Business-based racial inequality in this country is far from the distant memory it should be at this point in our social development. Legalization isn’t necessarily changing the demographics of people involved in corporate cannabis; the industry is still made up of predominantly white, middle-aged men who are the gatekeepers to inclusion. There are many examples of bias from cannabis stakeholders, which prevent post-legalization dreams of a cannabis utopia from being truly realized. No one knows this better than Ron Brandon.
“It’s gangster, but it’s clean. ’I thought it’d be more trappy. I’ve heard it all,” Brandon said, alluding to the type of ignorance and prejudice many experts face when entering the regulated cannabis market.
Impeccably dressed and frustratingly chivalrous, Brandon returns a knowing smirk. We’re sitting at a cafe discussing how the lack of education in the cannabis industry poses challenges for those trying to enter the legal marketplace. Brandon has big plans for the future of cannabis.
While he’s not yet a household name, Brandon is on his way. For more than a decade-and-a-half, he’s worked with at least 20 cannabis companies in an industry that is in many respects new, but also inherently old. He has partnered with the likes of Ball Family Farms and Headstash, bringing high-quality cannabis to the legal market directly from the people who created this corporate landscape before the governance caught up. Most are members of California’s Social Equity Program (SEP), which launched in 2018 with the passing of Senate Bill 1294, the Cannabis Collaboration and Inclusion Act.
Designed to repair the impacts of prohibition and the War on Drugs, the program offers a greater degree of government support as individuals with past cannabis convictions or arrests, or those who live in disproportionately impacted areas, attempt to start their legal cannabusinesses. The brainchild of a liberal playbook, the program’s priority access to applications and help in this journey rarely occur the way they’re pitched on city websites. Although cannabis.LACity.org details the technical and business assistance offered through the program, many believe it to be a complex process.
In recent years, the myriad problems facing social equity applicants have come to a head. “People run out of resources in a system that’s very difficult to navigate,” Brandon said. “Launching a social equity enterprise is so much more than qualifying for assistance. A serious barrier to entry is that cities grant licenses based on the organization already having a building lease, but so few of these applicants have the means of paying tens of thousands of dollars in rent on commercial space before finding out if they qualify to monetize their work.”
Clearly frustrated by such overtly impractical hurdles, Brandon goes on to note that these issues are only exacerbated by so-called “technical experts” at the city level who have little understanding of the industry— it’s a case of the blind leading the blind.“
Legalization in California just hasn’t worked like it was supposed to, and the SEPs aren’t effective in mitigating the issues faced by the Black community in all areas of business,” Brandon said, choosing his words carefully.
After a career as a professional football player spanning six years, Brandon retired in 2007 due to a knee injury. Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a lifelong passion for the arts. “I’d always been really into hand-sketching, but I missed my opportunity to follow that seriously,” he says.
Brandon is the last person to admit that he’s a multi-talented creative. He’s more than dabbled in music, and he started finding real success just as the 2008 financial crisis hit. “I love getting involved in anything that pushes the message of non-conformity with what society is dealing with,” Brandon said. “The failing economy disrupted my own existence, but because I was looking to connect cannabis and music, I started to supplement my income by brokering cannabis. Cannabis is used in music as a tool, and it was fulfilling to be on both sides of that journey.“
As the Green Rush hit California, Brandon was presented with an opportunity to become involved in corporate cannabis. Motivated to represent diversity and maintain the integrity of his cannabis work, Brandon moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he entered cannabis politics. There, he co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Licensing Group, a subchapter of the California Growers Association. He was instrumental in shaping the group’s policy to fall in favor of the operators rather than policymakers.
While Brandon remained committed to removing the stigma around cannabis, he kept hitting the same walls: time and money.
The slow growth of distribution for cannabis products was getting in Brandon’sway, so he hacked the system. Killing two birds with one stone and avoiding the three-year wait for business licensing, Brandon’s new distribution company took SEP applicants to market in 30 days as brands. This gave them the clout and proof-of-concept to raise the same money as their non-SEP counterparts. The process also made the difference between a few million-dollar investment cap, to less than a $100,000, streamlining the journey to licensing. As a point of purpose, Brandon built a sense of community in all the operations he partnered with, which naturally led to the creation of his own flagship brand, Kingston Royal.
Kingston Royal’s Long Game
Kingston Royal was founded on a desire to enhance creativity through cannabis. Championing the notion that “you are the creator of all things,” the purpose-driven cannabis and lifestyle brand aims to inspire. Kingston Royal isn’t going for an instant money grab like many other mainstream brands; they’re aiming for longevity by embracing cannabis’ roots while supporting originality, innovation and unrestricted thinking in their team.
“Mainstream brands started earlier because that’s the SoCal system; people who have money could get in early, but their top-down approach has made their businesses irrelevant in less than half a decade,” Brandon says.
Colloquially known as “Hollywood” brands, these products are quickly fading from dispensaries. Brandon attributed their failure to a lack of understanding around the origins of cannabis, noting the exact pressure point these brands missed: the culture. Cannabis is no longer derived from Cheech and Chong stereotypes. The modern cannabis narrative is rooted in Black American history and the music that normalized consumption as a daily activity.
Brandon says that just as hip hop was birthed from backyards and community centers, so, too, was the shared experience of peace, relaxation and creativity from cannabis. America has the likes of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre to thank for the current state of legalization, but corporate brands and dispensaries ignore their forefathers at their own peril.
The Struggle Is Real
This leads Brandon to the core component of social equity that’s ignored in the governance: Many dispensaries aren’t carrying enough social equity products.
“There’s supposed to be 20-25% of shelf space dedicated to SEPs. Dispensary owners aren’t being held accountable,” he said. While this isn’t a law, dispensaries must dedicate 20-40% of shelf space to equity brands to qualify for Equity Trade Certification by OEG, the first federally recognized social equity certification program for cannabis and other goods.
According to Brandon, this is due to a concern over aesthetics, as well as the uphill battle to market that most social equity applicants are facing. He says the largely white-owned dispensaries don’t want edgier items taking center stage on their carefully curated shelves and that these biases are based on a common misconception that white-washing cannabis will draw new customers.
And that couldn’t be further from the truth. A new consumer is almost always introduced to cannabis through a friend or family member who partakes rather than seeking out products themselves. No question about it. The branding is important in a general sales way, but customer loyalty trumps the conversion metrics every time.
Most social equity products boast significant customer loyalty and could expand the market appeal of many dispensaries, but they’re not given a seat at the table. This occurs while brands and business owners cozy up to musicians, producers, rappers and artists who are far more closely aligned with the root of cannabis in America — a root defined by social equity applicants.
“Black social equity applicants make up the majority of in-fluence of this industry, and we’re asked to show up at the events, but there’s always a guest list we miss when it comes to shelf space,” Brandon said.
It’s a bizarre picture that Brandon’s painting: Social equity products and brands are more likely to be consumer-friendly in terms of cost, quality and consistency. Consequently, because these products are more aligned with the reality of the consumer, they’re more likely to garner customer loyalty and drive sales. More than that, because of the macro psycho-social nature of cannabis use, SEPs are also more likely to be the first brand used by new consumers, and therefore generate longevity.
A true gentleman, Brandon doesn’t dismiss his peers in any pointed fashion, but simply picks up on a consistent psycho-logical failure of leadership.
“Hollywood brands may find it easier to get into retail space, get into parties,” he said. “It’s easier to duplicate, it’s easier grow, but when you can’t maintain your consumers, and more importantly can’t maintain your in-house talent, then you’re a pointless brand, and you’re only in cannabis to look cool. If you’re not looking to achieve anything else, you’re going to fail. That’s what we’re seeing now.”
When corporate businesses ignore the people who historically drove primo product from Canada to California — who grew in the hills of NorCal, and who sat in cells for smoking a joint — they seem to flounder and fade from sight. Put simply: People who never grew up in the real cannabis culture are trying and failing to make a profit, while the people who know cannabis best still largely sit inside of the American prison system.
Though the true metric likely won’t be realized for a few decades, it appears that a key to longevity in cannabis is association with the traditional market and the people who brought cannabis to the forefront of our legal, adult-use activities.
“Success streams from developing brands and operations like your developing artists,” Brandon says. “The mainstream industry is too busy trying to rethink cannabis.”
Brandon’s next big undertaking in the cannabis industry as Chief Business Analyst at NatureTrak transcends his supply chain expertise. “A very close friend in tech asked if there was a play in cannabis, and it took until the passage of Prop 64 for us to pivot our concepts to focus on banking,” Brandon said.
The first Black-owned FinTech SAS company, NatureTrak is changing the global business landscape by making it possible for cannabusinesses to operate with financial institutions. The tech company’s free track-and-trace software can follow the complete lifecycle of a product—from seed to bank—giving banks an easy way to ensure their cannabis clients are legally compliant. Brandon is a consultant on the operations side, offering guidance on how the software speaks to social equity operators and the government.
“We help social equity operators get compliant banking so they can have some stake in the game, “he said. “We really built the airplane in the air. Had it not been for my life-long history in this business, I’d never have understood the needs of all the key stakeholders.“
With a finger on the pulse of change, Brandon is a true trailblazer. He understands the importance of cannabis’ place in history while still being able to identify future opportunities and take advantage of the present moment.
“My personal belief is that it exists today, but it’s not a promise it will exist tomorrow,” said Brandon, speaking to the state of California’s Social Equity Program. “We need to utilize funds while the government is being supportive. Let’s get these people to the finish line.”
This story was originally published in issue 42 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.