The most messed up part of weed legalization in Washington State is the simple truth that people of color, already disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs, have been almost entirely shut out of the wealth created by the legal industry. A few enlightened states around the country have tried to do something about this, but no state has gone as far as what our state just did.
Thirty-four retail licenses will be issued statewide "to allow for more opportunities for people of color to be a part of this growing industry, and to reap the benefits not only for their business community but for the entire community," said Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who sponsored the law, which comes with $1.1 million to support those entrepreneurs. The law does not create new licenses, but rather redistributes licenses that have been given out previously and since been forfeited, revoked, or canceled for whatever reason.
Joy Hollingsworth, who may be familiar to you because her family's farm appeared on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, estimated in an interview with The Stranger that each of those licenses is worth $500,000. She doesn't work on the retail side of the industry, she works on the producer/processor side, but she's been a vocal advocate for the social equity law because, as she puts it, "I just want more people to have the opportunity to get into the industry who look like me."
How crucial was the Hollingsworth family to getting this law passed? "I believe absent their support, I wouldn't have been able to get this done," says Paula Sardinas, Washington State Commissioner of African American Affairs, who worked directly on the language of the law and made sure that that $1.1 million didn't take a hit when Governor Jay Inslee recently vetoed new statewide spending.
The Stranger caught up with Joy at Hollingsworth Farms to ask for more detail about the law—who decides who's going to get those licenses, when they will start being distributed, etc.—but Joy is such an amazing conversationalist that while were on the phone, we touched on all kinds of things, including the governor of Arkanasas's dig against Jay Inslee on Meet the Press, where Joy shops when she goes out to buy weed, and what she learned about farming from watching Narcos.
How has the coronavirus crisis affected pot grows? Are farms like yours considered essential businesses?
Yes, under state law, we're considered essential businesses. And I think one of the reasons is the tax revenue coming into the state, to supply different essential programs whether it be fire, police, schools... I think the second piece is also that a lot of people are using cannabis to cope with the anxiety that they may have about the situation that's going on right now, to help release pain—there are a lot of medical patients. So yeah I think we're an essential business, but isn't that crazy how the turnaround comes? Isn't that interesting?
Ten years ago the state said this was a crime, and now they say it's essential. I still can't wrap my head around it.
It's all about money. You saw the governor of Arkansas give a stab against Jay Inslee on Meet the Press [see below] for keeping pot stores as being essential, but when you look at the numbers, Arkansas writes double the national average for opioid prescriptions. And they also have a massive problem with meth. They could probably use some cannabis right now. You know, don't jab us about the job we're doing. Stay down there.
How do you explain to people what a big deal this social equity law is?
The state of Washington just passed one of the most progressive social-equity cannabis laws in the country. Number one, it's a statewide program—that's huge. [Other states like California leave social equity plans up to individual jurisdictions.] Number two, they're allowing a cannabis task force for social equity to write the plan—a group that will collectively come together to write a plan that they think is feasible for the state of Washington. Number three, it allows 34 cannabis retail licenses to be allocated to people of color on an ownership level, which is 51 percent majority on each license. And four, they're allocating 1.1 million dollars that is an annual distribution for technical assistance for that program, which will hopefully include a sort of cannabis hub, or an incubator, where people can come and learn and be exposed, empowered, and educated about the cannabis opportunities on an ownership level.
Have people of color not been able to get into the industry on an ownership level?
They have not. People of color account for 1 percent of the ownership level in the state of Washington. That's on the producer/processor side, and that's also on the retail side. One percent ownership level. Which is about the national average. And when I say "one percent ownership," I'm not talking about they own 1 percent of a store, or 5 percent of a store. I'm talking about majority ownership level of a store.
There were people of color owning medical marijuana dispensaries back in the day, but now those are all gone.
If you know anything about the medical and pot industry before it turned recreational, it was very underground. A lot of people provided for their families through it. It was very small-farmer oriented, it wasn't these big conglomerates, it wasn't commercialized. And so now you have it commercialized, and a lot of those people who were in the industry who might have had a felony on their record and were on the black market were not able to come into the light and participate in the newfound frontier. So that's where the disparities come, that's why social equity is so important, and that's why social equity in cannabis is the new hot thing.
So there were medical marijuana dispensaries that had been doing it a long time, that were supporting entire families, that were owned by people of color—and then when the state said, "Okay, everyone, this is legal now!" those exact same people got shut out.
Same exact people got shut out. Not only did they get shut out, but also other people took advantage and were able to have stores in that same exact location, in that same exact spot.
That's so messed up.
We have to remember it's not just about having access at the ownership level. This is about creating generational wealth. And it's also about people being able to put money back money into the communities that they live in. It's this ecosystem. It's about them being able to spend dollars in their community. To give scholarships to people in their community. To help provide for their family. So that's what we're passionate about. I just want more people to have the opportunity to get into the industry who look like me, and I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that at all.
The state legalized weed in 2012, but it has taken until now to share the wealth of the legal market with the communities most impacted by the drug war. Why do you think it has taken so long?
Well, I think a number of reasons. I think the first reason is that the market didn't really take shape until about four years ago. There was also confusion about the medical dispensaries that were supposed to get their licenses transferred over to the recreational side, but who knows what happened there. What I think was the thing that really sparked a lot of people was that there were some former store owners and producer/processors who were people of color who were in the industry who went out of business for different reasons—whether it was losing their license because they had to change location, different high barriers financially, all the regulations, so many different reasons—there was like this thing that hit the fan where it was like: "Hey man, we see what's going on, we see the tax structure, we see the revenue that's coming in, let's lower these barriers." Look, Washington state has some of the most progressive laws in the country. I think it became a point in time where it was like: "Yo, let's get this done, let's do the right thing, let's also pass something that other states can look to as a model." People knew that this was something that needed to be done.
I've heard people say that one of these retail licenses is worth about $300,000. Would you agree with that estimate?
I think it's a little bit more. Here's where the value comes in. It's a closed market, so not everyone can get into it. There's only a limited amount of licenses that can be allocated. I would go $500,000 just off the top of my head, knowing what I know about what a retail store could do. It really depends honestly on the location. A store in Shelton, Washington—which I love because that's where our farm is—might be worth less than something in Seattle. It's all about location.
And these 34 licenses that are now being made available will now be distributed statewide, not just within Seattle.
Right. Obviously a large portion of people of color live in Seattle and King County, but there's also people in Yakima who want to get into it, and the Tri-Cities, and in Spokane, on the east side of the mountains, in Everett—there's a lot of people of color that want to get into the industry but they don't live in Seattle or Tacoma area, nor should they. They want to participate in their own neighborhoods, which they absolutely have the right to do, because this is a statewide legislation.
And it will be up to the task force to decide which of those people are selected.
Correct. So the task force, to my knowledge, will create the social equity plan and then present that to the Liquor and Cannabis Board, and then cities can also implement their own social equity plans as well. So the city of Seattle might have additional criteria than the baseline from the state of Washington. That's their prerogative and that's fine. But other cities might have another meaning of social equity for them and their planning.
Do you have any knowledge of who will be on that task force?
In the bill, it says the general makeup of what they wanted the task force to be. Like, for example, I think a couple people will be from the Liquor and Cannabis Board. You have somebody from the governor's office. You have somebody from the Commission on African American Affairs. You also have a current license holder for a retail store, a current license holder for a producer/processor so they can have input... It's a nice spectrum of people.
Would you join that task force if someone asked you to?
If the Liquor and Cannabis Board asked us to be on the task force to help them craft the plan, absolutely, we would be honored. I'm not going to ask for the seat, but if somebody asked me? Sure.
What's the timeline for this?
It's an eight-year plan. The first meeting for the task force has to be by July 1 of this year, and then the earliest licenses potentially could be handed out is December 1, 2020. These licenses will be given out between now and 2028. That's the timeline. I don't know if it's going to be altered because of COVID-19, who knows. But that was the timeline that was specifically in the bill.
Your family doesn't come from a farming background. How difficult was it to learn how to be a producer/processor in this industry?
Okay, so what we joke about—especially with white folks, I don't know if you'll laugh or not—people will come to our farm, and they'll be like: "How did you guys learn how to do this?" And we'll say: "Well, you know, our ancestors were farmers." And we'll just look at them.
You know, cuz we're talking about the slaves. And I think it's a funny joke. "What are you guys talking about? You know our ancestors were farmers, right? You've heard of cotton, right? Corn?" And they just look at us. But, seriously, we don't have any background in farming. We learn from trial, error, and YouTube. Literally, YouTube. How to farm, how to figure out stuff. Our biggest thing when we first started: We learned how to grow, but we didn't know how to scale. And then it clicked, finally, it was like: "Yo, we're not taking a basement and multiplying it by a thousand square feet. We're actually farming. We need to look at some farming videos. We need to look at some irrigation videos. How they set up strawberries. We need to talk to people about this." So yeah, we were learning by trial, error, and YouTube—from start to finish. Believe it or not, I've looked at Narcos. I get inspired by their operation...
The Netflix show?
Yeah! About weed and growing organic sensimilla down in Mexico and how they did it. I could relate to a lot of the problems they were having with irrigation and stuff out in the desert. Like, "Oh, they dug that way?" We take a little bit from everybody. And that's how we got to where we are today.
What's the hardest part about being in business with your family?
A lot of people are like: "Yo, I can't work with family." Oh, I get it! Because neither can I sometimes. But when I've looked back, literally the last six years have been the best time of my life. The highest of highs, the lowest of lows, but all of us being together—that to me is success. I don't measure success as: "Oh I got an Audi." Not that I do, I don't. Or, "Oh I got a house on the water." That doesn't mean shit to me. I deem success more as: "Yo, the last six years I've been able to spend the majority of my time building something really, really dope with the people I love the most on this planet." Spending really quality time with my dad, my brother, my mom—we've just had a blast, man.
Where do you go shopping for weed?
Good question. Where do I go? I'll shop at Uncle Ike's, because they have an industry discount, which is nice. I'll go to Ponder, Ruckus—those are in my neighborhood. If I'm thinking about something out in Olympia area, I'd go to Green Lady, which is right next to the Liquor and Cannabis Board, which is kind of ironic.
What do you think of Gov. Inslee's leadership, both on the COVID-19 front and on the cannabis front?
On the COVID stuff, I've been so impressed with the way he's handled stuff, the way he's stood up to President Trump, but most importantly making hard calls. I'm sure it's not easy to tell people they have to shut their businesses down. But I think he's obviously thinking about bending the curve and these health care professionals who are overworked, understaffed, and undersupplied. We're asking them to go on the front lines for this disease without masks and the proper supplies. That's like asking a troop to go into war with a BB gun. So I've been so impressed. Plus, his positive words on Twitter and Instagram, not pointing fingers like the guy in the White House—that to me is the worst thing you can do, especially when people are highly emotional. And I'll tell you this: I volunteer at a food bank every day, Monday through Friday, and they do drive-throughs Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I can see the pain, I can see the anxiety, and just the desperation in people's faces that come to get emergency food. I see these people every day.
What do you make of his leadership on the cannabis front?
I mean, we're in the state of Washington, and we get to grow cannabis for a living. There's not a lot of places like this in the country, that we could be doing this. So I'm grateful that the governor is supportive of this, and also that he deems weed essential.
It does seem like he's making progress—between vacating misdemeanors last year, and now the social-equity piece...
He's making progress. I've been very pleased with that. I would like to see this social equity plan be very, very successful, and not just some hallmark legislation. I don't want it just because it sounds good, I actually want it to be good. So that's our job, to make sure shit's actually going to get done. And the creation of an incubator space is the most important piece—where people can come and have a resource so they're exposed to what different avenues they can participate in the industry. Because this is also for ancillary businesses. Maybe someone wants to have a packaging company. Or a delivery company. Whatever. Educating them so they have the resources to be successful.
Yeah, a lot of entrepreneurs probably don't know where to start.
People hit us up all the time, like: "Yo, how'd you guys get started?" "Where should I start?" "I want to grow." "I want to do this, I want to do that..." Our DMs or emails are full of people in desperation mode because they want to get into the industry, they want to be business owners, they want to create something—they just don't know where to start. So I'm hoping that the incubator hub that is created with the 1.1 million of technical assistance, and funding from cities as well, will be able to create an environment that will come up with dope ideas, that will be able to have people have a resource for their business, and also expose them to the different opportunities for the cannabis industry in Washington state.