Oakland’s Purple Heart Still Has a Pulse 

America’s first Black-owned cannabis retailer plans to reopen after closing last March.

Nearly a year has passed since the lifeblood of patients pulsed through the veins of Oakland’s Purple Heart.

Of course, Keith Stephenson, founder of Purple Heart — the country’s first Black-owned legally licensed cannabis storefront — never anticipated such a delay when he closed last March.

At the time, Stephenson believed the closure was a temporary necessity to ensure his operation was prepared for COVID-19. On March 21, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared cannabis workers “essential,” which made the need for Stephenson to quickly reopen obvious.

He installed sneeze guards and purchased disinfectants, machinery, etc. He took all the steps to ensure Purple Heart was compliant with the County of Alameda Department of Health’s detailed COVID-19 guidelines.

But before Stephenson could implement these new safety precautions, his store was burglarized twice in the span of three days.

In fact, dozens of legal cannabis businesses across the Bay Area — and lots more up and down the West Coast — were all hit in what was later determined to be a series of planned break-ins timed to overlap with the major protests incited by George Floyd’s murder over Memorial Day weekend.

In Purple Heart’s case, the losses were overwhelming.

According to Stephenson, all of Purple Heart’s products and much of its tech equipment were stolen. That’s when Stephenson began the process of filing a claim with his insurer and got his first taste of a battle is still fighting.

“Initially, the insurance adjuster’s questions towards me were disrespectful and accusatory,” Stephenson says. “They inferred  that either I knew something about the two burglaries and or that I had damaged my own business.”

Stephenson felt that the insinuation, that he — a 52-year-old who has undergone two hip replacement surgeries and a total shoulder replacement — caused the kind of damage done in the burglaries, was not only disrespectful, but also ludicrous.

Unfounded suspicions that Stephenson was responsible for the damages and losses were the onset of a struggle that has now lasted eight months and forced Purple Heart to change its plans for opening its doors.

For one, Stephenson has turned to Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), to assist him in filing a claim with the California State Insurance Commissioner.

He says he’s excited to have Bonta’s expertise on his side.

“He’s been one of the leading advocates at the state level, for the entire cannabis industry, in all matters,” Stephenson says, “and this insurance company has been negotiating in bad faith with me, amongst many other things.”

Even as Stephenson renews his efforts to make his insurer pay up, he’s moving forward with a crowdfunding campaign to reopen Purple Heart by spring. But even crowdfunding platforms offer a certain amount of peril when cannabis is the related cause.

That’s why, according to Stephenson, he may have to raise funds that technically go towards something more GoFundMe appropriate.

“Due to the laws concerning cannabis and banking, it’s impossible to crowdfund for cannabis businesses,” Stephenson says. “So, I think it’s best for me to set up the crowdfund account under my name personally and ask for donations to ‘Help Keith Stephenson Rebuild His Life.’ That should allow me to stay GoFundMe compliant.”

Regardless of the fine print, what matters most is the figure Stephenson’s hoping to raise for Purple Heart: $2 million dollars.

That figure, according to Stephenson, factors in his initial losses, the businesses’ debt, operational expenses, licensing, a plethora of insurance policies, and damages as well as the revenue Purple Heart has lost during its closure; over the past eight months, California’s cannabis industry has seen record-breaking sales.

It’s an aspect of the whole ordeal that certainly hasn’t been lost on Stephenson.

“It’s extremely difficult, as I truly love working in the industry,” he says, “so just that alone is tough. The other thing is that this entire ordeal has taken a mental, emotional, and financial toll on me. I’m optimistic that we will heal from these injuries and move forward. As far as the lost revenue, it is something we wish to recover at some point when we reopen.”

Ultimately, he says, it’s not the money — though it certainly matters a lot if Purple Heart is to continue — but welcoming back the faces that have long made the cannabis retailer a special space in the community.

“The spirit of Purple Heart is positive, fun, engaging, Oakland-based, with a Bay Area authentic legacy cannabis vibe,” Stephenson says. “The energy was absolutely phenomenal. When we reopen, we will be even better as we are resilient and we know that our customer base is looking for us to reopen.  We will make lemonade out of the lemons we have been dealt.”

To stay up-to-date on fundraising efforts for Purple Heart, follow @purpleheartoakland on Instagram.

Zack Ruskin writes about cannabis for SF Weekly. Twitter @zackruskin

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