BY HILARY L. YU
We started the How I Got Here (HIGH) interview series to open a window into the experiences of cannabis entrepreneurs in a blossoming industry; to uncover the good, bad, and ugly, and share hard-learned lessons with those just starting out. With legal cannabis being such a blank slate, the individuals who compose this space naturally hail from such remarkably diverse backgrounds. We seek to preserve and tell the stories of these individuals who were drawn to the inherent risk, uncertainty, and opportunity at the inception of this new industry born out of a plant that has been vilified for generations (and in many places, continues to be). With each HIGH interview we release, we owe it to our readers and industry colleagues to celebrate not only their accomplishments but their differences too.
In the wake of Phase III licensing, 3 years post-recreational legalization in California via Prop 64, DeJanae’s experience with the social equity partnership space is one that is all too familiar: in an attempt to be part of Phase 3 licensure, as she negotiated her deal, it became clear that the partner she was working with was not being equitable in their terms.
DeJanae’s experience shines a light on the shortfalls of social equity programs in cannabis, the outcome of which currently shares some uncomfortable comparisons to contract mortgages that resulted from the FHA’s racially discriminatory redlining policy and plagued Black communities in Chicago in the 1960s.1
According to one estimate, approximately 85% of all Black home buyers bought through exploitative contract mortgages.2 In both cases, problematic actors, when left unchecked, have been able to push predatory contracts on low-income applicants who lacked the resources and representation to protect their best interests. While redlining’s nefarious origins were the opposite of well-intentioned social equity programs, both share machinations capable of seeding partnerships that deepen racial inequality through aggressive clawback terms,3 asymmetrical power dynamics, opaque liabilities, and a tax environment so complicated that even the largest cannabis corporations have had a hard time navigating it.
DeJanae’s experience motivated and emboldened her to take a stance against the cannabis industry that has taken from her community. She is committed to giving back and sowing seeds within her community of South Central LA to support the generational wealth social equity and the cannabis industry has promised but that has thus far failed to deliver.
DeJanae carries with her a palpable ray of sunshine whenever she enters a room. With the warmth and sincerity she brings to every conversation, DeJanae has an undying commitment to support and better the lives of the people in her community. An educator at heart, and true advocate for all this plant has to offer, she spends her time teaching South Central natives how to grow cannabis in For Ever Garden through the Grow Initiative, and diving into the myriad ways cannabis can be used as a means of self-care via her platform Green Goddess Glow.
In her interview with OUR DREAM founder, Hilary L. Yu, DeJanae recounts her experience with candor and earnestness in hopes of offering a beacon of light to guide and warn future equity license holders on their journey through the complex world of social equity.
*The following is a transcript of our conversation with Dejanae — edited for clarity and length.
H: What was the first job you ever had?
D: I was a human directional during the summertime [when] I was 14 years old. [I] was so determined to get to work as soon as I was old enough to twirl a sign [laughs]. That continued through high school and then I got a job at Pinkberry. I ended up keeping that job for a long time, [even] when I transferred from my community college here (where I smoked a lot of weed and watched the Olympics) to attend Howard I was able to transfer that job to DC.
H: How did you find the shift from West Coast to East Coast?
D: I had a bit of culture shock as a cannabis consumer. As soon as I said I was from California, they were like, “oh you from Cali, you smoke huh?” [laughs].
The quality of cannabis was not the same, the amount people paid for an eighth was outrageous, and people didn’t understand the simple weed etiquette of puff, puff, pass… I was shocked.
So when it got legalized there and I was able to dive deeper and understand the legal ramifications and seriousness of being a cannabis consumer that I wasn’t privy to before being on the East Coast, I started realizing I wanted to be in the cannabis industry.
H: Then how did you start dabbling into the industry and eventually get into budtending?
D: After I got out of college, I came back to LA. I applied for a job in the entertainment industry, as many do in LA and I was miserable. So I wanted to transition into an industry that was conducive to the quality of life I wanted to have. I had started working with different wellness bloggers and influencers and tried to find what it is that I was passionate about and move into an industry that I cared about. It made sense that from the entertainment industry, I pivoted to storytelling in the wellness industry.
I found out that Whoopi Goldberg had a line for women experiencing PMS and I was kind of amazed. As I did more research, I couldn’t find any trustworthy cannabis education so I wanted to be that resource. That was the whole premise of Green Goddess Glow. Also wanting to establish the presence of women of color, especially Black women in cannabis in a way I hadn’t seen.
So I started a Youtube channel and began reviewing products and going to cannabis events. It snowballed. I then found myself at Cannaclusive’s first photoshoot in the company of people that I didn’t know were making such huge strides in the cannabis space. After attending a few events, I was with a friend and she said, “if you ever want to make some extra money, the dispensary I’m working at is going to be hiring.” So I went in, gave them my resume and they called me back to start next week.
At that point, I realized I didn’t know as much about cannabis as I thought I did. When people were coming in that had questions that I couldn’t answer or parents with very, very serious illnesses and were very adamant about letting me know that if it didn’t work they were coming back to see me in particular.
I figured if I was going to take on that responsibility I needed to get certified as an Educator through this program called Sativa Science Club. I loved it and was so appreciative of that program cause it taught me all the foundational pieces while also enlightening me on the lack of cultural comprehension in creating the cannabis education programs. So I went back to Green Goddess Glow and did some restructuring because, yes, the Youtube can still exist, but there needs to be a better informational platform dedicated to women of color, Black women especially, because we learn from each other and education is so key when we are spending money and trying to remove judgment and repurpose cannabis as a wellness tool for self-care. It needs to be about science but also how we used to use and reclaim it for ourselves today.
H: In addition to community, a huge aspect around your platform is around mindfulness and awareness around the plant. What do you think people need to be thoughtful about and educate themselves on plant medicine before consuming or even purchasing product?
D: I’ve learned over time because I wasn’t always a consumer that cared where my cannabis came from [laughing]… cause you know, the guy at my community college also lived around the corner, so you know, I didn’t have to do any leg work to ever get it or figure out how it was grown. Now it’s important to ask those questions though: Is this grown clean? What kinds of terpenes does it have? ‘Cause the THC content doesn’t determine the kind of high I’m going to feel. Is this light dep?
The market has matured so much that the consumer is bound to grow with it. Before we even make a purchase though, we, as consumers, need to get clear about our intentions and what our values are when we’re spending our money. Are those brands valuing diversity in the industry? Are they funding initiatives that are helping reform cannabis laws or fund low-level offenders? Are they even aware of who their consumers are and how they connect with them? I believe that mindfulness with the consumer should start early.
The market has matured so much that the consumer is bound to grow with it. Before we even make a purchase though, we need to get clear about our intentions and what our values are when we’re spending our money.
Even if there are cannabis companies donating to re-entry groups, have we as consumers really looked into those non-profits and organizations? There is a big problem even with non-profit industrial complexes. Groups that are out here raising hundreds of thousands of dollars claiming they’re helping people impacted by cannabis. Until we see numbers and how that’s money being allocated, you gotta keep an eye out.
H: It’s really fucked up. The amount that non-profits have to actually donate is insane so transparency is so important, in the non-profit space, but especially in cannabis. That’s a perfect little segway actually. Can you explain how and why you jump started the Grow Initiative with all of this in mind? And how did you start transitioning to use cannabis as a tool for self-care?
D: I think we’ve all been conditioned to smoke in our car [laughs], or smoke in the house with the windows and doors locked, or in a hotel room with a towel under the door. So how do we transition out of the very discrete and sometimes embarrassing ways we’re consuming into having more empowering conversations around it and reclaiming what it means to you?
Not only are virtual spaces important for representation, but it’s also important to create intimate spaces as well to connect back to what it fundamentally is, a plant. That’s why the Grow Initiative came into play. It’s not just about ownership, which is important and we would love to see, but not everyone can be a dispensary owner or license holder. So, if you can’t be an owner you can [still] take ownership of where you allocate money, how you interact with this plant, owning your experiences, and being in alignment with [like-minded] people.
It’s the same thing as buying ethical and clean beauty or clothing, it’s about buying sustainable products. Consumers need more information on how to make those decisions.
H: How did the Grow Initiative come to fruition?
D: The Grow Initiative came out of people needing space to learn how to grow cannabis. I wanted to put into practice what I learned from being in the dispensary, how to nurture and care for your plant, and companion planting. Few people actually know where their cannabis is coming from and why it’s important to understand these intricacies.
So I started to create an initiative that’ll humanize this plant and teach the benefits of companion planting alongside your fruits and vegetables. It’s something that grows out of the ground, it’s not some demonic thing that is the root of destruction in our communities.
It was really about creating a safe space for people in an area like South Central that people generally don’t go to or wouldn’t normally go to find something like this. People love to have beautiful cannabis gatherings and experiences in West Hollywood or Venice, but never in South Central in the places that have experienced the most harm from the war on drugs. We need to recognize and repair the impacts of intentional militarization of the police in our neighborhoods and asset forfeiture and all the repercussions of that.
People love to have beautiful cannabis gatherings and experiences in West Hollywood or Venice, but never in South Central in the places that have experienced the most harm from the war on drugs.
By being in our community, the people we are talking about and to, a lot of the time, that live in South Central and are a part of the conversation. ‘Cause I live here, and I’m not going anywhere, and I feel it’s a problem that we’re often being left out of the conversation.
So beyond just humanizing the plant, it’s also about wellness and healing from intergenerational trauma and getting to know it as preventative medicine.
H: It’s a foundational aspect of the industry that I feel like people are glazing over. There are real healthcare inequities and it’s an unfortunate reality that BIPOC need to advocate for themselves harder than their white counterparts when they’re speaking with medical professionals that don’t look like them. We’ve spoken briefly about preventative healthcare and why that’s important to you, but could you break that down how and why this plant can be used as preventative medicine?
D: When we start talking about the gap in healthcare disparities, women are not believed by their doctors, Black women specifically. People think we have a higher tolerance… I’m on the frontlines of that. I feel for people who have health issues who are struggling to get the help they need and that’s why I advocate for self-care, ‘cause I can’t afford to get sick. You have to find things that work for you for preventative healthcare. You have to eat well, you gotta juice cause it’s a lot more expensive and a lot harder to be believed if I were to get sick. So I don’t have a choice.
Endocannabinoids help regulate my system and I advocate for using cannabis because stress often leads to healthcare problems.
*We took a break here to speak about a few topics off-the-record about what DeJanae wasn’t able to speak publicly about the operating agreement she did not move forward with her previous financial equity partner. The interview continued below.
H: So how did you get into being a social equity applicant, and what was your experience like?
D: It started as a call – “hey do you want to be part of this, it pays $5,000?” I knew I had to protect the social capital that I had from growing up here because that was valuable for investors. So I was clear about not working with people who didn’t look like me and didn’t share the same values, but I wasn’t aware that there were people out there that did look like me and said that they shared the same values, but those values didn’t translate on paper.
So I was a social equity applicant alongside an organization that turned out to not be a good fit for me. I learned first hand through that about predatory practices happening in social equity programs across the country. California has been a prime example, unfortunately, of the problems that are riddled through social equity programs. This can be seen from ‘pay-to-play’ arrangements to having absolutely no interest in the needs of the community. For me, I was unable to find investors who were aligned with my values and ultimately walked away. That’s part of my story that I want people to know. It’s okay to walk away from an equity partner.
For me, I was unable to find investors who were aligned with my values and ultimately walked away. That’s part of my story that I want people to know. It’s okay to walk away from an equity partner.
There are so many elements of a social equity program that can put you at a disadvantage if you have the wrong partner who will use you as a pawn to obtain a license and then legally remove you from their organization using a predatory operating agreement. There can be clauses that don’t support creating generation wealth at all. It hurt learning all of this and I needed to step away from going to City Council meetings and that whole world because I found that there was a whole side to it that I wasn’t privy to at all. I had no interest in being an activist in that regard until I was on The Hill in DC at NCIA and MCBA.
H: The unfortunate outcome for the majority of programs is exactly what you experienced because states and municipalities haven’t created enough infrastructure around these equity programs to protect applicants and future partners. They created the structure without understanding how these businesses operated. Were there any resources you used that you’d suggest to anyone getting into this space?
D: For anyone looking to go through this process: take time to date and vet your partner, you want to see their [the future financial equity partner] business model, business plan, their financials, you want to know that their plans for you are in alignment with you. Consider some general foundational pieces of where you want this business to reside and live, who is a part of it, who hires, who gets your money, and how much do you get.
…take time to date and vet your partner, you want to see their [the future financial equity partner] business model, business plan, their financials, you want to know that their plans for you are in alignment with you. Consider some general foundational pieces of where you want this business to reside and live, who is a part of it, who hires, who gets your money, and how much do you get.
You need to have a lawyer on speed dial. If you can’t afford a lawyer, at least get a consultant who can connect you with people who have gone through the process.
You need to have a lawyer on speed dial. If you can’t afford a lawyer, at least get a consultant who can connect you with people who have gone through the process.
For me, it was trial by fire. Fortunately, it was hard to take advantage of me ‘cause I was already in the industry – I knew lawyers, a CPA, people in City Council. If you want to be a license holder I suggest investing in the community and relationships.
A lot of what’s happened in the equity space doesn’t make sense. Some people have gotten licenses but have no giveback programs. It’s something that exists because we don’t have a standard for what being a license holder should look like.
In LA particularly, a lot of the applications that went through were all from people outside of the community. There is a video on Youtube about some of the license applications being considered in the City of LA and the facts would shock you. You hear about applications being opened early, giving certain groups unfair advantages, and all kinds of unfortunate happenings.
That said, I really hope it doesn’t deter people who are considering applying. I’m still hoping to apply eventually, you just need to be careful.
H: There’s a halo effect that comes with social justice reform that people are trying to capitalize on right now by saying they’re donating to these programs and not looking at their fine print. It’s interesting because to me, excuse the pun, but it weeds out who is taking this seriously, and quite frankly who we do and don’t want to fuck with.
D: Yes, this idea of getting people out of jail is great, but what re-entry programs are you working with when these people are standing outside of the jail with nowhere to go? You’re just growing the homeless population. What’re you gonna do when people have no food, no church, no family, no money, and you don’t know people in the community that can actually help them get resources? So how are you helping the problem?
H: You’ve been vocal about social justice reform and what re-entry looks like. Aside from the trauma placed upon a person put into the system, there are institutional protocols that make re-entry incredibly difficult. Something I personally don’t feel is appreciated by many members of this industry. Bank accounts are seized, lawyer fees are incurred, the time it takes to deal with the fall-out of a business, and the social impact is intense.. While the state has created a Social Equity Program, it is inherently flawed and it is becoming up to consumers and corporations to make up the difference. What does equity mean to you and how can the regular consumer make a difference?
D: When I think of social equity I think of being self-determining and being able to navigate the industry with less hurdles because we’ve already endured so much.
I think about equity as an institutional tool to give people who have been previously impacted the opportunities to create wealth for themselves, potentially for the first time, in a real way to support their families. Wealth doesn’t have to be millions of dollars — a lot of these organizations are ambitious and they want to change the lives of many, but it’s more detrimental than it is a service. Equity should be about looking at our differences and seeing how we can monetarily address them in relation to cannabis from where they are, and create the opportunity for people to work continuously on their own. I think a lot of these programs say “we’ll get you to a place in order to buy you out,” but those people haven’t been invested in, they’re out of a license because their business partners have ‘lawyered them out’ and the equity applicant ends up where they started or even worse off.
I think about equity as an institutional tool to give people who have been previously impacted the opportunities to create wealth for themselves, potentially for the first time, in a real way to support their families.
It makes me think about Black people and number running – granted some shady things accompanied that, but in a lot of ways, it revitalized the Black community. Then it was illegal, and the government replaced it with the lottery. In cannabis, the illicit market was the original booster of the economy in these communities, and now we have legalization – which is misleading because it’s paid access. Now we’re all playing the social equity lottery, but there are very few ways for people to make an actual change when there are so many things stacked against you. You have to be awarded in the first place, then you need to pay taxes, remain compliant, and moderate your partners. It’s a sharky business.
No one is teaching social equity applicants on how to fish for the rest of their lives. So I’ll be really interested to see who’s actually able to sustain themselves. I’ll be really interested to see what social equity programs look like 3-5 years from now, and see who in our community has actually been able to benefit and who has been taken advantage of. It’s why Kika Keith of Crenshaw was vocal about not being able to apply in her own community, yet someone not in her community can come in and operate here.
I’ve been going to City Hall meetings for about three years. I remember when Cat [Packer] did her first speech about what the social equity program was going to be and why. It’s been interesting to see the process so far.
H: How do you feel companies and consumers can support equity license holders and the people on whose backs this industry was built?
I love the model of having equity at every level of the supply chain. I think it will come down to social equity applicants having their own crowdfunding campaigns or corporations making a commitment to support grassroots organizations who are doing amazing work but are lacking funding.
I also think that there are huge corporate giants that could do a better job helping applicants get their licenses, find a way to make that part of their model, and give back to establish their business’s reputation as a pillar in the community.
Brands can brainstorm ways to get people interested in the cannabis space involved who can’t afford to buy into it.
So many companies, especially in cannabis, don’t understand what social corporate responsibility is. I think everyone is doing a good job of marketing diversity without actually modelling it in their businesses. Your campaigns have it, but your executives, board seats, and shareholders are lacking. They say “Hey, sorry we can’t invest in you.” So how do you build wealth? You can be creative. Brands can brainstorm ways to get people interested in the cannabis space involved who can’t afford to buy into it.
*This interview was conducted in April 2020.
*HIGH interviews are conducted exclusively with individuals we love and respect in the cannabis space. OUR DREAM does not receive any compensation for this content.
Photo Credits: Photographer and Editor: Maxine Tamoto
1 Finley, Mary Lou. “Inside the contract buyer’s league’s fight against housing discrimination.” Chicago Reporter. 16 February 2016. https://www.chicagoreporter.com/inside-the-contract-buyers-leagues-fight-against-housing-discrimination/
2 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The case for reparations.” The Atlantic. June 2014 Issue. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
3 Elmahrek, Adam. “L.A.’s ‘social equity’ program for cannabis licenses under scrutiny.” Los Angeles Times. 23 June 2020. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-23/cannabis-licenses-social-equity-4th-mvmt