Minority entrepreneurs look to break into state’s burgeoning pot industry

Construction worker Crystal Gibson of Newark plans to build a future and a fortune beyond her 9 to 5 job, so she came to learn how to start a marijuana business in a state moving toward adult legalization.

“A lot of times we think living in an urban area that it’s impossible or we’re incapable of making our dreams come true, or we just don’t even know what direction to start in order to get that financial security,” Gibson said.

The New Jersey Minority Alliance invited California Cannabis’ Virgil Grant to teach Gibson and others the ropes. Grant took his profits from street sales and launched a licensed medical marijuana dispensary in the mid-90s in California. An industry profiteer, pioneer and prisoner, he became a federal target when one of his clients drove under the influence, killed a driver and paralyzed a law enforcer.

“I was raided, I was sentenced to six years in federal prison. Coming home, I got right back out, started fighting so what happened to me never happens to no one in this industry as a person of color,” Grant said.

Four years after his release, Grant owns 30 California marijuana licenses valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. He crisscrosses the country conferring with New Jersey’s and other lawmakers, advocates and budding entrepreneurs.

“Let me be very clear about this: We’re late to the party,” he said.

Grant said well-established, billion-dollar companies are positioning to profit in the $25 billion and growing marijuana industry. He encouraged attendees to pool their seed money, if necessary, for the five-figure application fee and other startup expenses.

“This is not a mom and pop shop anymore. We’re done from that. I need you to understand and to start thinking about how a corporation is set up,” Grant said.

Grant ran down a long list of how-to’s — choose a location with high traffic, accessibility and parking, but be mindful of schools and churches.

“Very important to have your security plan in place and they’re very strict,” he said.

Grant said in an environment where the federal government still calls marijuana a dangerous substance, know the law and know your rights.

“We’re now into the legal process of it, but things can happen, still, to this day. Don’t want you to be naive about it,” Grant said.

Grant has advised the New Jersey Minority Alliance in crafting a social equity plan. They’re demanding lawmakers include it in any adult legalization bill that becomes law.

“See, we were the priority when it was time to go to prison. Now we need to be the priority now that it’s time for licensing and legalization,” Grant said.

Dana Rone is the Essex County Register of Deeds and Mortgages and co-founded the alliance. She’s pushing back against members of the state Legislative Black Caucus who oppose legalization.

“An adult should be able to make a choice, as we do with alcohol, cigarettes, in whether we want to participate in the cannabis industry,” Rone said.

The city of Newark and the Community Economic Development Corporation both sponsored the Dispensary 101 seminar with the corporation providing scholarships.

“I’m hoping that a lot of Newarkers get informed. They become engaged and will become inspired to become involved in an industry that’s going to be huge,” said Juliana Blacknurn, chairwoman of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation.

Huge as in profits, enriching eager entrepreneurs, big business and salivating states.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight