and he did his best to keep me away from cannabis. We had a really tumultuous relationship, because of my love for cannabis. And he loved it too, but he wanted me to stay away from it because he saw the ways it ruined his trajectory in so many ways. From that, and then getting into college and having teachers and professors tell me that cannabis was going to ruin my future or my career. And then being arrested and losing my scholarship, and having to drop out of college and start working for a semester to get back into college, because of cannabis.
And now, to be sitting in front of really eager, wide-eyed people really trying to learn about cannabis. They’re not just coming to class and doing their assignments, but they’re really trying to learn and ask real questions. Those things don’t happen as much as we would like them to happen in education. So it’s been really eye opening and really encouraging for the direction of the industry and for the amount of people who are trying to find their place.
MV: Did you ever believe we would get to a point where cannabis is a subject being taught in American colleges?
Horton: Man, I didn’t believe cannabis was going to be legal. Back in the early medical days, I was on the East Coast. I got arrested for a seed when it was legal on the West Coast in so many ways. We were still in a very oppressive environment when it comes to cannabis, and in many ways, it still is.
We were having arguments about how they would never legalize cannabis up until I graduated college. I never thought it would be legal and certainly never thought that it would get to the point that I would be involved in it at this level.
MV: A lot of people who have been involved in cannabis for as long as you have seem to be going through burn-out. What are your feelings about the industry right now? Are you still optimistic about the future of cannabis or are you less optimistic about the direction the industry is headed?
Horton: That’s a dynamic question. I understand the struggle of a lot of small businesses and the difficulties of running a business. You can’t get financing no matter how great your product is or how great your credit is. You can’t sell across state lines. It’s the inability to have a true business. Most small businesses fail even when they do have access to those things. So I completely understand. But I think honestly, I’ve tried not to let it penetrate my thought pattern.
There’s one article that called me an eternal optimist, which I thought probably captured me the most. I’m so thankful to be doing something I love. I see how much opportunity is out there, I see what’s happening with the national market and the global market, I see the ability to build brands and brand loyalty, I see what’s happening with the education system. I just see so many amazing, positive things that I have to focus on, that really pulled me out of those dark areas of thought.
If you ask me, specifically Jesce Horton, then without a doubt, I’m extremely optimistic. If you ask the CEO of LOWD, then without a doubt, I’m cautiously optimistic. And that’s what keeps us driving each and every day to try to be better, and try to find those new products and find those new services that are going to help people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo by Sam Gehrke.