They were two sides of California’s cannabis industry, ambitious operators who prepared for the day this state would become the world’s biggest legal market.
Eaze, a San Francisco-based start-up, started delivering medical cannabis in 2014. Venture capital infusions enabled the company to hire dozens of employees, crunch data and refine a mobile app in advance of cannabis turning fully legal this month. It has been dubbed the “Uber for weed”.
Virgil Grant came up a grittier way in Los Angeles’ streets. He ran track and studied psychology at university before dropping out to help run his father’s liquor store chain in Compton.
He started selling weed clandestinely, counting rap stars among his clients. “I was on the same streets as the killers, the jackers, the police,” he said. But, he added, “I never saw myself as a drug dealer.”
California legalised medical marijuana in 1995, allowing Grant to move out of the shadows.
By 2008 he owned six licensed medical cannabis dispensaries and trademarked his own brand, California Cannabis, for weed and spin-off products such as vapes, tinctures and clothing. Grant – a driven personality who does not consume pot or alcohol – envisaged rapid expansion, franchises and celebrity endorsements once California legalised marijuana for recreational use.
Then it all fell apart. Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided his home and businesses in 2008 and indicted him on multiple counts of drug conspiracy, money laundering and operating drug-related premises within 1,000 feet of a school. His dispensaries were shut and in 2010 he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Grant considers his conviction a racial injustice. “I was black and owned six locations. I was heavily targeted in the war on drugs.”
Whatever the truth about his individual case, there is no doubt law enforcement disproportionately targeted African Americans. They comprise about a 10th of LA’s population but from 2000 to 2017 accounted for 40% of cannabis arrests.
Grant emerged from prison in 2014, his budding empire extinguished. The Compton entrepreneur was a broke, convicted felon. The only job he could get was unloading crates with undocumented workers for $9 an hour. Eaze, meanwhile, marked 2015 with $10m in funding, juicing its expansion across California.
That could have been the end of the story: a white-owned, well-funded company rides the legalisation wave while the African American felon is sidelined, a pattern repeated across California.
Grant, 50, however, has not quit. He has clawed his way back into the industry and fully intends to become a cannabis mogul. With his smart shirt and tie and Mercedes, he looks the part.
“I’ve been in this industry 30 years. I understood what the future looked like a long time ago. I can’t let corporations in suits and ties step in and just take it. I can’t let them beat me or out-think me. That ain’t gonna happen.”
That may sound like bluster but the fast-talking former athlete, who still runs track, is picking up speed in his attempt to once again “own Compton”.
In 2016, through force of personality and networking, he co-founded theCalifornia Minority Alliance, a non-profit promoting inclusion in the cannabis industry, and the Southern California Coalition, a not-for-profit which imposed some order and cohesion on the industry’s unruly stakeholders, from cultivators to retailers.
He became a regular visitor to LA city hall and the state capitol in Sacramento, button-holing city councillors, state lawmakers, police, non-profits and regulators to help craft an enforcement scheme for medical and recreational pot.
The system put in place allows convicted felons to be part of the industry – a sensible policy to let them work and pay taxes in a sector they helped create, said Grant.
The father of five has rebooted his brand, California Cannabis; launched a website; found a new supplier; and opened three dispensaries for medical pot to form the nucleus of an envisaged retail chain for recreational users, including tourists, once he gets licenses.
“I lost six years but I’m catching up. Perception is everything. If people see say 10 shops they’ll think it must be a trusted brand, like McDonald’s. I’m aiming for high-end. Quality product and packaging,” said Grant.
He spoke from one of his Compton stores surrounded by wares stamped with his slogan: “Only the best grows in the west.” In an adjacent room six workers sifted through cannabis heaped in 55-gallon containers, trimming it into 1lb sacks which Grant sells to other dispensaries.
Grant brushed off concerns that the Trump administration will crack down on an industry which is now fully legal in California, Colorado and six other states. He does however worry that federal threats will continue to deter banks from working with the industry, creating hassle and expense from handling lots of cash.
Above all he worries that African Americans and Latinos, having suffered disproportionately from pot’s criminalisation, will lose again if corporate America dominates the newly legalised market.
“Hopefully we as people of colour will take our rightful position in this industry. I’ll do my part, hiring and mentoring. I require two things of my workers: don’t steal, be on time.”
Apart from the trimmers and sales clerks Grant’s company is still largely a one-man operation – he does almost everything. “Once the money starts coming in I’ll hire a marketing team.”
Eaze, in contrast, has more than 80 employees, 300,000 users, a slick website, a PR firm and $52m in funding. “We look forward to using our data, technology and platform to continue to serve our mission of providing safe, secure access to marijuana products at the lowest prices with the utmost convenience,” CEO Jim Patterson said late last year.
When social media noted the absence of black faces in the company’s staff photo Patterson issued a statement professing commitment to diversity and social equity: “We’re actively working to redress the disproportionately negative effects of marijuana prohibition on communities of color, evident not only in our hiring processes, but internal organization and community partnerships.”
Time will tell whether Grant achieves his dream of wealth and early retirement to a beach house where he will eat salmon.
It won’t be for lack of determination. During the interview at the dispensary where employees trimmed cannabis Grant’s eyes watered and he coughed. “Yeah,” he smiled, wiping away tears. “Three decades doing this and I’m still allergic.”