Black Women Cannabis Entrepreneurs Are Getting LA Higher
On August 24, 2021, Kika Keith and Kika Howze unlocked the doors to their dream. The mother-and-daughter duo, known as The Kikas, had spent more than five years building out Gorilla Rx Wellness, a thoroughly modern marijuana dispensary — one founded by Black women who want to go beyond just selling you weed, to share a new vision for retail cannabis.
With a massive black and yellow billboard pointing to its decorative storefront, you'd be hard pressed to miss Gorilla Rx. Nestled between the historic Maverick's Flat nightclub and Right Choice Caribbean Market, the 1,600-square-foot shop is decked out like a roller rink complete with an orange ceiling, colorful, arched shelves and soulful tunes bumping from the sound system. But this store, located in the heart of the Crenshaw District, is no 1970s throwback.
"This is like a real shared joyous experience, including [for] the community that has been rooting for us," Keith, 50, says. "Very rarely do we have a story to support in our community that we watched happen and unfold, and watch someone that looks like us win against all the big guys or politicians or corporations, everything. And so that joy is what you're feeling emanating."
With approximately 200 legal dispensaries, Los Angeles boasts the largest legalized cannabis market in the world. In this brave green paradise, Gorilla Rx has the distinction of being the first Black woman-owned cannabis dispensary in the city.
In 2016, after California voters passed Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis use, the city of L.A. decided to create a social equity program. The goal was to counter the devastation caused by the ongoing War on Drugs, which has disproportionately harmed (and continues to harm) communities of color. Across California, four other cities – Oakland, San Francisco, Long Beach and Sacramento – have implemented similar programs to help Black and brown entrepreneurs.
Although Black women entrepreneurs comprise less than 4% of cannabis dispensary owners and founders in the United States, The Kikas are offering up one of the boldest reimaginings of the $61 billion industry yet.
The Building Blocks
For Keith, lovingly known as "Big Kika," Gorilla Rx has been generations in the making.
Her matrilineal roots in the United States reach back all the way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a place more known for its Amish population than its role a hub for the Underground Railroad. At one point, her grandfather owned the only Black hotel and bar during the 1940s. Growing up, Keith would often sit at his feet, watching as he did his bookkeeping. In the early '70s, the family moved west, eventually landing at the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in Leimert Park.
Often referred to as the "cultural heartbeat of Black Los Angeles," Leimert Park was where her activist parents connected with others in the struggle and deepened their ties to the Black Panther Party. They also worked with local reentry programs, helping survivors of domestic violence and teenage mothers rebuild their lives – "the true effects of the War on Drugs," Keith says.
Her father steered the family's Rastafarian spiritual practice, which includes a rich tradition of plant medicine. Marijuana is seen as a holy rite, a way to enhance spiritual awareness of one's inner self, nature and Jah.
"I had a high reverence for what it was and how sacred it was. They weren't partying around with it. My dad's a philosopher and so I watched them, how they moved and how they moved in the community. It was more like you were witnessing a Native American pipe ceremony," Keith says.
Taking a page out of the family playbook, the single mother of three would soon make a name for herself as the founder of Sweet Strings, a non-profit youth orchestra in South Central. In 2008, Keith and her mother, Shekinah Shakur, launched Gorilla Life, a chlorophyll-based beverage. Through that process, she met Virgil Grant, one of California's first Black dispensary owners. He encouraged her to add hash water to the drinks, and Chronic Tonic was born, increasing the company's revenue almost tenfold. That's when the light bulb went off.
Raging Against The Machine
Whitney Beatty, 43, came to the world of cannabis from an entirely different realm, the entertainment industry. Long before she decided to open Josephine & Billie's, the first cannabis speakeasy-style retail concept in the country, she was the Senior Vice President of Development at Warner Bros., shepherding its reality television division.
As the cannabis sector was starting to formalize, she noticed a massive hole in the market — women of color, who make up more than 70% of women in L.A. Beatty, who had started using cannabis during college to cope with anxiety, had a vision for luxury cannabis accessories. Potential investors, however, were unenthused.
They told her, "'You're nuts. There is no high-end market in cannabis and there never will be. And if there was, they wouldn't be buying any from a Black girl because what do Black girls know about luxury?," Beatty says.
She wasn't phased by the haters. "The best way to get me to do anything is to tell me that I can't do something. Then, the rage builds up," she says with an infectious laugh.
In many ways, the rage had been building for nearly 40 years. A native of Detroit, Beatty witnessed the devastation of drug prohibition in the 1980s.
"Living in Detroit, when you have your neighbor's doors kicked in every day, the impacts of that War On Drugs were so heavy on the community, on the resources, on the safety of that community," she says.
In 2015, she decided to launch Apothecarry Brands, a retail company that makes "sleek and sexy storage solutions for cannabis connoisseurs." A glass humidity jar costs $20 while a sleek travel case with a combination lock will run you $315. For Beatty, the business venture was a way to transform childhood memories into new hope.
Later that year, she joined the board of Supernova Women, a nonprofit that advocated for Oakland's groundbreaking cannabis equity program. Not long after, talk of L.A's program started to pick up and Beatty knew she wanted in. "As soon as I kind of entered the space, I just started to kind of rage against the machine," she says.
The Loyola Marymount MFA alum "couldn't keep [her] mouth shut on equity issues" and soon became a fixture at cannabis policy forums around town. Still, Beatty was frustrated that Black and Brown entrepreneurs had the lowest participation rates in L.A.'s burgeoning economy, and this time, she wasn't taking no for an answer.
In September 2019, nearly two years after the deadline it had set for itself, the city of Los Angeles opened its social equity application portal for cannabis businesses. The plan was to award 100 licenses on a first-come, first-served basis. By that point, Kika Keith was focused on becoming a retail license holder. She had pulled her beverage line out of more than 300 Whole Foods locations and spent more than $300,000 in rent over the course of 21 months for her empty Crenshaw Boulevard storefront.
In its initial permitting phase, the city required all retail applicants to have a property lease or deed before applying for licenses. Social equity candidates also had to be low-income, have a prior cannabis arrest or conviction, and/or live in an area disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.
The cognitive dissonance of requiring people who qualify as low-income (i.e. earning 80% or less of the median income for the metro area) to sign a lease before they can even apply for a license, along with the program's permitting woes have been well documented. From bureaucratic delays at City Hall to predatory landlords, the social equity program wasn't doing much for the very people it was supposed to help. Instead, hopeful applicants were watching as the fledgling industry solidified without them.
"Did we really think because they put forth legislation to trick the voters into voting for it, that we were actually going to be just given the opportunity?" Keith says.
The initial round of permitting, run by tech giant Accela, ended in a massive system error that unfairly prioritized and stalled more than a quarter of the 802 applicants. Many people found themselves back at square one — at an indefinite standstill, without a license to operate and mounting bills to pay.
With a patchwork of investors assembled for this phase, Keith tapped her organizing roots and joined forces with other applicants to create the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association. In April 2020, the group filed a lawsuit against the city pointing to the results of an audit that showed applicants were "at a disadvantage." And in true Big Kika fashion, she hit the streets even harder.
"As I was learning, I was teaching because I did understand that it wouldn't make sense for just me to get across the finish line. When you speak about the firsts, that didn't matter if I didn't have as many of our people to come along with me," Keith says. She often used the empty building to host marijuana policy workshops and train community organizers.
While Keith was mobilizing her people, Beatty found herself in hot water. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, her core investors went bankrupt. She needed to raise money fast. With or without an eviction moratorium, she had to pay rent if she wanted to maintain her position in the application queue.
"I knew that in all verticals, across all business functions, less than 100 Black female CEOs have raised a million dollars. That is a very real number that is extremely frightening," Beatty says.
Launching a cannabis dispensary can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million. The continued federal prohibition of marijuana and the ever-widening racial wealth gap hinder Black entrepreneurs' access to capital. Many, like Beatty, turn to a combination of venture capital funds, angel investors and business accelerator programs.
The search for funding gave Beatty time to dream up a new concept for the empty storefront she had leased at the corner of West MLK Jr. Boulevard and Denker Avenue. Originally she had planned to open a standard, no frills retail shop. Instead, she decided she would launch a Harlem Renaissance-era "teapad," a gathering space dedicated to (and named for) Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. The two iconic Black entertainers were both demonized for their cannabis use and Beatty worried that their historical contributions would be forgotten in this new era of legalization. Coming on the heels of the protests that swept the U.S. after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Beatty was confident the venture wasn't only well-timed, it was deeply needed by South L.A. residents.
In June 2021, Beatty's connections and years of experience in entertainment paid off. The Parent Company, Shawn "JAY-Z" Carter's social equity fund, announced Josephine & Billie's would be its first official investment. (Since then, the fund has also invested in The Peakz Company, a Black-owned dispensary in Oakland.)
The following month, SEOWA settled its lawsuit against the city of L.A., which agreed to approve 100 additional social equity retail licenses. Keith and Beatty were among the dozen or so Black business owners on that overflow list. It wouldn't be long before residents would finally be able to experience the spaces they'd spent years fighting to secure.
The House The People Built
With the license sorted out, Keith could start prepping for Gorilla Rx's August 2021 grand opening. The process involved more than buying products, stocking the shelves and getting the word out. Keith wanted to cultivate an energy that would entice everyone — from marijuana enthusiasts and skeptics, to healers and hustlers, even to Gen Z and Baby Boomers.
"We knew we wanted something different, and I knew that I wanted my aunts and uncles and grandparents that would be up in them hills to feel good about coming into these doors," Keith says.
Figuring out how to balance these cultural and generational nuances in Gorilla Rx's physical space was where Keith's oldest daughter, Kika Howze, shined.
After leaving home at 17 to pursue a career in entertainment, she landed in New York City where she worked at R&B superstar Usher's non-profit and management offices. Howze learned all about branding, marketing and experiential production. When it came time to return home and join her mother at Gorilla Rx, she had a vision for the dispensary that couldn’t have been further from the sleek and sterile stores she often saw.
"We're seeing in the uniformity of these other spaces that there are these vendors that will come in and make your dispensary look a very specific way," Howze says.
The Kikas wanted the space to evoke a deep sense of familiarity and warmth, which led them to spatial designer Jocelyn Willliams. Howze and Williams met years ago, while working at Black-owned creative agency Team Epiphany. Williams, who counts HBO's Insecurefest, Pyer Moss and Beyoncé's adidas x IVY PARK line as clients, brought her knack for creating adult playground-like installations to Crenshaw Boulevard. And the details don't play no second fiddle. Between the lush array of houseplants, the bespoke collection of Black art books and the hand-etched geometric floor tile design, the dispensary is an experience all its own.
"Everything just has this feeling of making sure that we weren't a part of this gentrification aesthetic, that things have to be overly polished to be a part of the community and thrive," Howze, 28, says.
Creating the right ambience was also top of mind for Beatty as construction workers hustled to finish ahead of Josephine and Billie's planned October 29 opening. The teapad was meant to bring women of color together, partly to have a good time but also so they could learn about marijuana and make connections with each other. For Ebony Andersen, the company's COO, that kind of experience couldn't happen in "an Apple store-style" establishment.
"It's a very white designer aesthetic. If you go to retailers in Black communities, they don't look like Apple. If you come to our living rooms, they don't look like Apple. You ain't going to not one Black woman's living room and not finding some gold accents. It's just impossible," Andersen says.
Andersen and Beatty designed a sanctuary where Black women's secrets and stories could rest against deep teal blues, ornate wallpaper, art deco trinkets and, yes, lots and lots of gold. Befitting a speakeasy, it feels like a journey back to the Jazz Age, with velvet curtains, plush tufted sofas and a Tidal playlist to match.
"We didn't have Apple in the 1920s or '30s. Even now, we don't have that as our frame of reference," says Andersen, who also serves as the COO of Ball Family Farms, the first vertically integrated, Black-owned, commercial indoor grow facility in the city of L.A.
Keith also wanted Gorilla Rx to honor the women in her family. "I wanted it to feel like my grandmother's house. [She] would keep a Christmas tree year-round and she would have colorful lights. People will be like, 'I don't know what it is about your grandmother's house. It just feels so good,'" Keith says.
More than 20,000 customers have shopped at Gorilla Rx since it opened in August, and based on their five-star Weed Maps rating, they seem to be on to something.
As soon as you walk through the door, you’re paired with a knowledgeable budtender. Prior to starting, all of the more than 30 employees completed a two-week training on social equity and the endocannabinoid system (the complex web of neurotransmitters that help to maintain equilibrium in the human body).
"Like when I go into Erewhon, or if you go into the vitamin section at Whole Foods, you don't know what the hell you're looking at," Keith says. "But you tell them what your problem [is], they're going to take you to four or five different aisles to say, 'This is what you can do,' and they're going to educate you."
Keith was also mindful of creating a vibe at Gorilla Rx where no one felt intimidated to ask questions, the way she and her mom had felt when perusing many white-owned dispensaries.
"I'd always gotten [marijuana] from people in the hood and in my community, so I wasn't asking, 'indica or sativa?' I was buying a dime bag or a dub or an ounce," Keith says.
She hopes customers feel comfortable in their curiosity as they browse the shop's more than 1,900 products, including the largest selection of Black-owned cannabis brands in the state. More than anything, she wants her community to know about the abundant healing properties of marijuana. Bouncing between towering displays of flower, salves, soft drinks and even barbecue sauce (the product Howze feels best sums up Gorilla Rx), it feels like this supreme high could only have been crafted here, on Crenshaw Boulevard.
A thoroughfare that has earned its rightful spot as the artery of Black life in Los Angeles — and even the West Coast — Crenshaw is home to historic landmarks by architect Paul R. Williams, epic lowrider cruising shows and the forthcoming $100 million Destination Crenshaw project. It's also the place where the late great Nipsey Hussle made a commitment to "buy back the block," urging Black residents to build generational wealth in response to the gentrification of South L.A.
The 'Shaw inevitably branches into a network of smaller arteries, pumping life into neighboring streets like King Boulevard, where Beatty and Andersen are both proud to bring their young sons to work with them. While Beatty hopes Josephine & Billie's offers her son more than she had as a child, it's also so much more than that.
"My son looks at cannabis as a healing plant and he thinks that mom sells plant medicine. I want him to be able to keep that view and understand where that comes from and not let 70 years of prohibition stop 3,000 years of medicine usage," Beatty says through tears.
As groundbreaking as L.A.'s social equity program first appeared, there's still much work to do to create sustainable pathways to entrepreneurship for other Black applicants.
Earlier this spring, the Department of Cannabis Regulation announced a new partnership with the L.A. County Bar Association to offer limited pro bono legal services, expand financial assistance and develop a new community engagement program.
"This is how we start to build an infrastructure that we stand upon so that more folks have access," says Cat Packer, the agency's executive director.
Packer, who was raised between Virginia and Ohio, was tapped for the role by L.A. Mayor Garcetti in 2017. The Ohio State University-trained lawyer previously served as the California Policy Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, where she helped implement the state's recently passed Marijuana Policy Act.
As the city's first pot czar, Packer, 30, knows that neither she nor the department have all the answers. However, she hopes that the agency's equity efforts can serve as a starting point for other jurisdictions, including New York and Illinois. She wants to see federal government and private sector stakeholders make more of an effort to unlock additional resources.
"We are collectively responsible for the disparities and, as such, we need to be collectively responsible for the solutions to those disparities," Packer says.
For years, Keith has put every fiber of her being into Gorilla Rx, making sure her mother, aunties, daughters, nieces and everyone else can claim their piece of California's Green Rush. But she doesn't embrace the "self-made" label because from day one it has been a family affair. "We've moved in these streets. This has been our blueprint, in our DNA," Keith says.
Nevertheless, Keith's presence looms large in the neighborhood. If you walk out of Gorilla Rx and head south on Crenshaw to the corner of West 43rd Street, you can't miss the 78' by 25' mural depicting Keith in profile. Adorned with large hoop earrings and her hair tied up, Big Kika rests between two stained window-esque columns framed by the words "Black Women Get Us Higher." First off, it's stunning. But perhaps a bit surprising, since the work has nothing to do with cannabis.
"We've always been directed to things that ascend. Watching my mother and grandmother going above all of it — whether it's the racism, whether it's the death in our communities, all of those things — we take in so much, but we still ascend past that," Keith says.
Harnessing the ingenuity and determination of those who came before them, Keith and Beatty are aiming to deliver new highs, on every level. Cannabis is their vessel of choice, but they're forging a path that they hope will lead their families, their communities and their city to a new future.