Three years ago, Oakland adopted a policy to help people busted for marijuana crimes get into the legal market. Alphonso T. Blunt is the first equity applicant benefiting from this program with a dispensary open for business.
“Blunts + Moore: The Happy Store”
Alphonso T. Blunt is hosting a grand opening party for his new business in East Oakland. It’s a sleek and polished cannabis dispensary called Blunts + Moore.
“I call it the Walmart of Weed,” he says, and throws in the store’s slogan for good measure: “Let us help you find your happy at the happy store.”
When the ceremonial red ribbon is cut, a couple of Oakland officials pose for photos alongside Blunt and the store’s co-owner, Brittany Moore.
"That's really our names!" Blunt exclaims, clarifying that, yes, his last name really is Blunt.
Dozens of reporters crowd around too. This is a big moment for the city’s famous equity program. The program gives cannabis permitting priority for people like Blunt, who was arrested for marijuana charges in 2004. Blunt is proud to be the first equity applicant to open a dispensary with the help of that policy.
A trip to the dispensary with grandma
This dispensary has been a long time coming. Blunt still remembers going to a dispensary for the first time when he was a teenager. This was back in the '90s when medical marijuana had only just been legalized in California. His grandmother took him inside one of the state’s first dispensaries in Oakland to pick up her medication.
Blunt was mesmerized by the idea that the weed he had been selling on the black market since he was in high school could be sold in plain sight.
“And I’m like, ‘I thought you were going to a doctor,’” Blunt recalls saying to his grandmother at the time. “She was like, ‘no, you can get weed out of there.’”
The war on drugs in Oakland
Blunt went to Oakland’s Oaksterdam University to learn the cannabis trade, and earned good money selling dime bags and weed pastries from the back of his car. In 2003, Blunt tried to buy a licensed pot shop of his own.
“But we were told flat out by a good, white friend of mine that they weren’t going to give it to no black dudes,” Blunt says.
White cannabis dispensary in owners Oakland were profiting off the plant, while black and brown people were doing time for selling it. Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates, but in Oakland in 2015, black people made up 77 percent of marijuana arrests.
A job, a hustle, and an arrest
Blunt says he continued to sell weed in the shadows, taking calls from customers looking to buy products. When his first son was about to be born, he decided to earn some extra cash by selling on the streets. Three months later, the cops showed up. He spent some time in jail, and took a deal for five years probation.
But what you have to understand about Blunt is that he knows how to roll with the punches. He insists going to jail didn’t bother him. If anything, he was peeved someone ratted him out. He wrote a rap song about snitches, and moved on with his life.
“I was always raised that a black man was going to have to have a job and a hustle,” Blunt says. “I lived life normally for those five years. I worked. I still smoked weed. Still sold weed.”
The equity program
In 2017, an opportunity came his way, and he took it. Brittany Moore, an African American businesswoman with experience managing dispensaries in Colorado, was looking to partner with an equity applicant like Blunt, who could help her get a leg up in the permitting process.
Moore knows a thing or two about finance and boosting profit margins. She had worked at Morgan Stanley, and her mother is a cannabis attorney. She moved to Oakland with her mom once they heard about the city’s equity program.
“It was the first that we had heard of anyone trying to give minorities an opportunity to be in this space,” Moore says. “For it to have even been a conversation, it felt like Oakland was a place we needed to be. This would've been a lot harder, and cost me a lot more, if it weren’t for the equity program.”
Blunt and Moore are leasing the space in a warehouse owned by Grizzly Peaks Farms, a cannabis cultivator investing in their dispensary. Blunt says other equity applicants haven’t been so lucky. It’s not easy to to find people willing to invest capital or real estate to help jumpstart cannabis businesses.
“When you give lower income people an opportunity to do something, you have to have funding,” Blunt says. “Everybody with these licenses are running to people with financing, and a lot of people with the financing are snakes.”
Data points and business realities
Since legalization, just four people have been offered equity permits to run dispensaries in Oakland. And Blunt is the only equity applicant with a new dispensary open for business. The others are still working through building and fire code regulations, according to Greg Minor, assistant to the Oakland City Administrator.
Since the equity program rolled out, 813 people have completed local applications for non-dispensary cannabis permits, mostly for delivery and distribution, according to a March report from the Oakland City Administrator’s office.
24 of those licenses have been issued for equity applicants since 2017, though hundreds more businesses obtained temporary state licenses.
“This trend is likely a combination of factors, including the time and capital required to obtain approvals from the building and fire department,” reads the Administrator’s Report on the Cannabis Equity Program.
Minor says equity applicants face many of the same barriers as small businesses outside the cannabis industry, like securing capital and complying with regulations.
“On top of that, equity applicants are dealing with all the issues that cannabis businesses face in the first years of legalization, which tends to be lots of uncertainty,” Minor says. “Across the board, cannabis entrepreneurs are having a tough time.”
A controversial program
From the start, the city’s equity program has been controversial. Cannabis attorneys and entrepreneurs in Oakland criticized it for not providing enough funding or resources. Some black entrepreneurs still feel left behind because of the program’s requirements.
One of those entrepreneurs is Chip Moore, the CEO of 4&20 Blackbirds, a cannabis company based in West Oakland. Moore (no relation to Brittany Moore of Blunts + Moore) shows me around the group’s warehouse in West Oakland. Cannabis-themed artwork hangs from the walls.
“Cannabis is apart of everything we do here, one way or another,” Moore says. “So I’m guessing that everybody that did this beautiful work was smoking a little bit of weed when they did it.”
He wants to use this site to open a “cannabis cultural center” and the world’s largest dispensary, but that dream is still on hold while he waits for a license.
Moore is an African American business owner, and he’s hustled in the underground cannabis industry for decades.
“African Americans have always been a part of this industry. We weren’t able to make the distribution trips to Humboldt, because if you look like me you’re going to get pulled over,” Moore says.
A dispensary on hold
The warehouse is huge, and came with a hefty price tag, though most of it sits empty. That’s because Moore is still waiting for the chance to open a dispensary and actually make use of the space. Moore didn’t qualify for the city’s equity program. Why? Because he lives in Berkeley.
“Those are the kinds of disparities where I’m like, damn, I’m getting impacted by the War on Drugs twice,” Moore says. “First time, just by being a black man in America. Second time, by not being the right kind of black man in Oakland.”
There were only four slots open for applicants outside the equity program, and city didn’t pick 4&20 Blackbirds. So his dream of operating a dispensary is still on hold. That’s true for a lot of people hoping to enter this industry. It takes, time, real estate, and money to start a company. And cannabis taxes are especially high in Oakland – up to 45 percent in some cases
“This is the very beginning of an industry,” Moore says. “So what you’re asking these people to do with limited budgets, limited connections, limited networks, is daunting.
“If you can find one time in America where equity was given, I’ll eat my hat.”
The lottery and the game
The only reason Alphonso Blunt owns a dispensary at all is because he entered a lottery – a literal lottery. 32 equity applicants all entered into a drawing last year. It was televised and everything, a nail-biting spectacle almost like “The Hunger Games.”
Blunt remembers the moment he won.
“We had to pick a bingo ball, toss it in a little tray, let it roll around, and if you were the last four picked, you won a license. Our ball was one of the last four balls.”
Alexis Bronson, another equity applicant, entered that same lottery, but was disappointed when he didn’t win. He’s been in the cannabis industry since the ‘70s when he first sold joints to Berkeley High School classmates in the school cafeteria.
He says Oakland’s equity program helped him get out of the black market by waiving licensing fees. But, he says, business has still been tough, especially without a dispensary to bring in more income. Legalization has meant more expenses, more competition, and more challenges for his bottom line.
“The equity program was new and groundbreaking, and there wasn’t any precedent for it,” Bronson says. “What happens to us [equity applicants] in three years? How many of us are still going to be around? I think a lot of people are going to be led into a false promise without being able to compete.”
A space of his own
But now that Blunt finally has a space of his own, he has the chance to give others a shot. All employees at Blunts & Moore have the opportunity to go to Oaksterdam to study cannabis for free.
“I want to help bring young people of color into this industry, for other things than just being a budtender or security. We want people who know how to build the grow labs, build the warehouses,” Blunt says. “That type of stuff we can bring to Oakland and bring it out wherever because I want a Blunts and Moore in every city that’s legal.”
By the end of this year, Oakland officials expect to have another lottery for equity applicants. During that drawing, another four more people will win permits. And then, for those chosen, the challenge of opening a successful cannabis dispensary will really begin.