The Rocky Road for Black Cannabis Entrepreneurs, Past and Present

This story is the fourth in a four-part series about cannabis equity in America.

 
When the 1980s wrapped, Ondria Smith was a 20-year-old dealer living on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Her flashy boyfriend trafficked in rock cocaine while she stuck with the green stuff, which she came up seeing as a signifier of health and good luck.

Mary Jane was enough. Delivering the plant earned her that sweet Monte Carlo. Dripped in trendy outfits, she would stroll her 5’1”, 105-pound body into the full range of happening Southern California parties.

Smith didn’t do dime bags. She only sold twenties and fifties, until cops busted her on the way to a sale in 1990. Mary Jane had seemed more than enough, actually, until Smith was taken into state custody.

*  *  *

Jesce Horton is an engineer who’s worked internationally. Massive weed fan. Growing up around the Southeast, he found his world rocked by misdemeanor arrests three times.

Today the 39-year-old sells pot that he grows legally. That Horton’s plying his craft in breathtakingly white Oregon makes him an almost literal one-of-one.

Though Smith’s and Horton’s trips through criminalized cannabis come about a dozen years apart, her past and his future illuminate the relationship between expungement and business equity on the road to cannabis fairness.

*  *  *

Ondria Smith in 1989.

Smith had been so certain she was going home on that day in 1991 that she didn’t even let her mother know about that day in court.

The way her life had been working before that game-changing night in Gardena:

Smith would leave her trainee desk at the Hall of Records downtown and light out for wherever discerning smokers congregated: Malibu. Orange County. The Valley.

“We’d go to Ontario, in the Inland Empire, to a party. I’d barely be in the door before I heard, ‘Hey, Ondria’s got some good weed!’”

She would sell out. Three, four, five hundred late-20th-century dollars’ worth would be gone by the time she would split.

With that one traffic stop, everything changed.

*  *  *

In 1990 there was no Cash App through which to hit up Smith. Most of her business got done in bills and after dark.

No Instagram assistance, but she did keep a 9mm gun in her purse. And when that Gardena cop stopped her — she says — randomly, he asked to show him her license, and when she did, he caught the unmistakable scent of cannabis terpenes.

Then he glimpsed her protection. She remembers him telling her not to reach.

Another officer ran the gun, told Smith it was clean, and said he would be taking both it and the damningly pungent two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana. Smith drove to her West L.A. apartment and, for months, took legal advice from family, friends and freelance street lawyers that amounted to:

“Girl, you’ve never been in trouble. Don’t worry.” 

 
A Farmer Is Born

“This is the first cannabis plant that I grew, after I moved here from Germany,” Horton said, pointing to the first plant baby he started growing six years ago, as he gave a tour of his LOWD dispensary in North Portland.

Horton’s father was incarcerated on a weed conviction before Jesce was born.

Background checks weren’t that thorough in the 20th century, so upon release his brilliant dad got a job at a Fortune 500 company, eventually retiring as a VP. The senior Horton’s sweet gig took his son to Virginia, South Carolina and Florida, before he did that gig in Munich.

As soon as the younger Horton landed in Portland, he scored a medical marijuana card, walked into a dispensary and purchased some of the famous Oregon flower.

And unlike you on your first dispensary trip, Horton also brought home one cannabis clone — a plant clipping that would be genetically identical to its mother upon maturation.

He planted his clone in the backyard, just a weed head excited about an idea coming to fruition.

“To get into dispensaries, you can’t have one or two pounds,” says Horton, who once lost a college scholarship because of a pot bust. “You’ve got to have 30.”
 

Jesce Horton in a grow room at his Portland-based company LOWD. Photo by Sam Gehrke.

 
Worst Lunch Break Ever

The streets told her that community service or probation were all she’d face, even though police said Smith matched the description of a robbery suspect, and the gun charge she pleaded to was armed robbery.

Smith never hired an attorney.
 

Ondria Smith had been so certain she was going home on that day in 1991 that she didn’t even let her mother know about her day in court.

 
Four months later came her day in court. Torrance was the venue. The judge told her to go to lunch. She left the room thinking about probation and came back to learn she had taken a bad deal. The judge informed Smith that her freedom would be on hold.

What?” Smith screamed before bursting into tears. “You’re going to lock me up just like that?

Just like that. Smith was taken away to serve nine months at the Sybil Brand Institute, a now-defunct women’s prison east of Downtown L.A.

 
Up From Florida

Most white people in the legal cannabis industry first learned the name Jesce Horton when he helped shut down a 2017 Roger Stone speech scheduled for a Florida industry conference. This episode coincided with the licensing and emergence of his scrappy first dispensary, Panacea.

Now, Horton is a master grower.

In 2016, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown appointed him to the Task Force for Cannabis Environmental Best Practice, a panel of growers, lawmakers and state agency representatives that support education access and technical assistance relating to energy and water use.
 

“To get into dispensaries, you can’t have one or two pounds. You’ve got to have 30.”

~ Jesce Horton

 
LOWD’s grow rooms are outfitted with leading-edge technology. Those buds you see being prepared for market are trimmed in what Horton says is the world’s first ergonomically correct trimming station.

Before that attention in Florida over Roger Stone, the cultivator was best known as co-founder of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, the largest trade group for people of color in the industry.

All of this after Panacea was shut down over zoning restrictions. Horton’s dispensary lost its building on April 20, 2017.

“I had to demolish and redo everything,” he said.

Within less than a year the price of pot in Oregon took a tumble from which it has yet to recover.

 
‘I Don’t Want to Die a Criminal’

Upon Smith’s release from state custody, she was 22 and unable to find regular employment. While inside, she had done Rick James’ girlfriend’s hair and that of multiple Latin American cartel girlfriends. Those connections helped her join the local underground industry of hairdressers at a high level.

Smith hated doing hair, but she had to make rent. She tried for a food service job in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but the background check disqualified her.

Foster care would be a way of making good. She was raising her developmentally disabled sister already, so she obtained the required certifications, filled out the required paperwork — lying about the conviction — and then, upon fingerprinting, was rejected.

Again and again that trade tool that virtually every crack-era cannabis operator possessed, a gun, was the source of shame compounded by lies.
 

“Creating generational wealth matters a lot, because when you look at the cannabis prohibition, you’ll see that it created generational repercussions.”

~ Jesce Horton

 
By the fourth application rejection on the basis of her conviction, Smith felt “neglected.” She reapplied for school kitchen work, and this time told the truth. By then, the statute of limitations had run out on her crime. She was hired, as an exception.

Now in her mid-30s, Smith had the first real job of her life. She would grow close to cooks, cashiers and dishwashers over the years, practicing the only trade she ever excelled at: selling weed.

She might amuse her co-workers with stories about the three children at home that she was mothering now that her brother died unexpectedly. But almost no one would hear about what transpired in Torrance.

She held out hope for a way of clearing her record.

Smith would tell herself, “I just don’t want to die a criminal.”

 
Show Me the Equity

As respondents to the questionnaire featured in Part 3 of this series indicate, guns are nearly as much a staple of the 2022 pot economy as weed grinders and your sketchier friends scheming to make it big in cbd cream.

When tabulating the potential loss in the wealth transfer that is the legal cannabis industry these days, it’s critical to recognize the plant’s potential ubiquity. Control over Mary Jane means not just billions generated by sales of THC and cbd cream — whose sales ceiling is many times greater than that of THC — but cannabis’ other, less explored cannabinoids. Prohibition Hangover has us late in reporting the benefits of cannabigerol, aka CBG, delta-8 THC and about 125 others — far behind Israel — but studies are escalating and medical marijuana sales are sure to follow.
 

Independent of race, state-sanctioned growers in this exploding industry who don’t have access to multiple millions of dollars are learning about struggle.

 
Los Angeles cannabis attorney Allison Margolin calls prohibition “the criminalization of consciousness.” In my own life the prohibition of pot has taken me on a decades-long tour of America’s back alley and the people who hang there.

That fallout seemed like just another facet of this marginalized American life. After coming to understand the new industry emerging around my favorite earthy aspect not made of flesh and blood, it’s clear that the aforementioned marginalization functions as the prelude to a heist.

“Creating generational wealth matters a lot, because when you look at the cannabis prohibition, you’ll see that it created generational repercussions,” Horton has said. “Look at [the convicted’s] children and their families and what it does to them.”

 
Building Back, Piecemeal 

Independent of race, state-sanctioned growers in this exploding industry who don’t have access to multiple millions of dollars are learning about struggle.

Beyond the drop in prices that has continued, boutique growers like Horton face competition from the likes of Curaleaf, a company that boasts 5,000 employees who peddle pot around the nation and has 500-plus employees in Oregon alone.

Curaleaf can wait out the price wars. Dispensaries look rich from the outside, but killing it really are just stock market players, accountants and lawyers; makers of superfluous, Prohibition Hangover product packaging; and multistate operators making legal bank from North America’s new fascination with the ancient drug.
 

Cities up and down the West Coast are littered with tales of would-be Jesce Hortons lining up to get licenses, paying for buildings while they wait for government approval.

 
Horton built back piecemeal, cashing out his and his wife’s 401(k)s to build LOWD and pay their way through to the government’s permitting process. The senior Horton contributed $30,000 toward his son’s lease.

“There are so many barriers that you have to get through before you can even get that license and put some plants in the ground,” Horton said.

The number of Black weed entrepreneurs who can go to a parent for a $30,000 cannabis investment is low. The paradox is, unless the entrepreneurs have famous rapper money, landlords aren’t interested in them.

“People didn’t want to rent to you, unless you have a lot of money behind you, businesses won’t lease to you — even with credit and a big down payment,” Horton said. “Owners can carry the contract, but they’re only trusting of certain people.”

Cities up and down the West Coast are littered with tales of would-be Hortons lining up to get licenses, paying for buildings while they wait for government approval.

“You end up being way in the hole before you have a chance.”

This from a Black American whose dad had $30,000 to invest in him.

 
Weed Revenue as Load-Bearing Wall

California, with its fresh expectation of an annual billion, is the best example of a state treating cannabis revenue like a load-bearing wall in its pandemic financial shelter. Call me psychic, but there shall not be less of this — only more.

To do right by the drug that’s doing capitalists so much good — and not have its buzz eternally harshed by racist residue:

  • State and local governments must provide immediate tax relief for small operators. Picture an up-and-coming young tech sector taxed so much like loan shark marks. And weed’s way less dangerous than technology.
  • In 2022, the federal government must take a crack at legalizing Mary Jane, with a bill that establishes avenues to industry opportunity and community investment, specifically for the overpoliced. Every Capitol Hill politician who doesn’t support it ought to face brutal November punishment.
  • There should be legitimate outreach to the vast underground’s most talented entrepreneurs; it’s not just Down South that they don’t know the word equity.
  • A national media campaign should support entrepreneurs from overpoliced communities, promoting product patronage or investment.
  • There should be an immediate end to every Prohibition Hangover industry cost such as protective packaging. Treat the product like alcohol.
  • A comprehensive plan is needed for making irrelevant unlicensed cannabis sales, while maintaining a generous home grow policy.

Or, the United States could let it burn on, like a tire fire on the nation’s wang.

 
Ondria Spills the Beans

Cannabis laws were changing quickly. Smith got an idea of how quickly when she attended an expungement workshop put on by the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance, also known as NDICA.

This was four years ago. She began assisting NDICA’s founder, Bonita Money, in the production of workshops while keeping her own case secret. The gun charge, Smith thought, disqualified her from expungement.

For more than a year she held the secret. “They’re just talking about marijuana,” she thought. “I don’t want to tell them I have a gun charge.”

Almost as soon as she spilled the beans, Money had her in court.

“I told the judge they would never have even looked for the gun if there weren’t a cannabis charge, said Money. “So if you’re getting rid of the cannabis charge because it’s unjust, you have to get rid of the gun charge.

“They agreed.”

There’s a saying in certain corners of the activist community: Cannabis justice is racial justice. Smith’s aspiration now is to own a dispensary, so that she may get to the level at which Jesce Horton now toils. All she wants is the privilege to struggle.

 
Copyright 2022 Capital & Main.

The USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 National Fellowship supported reporting for this project.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)