In August 2021, I opened Gorilla Rx, our dispensary on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. The store aesthetic came from my years working in the natural food industry. I wanted our store to be different from traditional dispensaries, and I loved being in the vitamin section at the Whole Foods and GNCs of the world. I wanted it to be a place in the community where elderly folks would feel like they were going into a vitamin store. And I wanted our place to break down the stigma of the experience of visiting a dispensary.
That meant having a home goods and lifestyle section, collaborating with community businesses, and showcasing real cooperative economics. Reparations Club, for example, had their books and albums in our store. If you come in, you will see and feel a community in action. We stock a large selection of Black-owned, woman-owned brands. Your individual action of purchasing that product will help that person feed their family and enable them to create more and do more for others. To me, that’s what the spirit of cannabis has always been, long before it was regulated. No matter what color or race or gender you are, we want you to be a part of this.
The spirit of cannabis has always been no matter what color or race or gender you are, we want you to be a part of this.
I am a serial entrepreneur. Gorilla Rx is my fourth business. I never thought I wanted to open a dispensary. My family has always believed in alternative medicines that grow from the earth. Chlorophyll is the compound that’s closest to human hemoglobin, so if you’re iron-deficient, it’s a blood-builder. It goes directly to your liver and it detoxifies. So I launched Gorilla Life, a chlorophyll beverage line. In 2007, I launched a cannabis-infused version called Chronic Tonic.
When I learned about California legalizing in 2017, I planned to expand my cannabis-infused beverage line. I moved quickly, because I thought I’d have nine months to get our manufacturing license. In that process, I learned about the Social Equity Program. I went into retail cannabis with the specific goal of creating a model of cooperative economics, to show people that they do not have to take predatory and sharecropper agreements.
I come from an entrepreneurial family. In the early 1900s, my grandfather had the first Black-owned bar and hotel in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He kept the first dollar bill he earned on his nightstand. After migrating to Leimert Park, Los Angeles in the early ’70s, my grandfather had a gardening business. I would watch him at the dining room table doing his books and ledgers, which always intrigued me.
My parents focused on community development and started programs for those coming out of prison, and for women who had suffered domestic violence. My mother even had a birthing center. Sometimes during the late hours of the night, someone needing help would knock on our door and my dad would answer. We didn’t have much food in our refrigerator, but I would watch my dad give his last dollars to a community member who was in more need than we were.
I got the best of the capitalism side and the socialism side. Our community-first model at the dispensary comes from that. For three years before we opened, our space operated as the headquarters for our education, training, outreach, and organizing efforts.
Our core values are based on our family values.
Gorilla Rx is a family business. My 29-year-old daughter Kika Howze is my marketing director. She was my only child for 12 years, and then I had her two younger sisters. In eighth grade, she joined Usher’s nonprofit program as an ambassador, and then moved to New York to work with his management company at 17. After five years there, she worked for Team Epiphany, which is a Black creative advertising agency. But COVID brought her back to Los Angeles.
Obviously, we share the same values. She’s been able to develop our brand. My nephew Aaron is the store manager. My niece Amina is an assistant manager. My other niece is my inventory manager. My godsister works in the store. That was how we built our foundation. Our core values are based on our family values. That’s how we hired. I was able to just post on social media. People who came to work for us were people from the community who wanted to be there.
For me, a typical day starts at about 4:30 AM. I’ve got to wake up my children for school by 5:15 AM, so those 45 minutes are probably the only time I have to myself. I ground myself and get my prayers going. Then I drive my kids to school for an hour and a half on two different sides of Los Angeles.
We have offices above the dispensary, and that’s where I spend most of my time. About 40% of my day is focused on government relations, but that’s down from 70%. When I opened the dispensary, I didn’t realize how deeply I would need to be involved in politics, and I’ve never had a business where that was a prerequisite to succeed.
I’m on the board of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and on the legislative committee for the California Cannabis Industry Association. I’m also the president of the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association. All of that means I’m engaged very directly on a leadership level in local politics regarding equity and social justice.
As a child, my family moved every two years. My dad was pursuing multiple degrees, and we would move from state to state as he attended different colleges. We always lived in the inner city, no matter where we were. Struggle was at the heart of our environment, but we always found joy. As an adult, that ability to be flexible and spontaneous and thrive amidst struggle has proven to be a benefit in the cannabis industry.
It’s been over five years since Proposition 64. As community members, we have yet to see the benefits of the Social Equity Program. In the six months after opening my doors at Gorilla Rx, I had $650,000 collected in taxes. I’m taxed at 37% from the city and the state. I’m representative of cannabis businesses across the board, but there is a very stark difference between Social Equity operators and the rest of the industry. Aside from the barriers to entry in this business, once we get into the cannabis industry, we’re not well-resourced. We don’t have banking, we don’t have these huge accounts that would allow us to scale to the point of profitability three years in. We have to pay taxes to the city every month, and taxes to the state every quarter.
I never thought I’d have to sue the city of L.A. and organize a movement.
And so we’ve been fighting at the State Senate level and also at the city level to eliminate the excise tax specifically for Social Equity operators. A year and a half ago, I helped organize a coalition of equity organizations across the State of California, and we formed the California Cannabis Equity Alliance (CCEA). We’ve hired a lobbyist, we pooled our money together, and we’ve been lobbying at the assembly and at the State Senate level. Give us an advantage, allow us to reinvest back into our communities. I have more than 30 employees. That $650,000 I paid in taxes could have gone to medical care, to hiring more employees, to raises.
I got caught up in this retail route because I didn’t realize the fight for licensing would take four years. I did not realize I would have to become a political activist in order to win. I never thought I’d have to sue the city of L.A. and organize a movement.
In my life, cannabis has always had a very spiritual connection. Growing up, my family lived by Rastafarian principles. We used cannabis in ceremony, and smoking was always a moment in my household that created peace and grounding. My mother would call it “holy” instead of calling it “weed” or “cannabis” or “marijuana.” Since my parents moved in Black Panther circles in the 1960s, there was a need in our household to take moments to be still and ground ourselves as a family. During COVID, there’s been more anxiety and depression than ever, and more of a need to find balance and peace and remove stress. That’s what I saw my parents use cannabis for. And I think that’s incredibly crucial, especially in these times.
We have 3,000 SKUs in our store, so we invite the brands to bring in their specialists and do budtender training. We also spend a lot of time with the farmers now. I’m about to take a course on endocannabinoids and dig in deeper to understand the plant. There is so much information, and so many new products that come out every single day. It is such an exploratory time in this industry.
Before legalization, I didn’t like the way dispensaries felt. I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t know what I was going in for, and that there weren’t people who could give me any information. I felt bad that I didn’t know what I was asking for. So we’re all learning as we move. We’ve hired cannabis wellness advisors that work with us and train the team. Every month we do team trainings on new products and new science.
The Mayor of London visited my dispensary for a tour. He’s looking at ways to decriminalize cannabis in London and we were the dispensary the City of Los Angeles selected as an example of a model “for us and by us” dispensary. I’m okay with big business and multi-state operators, but there has to be room for a cottage industry just like there has been for the craft breweries. So far, there have not been models of how that could work.
We sued the City of Los Angeles, so to be selected by that very same city to say, “This is the one model that is exemplary of L.A. cannabis at its best,” that’s what the hard work is for. And that gives great credence for us to be able to replicate this model in inner cities across the United States.
Very rarely do you hear the David and Goliath story in a real way, and especially not a David and Goliath story starring a Black woman.
It’s a great victory. And though I love to give myself a pat on the back, it has taken the whole community. Very rarely do you hear the David and Goliath story in a real way, and especially not a David and Goliath story starring a Black woman. My whole team here has been fighting for this moment, and to be recognized for that was incredible.
The cannabis industry must be diversified. Too much blood has been spilled on our streets, too many people who are still incarcerated, too many children left without their mothers and fathers to this day. Either willingly or under pressure, people in the cannabis industry need to talk about the effects of the War on Drugs and create opportunities for those who have been affected. No matter what statistic you look at, Black people have always been disproportionately harmed. My hope is that we are actually able to have race-based and race-conscious legislation that gives equity and justice to communities that were most harmed across this country.
I believe we can set a precedent, and then we’ll see the same in healthcare, in food justice, in homelessness. Once we start showing that there is a way to create equity where everyone wins and there are success stories, we can then transfer that across the board and really start healing our inner city communities, especially.
Right now, we are in the process of securing the property next door to open up a training center for equity applicants and operators along with those who were incarcerated and face barriers to entry. We’ll teach them the retail side of the cannabis industry, and give them the skills that they need. To me that’s the future.