Higher Profile: Anthony Winston III, Engineer

The first time engineer Anthony Winston III, PE, consulted on an indoor agricultural farm in California, he was told it was a “tomato” operation.

“I took a look at the building on Google Maps, because it just didn’t sound right – and when I noted the equipment on the roof I knew something was off,” he explained. “When I got there and realized they were a fully licensed and legal cannabis operation under the newly regulated market in California, I told them they could have told me the truth and I wouldn’t have minded.”

The experience gave him a new perspective on just what it was like working within the cannabis industry. Even though the plant is legal in the state, Federal laws stand, with licensed farmers and manufacturers in the space afraid to let an engineer know what they were doing upfront – fearful he’d say no.

Aside from the secrecy of it all, Winston realized the very building housing this major operation, requiring a serious electrical installation and all that implies, was in disrepair in a sketchy neighborhood, at best. This legal, licensed company couldn’t find a better location or building due to the very nature of the business and the stigma involved.

“The first time I was handed a stack of cash as payment for work I realized just what a travesty it is,” he added. “Imagine trying to do business like that – with large sums of money. It’s just not right.”

Courtesy Anthony Winston III

Discrimination: Black, Brown & Green

Discrimination is nothing new to Winston, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. It’s a part of the city that’s historically gotten a bad rap for crime, with the Black population targeted.

During former South Side resident and first Black President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, Chicago was wrongly named the top city for murders. The political smear was corrected, however, as the city ranked tenth on the list at the time. Crime data pulled from the FBI, city police officials, and the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, put St. Louis, Missouri in the number one slot of 65 cities, with Chicago at 28.

In actuality, the region south of the city is diversified, with upper, middle, and lower class neighborhoods.

The misinformation on crime and the fear that ensues on this and other cities boasting higher populations of people of color can be readily traced back to political propaganda. Eerily similar to the way cannabis has been politicized and demonized.

In fact, the plant has been used systematically to discriminate against Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and even women, over the decades. Look no further than the 1936 propagandist film, Reefer Madness, and see that just one puff of “the marihuana” turns women into whores.

Winston, who considers himself a lifelong student of Black history, said while he understands the pain of discrimination within many groups of minorities, he can’t compare his own experience.

“I try not to compare struggles,” he shared. “My struggle as a Black man is different than that of, say, an LGBTQ+ person. You can’t equate it. You can equate the absolute absurdity of someone trying to get plant medicine and assistance, without having to buy expensive pharmaceuticals. In that respect, both are absurd. No one wants or should be treated unfairly – especially when it equates to the safety and well-being of their own bodies.”

Courtesy Anthony Winston III

Engineered for the Plant

Winston was educated at Arizona State University, earning his Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, with an emphasis in Power Transmission and Distribution. He later earned his Professional Engineering (PE) certification.

His company, Winston Engineering Inc., established in 2015, is the only Black-owned MEP and civil engineering firm in California, operating in multiple states and Canada. 

“After working on that first warehouse in Los Angeles, everything snowballed. Because of the discrimination in the cannabis industry, when they find a professional willing to work, introductions by word-of-mouth are common. We were working on another warehouse in Long Beach and a neighbor stopped in that was doing extractions, so we worked on his facility. He was the first license holder in Long Beach for extractions.”

Winston’s company employs 10, providing mechanical (HVAC), electrical, plumbing (MEP), and civil engineering for a wide variety of cannabis related buildings, including cultivation, extraction, manufacturing, retail, and distribution.

Courtesy Anthony Winston III

Helping Himself, Helping Grandma

When California legalized, Winston tried an edible for the first time.

“I’ve always been an athlete, and still have knee pain from playing basketball. Instead of reaching for a painkiller, I take edibles, and it’s been amazing for taking care of the pain. I’m lucky, I’m healthy and only use an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma.”

Helping himself with the plant was one thing, but helping Grandma was everything.

“My grandmother has a lot of medical conditions, and at one point she was taking well over a dozen medications that left her in an almost sleepy, zombie state,” he shared. “I convinced her to try cannabis, and gave her a five milligram gummy to start with. So far, she’s cut her medications down by half and she’s back to being herself again.”

Aside from his cannabis use as medicine, he’s also changed his diet over the years to vegetarian, leaning to vegan, after his daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, including dairy.

In a study published by the National Institute of Health (NIH), it was found that increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet for just two weeks, raises endorphins and creates dopamine in the brain, successfully treating depression.

We in the cannabis caregiving space know that adding superfoods or super plants, like cannabis, also raises endorphins and creates dopamine, while addressing all our biological systems, creating homeostasis or a place where illness cannot dwell.

“I do my best to stay as natural as possible, and I love the cannabis plant and all its possibilities,” he added.

Courtesy Anthony Winston III

Social Equity in Real Time

“When dispensaries start looking like Apple stores, it’s time to let Black and Brown people out of jail.” – Anthony Winston III

Social equity in the cannabis space means bridging the gap between the once illicit market, into the regulated market, for those who might have been marginalized within the failed War on Drugs.

In other words, if you were part of the cog in the wheel of meeting supply and demand of the world’s most beloved and illicit plant, chances are you might not have the wherewithal to come into compliance in a legal market, with all that implies.

“What the end result of helping people in the social equity space should be is setting people up to start-up and run a business, simply put,” he said. “What that looks like in real time is, we volunteer our time with various social equity groups around the country, teaching them about avoiding pitfalls when designing a facility.”

How they find people to mentor varies. Quite often Winston meets social equity organizers at various cannabis conferences.

“I’ll talk to them about everything I know about starting up and business, engineering, and everything else in between,” he said.

One big inspiration came when he heard Tracy Ryan, founder of CannaKids and mother of Sophie Ryan who has been using cannabis oil in tandem with traditional therapies to treat a brain tumor since she was nine months old.

“When I first [started] working in the cannabis industry, I thought of it as a money making opportunity,” he admitted. “Then, I heard Tracy Ryan speak and met her daughter, Sophie, and that really pulled at my heartstrings. When you begin to hear the stories of cannabis patents dealing with real illness, it changes everything.”

Winston said he’s seen the impacts of the War on Drugs firsthand, with numerous family members locked up over the years.

“Recently, a cousin was released from prison after spending the better part of his twenties in jail,” he said. “He missed out on the years … where he might have developed his own business. This is a common tale within the Drug War.”

The feeling is that those in the industry with the ability to lead in this way, have an obligation to help those coming up. It doesn’t just mean writing a check or adding a logo in support to your website. The victims of the failed War on Drugs, and the inequities that ensue with people of color, add another layer to the wrongs that need to be righted now.

For more information on Winston Engineering Inc visit: https://winstoneng.com/

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Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs Acquires Assets To Launch Largest Black-Owned Cannabis Company

Entertainment mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs announced on Friday that he is launching what is billed as the world’s largest Black-owned cannabis brand with the $185 million purchase of existing licensed marijuana operations in three states. Combs is purchasing the business operations from Cresco Labs and Columbia Care, two multistate cannabis operators that are required to divest the assets to complete a previously announced merger of the two companies.

The transaction, if approved by state and federal regulators, would add to Combs’ portfolio of enterprises, which includes ventures in entertainment, media, fashion, and alcohol. Combs, the chairman and CEO of Combs Enterprises, said that he is purchasing the assets to address the inequities of the cannabis industry, where 81% of businesses are white-owned, according to a legislative report released in Maryland this week. 

Many Black entrepreneurs have said that difficulties with financing make it difficult for all but deep-pocketed business owners to succeed in the cannabis industry. The barriers to entering the legal market follow decades of marijuana prohibition that saw Black and Brown people disproportionately arrested and jailed for cannabis-related offenses.

“It’s diabolical,” Combs told the Wall Street Journal. “How do you lock up communities of people, break down their family structure, their futures, and then legalize it and make sure that those same people don’t get a chance to benefit or resurrect their lives from it?”

“My mission has always been to create opportunities for Black entrepreneurs in industries where we’ve traditionally been denied access, and this acquisition provides the immediate scale and impact needed to create a more equitable future in cannabis,” Combs said in a statement. “Owning the entire process — from growing and manufacturing to marketing, retail, and wholesale distribution — is a historic win for the culture that will allow us to empower diverse leaders throughout the ecosystem and be bold advocates for inclusion.”

$185 Million Deal

Under the deal, a new firm controlled by Combs will acquire nine cannabis retail stores and three production facilities in New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. In return, Combs will pay $110 million in cash and another $45 million in debt financing, plus future payments based on growth benchmarks for a total amount of up to $185 million. Combs said he will leverage the new enterprise to help increase Black participation in the cannabis industry, a goal supported by Cresco CEO Charlie Bachtell.

“For an industry in need of greater diversity of leadership and perspective, the substantial presence of a minority-owned operator in some of the most influential markets in the country being led by one of the most prolific and impactful entrepreneurs of our time is momentous…and incredibly exciting,” Bachtell said in a statement on Friday. “We’re thrilled to welcome Sean and his team to the industry.”

In March, Cresco Labs announced that it would acquire Columbia Care in a $2 billion stock transaction. The merger of the two enterprises forms one of the largest cannabis companies in the United States, with operations in 18 states with legal cannabis including early adopters Colorado and California. But regulations governing the cannabis industry and business licenses require the companies to divest some assets in states where their operations overlap, such as Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio.

Bachtell said that the deal with Combs is bigger than the transaction itself, “and it couldn’t come at a time of greater significance and momentum.”

“We’ve seen executive power exercised to address matters of cannabis injustice, we’re seeing bi-partisan support for elements of federal reform, and we’re seeing some of the largest and most influential states in the country launch cannabis programs prioritizing social responsibility– this announcement adds to that momentum,” Bachtell said. “For Cresco, the transaction is a major step towards closing the Columbia Care acquisition and our leadership position in one of the largest consumer products categories of the future.” 

Largest Black-Owned Cannabis Company

The transaction is Combs’ first venture into the cannabis industry and will create the United States’ first minority-owned and operated, vertically integrated multistate cannabis operator in a sector projected to grow to $72 billion by 2030. The vertically integrated operations in New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts will provide Combs’ new company the ability to grow and manufacture cannabis products, while wholesale and distribution assets will market those branded products to licensed dispensaries in major metropolitan areas including New York City, Boston, and Chicago. The deal also includes retail stores in all three states. 

“These assets offer the Combs’ team significant market presence, enabling them to make the most impact on the industry as a whole,” said Columbia Care CEO and Co-founder, Nicholas Vita. “It’s been clear to us that Sean has the right team to carry on the strong legacy of these Columbia Care and Cresco Labs facilities, and we can’t wait to see how he helps shape the cannabis industry going forward through his entrepreneurial leadership and innovation.”

The deal is subject to several conditions, including regulatory approval, clearance under antitrust rules and the closing of Cresco Labs’ acquisition of Columbia Care. The companies are also in the process of divesting other assets to meet regulatory requirements ahead of the closing of the deal.

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Only 4% of Cannabis Businesses in Washington State are Black-Owned

The most recent data available from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) shows that among all of the cannabis business owners in Seattle, Washington, only 4% are Black-owned. A new report from King5 News interviews minority business owners who lost their place in the industry when Washington State legalized adult-use cannabis, and how a Seattle task force is working on change.

Former cannabis business owners Peter Manning and Mike Asai recall what it was like living in Seattle decades ago. “I know that we use the War on Drugs to go after Black and Brown people,” entrepreneur and Seattle-native Peter Manning told King5. “You guys punish us for years for cannabis. And now it’s okay. Now you’re doing it. Now it’s okay.”

“Growing up in Seattle, in the ‘80s, [if you] just simply had a joint you would get five years in prison,” said Mike Asai, co-founder of the Emerald City Collective. “[I’ve] seen that happen with family and friends and acquaintances, you know, for just that.”

Washington State legalized medical cannabis in 1998, which led both Manning and Asai to pursue a role in the industry. In the 2000s, both of them joined a medical cannabis collective, which brought together growers and retailers in a way that was beneficial to the community.

“To be on the bad end, when it comes to cannabis and then revert to be on the good end was very empowering,” Asai said of the collective. “Because of growing up and just seeing the War on Drugs was really the war on African Americans, the war on Black men and Black women in this country.”

In 2015, the state legalized adult-use cannabis, which forced cannabis business owners to shut down their businesses and re-apply for a license—but many Black and Brown business owners were not able to secure one. “To be legitimate and then all of a sudden now being criminalized…It’s been very traumatizing,” said Asai. “It’s been very depressing and painful to see, especially to see all the money that’s been made since the last six years since we’ve been closed. I’ve had to figure things out. I had to do Uber for about a year, just to stay afloat.”

LCB data from 2021 shows that out of the state’s 558 available licenses, only 19 have been given to Black applicants. “There is zero African American ownership in the city of Seattle, and to be supposedly this progressive state, this liberal state, it’s not showing,” Manning said.

In recent years, both Manning and Asai have spoken with the press and attended city meetings to speak out about this injustice. Recently, they both attended a Seattle City Council meeting on July 20 as public commenters urging the council to address the issue.

The Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force was created in 2020 to establish a social equity program, and to issue and reissue retail licenses. It’s first set of recommendations were submitted on Jan. 6. 2022, with a deadline that a final report be submitted to the state legislature and governor by Dec. 9, 2022.

LCB Board Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force member Ollie Garret told King5 that change needs to happen now. “Yes. I mean…what’s the saying? A day late, and a dollar short. Now the community is screaming, ‘What about us? What about us?’ Garrett said. “We go, ‘Oh, we need to fix this.’”

Garret describes the situation as a “failure” and a “missed opportunity.” “Could it have been done different in the beginning? Yes. But this was a new industry. Who knew, who thought about inclusion and Blacks being left out,” Garret said.

According to King5, the Social Equity in Cannabis Task Force is setting aside 38 licenses for people of color. Unfortunately, over half of the licenses are for business locations in areas that currently ban cannabis. “Where we’re at right now, the LCB cannot move licenses out of the areas that they’re in or create new license[s] without legislation,” Garrett said. “We are going to introduce [that] in this upcoming session.”

Manning questions the task force’s view on equity. “What are you giving me?” Manning said. “A license that says I have the right to sell cannabis? But I can’t sell cannabis because I can’t open up in this location because it’s banned. How’s that equity?”

He also suggests that consumers be conscious about where they choose to buy their cannabis. “There’s white-owned stores in our Black neighborhoods,” Manning said. “Ten years ago, you were locking us up for the same thing. White people were making millions of dollars. You’re taking that money out of our community, and they’re putting it in the white community. We want our Black-owned stores in our communities.”

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