Between them, cousins Keena Middleton, Eric Grayson, and Charles “CT” Toney II have pretty much seen it all. As longtime San Franciscans, the three have stuck together through the loss of loved ones, periods of mental illness, and the long grind towards opening the first recreational dispensary in the Park Merced area.
Even the name of their new venture is a testament to hardship and perseverance.
“Flight is a brand that I came up with many, many years ago, after my mom passed,” Grayson explains during a recent call with SF Weekly. “It’s a tribute to my mom. She got cancer, and before she passed, we took her all around the world.”
Family is a key tenet of everything Flight strives to be. Though Toney is technically the one who holds the social equity license, all three cousins each individually meet the criteria. As someone with a traditional (unlicensed) grow, it was Grayson who gathered the trio together to propose they join forces on a fully legit effort.
“I was still doing street shit and bringing it around my cousins while they were doing positive stuff,” Grayson says. “It just got to the point where it was like, no matter how long it takes, let’s try to do this thing legal.”
According to Grayson, things started getting serious after he spoke with his landlord about his desire to file a claim of non-compliance with the city. Following the success of Prop. 64, the idea was that non-compliance claims would serve as an opportunity for unlicensed growers to “come clean” in exchange for amnesty. But while both Grayson and the owner of an undisclosed warehouse had long been on the same page about using the space to grow pot, they did not see eye-to-eye on being transparent about the operation.
Grayson’s landlord told him he was welcome to do as he pleased, but said he’d need to start looking for a new place to grow. Fearing the consequences of continuing to fly under the radar, the cousins ultimately opted to file the claim.
Grayson and his family avoided legal repercussions for their guerilla cannabis operation, but the decision came with some collateral damage.
“We still lost everything,” Grayson says. “The entire business was lost; all money and equipment had to be liquidated.”
From there, the path to opening a legal dispensary would not be an easy one. Upon initiating the process of obtaining a social equity license, the cousins ran into their first major obstacle: a requirement that applicants provide proof of a lease for their proposed business.
Tasked with applying to potential properties, Eric Grayson estimates he was forced to consider over 150 buildings before finally signing a deal on their new home at 61 Cambon Drive. Over and over again, he says, he’d put on a suit and make his pitch — one that emphasized his business background as well as his insider knowledge of the local community and cannabis industry.
He even went so far as to hire some pricey real estate consultants to, as he puts it, “tell me what to say.” Yet even as he did his best to ensure no boxes were left unchecked, the results were always the same.
“They would come back at me with something impossible,” Grayson says — “for us or for anybody in our position. They’d ask to hold a million dollars or they’d want you to pay for a year of rent upfront.”
At first, Grayson thought the issue might be specific to San Francisco and its record-breaking real estate market. But then he asked a white friend of his to take his plan and apply to some of the properties that had made such massive demands of Grayson and his cousins.
“He went to one and they told him it would cost first and last month’s rent and a $30k security deposit. They basically told him he could get started for around $60k or $70k after they told me it would be $1 million.”
Systemic injustice of this nature is exactly what Toney, Middleton, and Grayson now hope to help correct with Flight, which will host its grand opening on Saturday, July 17.
In the time it’s taken the cousins to get Flight up and running, for instance, they’ve noticed that some of the struggles they endured have at least shown regulators where improvements in the process are sorely needed.
“I think a lot of what we went through has helped to fine tune the experience for people who are starting today,” Middleton says. “If you apply now, [instead of a lease] you only need a letter of intent, which is much easier to get. That would have helped us greatly but at least now it’s helping someone. That’s all that matters.”
This optimistic perspective is more than a mindset for the cousins: it’s also an upcoming brand they’ll be debuting at Flight.
Though an official timeline is still forthcoming, Toney — who often “preaches on the power of positive vibes,” according to Grayson — says the line, dubbed Positive Vibes, will feature both flower and health-focused edibles once it launches.
Toney’s stated desire for Positive Vibes — to focus not only on physical well-being but also on mental health is a gesture of extra special significance to Grayson.
“I don’t put this out there too much,” Grayson says, “but I’m bipolar and I also suffer from extreme PTSD. I’ve tried to kill myself twice. Cannabis is what got me off of Lithium and off Lorazepam. I’m going on like seven years now with no medication, so when CT told us that he wanted to make something that’s good for people and for their minds, Keena and I were like, ‘That’s deep. Let’s do it.’”
“At the end of the day,” Grayson adds, “we want to help people. We want to be an example to young Black kids. We want them to see that you don’t have to be on the streets. You don’t have to do that stuff. Don’t fall today. We want to be a light for the youth, to show them that you know you can do something legal, and be successful at it, and provide for your family.”
Zack Ruskin covers cannabis for SF Weekly. Twitter @zackruskin