S.F. Approves Its First Equity Program Dispensary

Cole Ashbury Group CEO Shawn Richard hopes his efforts will serve as a blueprint for future applicants.

Following a 6-0 vote by the San Francisco Planning Commission late last week, Cole Ashbury Group CEO Shawn Richard became the first candidate to be approved for a dispensary under San Francisco’s cannabis-equity program.

“We’ve been working on this since they first announced that equity was coming to the community in 2017,” Richard says.

When San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors established the program in November 2017 as part of a larger set of rules created to guide the local legalized market, it’s likely they were hoping for a faster turnaround. Unfortunately, endless tweaks and updates to the law on both a city and state level have continually bogged down the process. As of last fall, more than 100 equity applicants were still waiting for approval.

But for Richard, the wait is now finally over.

Cole Ashbury Group’s proposed dispensary at 1685 Haight St. is not only a win for Richard and his partners but for San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis as well. Facing a severe shortage of resources and manpower — at present, the SFOOC is run by a staff of four — it’s safe to assume that Director Nicole Elliott and her colleagues are feeling relieved to finally have an equity candidate approved.

Paradoxically, one of Elliott’s first substantial victories may also be her swansong. On the same day Richard earned his Planning Commission victory, news broke that California Governor Gavin Newsom had hired Elliott to serve as his senior advisor on cannabis. She’ll leave just as the SFOOC finds its foothold in the often chaotic and confusing landscape of legalized recreational cannabis.

Whoever succeeds her will surely look to the example Richard has set as a blueprint. As a founding member of the San Francisco Equity Group (SFEG), Richard acknowledges that his job will be not only to launch his dispensary but to guide others as they attempt to follow in his footsteps.

“Commissioner Myrna Melgar told us that the SFEG has set a standard,” Richard notes with pride. “Now we can look at being consultants and helping other equity applicants get to this level. As happy as I am, this is not just a win for Shawn. This is a win for the whole entire city of San Francisco and the equity community.”

The slow march of progress with cannabis equity programs in the state has not been limited to San Francisco. In December, owners Alphonso Blunt Jr. and Brittany Moore cut the ribbon on Oakland’s first equity-approved dispensary, the appropriately titled Blunts + Moore. With the Cole Ashbury Group’s win, Richard has now become only the second person — and second African-American — in California to receive permission to open a dispensary under the auspices of an equity program.

“I’m humbled and honored,” Richard says. “Someone reminded me that this happened during Black History Month. They said that I’m like the Jackie Robinson of cannabis. I won’t take that for granted.”

As SF Weekly reported last week, some critics have questioned whether Cole Ashbury Group co-owner Conor Johnston — who once served as Mayor London Breed’s chief of staff during her time as a District 5 Supervisor — had used his connections to help Richard’s bid be selected over other candidates as the lone dispensary in the Upper Haight “green zone.”

Richard is adamant that the key to his success was simply hard work.

“As [Planning] Commissioner Dennis Richards said, we cooked a fully baked cake,” he says. “We raised the bar to such a level and height that all six commissioners voted unanimously in our favor. We set the goal.”

The “we” Richard refers to encompasses a wide swath of the Upper Haight, many residents of which turned out at SFEG’s request to cheer on Cole Ashbury Group at their hearing with Planning.

“We had over 150 people supporting me and my group,” Richard explains. “We only had two people in opposition, and afterward, they both had to come and shake my hand.”

Richard spent much of his childhood at the Boys and Girls Club on Fulton Street and grew up on Hayes and Central — only a few blocks from the site of his future dispensary. Regardless of the politics, he sees his new venture as the culmination of a lifelong desire to bring tourists and locals back to the Upper Haight.

“Our community has been looked over,” he says. “We’ve suffered a lot. We’ve had a negative light shined on us. Now we will be able to bring something to that community. We will be able to open up the corridor and bring more business, bring more tourists, and bring more folks up there. I believe that having a marijuana dispensary at this location is going to be significant. We’re going to brighten up the corridor and make it more livable and fun up on Haight Street.”

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