In late May 2020, amid a wave of protests against the killing of George Floyd, Purple Heart Patient Center in downtown Oakland was burglarized. They took everything and destroyed the place, owner Keith Stephenson says, and Purple Heart has been closed ever since.
But Stephenson and his team are planning a grand reopening this spring—sometime in May or June—and he’s looking forward to getting back on track with the cannabis dispensary he founded in 2006.
“It was a time where operators and cultivators and many folks in the industry went to prison for dispensing cannabis,” he says. “And you look at where we are now, and it is totally different.”
What Stephenson was setting out to achieve in 2006 is similar to what he’s hoping to deliver to the Oakland cannabis industry when he returns in a few months. He wants a more inclusive and diverse industry, one that allows marginalized voices to participate in the development of a legal cannabis framework. What might a licensed cannabis market look like with a plurality of voices at the regulatory table?
More than 10 years ago, Stephenson helped push the social equity conversation into the spotlight of local cannabis regulations. As an earlier member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club, his history as a California medical cannabis patient had given him a front row seat to the opportunities that a legal cannabis space could provide to those in need.
“Social equity was one of the ideas that I brought to two council members in the city of Oakland,” he says. “I recognized that there would be a segment of individuals are left out, based on how the regulations were written in the city of Oakland. Growing up in an environment where I saw the war on drugs, it was a telling sign to me at the time where I realized if the rules and regulations that were presently in place stayed in place, then there may be fewer operators who have the fortitude and the desire and the acumen to successfully launch a cannabis business.”
In took those ensuing 10 years for the social equity conversation to pick up traction in a post-Prop. 64 California market. The city of Oakland passed a social equity policy in 2017 that prioritized applicants who came from communities disproportionately impacted by earlier cannabis prosecution.
Initially, at least half of the city’s cannabis permits would be directed to those social equity applicants, and other prospective businesses could move up in line by sponsoring a social equity applicant.
As Stephenson describes it, the opportunity to pair cannabis businesses of different stripes provides an edge to both companies. The established team can impart some degree of business experience while reaping a benefit, and the social equity team can pick up insights into navigating the often complex world of private, regulated business.
“Fifteen years ago, my greatest worry or concern was not going to prison,” Stephenson says, painting a picture of contrasts between then and now. “So, while that is not the issue now, the issue now is still finances, business, having business acumen, being able to make it past the regulatory process. For any young entrepreneur, older entrepreneurs, social equity applicants, you have to have the ability to navigate all three of those barriers to entry. And the industry is not becoming cheaper. Operating is becoming more expensive.”
In order to ensure that the industry isn’t given wholesale to the operators with the deepest pockets, Stephenson says it falls to cities like Oakland or Boston or Chicago (or wherever) to promote a more equitable playing field in this new industry. Unlike almost any other business in the U.S. right now, cannabis is uniquely emerging from the unregulated ether; its history on the wrong side of the law and its gargantuan revenue projects over the next decade allow an opportunity that must be tended carefully, Stephenson says, something that he insisted on long before adult-use legalization swept across the country. It starts with social equity policies written into law.
But it goes much further than that.
“What a lot of social equity applicants bear is a stigma that something was given to them—just because,” he says. “Once you understand the war on drugs—how it impacted urban communities, how they were targeted—then you start to understand that this really is an excellent way for us to balance the scales of injustice or misjustice that was done decades prior.”
If getting in the door is one thing, Stephenson is quick to point out that active businesses (social equity or not) can use the cannabis industry to lift up communities more broadly. He recommends that businesses hire locally and create an economic opportunity for those in the community where a business is based.
This is how he’s run Purple Heart, and it’s how he’s hoping to continue the shop once he reopens this spring. (He’ll also be introducing a new branded product line for the occasion.)
“It’s really important that the individuals who are speaking for the social equity applicants actually understand the cannabis business,” he says, “that they understand the community at hand and that they have an active partnership with individuals from that community that are substantiated beyond utilizing them to move to the front of the line, per se.”