Who Gets to Grow in the Bayview?

Space is limited, expectations are high, and the soul of San Francisco’s cannabis industry may be at stake.

Photo by Michaela Carty

When it comes to the Bayview and cannabis, Brandon Brown favors a homegrown approach.

As a co-founder of the San Francisco Cannabis Equity Working Group, Brown has worked extensively to keep Bayview residents informed about the cannabis industry and the role they have a right to play in it. One of his efforts is called “Equity Sessions,” which consisted of six educational workshops hosted over three months this spring and geared toward equity applicants, future incubators, and business partners. Raised in the northern Central Valley town of Gridley, the 36-year-old has been a Bayview resident since 2013. Having moved from Prague to San Francisco in 2011, Brown founded High Bridge Delivery in 2016, which has paved the way for him to partner with a local resident on a neighborhood dispensary created under the equity program.

Equity is a vital component of San Francisco’s cannabis regulations because advocates have recognized that racial and economic justice may remain elusive without significant government intervention into the market. It is the realization that diversity initiatives are insufficient. In essence, the program is designed to help local residents who were adversely affected by the War on Drugs get priority access to permits that allow them to take part in the city’s newly established legal industry. Without equity, the risk of big businesses squeezing out the competition grows dramatically. It also serves as a safeguard against the industry being exclusively operated by those with wealth and the means to establish a presence quickly. Within the Bayview, equity is seen as the best option to ensure that marginalized communities aren’t left behind in the rush to capitalize and expand on a fertile new marketplace.

A quick survey of the topics covered by Equity Sessions offers some insight into what Brown and the Cannabis Equity Working Group (originally known as the Original Equity Group, or OEG) feel are the day’s most pressing issues. With titles like “Healing from the War on Drugs,” “Budtender 101: The Anatomy of Cannabis,” and “Getting Compliant,” the program was taught by respected industry experts and offered free of charge to equity-program applicants.

Brown says he helped put the series together because he noticed a void in educational forums on cannabis and equity for residents in the Bayview and other neighborhoods. Though his preference would be for the city of San Francisco to take responsibility, Brown instead produced Equity Sessions thanks to sponsors like the Green Cross dispensary and Eaze. General admission tickets sold for $100 each.

“Equity Sessions was kind of a first step towards doing large-scale education without the help of the city,” Brown explains. “We wanted to create a template.”

Brown and Hunters Point native Rodney Hampton will use that template to open CDXX (i.e., 420 in Roman numerals). Set to occupy 4526 Third St. — currently the home of Hampton’s communal art gallery — CDXX is poised to become the first African-American-owned retail cannabis shop in Bayview-Hunters Point when it opens, most likely later this year.

For Brown, the big picture involves the city’s new, regulated cannabis industry employing and empowering more residents of Bayview-Hunters Point — especially marginalized persons of color from the area.

“The Bayview community is well aware of the cannabis industry in its district,” he says. “We really want to keep it to small businesses. Especially when it comes to retail, I don’t see the Bayview community really supporting any new retail businesses in District 10 that aren’t straight-up equity partnerships.”

 

Without first understanding how San Francisco’s cannabis industry evolved, it can be difficult to comprehend all the factors at play.

When voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996 — in an effort led by early marijuana advocate Dennis Peron and inextricably linked to the AIDS crisis — California established a statewide system whereby qualified medical patients could obtain cannabis from licensed dispensaries. To this day, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health oversees the businesses that received permits under the Prop. 215 system.

That’s how it worked for more than 20 years. But with the advent of legalized adult-use cannabis in the wake of 2016’s Proposition 64, the city devised a new system to account for businesses that wanted to get in on the action. The plan called for valid medical cannabis permit-holders to be grandfathered into the new program, along with pre-existing operators who had never registered with the city. What was missing was a pathway for those who had been hit the hardest by draconian drug laws to be given first access to the potential profits promised by a regulated market.

Borrowing somewhat from their neighbors in Oakland — the creators of the nation’s first equity program — San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors created a model whereby new permits for retail cannabis businesses would only be issued to equity applicants and equity incubators. (In order to earn a permit as a non-equity business, you must incubate an equity business).    

To become an equity candidate, applicants must meet three of six criteria — each one a reminder that before we had THC bath balms, we had California’s Three Strikes law. Qualifying options include having a prior arrest or an immediate family member who was arrested for a cannabis offense prior to 2016, proof of housing instability in the city after 1995, or living in a low-income household. The city’s Office of Cannabis (OOC) was established to manage this equity program (and medical permitting is expected to eventually fall under its purview as well).

Bureaucratic though all this may sound, it’s a way for the city to address the effects of the racist and absurdly punitive War on Drugs, which decimated many urban neighborhoods for decades. The equity program gives disenfranchised San Francisco residents an equal share of the marketplace to legally sell what they’ve been arrested for selling for decades — and it has high stakes for many of the individuals involved. It has also been the victim of a bottleneck at the OOC, as staffers work to vet applications and usher suitable candidates through a rigorous series of approvals and paperwork.

“We pushed for the equity program to go through,” Brown says, “but we haven’t had much of a program.”   

In fact, the application he and Hampton submitted is one of the few to near completion. The first equity retail permit was issued to Shawn M. Richards in February for his forthcoming dispensary with the Cole Ashbury Group at 1685 Haight St.

Though CDXX has also yet to open its doors, its location is quite familiar to many residents of the Bayview as My Art Gallery, where Hampton welcomes African-American artists from the Bayview to hang their work and sell it without the gallery taking a substantial commission.

“I mean, the Opera House takes 30 percent,” Brown says, referring to the nearby theater that’s supposedly the oldest in the city. “That’s pretty wild.”

Hampton and Brown hope to unveil the dispensary component of the business by early next year. Although My Art Gallery was conceived as a way to occupy the space while CDXX went through its laborious permitting process, the dispensary will continue to engage Bayview residents through art-related events and public forums on cannabis education — all of which will be free to local residents. When it opens, it will also be one of the first equity-operated dispensaries in San Francisco, blazing an alternate trail in a cannabis industry that’s increasingly flooded with corporate money.

As a businessman, Hampton says he’s ecstatic to approach the end of what was ultimately a three-year process.

That lengthy timespan may be yet another potential barrier to entry. Some prospective applicants have no means of remaining solvent while awaiting a final approval that may take years. So why the delay? Insufficient staffing at the OOC, for one.

In June, District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer was quoted in the Examiner as saying, “I think we can agree that we started this Office of Cannabis understaffed. Quite frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The OOC’s new director, Marisa Rodridguez, has publicly acknowledged the backlog and clearly stated that expediting applicants through the equity permitting process is her office’s chief concern. Mayor London Breed offered her support by including resources for two additional permit reviewers and an analytics staffer to her proposed 2019-21 budget. If the provisions make it through to the final version — as of press time, details of the approved final budget were not yet available — it would be a badly needed staffing boost for the OOC.

Other factors also contributed to Brown and Hampton’s lengthy wait, including the frequent revisions made to regulations at the state and local levels and the exceptionally complex and protracted nature of the permitting process itself.

At the same time, this accomplishment represents something acutely personal for Hampton as well. At the age of 19, he was arrested for a cannabis-related offense in Bayview Hunters-Point. Now, almost 30 years later, he’ll open a legal marijuana dispensary less than a block from where that arrest occurred.

“This has been a wonderful and hopeful experience,” Hampton says. “It’s inspiring. I’m bringing hope to the community: to my friends, to those who are younger, to peers, to those who are older. Hope is still there. This is not the full reparations, but it’s something like it. It’s something comparable.”

 

But recreational cannabis is more than just customer-facing dispensaries, with their pre-rolled joints and tins of pear-prosecco gummies. As equity-permit holders make slow yet determined progress toward their ultimate goal, one question remains unresolved: How can equity expand to encompass non-retail operators? Though retail permits enjoy the majority of the headlines, there are actually three other types of permits available for cannabis operators as well: cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution. Together, these operators represent the non-retail facets of the local cannabis marketplace. In fact, non-retail operators actually make up the bulk of the San Francisco industry.

“The equity program is just for retailers,” Brown explains. “Manufacturing, distribution, and cultivation don’t necessarily fall into that.”

Photo by Michaela Carty

Instead, operators seeking these other types of cannabis permits must put forth a plan to benefit their new neighborhoods as part of their application process. Although the city must verify and approve all community benefit plans — described by the OOC as “ways you plan on supporting the wider community, including a compassion program and equity goals” — Brown is convinced that equity is the better solution. Though community benefits agreements may help by improving a park, supporting a non-profit, or hosting local events, they won’t necessarily lead to the type of local infrastructure implicit to an equity program.

“The community benefits program needs to be an equity program,” he says, “because that is what benefits the Bayview community. If you want to talk about community benefits, what the Bayview wants, as far as that’s concerned, is an equity program that is focused on hiring locally and working with local nonprofits.”

Thanks to efforts from city officials to encourage people who may have been “off-the-grid cannabis operators” to go legit, many non-retail Bayview businesses that were previously functioning in an unregulated capacity are now stepping into the light.

When the OOC’s amnesty program went live in the fall prior to the start of adult-use sales on Jan. 1, 2018, operators were given a chance to conform to regulations without fear of retribution from the city. The requirement was that they register with the city of San Francisco by Nov. 30, 2017. Provided they did so, they could qualify for a temporary permit that would provide an eventual pathway to an annual permit.

Speaking with the Potrero Review in January 2019, the OOC’s then-director, Nicole Elliott — who has subsequently left to serve in a similar role at the state level for Gov. Gavin Newsom — praised the program for allowing “us to put quasi-permitted and unregulated cannabis operators into a permitted and licensed structure.” She further noted that offering amnesty to unpermitted operators would help with compliance and safety while avoiding criminalization.

When the amnesty program was enacted, Brown recalls being shocked to see the number of operators — few, if any, of whom were local residents — already housed in the Bayview.

“People were upset,” Brown says. “They still are. A lot of people in the community were doing their own thing, too. They had their own little operations, but they weren’t aware of this pathway. They weren’t aware of all of the things that a lot of these other businesses knew about.”

Although dispensaries have more freedom in terms of where they can operate, the rest of the industry is largely restricted to Bayview-Hunters Point. Industrial zoning restrictions make the neighborhood one of the only viable options in the city for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, and distributors who wish to operate both legally and locally.

The result is that non-retail operators have turned Bayview-Hunters Point into the unofficial heart of the city’s cannabis industry. According to San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, 62 active permit holders, spanning both temporary permits for recreational sales and medical permits — or approximately 30 percent of the city’s cannabis operators — are located within the district.

Cannabis and social justice intersect in a number of ways, most notably the growing awareness that tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans are saddled with criminal records for something that is increasingly no longer a crime. (In fairness, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office has moved to expunge more than 9,000 marijuana convictions dating back to 1975.)

But while land-use topics may bore most people to tears, they may be just as important. With so many operators already in place — coupled with a lack of properly zoned real estate available elsewhere in the city — the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point find themselves at risk of being excluded from an industry that they’re simultaneously being asked to house. The pot boom may turn out to be yet another invasive species looking to take root in the Bayview.

So, frustrated by what he saw as a failure on the city’s part to properly educate prospective equity applicants, Brown took matters into his own hands. His Equity Sessions impart accurate knowledge about S.F.’s ever-changing equity program.

Though Brown acknowledges that some  “emerging” operators have been in the Bayview for a decade or longer, he still believes that true, lifelong residents should have gotten the first chance to establish small businesses through the permitting process when it was first announced in late 2017.

“Therein lies the conflict,” Brown says. “You have a district that’s been disenfranchised by the War on Drugs — just from over-policing, on top of other things — and then you have a group of growers who have been disenfranchised for trying to actually participate and grow and all that. Now they’re trying to become legal, and people are butting heads.”

 

Though these operators may not be Bayview residents, some are trying to show that their businesses deserve to be here.

Gold Seal has operated in the Bayview since 2014, cultivating premium indoor cannabis flower like the flagship strains Red Congolese and Cherry Cheesecake. According to co-founder Aaron Flynn, Gold Seal’s identity is tied to cultivating its flower locally. With zoning restrictions, that makes the Bayview the best bet to ensure their cannabis is always made in San Francisco.

“This city really does appreciate things that were locally made,” he says. “Over the next five years, you could see some really phenomenal craft … products coming out of the Bayview. That’s what really gets me excited about operating here. It’s the San Francisco-made, farm-to-table aspect of this.”

In terms of Gold Seal’s efforts to ingratiate itself to the Bayview, the company has sponsored free forums for local residents focused on cannabis and also collaborated with Bayview nonprofits like Young Community Developers (YCD). Brown cites YCD as one of the local organizations he’d like to see operators partnering with, so it does appear that Flynn is genuine in his efforts to fit in.

A few blocks away, Potli’s cofounders Felicity Chen and Christine Yi are sitting near several large drums of olive oil. The space they occupy is but one in a long row of identical units off Jerrold Avenue in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point. Inside, however, they’ve updated their headquarters with up-to-code manufacturing equipment. Though the pair have come to embrace their new home, they had less than a week to decide whether to move in.

“We literally made the decision to go into this space in less than five days,” Chen confirms. “That’s how long it was from knowing about the opportunity to signing the contract. It was really crazy.”

Chen and Yi have been all in on Potli — which specializes in cannabis-infused honey and oils — from the get-go. Both are from the East Bay, but the pair met in Boston as freshman college roommates. The idea for Potli was subsequently born from their shared desire to create something involving cannabis that even their mothers — Chen and Yi are both third-generation Asian-Americans — would eat.

Together, they’ve poured their life savings — “or as much as two 24-year-olds would have,” Yi jokes — into the company. For the past year-and-a-half, Potli has operated out of its current home, a space they share with three other women.

When the opportunity to move into their current location arose, the women behind Potli didn’t waste a moment. To the contrary, they were well aware that properly zoned San Francisco real estate is a hot commodity for cannabis manufacturers and acted accordingly.

As a manufacturer of cannabis ingredients — staples like chili oil that can then be incorporated into numerous dishes — Potli sources its own ingredients as locally as possible. Once Yi and Chen decided to feature honey, they only had to look as far as Chen’s backyard.

“When I left for college, my parents replaced me with bees,” she laughs. “That’s really how we got to this delicious, local honey. Since then, we’ve expanded the hives. We also painted them pink.”

Potli and Gold Seal have both been navigating their own substantial (and ongoing) permitting processes as well. They each also emphasize their intentions to be good neighbors in the Bayview, specifically highlighting their efforts to hire locally. Chen and Yi say the lab techs they’ve hired have all been Bayview residents, while the same is also true for three of Gold Seal’s 13 staff members.

“Gold Seal wants to continue to hire folks from here,” Flynn says. “We love having employee happy hours at Cafe Envy and going to Tato Mexican on Third. This is more to us than just a place that we drive to in the morning and then leave in the evening. We really like being members of this community.”

For Brown, the issue isn’t whether these operators are being sufficiently altruistic — although again, some actions are mandatory conditions of their permits. This doesn’t necessarily mean Gold Seal or Potli’s  intentions are insincere, but it does make it difficult to quantify their efforts as going above and beyond.

Part of the blame for this scenario rests with the city for not making Bayview residents aware of the equity program in a timely manner. Given how it’s taken Hampton and Brown three years to arrive at the precipice of opening their own dispensary, time is yet another vital piece of the complex equation that will decide who prospers and who perishes in the city’s cannabis industry.

Many San Francisco residents who consume cannabis have already formed loyalties to their favorite dispensaries and product brands. Trying to imagine where the industry might be in three years — a time span that could realistically include the end of federal cannabis prohibition in the U.S. — is nearly impossible. The marginalized communities of Bayview-Hunters Point feel they have waited long enough.

That’s why Brown is frustrated to see other operators getting permits for ostensibly operating illegally in the Bayview while local residents were arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, and, in some cases, killed for doing the same thing. Now they’re being asked to put their faith in an equity program that doesn’t seem to account for the industrial side of the cannabis industry and which has, as of this moment, yet to result in an equity-operated dispensary opening its doors.

“In my opinion, the community has the one-up,” he says. “These operators are largely not people of color and they’re not from Bayview. Even if they’ve been here for 10 years — and I know some people that have, like the Betty Project — at the same time, you have this community that’s been taking all of the heat for what they’ve been doing.”

The Betty Project advertises itself as a “legacy built and artisan sustained cannabis micro-business.” When Brown spoke at a city hearing on its behalf, he noted that the company seemed aware of Bayview residents’ needs and that he believed they were making steps in that direction.

“I don’t expect anyone to fire their entire staff,” Brown says, “and I don’t think the community does, either. What I think the community and myself do expect is that from now on and moving forward, you’re creating an equity program and you’re hiring locally.”

In spite of his concerns, Brown remains hopeful. He’s greatly looking forward to the launch of CDXX in the near future. He just wants to make sure it’s but the first of many businesses to come that are owned and operated by local Bayview-Hunters Point residents like Rodney Hampton.

“If we’re able to do this right,” Brown says, “I think that the Bayview has a bright future in cannabis. I think that we’ve gotten on top of it early enough and the city has dragged its feet so much that somehow, here in the Bayview, we were able to catch up to some degree.”

 

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