Shh… don’t tell anyone, the illegal business of growing and distributing pot in California is now a $14 billion a year industry.
The medical marijuana industry was born in 1980s San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Dennis Peron, Vietnam war veteran, activist and longtime friend of the late Harvey Milk saw first-hand how marijuana eased the suffering of his boyfriend and friends as they were shunned, suffered and died of AIDS. By 1996, California passed the nation’s first medical marijuana legislation.
The legal limbo that marijuana exists in today has created a run on the industry, and has put dollar signs in the eyes of financiers everywhere.
But in places like Oakland, we have seen the industry thrive by creating meaningful relationships in the community.
Long before “Oaksterdam” or talk of medical-marijuana mega grows, the first dispensaries began to open up in Oakland’s then-blighted downtown. It was an easy place to open a semi-legal business with quasi-community acceptance on limited capital.
But the dispensary owners put fresh paint on graffiti, swept the streets in front of their storefronts, and maintained professional well-run businesses that created good paying non-discriminatory jobs. The dispensaries invested money in the community and within a couple years bars, coffeeshops, and art galleries have begun to thrive in the heart of Oaksterdam.
It can be opined that Oakland was ripe for an industry like marijuana; historically it has suffered from unemployment, gang-violence and general blight. Any business that could cut checks that cleared would be welcomed with open arms.
But an emerging industry is not without its growing pains.
Last year, Dhar Mann, heir of an Oakland taxi fortune along with a Wall Street financier opened iGrow (now weGrow due to copyright issues), the first out-of-the-closet hydroponics store for marijuana growing equipment.
The store opening attracted loads of press, and now the store closing is as well. According to Mother Jones, the owners are going through a nasty divorce and sorting through tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid bills to suppliers and employees.
The lesson here is clear: while financiers are important to getting a business up and running, it is more important to understand the business as well as the community you are pursuing. Oakland’s marijuana industry has thrived because it has benefitted the people of Oakland as well as lined the pockets of financiers.
To a finicky semi-legal industry, big money business blunders are a major setback.
And, while it is naïve of marijuana industry purists to think that legalization can happen without mutually benefitting the business community, this type of shoddy, unorganized, profiteering deals both an emerging industry in need of good PR (marijuana) and an established industry in need of better PR (business financing) yet another critical blow.
But hey man… keep it on downlow.