When Washington voters approved legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012, entrepreneurs jumped at the new business opportunity.
Marijuana sales continue to grow, with the industry doing more than a billion dollars in sales last year. But this new industry is overwhelmingly white — and there are many obstacles for people of color.
One African American family is staking their future on pot despite the barriers.
In farming, winter is a quiet time, when the ground rests and farmers prepare for the planting season. But at the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company in Shelton, it’s cloning season.
Joy Hollingsworth walks through the rows of marijuana plants that fill the main greenhouse. “These are the moms,” she says. “And they’re all different strains.”
Cuttings from these plants will be set aside to grow roots.
Joy’s brother, Raft, explains that once they’re rooted, they’ll go into gallon-sized pots where they’ll continue to grow and “veg.” When they’re ready, they’ll be transferred to the production house to flower.
“And then we’ll have our first harvest in April, and then we’ll harvest every week in our production houses,” he says.
Raft says when they first started growing in 2013, it was rough. They were city kids who grew up in Seattle’s Central Area and didn’t know a thing about farming.
“We did not have a garden or anything like that,” Raft says.
But that didn’t stop them. Like the hundreds of people who applied for a pot license, they had a brand new business and aspirations.
Learning to grow wasn't the only challenge. The greenhouses always had something that needed fixing, too.
“Yeah, every year was all about getting better,” Joy says. “Our efficiencies, how we grew outside, our processing from start to finish.”
Joy says this is the first year where everything is coming together. And you know you’ve made it when you’re on TV with Anthony Bourdain; last November, the siblings were featured on the TV show "Parts Unknown."
It was Raft’s idea to get into the pot business. Soon after the law passed, he called a family meeting. He put together a 32-page PowerPoint presentation to convince the rest of the family that this was a great opportunity for everyone.
Everybody thought it was a good idea. But Joy initially held out.
“I thought it was crazy," Joy says. "I thought it was a great idea, the whole concept, but I didn’t think we’d follow through with it."
But once the family bought the land, and their father retired, she changed her mind. “Like Raft said, it was the point of no return. And I said okay, I better get on board and help out."
By then every family member was all in. Their father invested $120,000 of his retirement savings.
Joy and Raft say they’re fortunate to have that. Banks won’t lend money to pot businesses, and there are other barriers, too.
Ollie Garrett, a member of the State Liquor and Cannabis Board, says many don’t have resources that could help them with the application process.
“They don’t have a person that sits there, a bookkeeper … or lawyer,” Garrett says.
According to a recent agency audit, African Americans and people of color represent less than 10 percent of producers and retailers. Garrett says she’d like to change that, but the board is also hampered by state law.
“We do have a law here called I-200, where you can’t have set asides unless you have a process to prove disparity," she says.
I-200 was a voter-approved initiative passed in 1998. It prohibits the state from giving preferential treatment based on race, color, sex, ethnicity or national origin. Garrett says the board wants to help people understand the application process when new opportunities come up. Some local areas have imposed a moratorium on pot shops, creating another barrier for minority entrepreneurs. Finally, some communities can't shake off the stigma associated with weed — legal or not.
Back in Shelton, work hums along. Three employees are trimming buds. Raft ribs his sister as she makes pre-rolled joints.
The Hollingsworths say they reached a milestone. When they first started, they relied on their parents and retired relatives to help out at the farm. A year and a half ago, they were able to employ a handful of people year round and hire seasonal workers during peak season.
The siblings say the best part about starting a business together is working with family. In many ways, this is the new American dream.
“This is the dotcom boom in the 90s,” Raft says. “Everybody’s figuring it out. I don’t know if the bubble is going to burst. But this is the last big opportunity for our generation.”
Joy agrees. “Anything you can do with your family — entrepreneurship, business, being able to create a better life for people — is that American dream that people come to this country in search for. And we’re grateful for that opportunity.”