Business-based racial inequality in this country is as far from a distant memory as it must be at this point in our social development. Legalization does not necessarily change the demographics of people involved in corporate cannabis use; The industry is still made up mostly of middle-aged white men who are considered the gatekeepers of inclusion. There are many examples of bias from cannabis stakeholders, which prevent dreams of a post-legalized cannabis utopia from being realized. Nobody knows this better than Ron Brandon.
“It’s gangster, but it’s clean. I thought it would be a little more risqué,” Brandon said, referring to the kind of ignorance and prejudice many experts face when entering the regulated cannabis market.
Impeccably dressed and frustratingly chivalrous, Brandon returns a smirk. We are sitting in a coffee shop discussing how the lack of education in the cannabis industry poses challenges for those trying to enter the legal market. Brandon has big plans for the future of cannabis.
Although he’s not yet a household name, Brandon is on his way. For more than a decade and a half, he has worked with at least 20 cannabis companies in an industry that is new in many respects, but also old. He’s partnered with the likes of Ball Family Farms and Headstash, bringing quality cannabis to the legal market directly from the folks who created this corporate landscape before governance broke out. Most are members of California’s Social Equity Program (SEP), which was launched in 2018 with the passage of Senate Bill 1294, the Cannabis Cooperation and Inclusion Act.
Designed to repair the effects of Prohibition and the War on Drugs, the program offers a greater degree of government support as individuals with previous cannabis convictions or arrests, or those living in disproportionately affected areas, attempt to start their own legal businesses. The brainchild of a liberal playbook, the program’s priority access to apps and assistance on this journey rarely happens the way it is displayed on city websites. despite of cannabis.LACity.org The details of the technical and commercial assistance offered through the program, many think it is a complicated process.
In recent years, the myriad of problems facing social equity seekers have come to a head. “People are running out of resources in a very difficult system to navigate,” Brandon said. “A Social Justice Project launch is much more than a qualifier for assistance. A serious barrier to entry is that cities award permits on the basis that the organization already has a building lease, but very few of those applicants have the means to pay tens of thousands of dollars.” as rent on commercial space before finding out if they are eligible to invest their money in the business.”
Brandon is clearly frustrated by these frankly impractical obstacles, and goes on to note that these issues are only exacerbated by so-called citywide “technical experts” who understand so little about the industry—it’s a case of the blind driving the blind.”
Brandon said choosing his words carefully.
After a career as a professional soccer player spanning six years, Brandon retired in 2007 due to a knee injury. Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his passion for the arts. “I was always interested in freehand painting, but I lost my chance to pursue it seriously,” he says.
Brandon is the latest person to admit he’s a multi-talented creator. He’s more than just immersed in music, and he’s starting to find real success right with the 2008 financial crisis. “I love getting involved in anything that pushes a message of inconsistency with what society deals with,” Brandon said. A failing economy disrupted my existence, but because I was looking forward to the connection between cannabis and music, I began to supplement the income by brokering cannabis. Cannabis is used in music as a tool, and it was such a fulfilling feeling to be on both sides of that journey.”
When the Green Rush hit California, Brandon was given a chance to take part in corporate cannabis. Driven by representing diversity and maintaining the integrity of his work in the cannabis industry, Brandon moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he got into cannabis politics. There, he co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Licensing Group, a subsidiary of the California Growers Association. He was instrumental in shaping group policy to fall in favor of operators rather than policy makers.
While Brandon has remained committed to removing the stigma around cannabis, he has continued to hit the same walls: time and money.
The slow growth of cannabis product distribution was getting in Brandon’s way, so he hacked into the system. Brandon’s new distribution company killed two birds with one stone and avoided the three-year wait for a commercial license, and got SEP applicants to market within 30 days as trademarked. This has given them the leverage and proof-of-concept to raise the same funds as their non-SEP counterparts. The process also made the difference between a maximum investment of a few million dollars, to less than $100,000, simplifying the journey to licensing. As a point of aim, Brandon has built a sense of community in all the operations he has been involved with, which has naturally led to the creation of his flagship brand, Kingston Royal.
Kingston Royal’s Long game
Kingston Royal was founded on the desire to fuel creativity through cannabis. Championing the idea of ”you’re the maker of it all,” the cannabis and lifestyle brand aims to inspire. Kingston Royal is not an instant money-seeker like many other major brands; They aim to extend longevity by embracing the roots of cannabis while championing originality, innovation, and unfettered thinking in their team.
“Major brands started earlier because that’s the SoCal system; people with money can get in early, but their top-down approach has rendered their businesses irrelevant in less than half a decade,” says Brandon.
Colloquially known as “Hollywood” brands, these products are quickly fading out of dispensaries. Brandon attributed their failure to a lack of understanding of the origins of cannabis, pointing out the exact point of leverage these brands missed: culture. Cannabis is no longer derived from the stereotypes of chung and chung. The story of modern cannabis is rooted in the history of black Americans and the music that made consumption a normal daily activity.
Just as hip-hop was born in backyards and community centers, Brandon says, so was the shared experience of peace, relaxation, and creativity from cannabis. America has proverbs Snoop Dogg And Dr. Dre to thank for the current state of the legislation, but corporate brands and dispensaries are ignoring their grandparents at their own peril.
The struggle is real
This leads Brandon to the most overlooked social justice component of governance: many dispensaries don’t carry enough social justice products.
“There is supposed to be 20-25% of shelf space reserved for SEPs. Dispensary owners are not held accountable,” he said. While this is not a law, dispensaries must set aside 20-40% of shelf space for private equity brands to qualify for the Equity Trade certification from OEG, the first federally recognized equity certification program for hemp and other commodities.
According to Brandon, this is due to a concern about aesthetics, as well as the uphill battle of marketability that most social equity applicants face. He says that largely white-owned dispensaries don’t want the trendiest items to take center stage on their carefully curated shelves and that those biases are based on a common misconception that washing white hemp will attract new customers.
This is far from the truth. A new consumer is almost always introduced to cannabis through a friend or family member who gets involved rather than researching the products themselves. No doubt about it. Brand is important in a general sales way, but customer loyalty trumps conversion metrics every time.
Most social stock products boast great customer loyalty and can increase market appeal for many dispensaries, but they are not given a seat at the table. This is happening as brands and business owners are courting the musicians, producers, rappers, and artists who are most closely associated with America’s cannabis root—a root identified by social equity applicants.
“Black social equity applicants make up the majority of participants in this industry, and we are required to show up at events, but there is always a guest list that we miss when it comes to shelf space,” Brandon said.
It’s an odd picture that Brandon’s painting: Social equity products and brands are more likely to be consumer-friendly in terms of cost, quality, and consistency. Thus, as these products are more in line with consumer reality, they are more likely to gain customer loyalty and increase sales. More than that, due to the overall psychosocial nature of cannabis use, SEPs are also more likely to be the first brand new consumers use, thus generating longevity.
A true gentleman, Brandon does not in any way disregard his peers, but simply picks up on a consistent psychological and logical failure of leadership.
“Hollywood brands may find it easier to get into the retail space, get into the parties,” he said. “It’s easier to replicate, easier to grow, but when you can’t keep your consumers and more importantly you can’t keep your inner talent, you’re a pointless brand and you’re just in the cannabis to look cool. If you’re not looking to achieve Anything else, you will fail. This is what we are seeing now.”
When businesses ignore the people who historically drove primary products from Canada to California—who grew in the Norcal Hills, who sat in dungeons to smoke a cigarette—they seem to flop and fade from view. Simply put: people who were never raised in the real cannabis culture try and fail to turn a profit, while the people who know cannabis best still sit largely within the American prison system.
Although the true scale will likely not be achieved for a few decades, the key to cannabis longevity seems to be the connection to the traditional market and the people who have brought cannabis to the forefront of our legal adult use activities.
“Success flows from developing brands and operations like your developing artists,” says Brandon. “The mainstream industry is very busy trying to rethink cannabis.”
Brandon’s next big stint in the cannabis industry as NatureTrak’s Chief Business Analyst goes beyond his supply chain expertise. “A very close friend in tech asked if there was tinkering with cannabis, and it took until Show 64 to get our concepts focused on banking,” Brandon said.
NatureTrak, the first Black FinTech SAS owned company, is changing the global business landscape by making it possible for cannabis manufacturers to work with financial institutions. The tech company’s free track and trace software can track the full life cycle of a product — from seed to bank — giving banks an easy way to ensure their cannabis customers are legally compliant. Brandon is an advisor on the operations side, providing guidance on how the program engages with social equity operators and government.
“We help social equity operators get compatible banking services so they can get a stake in the game,” he said. “We really built the plane in the air. Without my life’s long history in this business, I would never have understood the needs of all the key stakeholders.”
With his 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 capitalize on the present moment.
“My personal belief is that it exists today, but it is not a promise that it will still be there tomorrow,” Brandon said, speaking to the California State Social Justice Program. We need to use the money while the government supports it. Let’s get these people to the finish line.”
This story was originally published in Issue 42 printed edition of hemp now.