Based in Rochester along the I-5 corridor in western Washington is 5th House Farms, a black-owned cultivation and processing company. Founded in 2016 by a BIPOC family with a tier three producer license, the company has quietly built an impressive brand success story in the state.
Coming from an economically-disadvantaged background, Carlondo Mitchell, owner of 5th House Farms, persevered through adversity to build a successful cannabis business in Washington state. By influencing consumer behavior at the retail level with branding, they are trying to turn the concept of social equity on its head.
As a family owned and operated business since its launch, they have embodied the idea of economic empowerment in the cannabis industry. As of this writing, 5th House Farms has sold over one million vape carts, reaching the top 10 in sales for that product category in Washington and their products are sold in about 35% of dispensaries in the state.
From Section 8 to Venture Capital
After cutting his teeth in the state’s medical cannabis market back in 2012, Carlondo Mitchell later grew in the cannabis space as a farm worker and sales representative. He ultimately took over operations of 5th House Farms in 2019, building on the same entrepreneurial and family-focused legacy that the company started with. “I learned a lot as a trimmer and sales rep,” says Mitchell. “I was the guy who would work 18-hour shifts for you, whatever you needed.”
This month marks five years in the Washington adult use cannabis market for him. “I come from a single parent, low-income household so it was important to have an entrepreneurial mindset,” says Mitchell. Coming from humble beginnings in Section 8 housing, he has grown 5th House Farms into a multimillion-dollar business. “Now I own the company, I own the land, my family is there and we have twenty employees,” says Mitchell.
The business has definitely become a success story, to the point that the state of Washington is working with 5th House Farms as a case study for economic empowerment and social equity. “For some people in this industry with a lot of opportunities, the path to success is pretty short and wide,” says Mitchell. “For me, and a lot of others, it’s been a lot more narrow, long and thorny. Through 5th House Farms, we want to show people what’s possible. We’re trying to show people that it is possible.”
Innovating & Differentiating
Back in 2018, it was tough to compete in a marketplace dominated by flower, so Mitchell went in a different direction and started pouring vape carts by hand. “There wasn’t room for me at the table, so I thought I’d try and do carts and chase that. It was a day-by-day effort. He says you need to know you must work twice as hard to get noticed. “You have to prepare to be disregarded. Getting in the first store was the hardest step; you had to go through ten stores who said no to get one who said yes.” Their success came through partnering with retailers, building strong relationships, understanding consumer trends, identifying their needs and working closely with budtenders.
He says they treat people how they want to be treated. They sell products that they themselves would want to buy, by offering good, consistent products that are high quality and for a reasonable price. “Before you knew it, we had a prototype on the market and it took off. I do believe fundamentally that on the ground, consumers make choices with their morality. Some of our biggest retailers didn’t even know we’re a black owned business just a few months ago.”
Economic Empowerment from the Bottom Up
Typically, when people in this industry think of social equity, they think of this top-down policy approach that tends to rely on lawmakers and regulators to develop things like social equity funds, a minimum number of licenses reserved for minority owners, license fees for equity programs and other policy approaches. Through 5th House Farms, Mitchell and his team are working on a different approach starting with the consumer. “We’re not only fighting for social equity, but also fighting to use cannabis to create equity,” says Mitchell. “Now that people are identifying us as a black farm, it’s a cool opportunity to show people what is possible. The equity is starting to come from people caring about how they spend their money.”
Social equity, while a relatively new concept to the cannabis industry, has garnered attention in state legislatures, legalization initiatives, conferences and talking points, proving to people that they’re an ally of BIPOC stakeholders and those harmed by the War on Drugs. “To me, social equity is really about giving everyone a seat at the table. Not just trying to make things fair, but reversing this cycle of extracting from communities and instead, uplifting them.” He wants to eliminate the idea that social equity is about taking from one side of the fence and giving to the other side, rather it is about removing that fence altogether.
5th House Farms is currently working with BIPOCANN on a product badge to be displayed on product packaging, identifying it as sold by a black-owned business. “We need a tactful way to show people where their investment is going,” says Mitchell. By influencing purchasing behavior at the retail level with branding and packaging, they are essentially trying to turn the concept of social equity on its head.
Looking Back & Forward
In the chaos of chasing a dream and building a business, people tend to move quickly. “I would tell the version of me that’s ten years younger to slow down and trust the process,” says Mitchell. “As a young man, I was always looking for the cheat code.” He says his success came from losses, but they were also valuable lessons. When states began legalizing cannabis, it created real opportunity and real hope for a lot of people, but Mitchell says you need to stay vigilant and be mindful. “Try not to be so excited for the opportunity that you forget that you need to put in the work. I would tell others in this industry the same thing: to take your time in your process.”
Looking ahead, Mitchell says the plan for 5th House Farms was always sustained growth, to go national and then international. They’re in discussions with companies in other states about moving beyond Washington and they’re building a lifestyle brand. “The dream is to sell 100 million carts.” In talking about his future plans for the company, Mitchell spoke of Tyler Perry’s success story, going from sleeping in his car in the 90s to owning the largest production studio in the country today. “He didn’t have a seat at the table so he created his own table. We are intent on creating tables everywhere we can.”
Like other states now embracing adult use, Connecticut has enacted a strong social equity program, with mixed results so far. Also, perhaps more than any other state, Connecticut has committed to protecting its existing medical cannabis patients and has put in place various mechanisms to guard their access to cannabis.
Slow Roll-Out of Retail Cannabis Licenses
Like other recently-legal states, Connecticut’s rollout of its retail licenses has not been rapid. The state’s initial goal has been to issue twelve retail licenses by lottery, with six reserved for social equity applicants. Also, the eighteen already-operating medical licensees were given the option to upgrade to a hybrid medical-adult use license, a process separate from the lottery.
As of the end of February 2023, there appear to be only twelve current (approved to do business) retail licenses, with eleven of those twelve belonging to medical-adult use hybrids. The majority of the 39 retail licenses listed on the state website are still in the provisional phase, which allows them to “work toward securing a final license.”
Connecticut Social Equity
Connecticut has committed to a robust social equity program and provided an early application opportunity for social equity applicants ahead of non-social equity applicants. In addition, the Nutmeg State has reduced fees for adult-use licenses by 50% for Equity Joint Venture applications, which is where investors agree to partner with a social equity applicant. Further, the state has eliminated 43,754 low-level cannabis convictions.
Connecticut’s social equity requirements are less rigorous than those of neighboring New York and New Jersey, which may provide additional entry opportunities for both in-state and out-of-state entrepreneurs. Connecticut defines a social equity applicant as requiring that at least 65% of a business be owned by an individual with less than 300% of the state median household income in the past three tax years. Since the median household income was $79,855, that individual would need to have earned less than $239,565 annually.
Subversion of the Lottery Process
The lottery for the six initial social equity licenses was held in May 2022 followed by the lottery for the initial six general licenses, which took place in September 2022. Both were administered by a professor and department head at the UConn School of Pharmacy (the state law stipulated the lottery operator must be part “of the state system of higher education”).
15,605 applications were received for both lotteries. Unfortunately, many of the winning applicants flooded the lottery system with hundreds of applications, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. One example, SLAP ASH LLC, accounted for 850 of the 8,360 applications submitted to the social equity lottery, winning 2 provisional retail licenses. Another company, Jananii LLC, spent over $200,000 to submit 807 entries, receiving one provisional retail license. “There were individuals applying for licenses who submitted 50 applications or more to enter the lottery,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “That wasn’t our intent.” Rojas and others are looking at other options for the next lottery to try and combat the problem.
Protecting Medical Cannabis Patients
Perhaps what makes Connecticut’s adult use cannabis program most unique is its outsized commitment to protecting medical patients’ continued access to cannabis. Concerned that adult use sales wouldn’t leave enough supply for patients, the state mandated a cap of ¼ ounce of cannabis for all adult use purchases. Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz commented that this action emphasized the importance of “not losing sight of a very robust medical program.”
With the recent strong sales of adult use cannabis, however, patients have expressed concern about access, and now the Nutmeg State is considering further action. A bill is being considered in the state legislature which would create a state cannabis ombudsman. This individual would act as a liaison between patients and the state and would, in effect, be there to put pressure on the four licensed growers. These cultivators are required to submit a medical cannabis preservation plan to “ensure against supply shortages of medical marijuana products” and are in many ways responsible for continued patient access to cannabis.
Connecticut lottery winners’ license fees will vary from $1,000 for a micro, to $25,000 for a retail, to $75,000 for a cultivator, subject to a 50% reduction if the applicant is deemed social equity. However, once the field is open to regular applicants, the fees will become sizeable.
Retail license fees will be $1 million and cultivation license fees will be $3 million, and even with a 50% reduction for an Equity Joint Venture application, the investment will be significant. The $1 million fee also applies to any existing medical dispensary that wishes to convert to a hybrid license without going through the lottery process. The four existing cultivation companies that wish to service the adult use market and avoid a lottery process will have to pay the $3 million as well.
Connecticut cannabis-businesses are obligated to pay a sales tax of 6.35%, a gross receipts tax of 3% and a privilege tax of $0.00625-$0.0275 per mg of THC, depending on the item. Other than New York, Connecticut is the only state to have a tax based on the potency of the cannabis product.
Federal Tax Subject to Section 280E
On the federal level, cannabis businesses are subject to Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which disallows deductions and credits for expenditures connected with trafficking in controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, schedule 1 or 2. As cannabis is a schedule 1 drug, cannabis companies are only permitted to reduce their sales by cost of goods sold when determining their taxable income. By example, a cannabis dispensary would only be allowed to deduct the cost of the product purchased and the cost to transport the product to the dispensary, while disallowing such significant expenses as rent and payroll. All cannabis businesses must forgo expense deductions related to selling, general and administrative expenses, as they are disallowed under the tax code.
While some states like California have not conformed to 280E and allow their cannabis businesses the same deductions as other businesses, Connecticut is not one of those states. Personal income tax starts with Federal Adjusted Gross Income while corporate income tax starts with Federal taxable income as reported on line 28. There are no provisions that say Section 280E does not apply. This will mean a significantly heavier state tax burden for cannabis businesses.
Labor and Employment Issues
Cannabis is expected to fuel significant employment growth in Connecticut, and experts project more than 11,000 cannabis jobs will be added once the market reaches full capacity. These jobs are expected to include full time and temporary positions in all cannabis verticals: cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, retail, marketing, testing, finance, accounting, legal, compliance and C-suite.
As part of its social equity program, the state has made it clear it would like to see cannabis businesses employ individuals from those communities that have been disadvantaged by the war on cannabis. Connecticut has also made it a requirement that every approved licensee enter into a “labor peace agreement” with a labor union, and that such an agreement shall be an “ongoing material condition of licensure.”
The state is focused on maintaining quality control on all aspects of its adult use cannabis businesses, including the people involved. Licenses are needed for all cannabis employees along with a special license for key employees in managerial positions. Additionally, financiers must be licensed, with a Backer license required for individuals with direct or indirect financial interests in a cannabis establishment totaling 5% or more.
Connecticut cannabis employees must be pre-trained through the state’s Social Equity Council. The state also requires that each license recipient have a workforce development plan approved by the Council “to reinvest or provide employment and training opportunities for individuals in disproportionately impacted areas.”
No adult cannabis state has come close to having a smooth opening for it adult use sales program, and Connecticut is no exception. With well-funded groups gaming the license lotteries and medical patients concerned about their continued access to cannabis, the Nutmeg State has its work cut out for it. But with its strong commitment to social equity and its outsized commitment to protecting its medical cannabis patients, Connecticut can serve as a role model for compassionate cannabis capitalism. 2023 will reveal how the state rises to its challenges and matures its cannabis marketplace.
By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright No Comments
Click here to read Part One where we examined the state of the market, licensing, approvals and sales. Part Two delves into all things taxes.
A “Raft” of Taxes
Like New York, New Jersey cannabis companies will be dealing with a raft of taxes:
Federal Section 280E: Will It Apply in New Jersey? Well … Sometimes
Section 280E disallows deductions on federal returns for expenditures connected with the illegal sale of drugs, requiring retail cannabis businesses to add back such significant expenses as rent and wages for sales staff.
Unlike New York, New Jersey’s recent cannabis legislation did not state that cannabis businesses were exempt from 280E. However, the state’s individual tax laws do not conform to the internal revenue code, and accountants are inferring that 280E won’t apply to sole proprietorships. Conversely, the state’s corporations must start their tax calculations using Federal taxable income, meaning 280E would apply.
Retail sales of adult use cannabis are subject to a 7% sales tax. Beginning July 1, 2022, medical cannabis sales are exempt from sales tax.
Purchases by cultivators of farming equipment and related property, such as plants, fertilizer and drip irrigation, are exempt from sales tax. Purchases by all cannabis businesses of materials used to contain, protect, wrap and deliver adult use cannabis are exempt from sales tax.
The CRC has been empowered to collect a “Social Equity Excise Fee”, to be adjusted annually. The fee is currently $1.10 per ounce, but the CRC is able, but not mandated, to amend the fees to between $10 and $60 an ounce after nine months of adult use sales. At least 70 percent of all cannabis tax revenue is earmarked for investing into impact zones.
The fee is imposed on any sale or transfer of cannabis from a cultivator (or alternative treatment center that also cultivates) to any other cannabis business. The fee is not imposed on transfers from one cultivator to another, or from a cultivator to an alternative treatment center. The facility that purchases the cannabis is responsible for collecting the fee and remitting it to the NJ Division of Taxation.
Local Cannabis Transfer and User Taxes
Each municipality is authorized to impose a Local Cannabis Transfer Tax on sales from one cannabis establishment to another (including from one cultivator to another), and on the sale of cannabis to retail consumers. The allowed rate is capped at 2% of receipts, with the exception of cannabis wholesaler sales, which are capped at 1%.
Atlantic City, which considers itself friendly toward cannabis, passed an ordinance in September 2021 authorizing the collection of a 2% tax on retail adult use cannabis sales and a 1% tax on wholesale sales. Many cities with alternative treatment centers already have a 2% tax on medical cannabis. It is assumed they’ll be enacting the 2% transfer tax on adult use sales if approved to operate.
Other Unique Points About New Jersey Cannabis
Adult use sales are limited: adults may possess up to one ounce total of cannabis products and can only purchase one ounce at a time.
New Jersey is the only state that has legalized cannabis, but kept it illegal for a cannabis consumer to grow their own weed. Growing even one cannabis plant can land the offender in prison for up to five years and incur a $25,000 fine.
About 400 municipalities have opted not to have retail cannabis shops; 98 have said yes. The new law has caused battles between mayors and their city councils, including the city of Paramus. 60% of Paramus residents voted in favor of adult use sales, and the mayor has stressed the benefit of the 2% transfer tax. Paramus city council unanimously rejected adult use cannabis, however. Some council members are against any sales, while others want to wait and see how other towns fare. Says Council Member Maria Elena Bellinger, “Ultimately … I feel that getting more data will only help us come to the right solution.”
Time Will Tell
New Jersey believes its careful approach will create the best adult use cannabis environment for its citizens. Only time will tell if the Garden State ends up avoiding some or all of the problems faced by states like California and New York.
Entrance into the cannabis industry is not equally accessible; it’s no secret it tends to be easier for those who are male and white. As a business leader, why should you take on the problem of equal market entrance opportunities? This just may become your company’s competitive advantage.
As a female entrepreneur with a first name associated with being male (and white, maybe a rancher in Wyoming), I have been accidentally invited to and witnessed the consequential shock of more than one exclusive, male-centric event, where any ladies were intended to be accessories and not present for business-talk with the boys. After enjoying their discomfort (and getting over my own), I see these moments as opportunities to advocate for inviting diversity into their discussion, seeking to make small changes to open doors for exponential progress. After all, it wasn’t so bad to have invited the woman, albeit accidentally; it was actually better because it happened.
In a dynamic and challenging industry, increasing diversity access is how to become future-ready. As will be discussed, companies see measurable financial performance and adaptability improvements with relatively small changes in leadership makeup. Here are three overarching tactics for you to increase cannabis market accessibility and champion diversity.
Facilitate Access to Capital for Cannabusinesses with Diverse Perspectives
The past two years of pandemic hardship have posed unique challenges for women, especially Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, who have had to put careers on pause to pick up additional heavy burdens of caregiving. Women’s unemployment is four times higher than men’s, and according to Forbes, the situation is worse for women of color.
Overall deal activity for female-founded companies is discouraging and downright dismal for Black female founders, who receive less than 1% of all venture capital investment. This is particularly vexing when considering that women-led or co-founded start-ups generated 78 cents of revenue compared to 31 cents for male-only-led startups over five years. EBIT margins were nine percentage points higher than companies with below-average diversity on their management teams. Relatively small changes exponentially improve operating earnings over operating sales.
It’s always been difficult for women to access capital. Women have historically been cordoned into home-keeping and caregiving roles and are often still expected to balance those capacities alongside a full-time career. Accordingly, female entrepreneurs receive fewer invitations to extra-work events and business relationship-building opportunities, such as pursuing financing, mergers, or joint ventures.
Increase Diversity Awareness and Facilitate Equal Opportunity
While financial investments are imperative, consider the following non-pecuniary methods of support as part of a full-picture, equitable accessibility solution.
Invite Activity, Provide Mentorship
Businesspeople can play a critical role in accelerating inclusion by actively seeking out people they do not already know. Employers can do this through the non-financial investment of time and resources to grow the pipeline of underrepresented people with skills to serve on investment teams. When under-invested groups bolster one another, the likelihood that investment pans out increases.
Mentoring must be a part of this process, as it provides essential guidance and support for individuals looking to enter or advance within these fields. By creating opportunities for mentorship and collaboration, you can play an active role in breaking down barriers and building a more inclusive economy for everyone.
Open the Door to Accessing Opportunities
Businesses can increase diversity awareness and facilitate equal entry into the cannabis industry by opening the door to events that help connect underrepresented candidates to professional development and capital.
Hosting free webinars is a great way to facilitate learning, conversation, and the exchange of empowering ideas. Webinars allow attendees to ask personalized questions and present your business with a stage from which you can speak about the importance of equity and inclusion.
Consider attending, sponsoring, or running a job fair with a focus on diversity hiring. Diversity hiring practices help businesses identify qualified candidates from different backgrounds, leading to a less homogenous workforce.
Make Continued Education Central
As the President of Oaksterdam University, I see firsthand the importance and empowering quality of ongoing education. I also recognize that not everyone can afford or receives equal access to continued education and accordingly offer this advice to help bolster equitable educational opportunities.
Make partnerships with educational institutions to offer your workforce chances to learn, and ensure they have paid working time to do so. If you can reduce the burden of learning for candidates with extra-work responsibilities, they have a greater chance of absorbing and putting that information into practice. If you have an employee with an incredible entrepreneurial idea, boost them up by offering to pay for a capital-raising class or a fundamental business course they may not be able to afford otherwise.
No one solution will “fix” equal access to education. Every step from open-source databases and free webinars to full college degrees is an incremental movement toward increased cannabis industry participation for traditionally disadvantaged populations.
Realize Social Equity Programs Are Not a Catch-All
Even the best-intentioned social equity program cannot accommodate every disadvantage a potential candidate will encounter. Take women as an example: There are many accommodations to consider for female-identifying participants, as they are at a more significant disadvantage in the licensing/permitting and job preparedness process. Some call for women participants qualifying for cannabis equity program services to receive additional funds and services (e.g., funding for childcare) to ensure equal access to opportunity.
The cannabis industry cannot atone for all the damages of the drug war, nor can a nascent industry that is not federally legal pay to uplift all of society. With that said, cannabis industry investors, executives, and workers might be the tipping point back toward baking justice, equity, and access to the laws we operate under. Better yet, we can raise expectations of one another as we do business and ask, “What do you do to increase fair play, diversify your leadership team, and address the imbalance?”
A Person is Not Diverse, But the Cannabis Industry Can Be
Addressing social equity and the concept of diversity can feel amorphous and confusing. Above all, it’s imperative to remember that a single person is not diverse; rather, a group of people is. A team can be diverse, and within your team is a great place to begin shaping the industry you wish to see. Rather than focusing on any one aspect of diversity, the goal should be to invest in and build diverse teams across many dimensions. Value comes from a range of differences, such as the national origin of executives, the variety of industry backgrounds, education levels, ages, and finding gender balance. The goal is that these different people feel they belong.
Equal market accessibility is not a problem you can solve passively — it must constantly be spoken of, worked toward, and embodied within each business decision and entrepreneurial move. An industry full of entrepreneurs making such decisions will undoubtedly result in a more equitable market than the one we’ve built so far. You will find yourself in a room of folks just like this. Lean into the awkward and invite the unfamiliar in – you will find you and your company are better for it.
Christopher Lacy and The TGC Group recently won a Tier 3 conditional license under New Jersey’s social equity licensing program. Their story is one of misfortune, persistence, family and the dreadful effects that cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs has had on impoverished BIPOC communities.
Chris’s father was a sharecropper in Mississippi before he moved to Illinois and started a family. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, Chris was surrounded by gangs and crime. He started selling drugs when he was 12 and went to prison for cannabis before he was old enough to drink. When he got out, he saw firsthand the effects that incarceration has on a person, their family and their community.
When it was first announced, Illinois’s social equity program seemed revolutionary and one that other states soon followed, setting the stage for markets all over the country to establish social equity licensing programs. However, legal hurdles, red tape and intense litigation have bogged down the system, causing severe delays. Chris and Taneeshia are still waiting to hear back about approval of their license application, years later.
Good news came recently when they were notified that they were awarded a conditional license in New Jersey. With the help of his family, business partners and The Garden State, The TGC Group is moving forward with launching their business. We caught up with Chris, to check in on his business’s progress, hear his story and see if it might inspire others to take a similar path.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your story with cannabis
Christopher Lacy: I grew up on a dead-end block in a little town in Illinois on the far south side of Chicago called Robbins. It has a very high crime rate and a very impoverished community so as you could imagine we grew up pretty poor. I personally didn’t feel the effects of poverty until just before I turned 13. I guess that became more obvious as I started hanging out and seeing that most of my friends had more than 2 pairs of pants. I starting selling drugs when I was 12 years old. When I was about 16-17 years old, I had started trying to grow cannabis. Like any task, it takes time to develop the skills produce a good product. Cannabis definitely has it challenges when it comes to cultivating a product that could be considered good.
It’s not like there was an abundance of information out there specific to cannabis cultivation to aid in the task so besides the basic book knowledge of horticulture, you had to grind it out. It took me a couple years to really get it figured out. Once I did get it going, I started expanding. At first it was basements in the suburbs. We’d grab really nice houses and fill the basements with plants. When that wasn’t enough, we started doing warehouses. There was no real limit, outside of capital and the desire to not draw attention via odor or traffic from workers, if you could produce it, the demand was there. I did go to prison for a short stint when I was 20 years old for delivery of a controlled substance. 0.8 grams. After I got out of prison, I had a very successful illegal operation growing and selling cannabis. Life was pretty good for a few years. I wasn’t rich or anything like that but I was able to be around my family and provide the things that I was denied when I grew up. I don’t blame my parents for what I went through growing up. Because of my father’s age, I’m generation 1 out of the sharecropping era. My parents believed in one thing and that was learning. I tried to instill that into my kids as well. Being a father feels really good to me. Unfortunately, that dream was ended when I was arrested in one of our warehouses in Illinois. I did 3.5 years, locked down 21 hours a day for growing weed.
While serving my time I was able to really take a look at myself and develop a new me. I established some new core principles that I would hold close to my heart. One of them being not going back to jail for the sake of a dollar. I was not going back to prison. I had kids when I was young so I missed out on a big part of their childhoods. I had three daughters and two sons at the time that were of an age where having a stable home plays a huge role on how the child will turn out in the future compared to a typical American lifestyle. When I got out of jail, my kids came and lived with me during and after high school but some serious damage had already been inflicted. I worked a job as a truck driver and did the best that I could to support my family, but I never really gave up on cannabis in the back of my mind. My older brother used to always tell me that I didn’t learn what I knew about weed for nothing and that one day it would all make sense.
For the next few years, we just grinded it out as a family. It wasn’t the ideal situation but we made it work. And when we couldn’t make it work, we lived with it! I just was glad to be there doing Chemistry homework with the kids. That shows what happens when a father is at home with his family. We get college grads.
When the message came out that Illinois was going to do craft grow licenses, I got really excited. I figured this was my chance to do what I love and to make a living doing it. I had no idea how I was going to get to where I wanted to be but I figured if I could just put one foot in front of the other, sooner or later I would get there. I caught a break when my nephew, Edward Lacy, introduced me to someone who understood the application process. She introduced me to some of the most wonderful/helpful people in the world. People who literally wanted to help true social equity applicants like myself. With the help of these new friends, we were able to drop our first application in Illinois. After we submitted that application, that is when the first story came out about us in Cannabis Industry Journal. This story helped me get into a conversation with Cresco labs and I was able to get into a situation that really changed how I saw cannabis production. I got to work around some of the smartest people in the industry for just under a year. I can’t thank Charlie, Barrington and the rest of the guys at Cresco enough for the opportunity. From there, I knew it had to be my destiny to grow cannabis for a living. I just kept beating up the phones and emails. Something was gone give.
CIJ: When we last spoke, you were trying to get a social equity license in Illinois, can you tell me about that? How did it go?
Chris: Ultimately, after 2 years of waiting, we were denied a license in Illinois. When I first got this news. it took me about a week to get out the bed. Lol. It took my wife to pull me through. I can only imagine the pain that all the other disappointed groups are feeling, Ultimately, we all couldn’t win in Illinois so it is what it is. But definitely a big shout out to all the successful applicants that did win. You all have a torch to carry that should ignite the black and brown communities.
From the political standpoint in Illinois, it’s just not conducive for social equity applicants to succeed due to all of the legal hurdles, courts, lawsuits, etc. Not to say that the Illinois process is truly different from other states going through similar processes, New Jersey and other states went through a similar process when social equity licenses were announced. The laws that helped me qualify are what came out of the legal battles in New Jersey. The issue is the resources available for legal fees, holding property, and the time required to see these things through; this all equals dollars and that’s just something lacking in most social equity groups.
CIJ: So, what made you look at New Jersey?
Chris: After I had submitted my application in Illinois, I began looking for financial support. I knew this would be my limiting factor because access to the type of capital required to get a grow facility off the ground is quite substantial. For the most part no one returned calls but I called one financial institution in particular, VenCanna Ventures, and for some miraculous reason, they returned my call. I’m not sure what made them; but we kept an open line of communication going all while we were dealing with Illinois. I knew these guys were good because they were behind an impressive project in Ohio that actually won LEED certification. When I look back on it, it felt like a one-year interview. Then one day this past winter David McGorman, the CEO, asked me to partner up with him in New Jersey. It was exactly what we both needed. He has the expertise in finance and I bring the operations side.
Once we had that team together, we put together a strategy to try and apply in New Jersey. We built the application and New Jersey actually had some very unique laws. If you had a cannabis conviction, you could qualify. Also, my oldest daughter, Janeace, whom I think my prison time hurt the most, actually lives in New Jersey with my granddaughter. So, she’s our resident in the state that helped us win the application and now a part owner, which led us to where we are now. I just couldn’t be more excited about all of this. It just feels right
We won a tier 3 conditional license and now we’re working on finding a good facility and building the operation.
CIJ: How did you set up your social equity license application for NJ?
Chris: It was a process very similar to Illinois except that the process was split into two phases. A conditional license and an annual license. Phase one was winning the conditional license. This is a more condensed application compared to what I was used to. After filling out the application, we had to submit a bunch of documents and proof of incarceration. That was for the conditional license. We still have to convert the conditional to the annual. The conditional basically tells us that we qualify and we can move forward with the rest of the business plan, find some property and spend some money on a lease. We’re still in that process for converting to annual, but we have won the conditional.
CIJ: What is your plan now that you’ve received conditional approval?
Chris: Right now, we’re working on property and securing a space for our facility. We are pretty close to nailing down a couple good locations. One of the locations that I am really excited about is in Somerset County. If we can lock down the property, submit everything to the state as far as our SOPs, security plans, cultivation plan, design, etc. we can try get approval to convert to the annual license and then we can start the build out. The good thing about the two-step process is that it really helps when it comes to spending money. Basically, if you don’t win a conditional, don’t go out spending tons of cash trying to hold onto property.
CIJ: You’ve come a long way from being put in prison for cannabis, to now being close to establishing a business in New Jersey. What made you decide to stick with the business of cannabis?
Chris: You know, I can’t really describe it very well. It was just one of those feelings, you know it felt good to me. It drew me in when I was a young kid, although, I actually didn’t try using cannabis until I was 21. That’s when I first used it and it really jelled with me. Also, I’ve always loved gardening.
My father was a sharecropper in Mississippi, when our family moved to the suburbs of Chicago the first thing he did was plant a huge garden. I grew up in the garden and around plants. He used to spend so much time in that garden and I loved being there with him. We grew everything out there year after year until he was too old to keep it up. I can’t imagine a more peaceful environment then out in the fields with the plants.
It was also therapeutic, not just the obvious therapeutic aspects of cannabis, but also how therapeutic gardening is. Working with cannabis plants can be a challenge. To try to achieve unique terpene and cannabinoid profiles has always been a lot of fun for me. I love the challenge. Pushing genetics as far as I can to really experience what different cultivars have to offer. It is just one of those things that has always stuck with me and I really enjoy it. Once it became legal, a world of opportunity opened up for me.
You know, people say if you do something you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I was a truck driver after I got out of prison, and I really didn’t like it. I had to have neck surgery from the pounding my spine took. I had to work long hours, man I hated doing it. On the flip side, cannabis is something I love to do. And this is about me trying to control my own destiny, control my own life. I don’t have to struggle mentally and physically just to provide for my family. That’s what keeps me going – the drive to do what I love to do to provide for my family. I see cannabis cultivation as more of an art than I do anything else. The guy behind the growing at any facility in the country could share with people what he believes to be fire. I just love to provide an experience and there’s nothing more satisfying than a satisfied customer. Everything about this process seems to fit perfectly with my life.
CIJ: It’s a pretty inspiring story. How do you hope your story might inspire others to follow in your footsteps?
Chris: I don’t want someone to follow in my steps as far as breaking the law and going to prison. I had to learn this the hard way, you know I didn’t agree with the law, but it doesn’t matter. Whether you agree or disagree with the law, I don’t advise anyone to be a criminal.
On the other hand, I do believe that black and brown people have been impacted by the war on drugs the most. In whatever capacity they can, they should chase the opportunity in this country as the cannabis market evolves. It’s a new industry, it’s a way for people to build wealth, to maybe raise their families out of poverty. So in that sense, yes, I do hope people see my story and see that they could do this too. And if you still out there getting it the best way you know how, God Bless you! Lord knows it breaks my heart every time I see someone get arrested for cannabis. Hopefully that shit stops soon and we can get these mothers and fathers who are basically prisoners of a bogus war, reunited with their families and hopefully they get a chance to rebuild.
This a chance to build generational wealth if it’s done right. I would hope that anyone looking for an opportunity, look into the cannabis space. I know its evolving fast and the window might seem like its closing but that isn’t the case. This is more like the 2nd inning of a baseball game. There plenty of time to get going.
I don’t think I’m the best role model. I just keeping fighting. And my advice for black and brown folks that might have gone to prison or might be put in a similar situation is this: Its never over. It’s never too late, no matter what somebody does. It’s not the end of the road. It’s just a bump at that moment. Just keep fighting. One step at a time. I do hope that people reach out to me.
I would love to work with anyone as long as they on a positive path, especially convicted felons. God Bless the felons! That’s my number one priority on my list. The guys that have been to prison, the non-violent drug offenders. Our society has a way of shunning those people. Some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life were in prison. It doesn’t speak to the character of an individual because they went to jail. If the system is supposed to work then why is it so hard for a convicted felon to get another chance? Of course, a few people have traversed this path successfully but there are so many more.
CIJ: I know your business is called The TGC Group. Out of curiosity, what does that acronym stand for?
Chris: We’re called TGC New Jersey under our license there and we applied in Illinois under the name, The TGC Group. TGC stands for a lot of things. It has a lot of meanings. I came up with it when I was in prison. I called it The Gathering Company. It was an idea I had because I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day in prison. I wanted to gather people under one umbrella.
But also, my name is Chris, my wife’s name is Taneeshia, (whom I am forever grateful for helping me pull my life together) and we have a son we named Grant. So, the first letter of each of our names also make TGC. It also stands for The Good Choice, because it is a good choice. The Ganja Connoisseur is another good one. I just hope that it grows to be known as a quality brand of cannabis that one can count on for consistent high-quality cannabis. Consistency and quality are what we’re striving for relentlessly.
I hope people read this article and feel inspired. We have a responsibility to give back to the community. We have a responsibility to rebuild what’s been destroyed in our communities. I am just trying to do my part. I was not a nice guy growing up, you know I was a gangbanger. But now, I want to rebuild and give back to my community the best way I can in Chicago. Not just my community, I want to give back to New Jersey communities, because we’re in their house now. I want to give back to Mississippi communities, where my family comes from. I’m not in this to get rich, I am in this to build communities. God willing, we will
Update: Governor McKee has signed the Rhode Island Cannabis Act into law, making it the 19th state to legalize adult use cannabis.
In Rhode Island this week, lawmakers voted to approve a bill that would legalize and regulate adult use cannabis. The state’s legislature passed the bill with overwhelming majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House voted 55-16 and the Senate voted 32-6 to approve the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, a bill that allows adults over 21 to possess, purchase and grow cannabis. The legislation contains a provision for automatic review and expungement of past cannabis convictions. Similar to other neighboring states, the bill also allows for allocating tax revenue from cannabis sales to communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition, such as low income neighborhoods.
Governor Daniel McKee has expressed support for the bill previously and is expected to sign it into law. According to Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, Rep. Scott Slater, Sen. Josh Miller and Rep. Leonela Felix are to thank for their leadership in bringing the bill to a vote. “We are grateful to Rep. Scott Slater and Sen.Josh Miller for their years of leadership on this issue. Rhode Islanders should be proud of their lawmakers for passing a legalization bill that features strong provisions to promote equity and social justice,” says Moffat. “We’re also thankful to Rep. Leonela Felix who advocated tirelessly for the inclusion of an automatic expungement provision that will clear tens of thousands of past cannabis possession convictions.”
Among other provisions, the bill establishes a 10% sales tax in addition to the state’s normal 7% sales tax and 3% local sales tax. A quarter of all retail licenses will go to social equity applicants and another quarter of all licenses will be reserved for worker-owned cooperatives. The legislation also includes a “social equity assistance fund” that will offer grant money, job training and social services to communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition.
The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) in New York also announced their “Get Ready, Get Set” virtual workshop series, designed to help social equity applicants prepare for license applications and better understand the conditional licensing program.
Applications can be filed with the OCM for conditional licenses through June 30, 2022, with a $2,000 non-refundable application and licensing fee. The licenses are only for farms that have already grown hemp in New York State.
“New York is building the most inclusive cannabis industry in the country and including small farmers with an expertise is an essential component in accomplishing that goal,” says Chris Alexander, executive director at the OCM. “The growing season isn’t waiting for anyone and I’m grateful for the hard work of the CCB and my colleagues at OCM to ensure these licenses are being reviewed as quickly as possible so New York’s farmers can take full advantage of the growing season and cultivate the products that our equity entrepreneurs will be the first to sell when they open their dispensaries this year.”
On Thursday, April 21, a handful of dispensaries in New Jersey begin selling cannabis to adults over the age of 21. The state has so far issued licenses for adult use sales to seven alternative treatment centers (ATCs), otherwise known as medical cannabis businesses already established in the state. In total, thirteen dispensaries in the state can sell cannabis to adults over 21.
The reason why adult use sales could not start on April 20 is because of “unmanageable logistical challenges for patients and other buyers, surrounding communities, and for municipalities,” Toni-Anne Blake, communications director for the New Jersey (CRC) told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Regulators and industry representatives agreed it was not feasible.”
The seven ATCs awarded adult use licenses are Ascend, Curaleaf, GTI, Acreage, Verano, Columbia Care and TerrAscend. The state’s roll out created a lot of controversy over allowing already established, larger medical cannabis businesses and multi state operators to begin adult use sales before smaller businesses and social equity applicants get licensed.
According to The New York Times, the CRC gave condition approval to 102 companies for cultivation and manufacturing, but they need local approval and real estate before commencing operations. Another 320 organizations have applied for licenses for the New Jersey adult use cannabis market, but could wait up to a year or more before they begin operating.
Regulators in New Jersey say the seven companies commencing sales will need to follow social equity rules, including providing technical knowledge to social equity applicants. “We remain committed to social equity,” says CRC Chair Dianna Houenou. “We promised to build this market on the pillars of social equity and safety. Ultimately, we hope to see businesses and a workforce that reflect the diversity of the state, and local communities that are positively impacted by this new and growing industry.”
Jeff Brown, executive director of the CRC, says they anticipate long lines and crowds. “We expect 13 locations for the entire state will make for extremely busy stores,” said Jeff Brown, executive director of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. “The dispensaries have assured us that they are ready to meet the demand without disrupting patient access, and with minimal impact on the surrounding communities, but patience will be key to a good opening day.”
Adults in New Jersey can purchase up to one ounce of flower, up to five grams of concentrates or up to ten 100mg packages of edibles. Click here for a list of the locations opening their doors for business.
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