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Rolling Stoned: Equity Moves Out of the Weeds

By Zack Ruskin Aug 6, 2020
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PLEASE LET THERE BE PINBALL

How do you open a legal dispensary in San Francisco?

Slowly, for the most part. In surveying the active crop of dispensaries currently open for business across the city, all are either pre-existing medical pot shops that are now permitted for recreational sales or new, equity-owned businesses. The idea behind equity programs like the one in place in San Francisco is to make sure those most negatively impacted by past drug laws are given first dibs on making a legal buck from marijuana.

Unfortunately, good intentions are easily corrupted.

In the case of equity programs — be they in San Francisco or elesewhere — the issue comes in the form of equity candidates who are forced to take on affluent external partners in order to have the resources to endure a process that can regularly take up to two years to complete. That’s two years without income as well as a substantial period of paying rent on a space before the doors are allowed to open.

That doesn’t mean equity is a failure — only that it could stand to be mightily improved. There are also cases of partners with noble intentions helping equity applicants to the finish line. We’ll see one of those below. My point here is that it’s a complex situation and thus one well worth keeping frequent tabs on.

Recently, “Rolling Stoned” shared the story of Reese Benton and Posh Green, San Francisco’s first dispensary to be owned by a Black woman. Today, I want to focus on a few other relevant developments on the subject.

In a recent “Chem Tales” column for San Francisco Weekly, I wrote about three new equity-owned dispensaries that were recently approved by the SF Planning Commission. Here’s the intro:

The narrative of the cannabis industry often moves in nanoseconds. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for San Francisco’s equity program. The laborious process aimed at ensuring diversity within the local legal cannabis system is currently a multi-year affair. Fortunately, the journey for a trio of new equity-owned dispensaries in the city took a major step forward following a June 16 meeting of the SF Planning Commission.

In unanimous votes, the board approved plans for dispensaries at 1700-1702 Lombard Street and 899 Columbus Avenue. A third dispensary, located at 764 Stanyan Street, passed on a 4-1 vote.

“It took us over two years to get to the planning commission from the Office of Cannabis,” says Johnny “Love” Matheny, who is leading the effort for the Lombard project.

Matheny is a well-known San Francisco figure. His eponymous nightclub on Broadway at Polk was a popular destination in the ’90s, and he continues to hold investments across the city. In a phone conversation with SF Weekly, Matheny said his old club is where he first met his dispensary’s current CEO, Alexis Bronson.

As the project’s equity applicant, it is Bronson who will lead the show.

“He’s got some great ideas,” Matheny says of Bronson. “He is extremely knowledgeable and extremely smart. He’s a super guy.”

In addition to chatting with Matheny, I also spoke with the folks behind the other two dispensaries.

One, Henry Chang, is a Hong Kong native who has lived in the city since he was a child.

Born in Hong Kong, Chan moved to San Francisco at the age of 8. In an email with SF Weekly, Chan explained that he first got involved with cannabis as a cultivator in 2009. Subsequently, he’s gone on to manage a sizable cultivation site for the Bay Area Safe Alternative (BASA) collective and, in 2018, he launched his own delivery service, Weedhub.

“The process to open any cannabis business is very hard,” Chan wrote. “There are many departments to go through, from the Office of Cannabis to the planning department to the building department to the Bureau of Cannabis Control. After you wait for all of these years, to get it approved? The feeling is definitely rewarding.”

Chan’s store, CannaClub, is hoping to open by December or early January.

With no desire to pick favorites, I must confess I was the most excited to press for details on the last of these three shops. That’s because this new dispensary is partially the brainchild of Matthew Henri, owner and operator of Free Gold Watch.

For those who don’t know, Free Gold Watch is a print shop located in the Haight-Ashbury that also has an incredible collection of pinball machines. I actually chatted with Matthew earlier this year for a San Francisco Chronicle story about how local arcades are doing in the face of a pandemic.

This time, we talked about the equity applicant at the heart of FGW Haight: Damian Posey.

“Born to a 16-year-old mother at San Francisco General, Posey spent much of his youth moving around the city. At the age of 11, he started selling cannabis as a means of providing additional income to a household that consisted of himself and a single mother. An arrest would eventually lead Posey to serve time in prison for cannabis-related charges.

Since his release, Posey has made a name for himself as a mediator and mentor. As part of that work, he spent five years working as a case manager for United Playaz, the San Francisco youth violence prevention program founded by Rudy Corpuz Jr. It was through Corpuz Jr. that Posey learned about the city’s equity program and the potential opportunity it offered to folks like himself.

“To be honest, I never thought they would let people of color have those things,” Posey says. “To keep it real, in the type of society we live in, the barriers to entry they create for people of color are often so high that it’s hard to hurdle them.”

With FGW Haight, Posey’s been able to navigate such hurdles with the help of his friendly neighborhood print shop. Yes, the FGW in Posey’s dispensary stands for Free Gold Watch, the beloved Waller St. printing outfit that doubles as an all-ages pinball arcade.

“This has quietly been in the works for the last two to three years,” Free Gold Watch owner Matthew Henri says. “This is something that my wife and I have always wanted to be a part of ever since we found out that we were in the ‘green zone.’”

The terminology refers to the spaces within San Francisco that have approved zoning for cannabis businesses. As of now, Henri reports that the community’s feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive” thus far. As to whether the establishment at 765 Stanyan will also feature a few arcade games in the Free Gold Watch tradition?

“I can neither confirm nor deny the rumors of bringing in pinball, but we definitely want the store to have some of the true Haight feel that we’ve been able to foster at Free Gold Watch,” Henri says. “Stay tuned.”

I know it’s not what matters about this story, but how dope would it be if they do ultimately have pinball there? That’s like the dream, right? In any event, my best wishes to Damian and “Rolling Stoned” will continue to follow along with the progress for all of the dispensaries above.

IN THE WEEDS

There’s always too much going on and never enough time to talk about it. Here’s the trim from this week’s issue:

  • Also for my San Francisco Weekly column, I spoke with Erich Pearson of SPARC about how his dispensaries have navigateda pandemic, robberies, and a possibly permanent pivot to digital sales. Might touch on this next week but just in case!

  • Michael Thompson is 25 years into a 40-60 year sentence for selling weed to an undercover police officer. Michigan, the state in which he’s incarcerated, made cannabis legal in 2018. Last week, Thompson contracted COVID-19. I have the details (and outrage) over at Bloom & Oil.

  • Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell are sparring about cannabis. The crux of the matter comes down to giving legal companies safe banking access, but I’m sure old Mitch — who, it must be noted, is a fucking nightmare of human being — will find a way to ruin it. More from me on this at Bloom & Oil.

  • Did you hear about how unemployment benefits are ending? I bet you have! Do you think it will make weed sales go down? I do!

  • Want to win some cool CBD stuff? Bloom & Oil has a contest running on their Facebook. (PSA: This isn’t sponsored. B&O pays me to write about weed and I really appreciate it. Thus, sharing this by choice.)

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Are you a BIPOC-owned cannabis business in the Bay Area? Want to advertise in “Rolling Stoned” for free? Email me at zruskin@gmail.com.