The legal cannabis industry has long been criticized for its lack of diversity.
Although almost every new market that has come online in the past five years has taken steps to ensure opportunities for people of color, some of the earliest states to legalize cannabis, including Washington, are playing catch-up on social equity provisions and grappling with systems that largely left minorities on the outside looking in.
“To sum it up in less than two minutes: It’s an injustice,” says Paul Brice, the sole owner of Happy Trees, an adult-use cannabis shop in Cle Elum, Washington. He’s one of a very limited number of Black entrepreneurs to own a legal cannabis business in the Pacific Northwest.
Washington is in the midst of an ongoing process to establish its social equity program, which received the Legislature’s blessing — but not a specific structure — through House Bill 2870, signed by the governor in April 2020.
Brice says the bill is not perfect, but it’s a vehicle for change.
“There’s enough there to move things forward,” he says.
He’s hopeful that Washington’s social equity program will allow him to get at least one more retail license. But above all, Brice wants his voice to be heard.
He wants a set of regulations and allowances that actually address the problems at hand, and he feels he’s well-equipped to provide guidance to rulemakers and prospective licensees on the inherent challenges Black entrepreneurs face in the modern cannabis industry.
Brice penned a long letter to several state officials — nine pages and 5,598 words — delving into his own background in cannabis and expressing his heartfelt hopes for the industry’s future. Prior to the social equity legislation, Brice says he felt anything he said or did that conflicted with the Liquor and Cannabis Board’s authority would jeopardize his license and his livelihood. Now, he feels more comfortable speaking up.
I write this letter not as a victim but as a proud black business owner that does not want to live his life in anger and resentment. I make the choice to come forward and help champion this endeavor in hopes of rectifying the injustices that have seemingly been over looked and to move forward in a harmonious on meaningful endeavor, something we can hold our heads up and be proud of.
Brice has endured a long and winding journey in the cannabis industry, including countless hours back-tracking from one side of the state to the other.
He opened his first dispensary, T-Town Alternative Medicine, in 2011, across the street from the elementary school he attended as a kid growing up in South Tacoma.
He later opened The Greener Frontier, the first medical dispensary in Cle Elum (“I threw up my flag big and bright.”). City officials at the time did everything they could to keep him out. In court, he says a judge called him an “eminent danger to the city of Cle Elum.”
T-Town Alternative Medicine and The Greener Frontier both made the front page of the local newspapers, he says, “sometimes good and sometimes bad.”
When Washington voters passed Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana, Brice wanted to open a shop in his hometown of Tacoma, but he missed out on winning a spot in the state’s retail lottery.
While Colorado’s adult-use cannabis regulations gave preference to existing medical dispensary operators, Washington initially took a different approach, wiping the slate clean for all applicants to come in on equal standing (Washington, unlike Colorado, had never taken significant steps to license and regulate its medical marijuana industry from its legalization in 1998 until a bill in 2016 shut down all unlicensed storefronts). The licensing and lottery processes at the center of Washington’s industry left many medical marijuana pioneers without a clear pathway into the industry they helped develop.
Brice turned his attention back to Eastern Washington, but his efforts were thwarted by a ban in Cle Elum and moratoriums in the small, rural towns of Easton and Roslyn. He returned to the west side of the mountains, searching the Seattle suburbs. He came close in Auburn, but politics seemingly got in the way (“I honestly do not think me being there, black and in person was helpful,” he wrote of attending a City Council meeting).
Finally, after signing six leases and searching all over the state without opening a shop, he returned to Cle Elum, the city that had shot him down already, and successfully opened Happy Trees.
Starting this process has brought back many memories of what it was like with marijuana being a non-legal substance. The ugliness, destruction of black families and senseless deaths. This often left me fearful and hesitant, not wanting to speak out but this plant is a part of my life and culture and now it is a part of a booming industry. The same plant we were locked up and harassed for.
When every road seemed to be a dead end, when every city and state official stood in the way, when fate seemed to have a different plan, why did Brice keep pushing forward?
At some point, he says, it became a calling. He had to see the story through to its conclusion.
And now that he’s gone through that journey, his insight could be tremendously beneficial to others.
“I have more mat time when it comes to being a budtender than anyone else I know,” Brice says.
He also has spent more time in court than anybody he knows, dating back to a felony in 1997 for growing marijuana, a charge that was later reduced to a misdemeanor. His time dealing with prosecutors and judges taught him “how to fight,” he says, “how to always stand up, take a left foot and step into the ring; how to lose sections of your plan and how to build it back.”
Even in the “legal” industry, he’s fought with administrators and other officials. He says Happy Trees is the most penalized shop in the state.
He doesn’t know everything about the cannabis business yet, but “I can clearly create success in this industry even when all things are stacked against me.”
And yet, he says he didn’t get a response from state officials when he sent them his letter about HB2870. He says it’s a “crying shame” that no one who’s in power will take the time to see if somebody like him, who is already in a position of success in cannabis and has gone through the licensing hurdles, might have some ideas on how the social equity program could achieve its goals.
Yeah, he wants another license, but it’s less about him this time around, he says.
“You know, cannabis gave me a fat belly and a good life,” he says. “At some point in time, it’s about being whole. It’s about giving back.”
Business at Happy Trees is growing steadily, but it’s not booming. Financially, he’s not doing as well as he once was, “but I’m doing good emotionally, mentally, because in a sense, I’m balanced,” he says.
If my story is heard hopefully the next black entrepreneur that goes through the process won’t have to endure the same stereotyping racism and injustice that I had to endure and won’t have to obscure the fact that they are black. They will get fair access; I’m hoping that whoever gets these licenses the program will offer will not have to go through what I did to open a store. I want the black community to be raised up for pioneering marijuana and to be recognized for our contributions to the culture and legalization.