The Green Scene

Meet the Black Cannabis Innovators Revolutionizing Legal Weed

The cannabis space is still fraught, and full of confusing restrictions. These Black innovators are shaping what the future of legal weed will look like.

February  9, 2022
Photo by Jake Lindemann

In The Green Scene, there's no such thing as a silly question about cannabis. What's the difference between THC and CBD? How the heck do I make edibles at home? What home design advice can dispensaries teach me? Kick back—we have the answers.

Drinks industry veteran Darnell Smith started making himself THC tinctures about 10 years ago, mostly out of necessity. Working in spirits innovation and commercialization with beverage giants like Pernod Ricard and Diageo meant his days often started with trying new liquid concoctions for trademarks and ended in happy hours with colleagues, followed by meetups with liquor distributors or dropping in on bar accounts.

Looking to drink less without losing out on the communal experience of getting cocktails, he started heating cannabis flower at home to activate the THC (a process known as de-carbing), then he’d soak and drain the THC-infused liquid; “then I’m that guy at the bar with my little dropper,” Smith says. “I’d order a tonic and lime, put three drops in there, and I’m sessioning alongside everyone else.”

That small act of self-preservation would launch MXXN (pronounced “moon”) in Mill Valley, Ca., a non-alcoholic line of cannabis-infused spirits intended to be a 1:1 replacement in cocktails—which hits California retail shelves this month. For Smith, who is Black, the rollout’s synchronism with Black History Month makes him reflect on how the war on drugs disproportionately affected BIPOC folks, even in a time of unprecedented cannabis reform.

“These trends show us both the considerable barriers of entry for BIPOC participation in the cannabis industry and just how important it is for BIPOC doers and makers to be a part of the conversation all year round, though arguably with an even brighter spotlight during Black History Month,” he says. “We are important voices in this industry and bring change to perception by continuing to launch interesting products, building companies that change communities, and most importantly, talking about it.”

Indeed, he says, the “easy” part of building MXXN was the years-long process of formulation. He had to create spirit-free gin, tequila and bourbon that smell and taste good and are shelf stable; and standardize a 1.5-ounce shot to contain exactly 6 milligrams of THC for a gentle, “glowing” high that arrives in the time it takes to feel the effects of booze. He put up some of his own money and leaned heavily on his network.

“One of the things lack of access has driven into the DNA of underrepresented people is the ability to be nimble and creative in how we get things done,” Smith says. “But if I didn't have my background, how would I have even begun to think about doing this? It can quickly become discouraging if you don't have the connections and resources I was lucky to have.”

Darnell Smith, founder of MXXN

Access is tough for anyone navigating the budding—pun very much intended—cannabis market. As decriminalization and medical and recreational (adult) legalization roll out in a confusing patchwork from state to state, start-ups face frustrating and pricey inconsistencies even within their own state lines—from limited licenses to onerous zoning laws and higher bank processing fees, plus discordant municipal and corporate drug testing policies and the slow course of obtaining a medical card that deters potential customers.

Now, pile onto that the lingering effects of systemic inequity—meaning licenses still often go to white and politically connected folks, while Black and brown people remain disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. This is true even in states like California, where adult use has been legal since 2016. In L.A. County, at least 34,000 mostly poor and BIPOC folks are still waiting to have their cannabis convictions cleared despite a 2018 law vowing to expedite the process.

“When we talk about the systemic racism of this country, cannabis will come up as something that’s been used to institutionalize so many of our Black and brown, mostly men, and women,” says Hope Wiseman, founder and CEO of medical dispensary Mary & Main, in Capitol Heights, Maryland, who’s also the nation’s youngest Black female dispensary owner. “I do not think there is an industry that has successfully implemented equity.”

The team behind Mary & Main, a Black-Owned dispensary in Maryland Photo by Mary & Main

What excites minority entrepreneurs about the legal cannabis market—set to reach $70 billion by 2028—is that it could be the first to achieve something like equity in terms of who profits. This fact is evident in the reparations and social-equity programs baked into legalization laws in states like New York and Illinois; it's also buoyed by incubators like Minority Cannabis Incubator and Fluresh, and advocacy groups like Supernova Women, all of whom are working to hold the powerful to account.

“We’re going to see some really big, Fortune 500 companies getting into the space—we’re already seeing it through alcohol company subsidiaries,” Wiseman says. “I’m excited to see each state coming on board with more social-equity preferences, so when federal legalization happens, they can come up with something that encompasses all of it.”

Mary & Main debuted in 2018, when Wiseman was 25. She left investment banking to start the long, expensive process of opening a dispensary in 2014, the same year Maryland legalized medical marijuana. Wiseman and co-founders, mom and dentist Octavia Wiseman, and family friend/investor, oral surgeon Larry Bryant, bootstrapped the funding to hire consultants and buy a facility; they stayed lean in the early days by working in the dispensary without paying themselves. But as Wiseman’s story amassed national press attention, she leveraged her newly amplified voice into testifying on federal and local cannabis bills while she entrenched herself deeper into the community, offering incubator programs for hopeful entrepreneurs and classes on everything from cannabis 101 to concentrates and cooking with weed.

Weed's Image Problem

Beyond broad policy and legal woes, cannabis suffers from an image problem—not just as a federally illegal drug, but also a plant whose holistic benefits many still don’t understand.

“We have patients who used to just smoke a joint to feel better who now know exactly what terpene makeup is right for them and which salve works for their nerve pain,” Wiseman says. “Education with our patients has definitely improved, but Maryland needs a lot more on the medical and recreational benefits of pot.”

Even the pot-curious still find it intimidating. But that’s not their fault, says C. Amanda Jackson— personal chef and creator of Long Beach, Ca.-based Chef Amanda & Co., and competitor on the Netflix show Cooked with Cannabis. It’s not just the unapproachability of the language—“saying ‘this has 15 milligrams,’ that’s convoluted as fuck,” she says—legalization itself has eroded the community element of weed.

“When you had to go to your dealer’s house, it was this, like, secret society—and you’d smoke where you bought from,” Jackson says. “We talk about breaking bread as community; sharing a bowl is the same concept.”

In those small, trusted circles, you’d learn the effects of different strains and how to roll a joint, or perhaps debate cannabis’s role in human’ evolution. Jackson, who curates luxe in-home dining experiences through Chef Amanda, recreates this vibe in the cannabis cooking classes she occasionally hosts. While demoing weed butter, she’ll provide historical context on how enslaved Africans knew to separate female and male hemp plants. She’ll even demonstrate how to pack and smoke a bowl.

“People ask questions they wouldn’t normally feel comfortable asking in these small settings, and it gets them a little closer to the source—which is important for understanding any plant,” she says.

C. Amanda Jackson, founder of Chef Amanda & Co. Photo by C. Amanda Jackson

Author and entrepreneur Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey relies heavily on the “old-school weed word of mouth” effect, as she and fellow BIPOC queer woman Karina Primelles grow Xula, the CBD tincture brand they co-founded in Primelles’s native Mexico City. (They pivoted to selling in the U.S. as they await Mexico’s—ahem—eventual legalization of pot.)

Xula blends concentrates from low-THC hemp grown organically at its Oregon farm with those of medicinal plants—the same the founders’ respective forebears in West Africa and pre-colonial Mexico used for centuries—into liquid supplements supporting pain management, insomnia, and reproductive health issues like PMS, cramps and side effects from menopause.

Despite believing wholly in the product, the women keenly feel the burden of demonstrating its efficacy in the shadow of perceptions that CBD and cannabis are illegitimate, even dangerous. It took them two years to develop their whew! Moon-a-Pause tincture alone, in which they supplemented hemp concentrate (with its research-backed mood stabilizing and bone loss reversal abilities) with the cooling effects of medicinal plant extracts like hibiscus, coconut-derived MCT oil and black cohosh root after consulting with two herbalists. The tincture underwent three trials and countless tweaks in the herb makeup and concentrate levels to satisfy the widest number of bodies. Then Xula had to navigate the unnerving process of naming it with help from a compliance lawyer; “even saying the word menopause is a health claim to the FDA,” Golokeh Aggrey says.

All in the name of building back respect for plant medicine, and its long tradition among African and Indigenous Americans. “Plant medicine was in our history, but has been something that has historically been systematically put down,” Primelles says. “How are we part of the movement and put a drop in the lake of creating that change? First and foremost, everything we do works.”

But what good is all this innovation for a customer who isn’t “all the way free?”—be it from random drug testing to challenges buying or carrying cannabis across state lines, says Jackson. In a still uncertain landscape in which she herself can’t count on cannabis as a primary revenue generator, Jackson says her impact might be stronger outside the market itself: As a chef and educator and longtime imbiber who openly shares her knowledge and love of the plant, as a Black female employer who never drug tests and perhaps extends employee health benefits to cannabis for menstrual cramps.

“I try to do what I love and help people find a little happiness and community—this plant embodies all that,” she says. “But I still have to have my feet planted in the real world. For now, that means doing cannabis work outside cannabis.”

If you're considering enjoying the products and/or recipes in this content, please consult and follow the legal restrictions for controlled substances in your state. Because there are so many variables with cannabis products, go slowly. You may want to start with half a serving and determine your tolerance and ideal dose from there. And always wait a couple hours to feel the effects.

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Chicago-based food critic & freelance writer