Standing along the bustling corridor of Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles is the first Black-female owned dispensary in the city, according to its owner Kika Keith.
Keith opened the shop through a city program that was designed to make cannabis business ownership more accessible to low-income people and communities impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.
But the very program that was trying to right the wrongs of the past instead became another obstacle for business owners like Keith. For three years, their shop sat mostly empty with its store front windows covered up and a poster that read: “Social Equity Cannabis Business Coming Soon.”
“I thought this was a great opportunity,” Keith told Los Angeles, recalling when she learned about the city’s social equity program. “Then we started sitting back and being like, ‘Wait a minute.’ This program is designed to fail.”
The Los Angeles Social Equity Program was created in late 2017, a year after voters approved Proposition 64, legalizing the sale of cannabis for recreational use in California.
Keith, who had been working in the wellness space since 2008 with her chlorophyll beverage business Gorilla Life, said she learned about the program that same year while attending several community meetings in her South L.A. neighborhood.
Black politicians urged people to get involved in the cannabis industry and spoke of past industries that Black people were not able to take part in such as tobacco and alcohol. As destructive as those industries were for Black communities, the politicians said the cannabis industry could be different.
“I took that call. It connected with my spirit when they said it,” Keith said. “Having such a strong history and awareness of Black history from my parents, and to understand what that meant. That we were shut out of everything that gave us the opportunity for economic growth and when we just had Juneteenth … and [the] Tulsa [race massacre], it resonated within me.”
City officials informed Keith and others that the city would open its application process for social equity candidates to apply to become eligible for a cannabis retail license in January of 2018. Only 100 people would given be given a license. A representative from L.A.’s Department of Cannabis Regulation said they hadn’t scheduled an official licensing date yet.
Keith was already a successful business owner. Her Gorilla Life products had been sold at more than 300 stores throughout the West Coast including Whole Foods, she said. But she decided to take her products off the shelves and devote all her attention in obtaining a cannabis retail license.
She began studying the city’s regulations for the industry and attending advisory committee meetings at the state capitol where she noticed the lack of Black people in attendance.
“I knew that [the program] wouldn’t work if only one person got across the finish line,” she said. “In order to have an impact in history it had to be hundreds, scores of us that got across.”
Activism ran in Keith’s blood. Her parents were community activists and Keith had also launched a non-profit years ago, which ran the Sweet Strings program to expose inner-city children to classical music.
Now she had a new goal and it involved cannabis. She began taking the information she learned at the committee meetings and shared it with other aspiring pot entrepreneurs in her community. In 2017, she and other social equity applicants started the Life Development Group, a grassroots organization that held regular meetings—inside her then-empty store—with other cannabis entrepreneurs and applicants to study the city’s compliance and regulations in the industry to ensure that they were prepared once licensing opened.
Keith said the organization helped verify more than 250 social equity applicants for their licenses and train more than 1,500 people to either apply for their licenses or become grassroots advocates.
But a lack of staffing at L.A.’s Department of Cannabis Regulation and the city’s prioritization to license existing medical marijuana dispensaries first created a backlog, which prompted longer delays for social equity applicants, according to Cat Packer, executive director of the department.
Keith said those delays caused a financial burden for social equity applicants who were next in line.
For her it meant paying $12,000 a month for her Crenshaw District/Leimert Park property that the city required her to have at the time she applied. Keith said she kept paying rent because she was backed by investors. But she can’t help wondering how many applicants dropped out.
More setbacks came in Sept. 2019 when the city began accepting applications for retail licenses. A system error allowed more than 200 people to submit their applications over others, including those under the social equity program, sparking public outrage.
This past April, the Social Equity Owners and Worker Association, a union that Keith and other applicants created, filed a lawsuit against the city.
The SEOWA settled its lawsuit a few months later, getting the city to agree to give out 100 additional social equity retail dispensary licenses. Keith, who received her license in July 2021, was among the second batch of applicants to get approved by the city and she was allowed to open her cannabis shop.
Gorilla Rx Wellness offers more than 1,900 cannabis products with the largest number of Black owned brands at one location in the state, according to Keith’s daughter, Kika Howze, who heads the shop’s marketing and brand relations. They also sell several non-cannabis items including food and home goods products.
Inside the shop is doused in warm hues of orange, green, yellow, black, and blue—which was designed by a Black woman and curated by another—is just as Keith and Howze envisioned it to be: a space where their community would be prioritized.
“I like to say that we’re a community before cannabis because it was really essential to make sure that that struggle wasn’t lost in the process of building it,” Howze said. “So now to see the community be able to hug us back after all of the work that we did is just really beautiful because you see people really cherish the work that we did as much as we put intention in it to build.”
Reflecting on the lengthy journey it took to open Gorilla Rx Wellness, Keith said that it was worth the fight and that her business is an example that others who may be experiencing similar battles should persist.
“I think that’s why the space is so special,” Keith said. “We call it the house that people built because so many people contributed and you know we took, once again, the blessings out of all of the time that it took.”
With the promise of more social equity licenses opening up in L.A. in the near future, Keith said she plans to continue offering seminars to educate aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs in California and across the country.
Packer said the feedback she’s received from Keith and other former social equity applicants has prompted the department to implement various programs including technical assistance and resources on negotiating leases with landlords to make the overall process less strenuous for future applicants.
“Folks who apply for a license today are going to have access to so many more resources that folks like Kika didn’t have access to, but in part because Kika told us what she needed,” Packer said.
About a block up from the Gorilla Rx Wellness at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and 43rd Street rests a mural that speaks to Keith and Howze’s mission.
The mural is a profile of Keith with the words “Black Women Get Us Higher.”
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