ECO Cannabis Proves Equity Programs Can Work

The Telegraph Avenue dispensary earned its license by supporting a number of equity applicants — and hiring people who’ve been incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes.

When East Bay native Kevin Ahaesy decided to open a dispensary, it didn’t mean helping just one business get off the ground, but eight.

While ECO Cannabis may be the only business that Ahaesy is chiefly responsible for, part of his efforts to improve his chances at receiving a general license involved incubating other businesses under Oakland’s equity program.

“As I got to know more and more about the equity program,” he says, “we really thought it was a great thing. We discovered that the more we supported the program, the higher the likelihood would be of us getting a dispensary license.”

The rules that dictate what a general license applicant must do in order to qualify for the benefits of incubating equity businesses are quite substantial. Essentially, Ahaesy had to help the owners of these businesses through their own licensing processes in addition to providing 1,000 square feet of space for each one. In order for ECO Cannabis to receive its own license, it also had to ensure that all the equity businesses it was incubating got their own permits approved first.

“We got them through all of their permitting,” he says. “We actually spearheaded the process for them. In certain circumstances, like with two of our cultivators, we actually supplied them with their odor-mitigation equipment and some other things like power upgrades in order for them to start their businesses.”

With his license in hand, Ahaesy was able to start realizing his vision for a dispensary that corrected what he saw as several major areas of concern.

The first thing Ahaesy would notice when he’d walk into a dispensary was that it was regrettably reminiscent of entering a DMV. When ECO opened in January, he was ready to offer an alternative to the pressure some customers feel when it’s finally their turn at the counter.

“At most other dispensaries,” Ahaesy explains, “you have somebody breathing down your neck. You wait your 20 minutes and you finally get to the budtender, and that’s the point in time when you can start to ask questions. I always felt anxious and rushed when I got to that point because I knew there were a lot of people behind me.”

At ECO, an “experience guide” (their term for budtenders) will offer you a personal tour of the space. You can then pepper your guide with all of the questions your heart desires as each one has undergone extensive training. All experience guides are also equipped with a tablet device, although you can also place an order through a self-serve kiosk.

“It comes out of a window,” Ahaesy explains, “just like a fast-food restaurant. We call your name and you come up and pay for it.”

Ahaesy estimates that the system in place at his dispensary allows them to process twice as many customers each day than they’d otherwise be able to accommodate.

Customer service isn’t the only focus for ECO. Recalling that many dispensaries he’d visit were outfitted with bulletproof glass and armed guards, Ahaesy opted to style his store with a more upscale and welcoming aesthetic in mind. To that end, the interior of ECO features a 12-foot moss wall and floating glass box display cases.

Ahaesy also wants ECO to reflect the importance he places on social justice, which is why formerly incarcerated individuals comprise half the staff.

“It’s been amazing,” he says. “I would say for 80 percent of them, it was a cannabis-related crime, so it’s really gratifying to see people that were once shunned for these things now have a home with us.”

Given the trial-by-fire education Ahaesy has amassed as he’s shepherded not only ECO Cannabis but eight other businesses through the permitting process, he now hopes to be given a chance to share his knowledge with other cities considering equity programs.

“I’d like to go to other cities and talk about what Oakland got right and also what Oakland got wrong and how we fix that in their city and help them with their programs,” he says. “I’d like the opportunity to do that. I’ve talked to some people about San Diego. I’ve talked to some people about Boston, but I haven’t talked to the main players. That would be something I’m definitely interested in helping out with.”

He’s also willing to help on a more local level — like giving applicants a hand when it comes to dealing with the Oakland Fire Department.

“That was a huge hurdle to get over,” he recalls. “It took me about three months to get both my business and these other businesses through that process. At the end of it, I told the fire department that if they ever need me to run a workshop or do something that helps other equity applicants to let me know because it’s not an easy process. At the end of the day, the city needs to figure out how they want to use me in that respect, but I’ve definitely put that offer out there.”


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