I’ll be the first to admit that owning a dispensary was not a huge goal of mine. I knew I wanted to be in the cannabis industry and I knew I wanted to have ownership but owning a dispensary seemed more like a fantasy than a reality. There were definitely some hard lessons in this new industry I had to learn, but I’m glad I learned them early.
A Place of Ownership
Over the last few years I’ve been working to create a brand, WeedTravelFood, that would help me get to a place of ownership in the cannabis industry. That brand and the content we create has helped me attract different cannabis companies and create partnerships all over the country.
One brand in particular, Revolution Cannabis, pursued me heavily and in September 2019 asked if I would be a brand ambassador for them. They said all I would have to do is show the free products they gave me on my social media accounts and give my honest opinion.
Of course I asked about monetary payment, but they said that because we were still in a medical market (at the time, September 2019) they couldn’t pay me for marketing and promotion yet. The thought was that with January and the adult-use market just a few months away we could revisit terms on compensation then.
I was already familiar with one of Revolution's social responsibility efforts (they donated money to Chicago NORML for 4/20 in 2019) and connecting with a socially conscious cannabis brand has always been important to me. Free weed and all I have to do is talk about it on the Internet? I thought it sounded like a good deal.
”Sure” I said.
Worst. Photoshoot. Ever.
Before they even sent me any free product, they asked to do a photoshoot with me. ”We would love to get a few shots with you in your element, eating and taking pictures of food in a restaurant with some Rev products nearby.” they told me. Ok I thought, could be fun. But I should’ve known it was bullshit from the start.
I get to the restaurant, Green Street Smoked Meats, and the guys are there but they didn’t come with any product for the shoot...so we ended up using an empty container that I brought just in case. I also ended up paying for my food. So the content they pitched me to create for them...I ended up paying for out of my own pocket. Bad way to start a relationship. The pictures came out ok and they used them on their social media accounts, I used them on my social media accounts and everybody seemed happy.
A week later I got a call from them again...“Hey those pictures are doing really well on our social media accounts, we would love to use them on our marketing material.”
Red flags immediately start to raise in my head. For one they still hadn’t sent me any free product like they initially said they would, secondly, they’re a million if not billion dollar company. Why would I allow them to use my image, brand and local status to legitimize and promote their products for free??? The answer is I wouldn’t...but a lightbulb went off.
The state of Illinois already mandated that MSO’s (Multi-State Operators) that want to operate throughout the state needed to help social equity applicants get ownership in the industry as well. There were many ways they could do that. They could set up an incubator program, they could help write the application, or they could do a mixture of both.
Knowing that I qualified as a social equity applicant, I told Revolution that if they wanted to use my image on their marketing material, they in return should help me write my dispensary application...they agreed.
First Cannabis Expo in Illinois
From the beginning... things weren’t quite right. A few days after we had that conversation there was a convention in Rosemont that was the first cannabis expo in Illinois. I went to that expo and didn’t tell Revolution I was going. What do I see when I get there…my face on their marketing material. I was furious.
It was obvious to me that they were going to put my face on the banner up anyway and they hadn’t planned on me being there to see it.
I didn’t have a completed application, I wasn’t paid, and I didn’t even sign any paperwork saying it was ok for them to use my image. To make matters even worse, they used a picture that I asked them not to use and misquoted my survey answers so that the caption on the banner said I thought they had “the best cannabis in the country”...which I DID NOT SAY.
I was pissed. But at that point they already had my image up on their marketing material and I still wanted to get the deal done. So instead of going crazy on them, which was my initial thought, I grinned and beared it, and continued to press for a formal in-office meeting.
The Last Straw
Eventually, we had a meeting at their headquarters in Goose Island October 11, 2019, the day before I left for Senegal. We discussed terms and what I would need for a completed application. It was all smiles, handshakes and big promises coming from their side. I told them I had other brands that had reached out to me about the same opportunities but because Revolution had come to me so early (and they already had my face printed on their marketing materials) I wanted to do the deal with them.
They told me to write a list of the things I was looking for and by the time I came back from Senegal they would have a response for me and a way for us to work together. They were full of shit.
I’d spend most of my two-week vacation in Senegal thinking about the terms of my deal and talking with my attorneys, long distance mind you, about the best ways to proceed. And while on vacation I sent a detailed email to the people at Revolution about what I would need and what I thought terms should be. My email was acknowledged and I was told there would be a response by the time I came home.
When I came home I heard nothing. I followed up week after week then every other week still being told that they were working on a response. But nothing ever came. However, that image of me on their banner was still being used.
And not only was it being used at events like Lyrical Lemonade and Women in Cannabis parties, but even inside Revolution's dispensary New Age Care! I repeat... no paperwork was done.
After countless attempts to make contact with little to no response I decided to move on and I reached back out to other MSOs (multi-state operators) who had shown interest in the past.
Columbia Care had reached out to me earlier in the year, but because I wasn’t as familiar with their company or products I overlooked them. But thankfully they were still interested and we got right to work. In three weeks, we completed everything and submitted the 10 applications on Jan. 2nd, 2020...AMAZING!!!
I would love to say no harm no foul from the Revolution debacle, but part of me will always wonder if I would’ve been in a better position to negotiate with, not only Columbia Care but, every other MSO had I started real negotiations with them earlier than three weeks prior to the deadline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with the terms of my deal but the realtor and negotiator in me always feels like I could’ve done more.
To make matters worse Revolution was still using my image on their marketing materials in their dispensary even after they ghosted me and the application submission date had passed.
Now remember: they didn’t write my application as they promised, they didn’t pay me, they didn’t have anything in writing from me saying I approved of them to use my image, they didn’t even give me the free products they had promised.
Why they thought I would let them get away with using me to promote their products I will never understand, but I'm sure they thought I was just some black dude with limited resources. Instead, they gave me a golden opportunity to slap their dumbasses back.
Cease And Desist
On the second week of January 2020, my attorney Akele Parnell sent (what I believe to be) the first cease and desist letter in the adult use cannabis market in Illinois. It was a proud and sad moment. I really did want to make it work and was still upset because Revolution was the only company I spoke with that had a black man in a position of what I thought was real responsibility. I wanted to make us both look good. But obviously protecting my brand and image is everything so sending the letter at that point was a no-brainer.
Finally they responded, immediately took down everything, claimed some bullshit explanation of missed communications and asked me to come in to talk. We told them to fuck off (at least that was my response, I'm sure Akele was more polite). I share the story now for a few reasons:
1) When I win a license, I’ll have to do business with these people. I understand I’ll have responsibilities to my partners and community, so while I’ll definitely still harbor personal feelings and won't ever buy their products again for my personal use, I wouldn’t let it mess up my business or stop my customers from accessing certain products because of my personal beef. So this is probably the only time I’ll be able to fully tell this story without fucking up the money.
2) If for whatever reason I don’t win a license, I would hate for this story of my experience with Revolution Cannabis to be seen as me just being bitter for losing out on a dispensary. I’ll tell this story now, while I have everything to lose, because now is when I’m most credible.
3) I have to let people (especially people of color) know that while being cannabis “influencer” sounds cool, if you want to be successful you have to run it like a business and you cannot let corporations or people take advantage of you. Most large cannabis corporations (like most large corporations) are lame as fuck and aren’t in tune with the culture. So just like always, they need a smiling black or brown face to let people know they’re “cool”. Don’t allow yourself to get played and used to prop them up. No matter how simple and easy the deal sounds, get it in writing and lawyer up. Revolution was stupid enough to underestimate me and I responded accordingly, but I'm sure this happens often to many POC in the industry.
Now I can warn the public and the cannabis industry about culture vultures like Revolution Cannabis and for that I’m grateful.
Photographs by Dennis Thompson