by Luna Reyna
Last month cannabis media was enthusiastically reporting about the first Black-owned cannabis dispensary in Seattle, owned by one of Seattle’s heroes: Shawn Kemp, also known as the Reign Man, a six-time NBA All-Star and former Seattle SuperSonics Power Forward. The rub is that at the time of this announcement Kemp had no stake in the company that bears his name. Matt Schoenlein and Ramsey Hamide — two co-founders of Main Street Marijuana — owned the dispensary. A dispensary named Shawn Kemp Cannabis.
Unfortunately for Schoenlein and Hamide, activists and hopeful Black cannabis entrepreneurs who have been shut out of the business quickly called their bluff, revealing that Kemp’s application to join the existing license had not yet been approved and he would ultimately only have a 5% stake in the company. This hardly qualifies as “Black-owned.” “It was a blatant attempt to manipulate the public,” says Aaron Barfield, president of Black Excellence in Cannabis (BEC). A BEC press release called the claim that the dispensary was Black-owned “ethically reprehensible,” considering there are 50 cannabis dispensaries in Seattle and not one of them is Black-owned. But that is not for lack of trying.
Medical marijuana (MMJ) was originally legalized in Washington under Initiative 692 (I-692), or the Medical Use of Marijuana Act of 1998. The barriers to entry were not nearly as impenetrable as they are under the current recreational legislation. The ambiguity in I-692 language, though, led to a proliferation of MMJ dispensaries in the state alongside targeted arrests of patients and business owners by State and federal officials. The stigma of cannabis and the new industry was still palpable.
In 2011, following then U.S. Attorney (currently Seattle Mayor) Jenny Durkan’s lead, federal agents and police raided state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries claiming these business owners were engaged in illegal drug trafficking and money laundering. “I had everything all set up, my nonprofit, my state license, my city license, and then I set out to open up the store,” explains Brionne Corbray, an ex-MMJ business owner. Corbray opened his dispensary, GAME, in May of 2010. Later, Corbray’s business partners, Keith Caneers, started the GAME store in Shoreline and Mark Swanson opened the GAME store in White Center. In December of that year, Northwest Leaf wrote a rave review and business was booming. By November 2011, all three dispensaries that were part of GAME Collective were raided. “They basically raided my place, came at us with guns. I had two business partners, they were white; nothing happened to them. They didn’t get a gun pointed at them. In fact, while my guy Reggie (also a Black man) and I were on our knees with guns pointed at our heads, the white guys got to sit on the couch. They were trying to terrorize us.” The other two license holders, Caneers and Swanson, the men sitting on the couch while Corbray had a gun pointed at his head, were never criminally charged.
After the federal raid, Durkan told Corbray that he could either accept a plea agreement or spend 20 years in prison and pay a $1 million fine. “I signed the plea agreement, because, you know, I got four kids and a wife, and then they put me on five years probation,” Corbray explains. Not only did Corbray lose a business that was legal by state standards, but all the money his business had made was seized, both cash on hand and his bank accounts were drained. His car, computers and company records were also seized. “They literally tried to make it seem like I was doing something different than anyone else. They called me a cartel in court. How could I be a cartel? I’ve got a business license to do this, the state allowed me to. What are you talking about? It was just a straight slander campaign to run African Americans out, and it worked.”
A press release by the U.S. Attorney’s office went as far as to call Corbray’s business a “drug front” and claimed it “had little to do with ‘compassionate care’ and everything to do with lining their own pockets.” The claims that Corbray was nothing but a “common drug dealer” hit him hard. “How can you deem somebody in business for the wrong reasons?” Corbray explains. “It was to help people, but it was also to make a living. The same way she did, right?”
In 2012, the same year Brionne was sentenced to five years probation for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, voters passed Initiative 502 (I-502), legalizing recreational cannabis for adults 21 and over. This was intended to be a celebratory moment for the industry, but it quickly became far more complicated. According to Bruce Barcott’s book Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America, there were more than 300 MMJ dispensaries in Seattle alone, but because the industry was largely unregulated at the time, there is no definitive number, according to Brian Smith at the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). By 2015, the Washington Legislature passed Senate Bill 5052 (SB 5052), the Cannabis Patient Protection Act (CPPA), regulating many of those who set the groundwork for the state’s cannabis industry completely out of business. Only 222 MMJ dispensaries were granted I-502 licenses across the state. All others were ordered to close their doors.
Since Corbray’s unconscionable experience and his plea deal in December of 2012, the same year I-502 passed, he has become something of an activist for equity in the industry. Corbray was one of the first to sound the alarm about the false claims surrounding Shawn Kemp Cannabis. “The Black dollar is a lot of money in the marijuana industry,” says Corbray. “Why’d they get a Black celebrity? Because they want that Black dollar, and that is why they got Shawn Kemp to do it, because they wanted Black people to start going to their store and spending that dollar.”
“It’s left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths when it comes to recreational [marijuana],” says Ahnya Smith, Founder of Colored Cannabis Collective, an organization focused on community service, representation of POC in cannabis, and changing the stigma of cannabis. “I know a bunch of Black people in the local neighborhood that don’t go in the shops because of the way that the transition went down from medical to recreational.” Barfield echoes these sentiments. “The industry was built on our back. Now all of a sudden only white people are qualified to sell this product, and basically these businesses that we built in our community are now recreational stores owned and operated by white people.”
In the eight years since I-502 passed, the LCB, the regulating agency that awards cannabis industry licenses, has saturated the industry with white owners, excluding Black people and other POC from the massive amounts of generational wealth that the cannabis industry has the potential for. Main Street Marijuana, the company that attempted to tokenize Shawn Kemp for their profit, has exceeded 97 million dollars in sales since 2014. Uncle Ike’s, a white-owned business, known as a gentrifier whose dispensaries have been focal to many protests, has exceeded over 63 million dollars in sales since 2014.
“No one cares about giving Black people generational wealth,” says Joy Hollingsworth, the Co-Founder of The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company (THC Co.), a Black and family-owned and operated Tier 3 cannabis producer and processor located in Western Washington said when asked why she thought it took so long to pass legislation for a more equitable industry. “It is not a priority for Black people to be at the center of any type of financial gain in this country. When have we ever been able to reap the benefits of so many sacrifices, of putting 400 years of free labor into this country?”
With each passing year, the outcry for equity and retribution for the ways in which people have been treated has only gotten louder. “We’ve been telling them for years, ‘There’s no Black ownership here please do something about it. You’re doing extreme damage to the Black community,’” explains Barfield. “That’s proven by the city of Seattle becoming the third most gentrifying city in the country, and there’s not a large Black population either, to start with.” In response, the Legislature passed House Bill 2870 (HB 2870) earlier this year. It was the first attempt by the state of Washington to create an equitable industry.
But as we reported earlier this month, the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force that was created under the LCB in this Legislation has the difficult task of being the mediator between the historically racially biased LCB and the underserved and understandably resentful BIPOC public. “I think that there definitely needs to be some sort of reparations,” Ahnya Smith says, when asked what it would take for equity after all these years. “We should be able to see who the Black and Brown people were who applied, consider the reasons why they were denied, and give those people a chance first in the new round of licenses.”
Corbray took it a step further saying that not only should those who were shut out in the past, who were criminalized and lost everything, be able to be granted a license, but financial reparations due to wealth lost should be considered, “My store was making around $10,000 a day, so that’s about $300,000 a month since 2011,” he says.
Emotional pain and suffering should be considered as well, according to Corbray. After what Corbray experienced, he suffered from PTSD and was deeply depressed. “I can’t get those times back with my family. I can’t get those times back for myself. That’s just a lost period in my life that’s gone.” Corbray believes that statements of apology from Gov. Jay Inslee and Mayor Jenny Durkan are equally important as well, considering “the damage that they’ve caused and that they were a part of. You’ve got to realize that we’ve been screaming this same thing for eight years.”
Hollingsworth, unlike some others, believes that equity is possible through the new LCB process created by HB 2870. She points to the importance of looking at equity on a macro scale. “I think when people hear about social equity, what is really important is that not only is it getting more people in the industry, it’s also tackling the different tentacles of the War on Drugs that were really accentuated in these underserved communities: food insecurity, housing, small business, jobs, the separation of the nuclear family,” she says. “All these different things. Social equity is not just getting more people in the industry. It has to be about rebuilding the Black community.”
Whether people believe in this new process or not, everyone seems to agree that, despite the false claims, Shawn Kemp is doing what’s best for him. Many are happy he is taking part in this new venture. “I think Shawn Kemp probably has great people around him helping to extend his brand and build generational wealth for his family,” explains Hollingsworth. “I think where people find the dilemma is where they don’t want him to be taken advantage of. I think that’s where the community is coming from.” Adds Barfield, “Shawn Kemp, he was definitely a local hero and we don’t want to disparage him in any way. I don’t feel like there was anything wrong with what he did. It’s more an issue with these opportunists that are basically exploiting him and exploiting the situation to use it towards their advantage.”
Kemp himself has said that he hoped to inspire people, especially People of Color, to take part in the industry. While Kemp may not have a majority stake in Shawn Kemp Cannabis, his participation in the industry has pushed the conversation and work for equity forward. His mere 5% stake highlights the stark inequities. Shawn Kemp Cannabis has yet to respond to multiple requests for comment. Maybe now that the world is watching, tangible impacts will follow.
Luna Reyna is a South King County-based journalist. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities. Whether she is investigating the impact of environmental racism or immigration as a movement journalist, interviewing an artist whose work sheds light on the casualties of war as an arts journalist, or covering restorative justice efforts as a self-described “Cannabis Chronic-ler,” her work is in service of liberation and advancing justice.
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