Black women rewrite weed’s legacy in Los Angeles

Entrepreneurs find opportunity and community in what was once illegal.

 

Bridgett Davis wore a bright flowery dress to welcome friends and acquaintances into her parents’ home in Inglewood, a historically black city in southwestern Los Angeles. A big sign propped by the entrance read “Launch Party for Big Momma’s Legacy,” Davis’ start-up company, which makes cannabis-infused essential oils and salves. The invitation said noon, but things were running late: The so-called edibles like lemon and rose cookies and the ubiquitous brownies didn’t get served until closer to 1 p.m. Neither did the “medicated” hibiscus tea.

The gathering, mostly of women of color, was not simply to find new customers and foster women-owned businesses. It was part of an effort to celebrate a product that until this year was illegal. Not long ago, people here feared arrest for marijuana possession; according to the American Civil Liberties Union, back in 2013, African-Americans were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Today, Los Angeles is considered the largest legal marijuana market in the world, with more dispensaries than the entire state of Colorado. Now, black women like Davis — and many others in the very communities that were most harmed by marijuana prohibition — see an unexpected opportunity.

Bridgett Davis, one of the new women entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of the wider acceptance and legalization of marijuana and started her own business selling marijuana products.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Davis started working with cannabis four years ago. A real estate agent by day, she wanted to kick a drinking habit, so she began using essential oils “to stay calm.” Inspired by the homemade remedies prepared by “Big Momma” — her great-grandmother, Rachel Richardson — Davis cooked up all sorts of salves with natural ingredients meant to relieve aches and pains. “And then one day a lightbulb went off,” she told me. “What if I put some cannabis in it?” 

Weed proved to be the ingredient that set Davis’ products apart. With a growing body of research showing that marijuana can help ease chronic nerve pain caused by injury or surgery, it is increasingly being seen as a natural, non-habit-forming option for pain management.

“Many of my clients are seniors,” said Davis. “Once I tell them that they’re not going to go to hell for using cannabis, then I show them how to incorporate it into their everyday life.”

But legal weed is very complicated, and entrepreneurs like Davis are still learning the ropes. On Jan. 1, California became the sixth state to allow licensed shops to sell marijuana to anyone 21 and older. At the same time, new state regulations and temporary licenses kicked in for every type of marijuana business. The process is neither easy nor cheap: Between licenses, permits and taxes, start-up costs can run as high as $20,000. 

“Let’s say you get a license, but if you’re not compliant, you’re going to fail,” Kathy Smith told me. Smith owns three legal dispensaries in Los Angeles and is director of the California Minority Alliance, a membership organization supporting people of color in the marijuana market. “And this business is overtaxed and overregulated: Anyone from the state can come to your shop and ask for your records, at any time.” Cannabis taxes in California are higher than for other industries, and companies cannot claim typical business deductions.

Davis’ artisanal salves and essential oils are based on homemade remedies she learned from her great-grandmother, known as Big Momma, which she has now infused with cannabis oil.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Only about 1 percent of weed businesses around the country are in the hands of African-Americans and people of color, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In California, where the market is expected to bring profits of $3.7 billion by the end of 2018, there is an effort underway to ensure that the burgeoning industry is inclusive. The city of Los Angeles is currently developing a “social equity” component to its regulations that would give licensing priority to those populations that have historically been most affected by drug law enforcement. Smith is hopeful about plans to make training programs and technical assistance more accessible. And she’s helping other black women find success in legal weed, by guiding them through the licensing process and helping them develop a business plan and a path to becoming financially stable.

So far, Davis hasn’t sought out the help of the California Minority Alliance or the city of Los Angeles, preferring instead to grow “Big Momma’s Legacy” on her own. “I’ve had a few rappers and investors reach out to me offering to help,” she tells me. “But I stay away from that,” wary of get-rich-quick schemes and scams targeting marijuana entrepreneurs.

At the launch party at her parents’ home, a table on the side of the room displayed Davis’ salves alongside her friends’ products — Kat’s homemade beauty creams and free samples of Will’s “Hot Chocolate Cannicakes.” The guests exchanged business cards, and around 20 people, mostly young women, lingered for lunch, becoming giddy with “medicated” treats. They began to disperse as the afternoon wound down, chatting about their plans to work in the cannabis industry, still amazed by the knowledge that they could do this openly now.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

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