A day infused with resilience, contradictions and cheese fries

Serial entrepreneur Corvain Cooper in 2021 co-founded Los Angeles-based cannabis brand 40 Tons. Earlier in his career, Cooper’s expertise in merchandising marijuana in pre-legal U.S. markets contributed to a life sentence in federal prison. After being granted clemency on the final day of the Trump administration, Cooper was free to return to a now legal $30 billion U.S. cannabis industry.

A charismatic spokesperson for 40 Tons, named after the approximate weight of cannabis exported on his watch from California to the Southeast nearly two decades ago, Cooper’s function as the company’s Brand Ambassador is curtailed by his inability to legally view the product in dispensaries where it is legally sold to consumers.

Cooper shared his story earlier this week at Malcolm X College in Chicago, during a panel conversation with other formerly incarcerated cannabis entrepreneurs focused on the subject of resilience. The Juneteenth daylong career conference and expungement clinic, presented by 40 Tons and Chicago-based multistate operator Green Thumb Industries, exposed the kaleidoscope of contradictions in commercial cannabis circa 2023.

While it was refreshing to see representatives of Chicago’s Police Department recruiting young professionals at a cannabis career fair, would-be community patrollers previously written up for smoking a joint or any cannabis-related infraction need not apply. Note to CPD and new Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration, what kind of message are you intending to send here?

From an economic development perspective, much of the conversations on stage and throughout the hallways focused on the inability for nearly every minority-owned licensed cannabis startup in Illinois to raise sufficient capital to get their retail, manufacturing or cultivation operations up and rolling.

Explained panelist Reese Xavier, who spent two decades as a learning and development manager at corporations including Kraft Foods and Becker Education before applying for a Craft Grow license in 2019, the criteria that enabled Illinois social equity applicants to have a shot at getting a license is also what makes it nearly impossible to raise money.

Specifically, applicants from low-income communities disproportionately impacted by the failed war on drugs are turned away from the small handful of lenders and financiers currently capitalizing cannabis operators because they don’t have the collateral of other primarily white operators from wealthier neighborhoods.

While Xavier’s Chicago Heights-based company HT23 Growers did access a $1.25 million forgivable loan from the state of Illinois, it takes at least three to four times that amount to stand up a 5,000 square foot craft grow operation. The speculative investor market that valued craft grow licenses in the millions when they were supposed to have been released three years ago dried up in recent years.

There are several dozen largely minority-owned craft grow and infuser license-holding startups in Illinois that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars each to win and maintain a license who are now left holding the bag. Pioneering progressive legislation written by Illinois lawmakers in 2019 and signed into law by former venture capitalist and current governor J.B. Pritzker four years ago this month to date has failed the very individuals and communities in which it was designed to enrich.

While it’s easy to point the finger at the multiple Chicago-based corporations that were conceived a decade ago when Illinois began its medical program and continue to be among the fastest-growing companies in the state, panelist Eric Wilkinson, managing partner at Portland-based Ultimo Cannabis Company, said for-profit companies using every legal tool they can to expand market share should not be to blame.

After all, the Goliaths of today’s U.S. cannabis industry in aggregate lost more than $4 billion in 2022. While these almost exclusively white-owned businesses have more access to capital than minority-owned social equity startups, banking laws that can penalize federally-insured financial institutions from servicing state-licensed operators means that things are tough all over for every cannabis operator right now. Wilkinson rather blamed the lack of attention on the part of African American investors to “support an industry that is ours” as a key reason minority-owned cannabis operators are struggling.

Investors of all stripes today have an opportunity to buy low in an industry that is increasingly accepted by mainstream consumers and poised to go sky high in the coming years after Safe Banking laws are passed. Once financial services conglomerates are given the green light to bank weed, big players in the healthcare, logistics, marketing, technology, and consumer packaged goods industries will also join the party.

In the meantime, crafty cannabis operators and serial entrepreneurs like Matt Brewer are taking it to the streets, showcasing what can be done with the right recipe of innovation, determination and cheese fries. Brewer, a law partner and acting commissioner of the Chicago Housing Authority, earlier this year opened one of the first minority-owned dispensaries in Illinois. A co-owner of the iconic Weiner Circle hot dog joint (and now bar) a mile south of Wrigley Field, Brewer on behalf of his Grasshopper Club dispensary hosted a Juneteenth afterparty where food and drink was enjoyed on the back patio while cannabis smoked freely and legally in the Sesh Bus parked right in front on Clark Street.

The 93 Boyz joints enjoyed by dozens of conference attendees and others beginning at 4:20 pm or so on Juneteenth are part of a brand associated with Chicago rapper Vic Mensa made from cannabis cultivated by downstate established multistate operator Aeriz.

The only reprimand observed by this reporter throughout the sunny sensimilla spectacle was associated with drinking a 312 beer on the bus (where alcohol is not permitted.)

I’ll know better next time, perhaps.. Cheers to all involved in this historic day in commercial cannabis culture.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.