New Shop on the Block
“Someone from Florida came here. We’ve had a huge response."
Welcome back to “Rolling Stoned”! Today’s issue reflects the format I’m planning to stick with for the forseeable future. If you’ve found this via social media, please do subscribe. It’s literally free so I’m not sure what else I can do here. Ok, onwards…
A LONG ROAD FOR POSH GREEN
San Francisco’s equity program is a notoriously slow process to navigate. It’s purpose — to ensure the individuals hurt by the War on Drugs are given the first chance to make a legal profit from cannabis — is negated by lengthy waits that see applicants waiting an average of two years to move from the city’s Office of Cannabis to the San Francisco Planning Commission.
I summarized the situation in a new story about former Ignite CEO Dan Bilzarian, a trust fund kid who impressively managed to lose his new weed company a staggering $50 million in 2019.
It doesn’t take TMZ-worthy extravagance to see that many of the wealthy, white, male executives anchoring the biggest operations in the market are in this for the profit and the profit alone. With moral concerns suspended for a moment, who can blame them? The way the industry has been engineered, those with immediate resources are poised to flourish. Ironically, the very people supposedly meant to benefit from cannabis legalization are thus instead left once more on the outside looking in.
Even for those who have successfully navigated the challenges of city and county equity programs mean to give those most negatively impacted by past drug policy (meaning Black and brown communities) the first chance at opening a legal business, oftentimes a wealthy, external partner is required. What’s left is people like Dan Bilzerian, who buy their way into relevance with no regard for the very thing they’re supposedly in business to do.
Consider this the precusor to the story of Reese Benton.
In June, Benton became the first Black woman to own a marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. The news is welcome, if massively overdue, but the story of how Benton came to open the doors of Posh Green is one of great shame too. Not for Reese, of course, but rather for a system that failed her.
From robberies to court fights to literally writing portions of the equity program herself alongside then SF Supervisor Malia Cohen, Benton has earned her moment a thousand times over. While we celebrate her, however, remember that the difficulty of the path is oppression at work as well.
Here’s the story, which ran as my latest “Chem Tales” column in SF Weekly.
If Reese Benton ever wants to make a movie about what it took to open Posh Green, she certainly has enough material for the script. The first Black woman to open a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco had to overcome many obstacles on her journey. But after weathering a rocky upbringing, NIMBY obstructionists, a global pandemic, and an attempted heist, Benton has come out on top.
Speaking by phone, the Ingleside neighborhood native recalls how even the inspiration to start her Posh Green came in the form of a setback. After a less-than-amicable breakup with her former-boyfriend — who happens to own another San Francisco dispensary — Benton went searching for a new place to shop.
“I went to a few places and I got a few deliveries,” she recalls. But as a relatively novice cannabis user striking out on her own, she had trouble finding the right products for her needs shopping online. While browsing in person Benton says she encountered another issue: systemic racism in the form of suspicious eyes following her around the store. “I was like, ‘This is not it.’”
Unsatisfied with what the market was offering, Benton decided to strike out on her own. And so, Posh Green was born.
Back in 2016, however, Benton was starting at square one. As the daughter of a father who was incarcerated and a mother who used hard drugs, Benton is precisely the type of proprietor that equity programs are meant to benefit. The issue? Benton would have to help the city create such a program first.
It was former District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen who turned to Benton, who was then operating with a medical marijuana license, for help during the process of creating a framework of how to bring equity to San Francisco’s cannabis industry.
“I got a call asking [if I would] consult,” Benton says. “That turned into me helping Malia Cohen to write the program. I helped to actually shape the policy.”
After Cohen termed out, Benton began working closely with Nicole Elliott. As the first director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, Elliott was given the unenviable task of converting Proposition 64 into a functioning, local industry. Elliott now serves under Gov. Gavin Newsom as his cannabis czar. Benton is effusive in her praise for Elliott’s role in bringing Posh Green to life.
“Nicole Elliot is the truth,” Benton says. “You hear about people selling out to the industry or other interests but Nicole is for the people. She’s really been a blessing. If she wasn’t as passionate as she was about equity, then we wouldn’t even be here, honestly.”
Despite Elliot’s efforts, there have been several notable set-backs in Posh Green’s journey from concept to reality.
At first, Benton was originally hoping to open her store last November, on what’s known as Weed Wednesday. Serving as another, pot-specific Thanksgiving bookend to Black Friday, the holiday can represent a huge chunk of sales for the year.
Instead, a resident of the building where Posh Green is located circulated a petition that led to an injunction. As a result, Benton was forced to lay off employees she’d hired only the week before. On April 3, the injunction was at last lifted. Though it cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in legal fees, Benton had prevailed.
One tool that helped: Benton’s participation in a program offered by the delivery platform Eaze, which she credits with helping her to weather the legal storm. As one of 10 entrepreneurs selected for Eaze’s Momentum program, Benton participated in a 10-week educational course and received a $50,000 grant.
“We learned a lot of stuff about the business,” Benton says of the program. “They brought in a lot of mentors. Honestly, the money they gave me came at the right time because that was exactly when the injunction closed the store. If I had not gotten that money, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The next issue: COVID-19.
For the past two months, Benton has worked to hire staff and communicate with the city on a safe opening date. At first, she was eyeing June 2, but a spree of burglaries that hit nearly every dispensary in the Bay Area during the initial wave of protests over the death of George Flord inspired her to wait a few more weeks.
“I knew I was going to be next,” Benton says. “Sure enough, the next day, they tried to hit us and people got arrested.”
That’s what it’s taken for Posh Green to get to where some dispensaries started two years ago. However, despite the court battles and attempted burglary (the culprits were caught before any damage was done), Benton is now at last finally getting a chance to revel in the fruits of her labor.
They’ve come in the form of steady initial sales and customers traveling great distances to support a business like hers.
“I’ve had people coming from Sacramento, Marin, Redwood City, Antioch, and Pleasant Hill,” Benton says. “Someone from Florida came here. We’ve had a huge response. A lady put an order from New York in. I wrote to say that we can’t ship there and she replied that she was just getting her profile ready because she’s coming to visit!”
In a sense, the timing of Posh Green’s opening is both ideal and woefully tardy.
While Benton’s path is certainly a genuine example of the equity program in action, it also demonstrates that the process could be improved. At numerous junctures, the financial strains could’ve easily toppled her best-laid plans. Each delay overcome is not evidence of triumph as much as a direct failure that must be corrected moving forward. To have a Black woman-owned dispensary in San Francisco open during a moment of mass actions targeting injustice is beautiful; that it took this long for the first one to arrive is shameful.
However, for Benton, there is joy to be found in being able to plan something that will not be muzzled by red-tape or irate neighbors.
“I want to take a picture of everyone that comes in and ask them where they’re from,” Benton says, “and then we’re going to have to have a wall for all of these people.”
SEEDS & STEMS
Quicks hits, long reads, and other highlights from my end of days itinerary.
I wanted to dedicate an issue to this SFGATE story I wrote about a recent organized crime spree against West Coast dispensaries but time is getting away from me (know the feeling?). I have a hunch that the topic is far from over but read this one if you want a primer on what’s happening. To underscore the scale: I haven’t spoken with a single cannabis businesses in the Bay Area that hasn’t been targeted or hit.
There is movement to change the name of my high school in San Anselmo. I fully support this effort and attended a rally last week on its behalf. Here’s the Facebook group if you want to know more. As a student, I never gave any thought to the name Sir Francis Drake, which is also plastered all over Marin County. Turns out he’s a slave-trader, rapist, and all-around awful person. Given this high school (along with so many other things) could (and should) be named for literally ANYTHING else, I say we go ahead and send Drake overboard forever.
Nick Cave has a livestream airing on July 23 that should be incredible.
Are you a BIPOC-owned cannabis business in the Bay Area? Want to advertise in “Rolling Stoned” for free? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.