Burb, Green Label and Coffee & Kush: Partnership over Competition

Everyone involved in the legal industry in California has seen, while being green with envy, the moves happening up in Canada. Our neighboring country to the north legalized cannabis seemingly ages ago at this point (almost four years?), though their roll-out hasn’t been without its challenges.

While I believe we all celebrate the increased access to the plant we care for so dearly, silly federal restrictions aimed at “protecting the kids” have certainly dampened the celebrations. Though they may have more access on paper, it’s actually been more restrictive to build a brand that resonates up there.

Down here in California, however, despite still facing a federal prohibition that requires all its THC wares to remain within the state, it’s clear that the sky’s the limit when building a brand name here. With many of our elite, commanding, top-dollar the world over, even the government can’t contain the hype that’s built off of what most consider to be the best bud in the world. In fact, many don’t even have to have thorough brand identities to pop—just the right goods.

So what would happen if Canada and California combined forces? Could the prolific BC bud make the same kind of waves down here that it has up north for so long? Could the California market make a Canadian brand pop in a way that resonates internationally? Could a brand that finds success down here ride the wave across the provinces? A new amalgamation of brands is betting on it.

Burb Co-Founder John Kaye
Courtesy Burb

Enter Burb

Founded in early 2018, Burb is a British Columbia-based, culture-minded cannabis retailer and merchandiser of quality goods. Led by John Kaye, who serves as the brand’s CEO and Creative Director, the brand was initially founded to support artists and creative movements.

As John tells me, “In a time of corporate cannabis takeover, we set out to build a brand that kept the bridge between cannabis and the arts alive, so we built weed stores that gave us plenty of cash flows to put back into the community.”

Originally born in Minsk, Russia, and having lived in Israel, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, Mr. Kaye is something of an artist himself. Having toured across North America playing in a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band in his youth, it was the business side of things that interested him the most.

After going back to school and getting his diploma, and after a brief gig in finance left him creatively starved, he called his BCIT classmate, Clayton Chessa, with the idea of building a cannabis testing lab.

After a successful exit with their lab, Northern Vine, Kaye saw an opportunity to get back to his roots while supporting a community that was losing its grip in the face of legalization. With Clayton by his side, and with the help of another childhood friend, Steve Dowsley, who had just sold his previous company, the trio started Burb.

“For me, a great brand is defined as a real community. It’s not the logo. It’s not the packaging. It’s on-the-ground relationships—late nights and being in the fucking trenches. You say you’re a ‘lifestyle’ brand? Show me,” John explained.

Burb
Courtesy Burb

What started as a Canadian pipe dream, a lifestyle shop and dispensary to lead, as opposed to follow, the culture, evolved into a full-fledged lifestyle brand. Now with five shop licenses, three of which are already operating Burb-branded dispensaries in Vancouver, with three more on the way—including the upcoming first-ever dispensary on a college campus at the University of British Columbia, Burb has rapidly established itself as a formidable player in the legal market up north.

Alongside their cannabis retail business, the team established a media arm to produce content from industry-leading creators like Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits, and a merchandise line that includes apparel and smoking equipment you’ll actually want to have around.

What’s better, each store aims to provide a unique experience compared to other cannabis retailers. The team is hard at work building their evolution of the retail experience, a creative exploration site, which, while providing retail and merchandise sales on the first two floors, will have two more above, built exclusively for artists, by artists. Featuring specific cultural cornerstones, like music studios, and even potentially basketball courts in the future, it’s clear that pushing things forward was always part of the game plan.

 “At Burb, we’re honoring the legacy and designing the future of cannabis culture” Kaye stated matter of factly.

“Creating My Own Destiny”

Although things have been moving quite well up north, the team at Burb couldn’t help thinking there was more room to flex, both creatively and culturally. In an effort to skirt some of the restrictions plaguing them back home, the gang started working towards establishing roots south of their border down here in California.

Problem Wearing Burb’s Forthcoming Fall Collection at Hall of Flowers
Courtesy Burb

Having been connected with Los Angeles artist and producer Problem for his ‘4 the Low’ music video shoot, it seemed like the stars had started to align.

“For us, there’s a big crossover to the music space. We were already doing it. When Problem’s team approached us to be in his video with Wiz, we started to consider the bigger opportunity, especially after learning about the cannabis business he was building in Cali.” John continued.

What started as a conversation around product placement in a music video quickly snowballed. Burb was looking to make a play down here, Problem was looking to further dip his feet into the space, and it just so happened that Problem’s wife Daphne knew a woman named Chanel, who had an opp set up with her friend Kelly and her husband, Jason McKnight, who he had already heard was a real OG. The pieces were falling into place on their own.

In that vein, let’s zoom out a second and take a look at the other players here.

Coffee & Kush

Problem, born Jason Martin, had already lived several lives himself by this point. Raised in Compton, he surprisingly never planned to be a rapper, or a cannabis entrepreneur. Problem actually grew up wanting to play basketball. In fact, that’s where his name comes from.

“They used to call me a ‘Problem’ on the court!” he told me.

After realizing that basketball might not go according to plan, music—which at first was purely for fun, and impressing women, of course—became something that took more and more of his time. Eventually, it became the focus.

Now, this isn’t a piece on his storied career as an independent artist, but it’s worth noting that after being monetized by other brands throughout his career, Problem saw an opportunity with his last contracted album to utilize all his efforts to build something for himself and for his community.

Originally conceptualized as a merchandise line, Coffee & Kush has always been more of a lifestyle brand—despite how overused that term has become, this one’s it. The thing is, this wasn’t always his lifestyle, so just how much of a difference that equation makes is all the clearer for him.

Courtesy Burb

You see, Problem didn’t start to consume until he was having his first child. While he has memories of the plant dating back to childhood, having grown up with a mother who was growing and smoking as long as he could remember, he didn’t see the allure when he was young, especially with an eye on the NBA. However, it was ironically his mother who eventually got him to give it a shot.

“My mom was the one who was like, ‘You need to smoke. You’re taking on a whole lot at a very young age.” He explained, “So I tried it, and it became part of my lifestyle, in my day to day. All that shit I’ve seen since the early 80s, so to me, weed has never been wrong, I just didn’t want to do the shit my mom did,” he continued. “But the system was running me through it … Then it all happened at the same time. I’m smoking, doin’ music. Smoking, doing music.”

“Let Me Pimp Me For A Second”

Having found success with his music career, Problem began to set new sights for himself. Understanding how his creative content could be used to propel products, the rapper set his sights on diversifying his offering.

“It just came to me: Coffee & Kush. This is what I’m rapping about all day, because this is what I’m doing all day. What I’m using to finish this album.” Problem explained.

“It was really just a unique way to brand the music. Then I figured, so many companies have used me to sell their products, if I’m going to start talking about Coffee & Kush all the time, I need to have my own products. I use my own content to push my own products, not the other way around.”

Before even exploring the cannabis route, Problem had two products almost immediately ready to launch alongside the project: Coffee & Kush mugs (with a bowl fashioned into the mug so you can smoke while you drink), and Green Hour Coffee (sold exclusively through Harun Coffee in LA).

It wasn’t until his friend Mike Asseraf suggested a preroll line that things really started to take off. After putting the pieces together for the Burb video, Problem remembered a story his wife had told him about Kelly’s husband …

Green Label Rx Founder Jason McKnight
Courtesy Burb

Becoming A Pharmacist

Of all the players in this new squad, likely the most deserving of his spot is legacy operator Jason McKnight. Born in Los Angeles, and having moved to Northern California at a young age, Jason has been proliferating the plant since 1996—long before the glamorous industry we all hear about today.

Although he didn’t begin to build his own cultivations until 2001, much like Problem, Jason became familiar with the plant at a very young age. Living with family members who dealt as their primary source of income, cannabis was originally just a way for him to make ends meet.

“It was a survival tool.” Jason explains. “I wanted to make some money. It was a hustle, I didn’t even smoke weed at first. I didn’t want to do drugs. I had seen drugs destroy lives. I was going to play football.”

“But it became something that I loved,” he continues. “I remember the day I smoked … Football doesn’t always pan out. So I was stressed out; I was by myself, and I smoked some weed. My life changed, instantly. It was the medicine I needed in life to really calm me down. And then that became something that I loved.”

His love, plus his fortunate position of being in the right place at the right time, lit the fire.

“I was someone that was from Northern California at a time when there wasn’t good weed in LA. I already knew everybody from Football, but then I became the plug!” Jason recounted excitedly. “I was always wanting to try to advance myself in life, whether through cannabis or hard work. Whatever it is, I’m gonna work hard at it, but I just felt like cannabis was the thing, the future.”

A feeling that he doubled down on when a friend approached him with a $6,400 pound of OG, and he realized that the need for indoor cultivation would skyrocket.

“2001 is when I got my first plants … I was self-taught at that point because indoor cultivation, that wasn’t information that people shared. It was very hush-hush. I perfected it, learning the hard way, going through the ups and downs. It wasn’t always a success.”

“But back then, if you had five, or man, 10 pounds of [indoor] product, buyers would go crazy. There was not enough flower.”

It was at a High Times Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino, ironically the event where Problem performed, that Jason realized he needed to begin branding his work, and Green Label RX was born.

Courtesy Burb

The Dues Paid for Green Label

Despite following the rules set forth by the state at that time, scaling up proved to be a devastating blow for McKnight. After obtaining a delivery license with his wife Kelly, he was raided by the LA County Sheriff Narcos on January 19, 2016.

Having seized his products and property, the state even took his three children. It was clear, despite being only months from adult-use legalization in the state, that the government was trying to make an example out of the trailblazers of this burgeoning industry. However, despite the setbacks, the McKnights didn’t quit.

Though it took four-and-a-half years, the McKnights fought the case tirelessly. After 11 months, their children were returned—which they were told was a fast turn around. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that their now four children are all flourishing in their home, with both of their parents).

That was only the beginning of the battle, though. Upon the return of their children, prosecutors charged Jason and his wife with 30-plus felonies and used a swath of low brow tactics to try and break up their family and make an example out of them. While this also isn’t a piece on the disturbing realities of the criminal justice system in America, it’s worth looking up for yourself.

Again, though, the McKnights didn’t quit. Since Proposition 64 had passed during this process, Jason and his wife began to apply for licenses to become legal cannabis operators while on trial. Although it certainly seems like the whole case should have been thrown out after the state legalized the very products they were selling, that didn’t happen, and the McKnights ended up losing their case.

It was while he was in jail, waiting for sentencing, that Jason found out he was awarded his license—ironically because of the case he had just faced. Jason, with the help of his wife Kelly, built the foundation for his new legal business while locked up for participating in the legacy industry.

Flash forward to today, and it’s a much different picture for the McKnights. Jason is now running multiple facilities, growing some of the best cannabis in the state, and is partnered with some of the most amazing brands and breeders in the world. In his eyes, he went from his absolute rock bottom, to as high as he could imagine, in just a few years. He had already been whitelabelling for others when some Canadians, and Problem approached him to talk, so the deal just made sense.

Courtesy Burb

“You Gotta Become the Avengers to Go Against the World”

“When you know somebody has been through something, you can kind of talk to them in a different kind of way, so I just said I think we can do something really special,” Problem recalled of his first conversation with Jason.

With Burb understanding retail logistics and branding in a way their new partners couldn’t fathom, Green Label’s legacy cultivation skills earned on the back of trial and error, and the creative and marketing engine that is Problem and his team, the synergy between the three groups was almost instantaneously realized.

Although they’re quick to point out that there isn’t one parent company running the whole show, this partnership represents their collective understanding that there’s room for everyone to eat, and everyone to grow.

“It’d be impossible to push that through one brand, in one bag, the way I was thinking about it,” Problem noted.

“And that’s kind of the social equity thing, like you have two groups that come together. You have one person that, obviously he’s gone through the system, whether it’s a conviction or whatever, an arrest that’s cannabis related, and then you have another group that’s supposed to bring the financing, or someone that knows how to run a business. That’s the main thing they’re trying to add. We already got that,” Jason explained.

“This right here is a different crew of guys. I see what everybody else is doing. I get excited just watching how things get rolled out. But this—this is not built in fluff. This is built in a very very true story, and that, that’s what’s going to attract people to us. And then when you get here, the weed is so fucking fire that you’re going to stay,” Problem joked.

“We are not growers ourselves; we always come from the consumer mindset, and we know what we like. We partner with the best—we’re curators first and foremost. When I came down here, and I saw what was happening, I was convinced. This is an incredible team,” John noted.

“We’re basically bringing the future here. These guys, Burb—they’re living in the future. So you’ve got to exchange information. It’s not about who gets what, it’s about the minds melding,“ Problem continued.

“I’m looking at this like, if Martin Holdings is Interscope Records. I know what it’s like when you get a Kendrick Lamar. You can leverage everything. So what if you get a Kendrick AND Drake? Oh wow, they (consumers) are going to buy everything.”

Courtesy Burb

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

So what did this new crew claiming Compton, NorCal, and BC turn out? So far this alliance of brands has seen a handful of their ideations enter the market, and thanks to Jason’s cultivation skill, they’re all smoking proper.

First, there was the California launch of Burb’s cannabis products at Hall of Flowers, including cultivars Butter Tarts and Beaver Tail. Then there was Green Label’s own branded eighths, as well as their new hemp blunt line, which also powers Burb’s Beaver Tail Blunts (which include a plastic beaver tail mouthpiece).

This was followed by Problem’s Coffee and Kush cannabis line, which was released exclusively through Wonderbrett in Black, and Cappuccino, and Mocha varietals. It’s clear the squad has hit the ground running in just a few short months working together.

With plenty of other projects on the horizon, including Benny’s prerolls, Roots Genetics (which will serve as Jason’s breeding and development company), as well as Burb retail stores within California’s state limits, I expect we’ll all be seeing and hearing more from the weed avengers soon.

“I’m pinching myself because, this is it. This is the dream.” Jason concludes. “I’m so excited for these next few years in the cannabis space, just to grow, and to try and achieve even higher goals. Whatever it is, I just want to always have a blunt in my hand like this.”

The post Burb, Green Label and Coffee & Kush: Partnership over Competition appeared first on High Times.

Los Angeles County Earmarks $5M to Combat Illicit Cannabis

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has allocated nearly $5 million to combat illicit cannabis, earmarking the money to address the proliferation of unlicensed dispensaries across the county and illegal marijuana cultivation sites in the region’s Antelope Valley. Supervisor Kathryn Barger announced the approval of the funding last week, characterizing the illegal cannabis growing operations and retailers as dual “crises.”

“Illegal cannabis operations continue to threaten the well-being of our residents, water supply and environment,” Barger said in a press release. “By empowering and equipping our law enforcement partners with the resources they need, we can better protect our communities.”

The funds allocated by the Board of Supervisors includes $2.4 million dollars Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to reinforce its efforts to eradicate unlicensed cannabis cultivation sites in the Antelope Valley and stop water theft in the area. The board cited environmental damage and quality of life nuisances as reason for the move.

The money allocated to the sheriff’s department includes $1.2 million for overtime pay for the department’s Marijuana Eradication Team for efforts to eliminate unlicensed cannabis cultivation. Another $503,000 will be spent on overtime for patrol deputies at the sheriff’s department’s Lancaster station to deter ongoing water theft in the area, and $707,000 will be spent on trucks needed to conduct investigations of illegal grow sites and other operations often carried out on dirt roads and in rough terrain. 

The sheriff’s department also received $2.5 million for its Cannabis Consumer Health and Safety Task Force to combat illegal cannabis dispensaries in unincorporated areas across Los Angeles County, as well as unlicensed marijuana growers in the Antelope Valley. Barger’s office noted that since last year, the number of illegal cannabis cultivation sites in the Antelope Valley area has increased from approximately 150 to more than 500.

Massive Bust of L.A. County Illicit Pot Farms

During a 10-day operation this summer, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement officers from other federal, state and local agencies seized about 16 tons of harvested marijuana and nearly 375,000 unlicensed cannabis plants in the Antelope Valley. Officials stated the plants and pot seized in the bust were worth $1.19 billion, although critics claim that estimates of the value of illicit marijuana operations are often exaggerated by law enforcement agencies.

“Inflating valuations of drug busts in the press” is a “fairly common tactic in law enforcement,”  Alex Kreit, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University and director of the school’s Center on Addiction Law & Policy, wrote in a July email to Forbes after the massive Antelope Valley bust was announced by the sheriff’s department.

“That’s not to say it is legitimate; I think it is incredibly misleading,” he added. “But I do believe it’s common.”

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department 2021-2022 budget also includes an additional $500,000 in previously approved grant funding for cannabis eradication efforts from the Drug Enforcement Administration for the county’s participation in the Domestic Cannabis Eradication Suppression Program for the elimination of unregulated marijuana cultivation. 

In a memo to the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County chief executive officer Fesia A. Davenport “recommended that LASD continue to explore grant opportunities to expand their ability to combat illegal cannabis grows, water theft and illegal cannabis dispensaries.”

Despite the legalization of cannabis with the passage of Proposition 64 by California voters in 2016, illicit marijuana production continues to be an issue in the state. Late last month, law enforcement officers in the San Francisco Bay Area seized more than 100,000 cannabis plants, at least six tons of harvested pot and millions of dollars in cash during raids at more than a dozen illicit marijuana cultivation sites across Alameda County.

The post Los Angeles County Earmarks $5M to Combat Illicit Cannabis appeared first on High Times.

LA County To Dismiss Nearly 60,000 Past Cannabis Convictions

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced the dismissal of almost 60,000 past cannabis convictions. The expungements, announced Monday, continue the work of the district attorney’s office to clear past convictions for cannabis offenses as authorized by Proposition 64, the landmark recreational marijuana legalization initiative approved by California voters in 2016.

Gascón said that expunging past cannabis convictions can free those living with the burden of a criminal record and the difficulties they face as they try to negotiate everyday life.

“Dismissing these convictions means the possibility of a better future to thousands of disenfranchised people who are receiving this long-needed relief,” Gascón said. “It clears the path for them to find jobs, housing, and other services that previously were denied to them because of unjust cannabis laws.”

Provisions of Proposition 64 allowed for the expungement of past convictions for activities that were no longer illegal with the passage of the initiative. Under a state law passed in 2018, prosecutors in California were required to review past marijuana convictions and decide if the dismissal of any cases should be challenged.

While serving as district attorney of San Francisco, Gascón moved for the dismissal of approximately 9,000 past marijuana convictions that had been adjudicated prior to the passage of Proposition 64. That work was done through a partnership with the tech nonprofit Code for America, which developed an algorithm to analyze court records for cases eligible for expungement under the legalization initiative.

Last year, the Los Angeles County prosecutor’s office, under then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey, moved to expunge about 66,000 past convictions for marijuana offenses, which were also identified using the Code for America algorithm. However, that list of convictions was created using data solely from the California Department of Justice. When Gascón’s office used the technology to analyze county court records as well, prosecutors were able to identify the additional 60,000 cases eligible for expungement announced this week.

Reform Advocates Hail Expungements

Lynne Lyman, former director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the expungements would help address the profound negative impact of cannabis prohibition, which has been disproportionately borne by communities of color.

“This is the unfinished work of Proposition 64,” Lyman said. “We created the opportunity for old cannabis convictions to be cleared, but it was up to local district attorneys to actually make it happen. Proposition 64 was always about more than legal weed, it was an intentional effort to repair the past harms of the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition, which disproportionately targeted people of color. I applaud District Attorney Gascón for taking this action to help nearly 60,000 Angelenos have their records fully sealed.”

Jean Guccione, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, told reporters that approximately 20,000 of the convictions to be expunged were for felony possession or cultivation of marijuana. The remaining expungements will be issued for misdemeanor convictions filed in jurisdictions that do not have their own city attorney’s office.

In addition to dismissing the 60,000 convictions, Gascón said that county prosecutors will coordinate with the offices of Public Defender Ricardo García and Alternate Public Defender Erika Anzoategui to seek a blanket court order to seal the records of the dismissed cases, noting that “Over 100,000 Angelenos have been impacted by this war on marijuana after the voters told us they overwhelmingly wanted to stop this. … We want to basically erase the harm.”

Felicia Carbajal, executive director and community leader of The Social Impact Center, said that her organization notified the district attorney’s office of the shortcomings of relying only on California Department of Justice conviction records, leading to the analysis of county data and the identification of the additional 60,000 dismissals announced this week.

“I have made it my life mission to help and support people who have been impacted by the ‘War on Drugs,’” Carbajal said. “Giving people with cannabis convictions a new lease on life by expunging the records is something I have worked on for years and I am grateful that we can now make it happen.”

Carbajal said that it can be frustrating to see the legal cannabis industry make millions of dollars while those convicted of similar activities before the passage of Proposition 64 still suffer the consequences.

“My goal with all of this was really to try to put myself out of work,” Carbajal told the Los Angeles Times. “We do expungement work once a month, I’m looking around across the city and how long this is taking and how much money we continue to see raked in by the cannabis industry, and it still doesn’t sit well with me until those records are actually expunged.”

The post LA County To Dismiss Nearly 60,000 Past Cannabis Convictions appeared first on Cannabis Now.

Los Angeles County to Dismiss 60,000 Cannabis Convictions

It was recently announced that 60,000 cannabis convictions will be dismissed in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón and The Social Impact Center, which is a nonprofit organization with ties to government, grassroots organizations and people in underserved communities, are behind the dismissals. 

The decision follows the passing of Assembly Bill 1793, which dismissed around 66,000 cannabis convictions in 2020. The latest dismissals were announced during “Week of Action and Awareness (WOAA),” once known as National Expungement Week. Now, around 125,000 dismissals in total have been granted. 

In 2016, Gascón co-authored Proposition 64, known as The Adult Use of Marijuana Act. It legalized the possession, transport, purchase, consumption and sharing of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to eight grams of marijuana concentrates for adults aged 21 and older. 

“Dismissing these convictions means the possibility of a better future to thousands of disenfranchised people who are receiving this long-needed relief,” Gascón said. “It clears the path for them to find jobs, housing and other services that previously were denied to them because of unjust cannabis laws.”

Gascón made the announcement with Felicia Carbajal, who’s the executive director and community leader of The Social Impact Center. “I have made it my life mission to help and support people who have been impacted by the ‘war on drugs,’” Carbajal said. “Giving people with cannabis convictions a new lease on life by expunging the records is something I have worked on for years, and I am grateful that we can now make it happen.”

Cannabis prohibition largely affects the Black and Latino communities, notably in Los Angeles. It remained a problem after the passing of Proposition 64. Lynne Lyman, who’s the former director of the Drug Policy Alliance, believes past mistakes are now being corrected. 

“This is the unfinished work of Proposition 64,” Lyman said. “We created the opportunity for old cannabis convictions to be cleared, but it was up to local district attorneys to actually make it happen. Proposition 64 was always about more than legal weed; it was an intentional effort to repair the past harms of the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition, which disproportionately targeted people of color.”

Assembly Bill 1739 led to prosecutors reviewing past convictions. Unfortunately, the review only focused on cases from state Department of Justice data. Once the Los Angeles County court records were read, three decades worth of misdemeanor cases were discovered. There were 58,000 felony and misdemeanor cases remaining after 2020. Prisoners were unaware they were eligible for dismissal or resentencing. Now, their records have been sealed, as well, in hopes it won’t affect their immigrant status, educational and job opportunities. 

After the passing of Proposition 64, communities of color continued to face injustice over cannabis in California’s most populated county. In 2021 alone, Black and Latino people accounted for over 75 percent of cannabis arrests in Los Angeles. Marijuana prohibition didn’t stop in Los Angeles County after legalization, although it didn’t largely affect white people. In 2019, whites only accounted for 10 percent of cannabis arrests. From 2004 to 2008 in Los Angeles, black people were arrested for cannabis at a rate seven times greater than white people. 

Roadblocks were still in place after Proposition 64 and Assembly Bill 1793, which Alternate Public Defender Erika Anzoategui believes are now being taken down. 

“The dismissal of 60,000 marijuana-related cases by DA Gascón is a pivotal step in reforming our criminal justice system,” Anzoategui said. “This sends the right signal to the community that the nation was wrong in its ‘war on marijuana’ and that criminal convictions for marijuana offenses have a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color. We join DA Gascón in removing roadblocks to employment, housing and education through the dismissal and sealing of these convictions.” 

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A Q&A with Matt Barnes: Former NBA Player Turned Cannabis Advocate

After 14 seasons and nine different teams, professional basketball player Matt Barnes won his first-ever championship with the 2017 Golden State Warriors. Months later, he announced his retirement. The following 4/20, a Washington Post article with the headline “‘All my best games I was medicated’: Matt Barnes on his game-day use of marijuana” is published. In it, Barnes speaks candidly about his cannabis use while in the NBA – one of the first instances of him openly sharing his story with the goal of normalizing cannabis in professional sports.

Barnes has since become one of the leading voices of professional athletes calling for the end of penalties for cannabis use while being an active player. Over the past few years, he’s planted roots in the cannabis industry by investing in his hometown of Sacramento through a dispensary called Seven Leaves. He also serves as a senior advisor to Eaze’s minority-focused cannabis business incubator, Momentum.

As we closed in on 2020, Matt joined us from his home in Los Angeles for a Zoom call where he shared his journey as a professional athlete and cannabis advocate, along with his hope for reform under new government leadership.

Cannabis Now: How have you and your family been holding up during the pandemic?

Matt Barnes: Since I was 18, this is the first time I’ve gotten to sit down. I went to UCLA in 1998, and ever since, I’ve been traveling the world to play basketball. Fortunately, I was able to play 15 years, but then I retired and went right into media. I’m working for ESPN and Showtime, traveling all around the country. Though it’s unfortunate circumstances, the pandemic has allowed me to finally sit my ass home. I do my podcast from home, I do ESPN from home, and I get to spend more time with my kids. I’m a single father of three; my twins just turned twelve, my youngest guy [turned] two on December 7. I’m getting to stay home and do the day-to-day things that I retired to do, that I hadn’t been able to do before. We’ve been blessed.

CN: You have an incredible podcast, All the Smoke, where you and fellow retired NBA player Stephen Jackson interview professional athletes and coaches. Given the name of the podcast, how often would you say cannabis comes up? Are there any memorable guests who stand out when it comes to their cannabis use?

We’ve interviewed guys who are still playing that were a little hesitant talking about it, but you know, we do stuff off the camera. One person who comes to mind is The Godfather for my generation: Snoop. It’s been great to talk to him about the plant and seeing his evolution. He came in as someone that was focusing on just getting high, and I’ve been talking to him more about explaining to the world why [he] uses [cannabis]. That’s been my goal when I talk to my colleagues or former athletes about cannabis – I always encourage people to tell their stories.

Just like the next person, I enjoy getting high, but there’s a lot of benefits from it, and I think that’s important when pushing forward a message of nationwide legalization – to erase the old stigmas of the high component and explain the beneficial uses of cannabis. It’s been a fun journey post-career, kind of being a shield for the guys in the league. I’m one of a handful of people that current [NBA] players look to for questions when it comes to using cannabis or not.

CN: What was your path to becoming this cannabis guru for professional athletes?

I was a product of the ’80s. My parents were functioning drug addicts. I saw a lot of different stuff when I was younger, and I remember one of the things I enjoyed smelling at a young age was cannabis. My parents also smoked cigarettes, and I used to hate the smell of those, but there was a different smell when my dad would light that weed up at the end of the day.

At the age of 14, I tried it. My first experience was terrible; I got a headache and passed out. But I wasn’t a quitter – I jumped right back on the horse and have been using it religiously for the past 26 years. Through high school, UCLA, my entire professional career, it’s been there for me…It’s always mellowed me out, made me more levelheaded, helped with sleep, stress, and the anti-inflammatory components help a lot as well. I played 15 years, I won a championship, and I think my story will help erase that stigma of people thinking it’s a gateway drug.  

CN: Can you talk a little bit about the drug testing in the NBA and what that was like for you when you were in the league?

In the NBA, they give you three strikes for drugs in general. I don’t think cannabis should be called a drug anymore, but it’s still called a drug in the NBA. I had 2.75 strikes in about 15 years. I got caught twice. If you think you’re going to fail, you are allowed to call the drug program and admit yourself willingly. I did that twice even though they are supposed to allow it once. The third strike is suspension for five days, which is a lot of money missed, and it becomes public record. Luckily, I avoided that in my career.

Something interesting in going through the drug program a few times was talking to the guys who run it about how many players were in for cannabis alone. There are over 400 players in the NBA, and at the time I was in [the program], there were over 200 players in just for weed. It’s ridiculous ‘cause the league says they want what’s best for the players, but they’re pumping us full of opioids that are gonna mask one problem and cause another. Then they want to suspend us, fine us and maybe cost us our jobs over consuming cannabis. That’s why myself, Al Harrington and some other athletes are pushing the needle on the NBA. We understand how beneficial this plant is.

If [the league] would do their research, which they are doing now, they’ll find they can use [cannabis] to prolong athlete’s careers. Normally the NBA is at the forefront of all issues, but we’re actually last right now when it comes to the use of cannabis or CBD. Hockey, major league baseball and even the NFL are kind of rewriting their policies when it comes to this, but I think we’ll be catching up shortly.

CN: You have said that you used cannabis while playing in the NBA. Did you use it for stress relief, for physical ailments or both?

At the beginning, it was psychological. I started [using cannabis] at 14 or 15 years old, and I had a really tough childhood – a lot of violence, drugs and abuse. Cannabis allowed me to escape, to focus, to sleep at night peacefully. So, in the beginning, it was more psychological. As I got older, my body was getting beat up with playing in the NBA, so I needed the relief component as well.

I risked a lot smoking it throughout my career, but there was no other outlet for me. People often don’t understand how mental this game is. If you’re fortunate enough to make it in the NBA, you’re a one percenter. Then the mental approach of the game kicks in – it’s really a mental space and a mental game. Cannabis always helped me control the mental side, and this is why I’m a huge advocate.

CN: Kind of like your NBA career, it’s hard to keep track of all the things you’ve accomplished while working in the cannabis industry – there have been so many! Can you give us a run-down of some favorite projects/ventures?

MB: My first thing is advocacy. The second I retired, I started speaking [about cannabis]. I was able to executive produce a piece for Bleacher Report called B/R x 4/20, and it was the first time you ever saw retired NBA and NFL players smoking cannabis on television, telling the world why [they] used it. I was kind of worried about how the world was gonna take to professional athletes on TV smoking weed, but it was nothing but positivity. That paved the way for me to freely speak for it.

I teamed up with UCLA for a little bit to work on their cannabis research program. I’m a part owner of Seven Leaves, which is a cannabis company in my hometown of Sacramento. We’re growing under 3,000 lights right now and really making a splash in the space. I teamed up with Eaze and have an advisory role on their Momentum Program, helping get into the social equity space and allowing people of color to have an equal opportunity. If you look at the numbers, there are only about 3 percent people of color in the cannabis space, which is terrible in my opinion. I’m proud to say I’m really helping push this movement forward.

The NBA vet talks cannabis use in the league, pushing Biden on the ’94 crime bill, and being a cannabis advocate and father.
CN: How do you feel about the equity programs that are in place now. Do you think that they’re effective at all, or do they still have a long way to go?

MB: It’s a lot to handle. Starting them was the right thing to do, but starting and actually finishing are two different things. I think there’s plenty that needs to be learned in the process. You are giving people who have never run or owned a business the opportunity to compete in a very competitive market. That’s why I think a lot of the minority [business owners] don’t last – because our people don’t have expertise in running businesses overall. I think there should be programs that allow [people of color] to be part of [the industry] but also educate them, which I think is a huge part of anyone’s success. The Momentum Program through Eaze is educating [people], and there’s a handful of other programs out there that are teaching people the ropes, so when they get in a position to secure licensing and try to go vertical in their business, they’re fully equipped.

CN: If you could pick one thing to change about the cannabis industry right now, what would it be?

MB: Just equal footing for minorities. That’s it. Like I’ve said, I think we were affected most by [the War on Drugs] but are still last in line. We missed prohibition, we missed the Gold Rush, and we can’t miss this Green Rush. That is my goal coming into this space – to continue to educate people, create opportunities and jobs and situations for people of color to excel in. We’ve been directly affected by this the most – losing our dads, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts, uncles, grandparents either to death or jail because of this plant. We need our reparations for this.

CN: This past year, with the Black Lives Matter movement breaking through to the mainstream, we saw many companies worldwide making statements in support of Black lives like never before. Were you observing the cannabis industry’s response, and do you think they handled it well compared to other industries?

MB: I think it’s important for all industries to do something. Now we’ve pulled back the blanket of how nasty this country has been at times and still can be. I think businesses want to align themselves with our people and in our communities, but I think what is important – and a lot of businesses miss the boat with this – is they’re trying to fix stuff in our communities with nobody from our communities guiding them. That’s why I think it’s important for myself to be a part of this movement.

For example, if you have no idea what my community is like, or what Compton is like, or the Chicago ghettos, how can you effectively help? Sometimes money is thrown at the biggest name or the biggest corporation, and they may not actually be doing the best work for those communities. It takes a little bit of due diligence; these companies need to be doing their homework.

CN: We saw a video of you bringing that sentiment to the national stage when you were pushing Biden about the controversial 1994 crime bill*. What was that moment like, and how did you feel about his response?

MB: The moment was surreal. I wasn’t gung-ho about Biden and Harris because with both of their track records, they’ve done a lot of damage in our communities. But I got the opportunity to go out there and talk to him and meet him, speak for him at a rally and go to some voting polls. He wanted minorities to vote for him, and the first thing that people are going to bring up is the crime bill. Hearing him break down the crime bill, describing the parts that he was against while understanding that he couldn’t get everything that he wanted, he went with what was presented after there was pushback – because we needed something at that time. I’m not saying the crime bill was the answer, but we needed something. The government put guns and drugs in the hood in the early ‘80s. I was just excited at the opportunity to get to talk to [Biden], and I really felt like we helped him get in office. Now our job is to hold him and Kamala Harris accountable.

*The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, now known as the 1994 crime bill, gave billions in funding to state prisons and police while disenfranchising people of color.

CN: Do you think decriminalization and adult-legalization will continue to be led by the states, or will the Biden-Harris administration bring about federal cannabis laws?

MB: I’m hoping state-by-state [cannabis legislation] continues, but it would be great to get a federal overhaul and just legalize it. Once we figure out a sweet point for taxation, this is going to be a huge revenue maker for all these states. Cannabis is the one thing that brings everyone together. I feel like if everyone smoked weed, the world would be a better place overall, and that’s no bullsh*t. Hopefully this plant can not only bring financial stability to states across the country, but also bring people together.

CN: Since you are a father and family man, as well as a cannabis advocate, have you had any talks about the plant with your kids?

MB: You know, we had that conversation when [my twins] were…about nine maybe? I never smoke in front of my kids, but one night I put them to sleep and went out to smoke a joint by the pool. I guess one of the boys had looked through their window and saw me smoking because they came down the next morning and said, “Dad, if you smoke cigarettes, your lungs are gonna turn black!” So, I kept it real and said, “You know how Daddy plays basketball and his back, knees and ankles hurt? When they give me medicine [for the pain], it gives me an upset stomach. And when I smoke a joint, it makes all my pain go away and helps me sleep.” One of the twins was like, “Oh, okay. Well, Dad my ankle hurts. When can I smoke?” I was like, “Oh sh*t.” [Laughs]

CN: This is for the weed nerds out there. Can you tell us what strains you’ve been into lately?

MB: I’ve been really into our homegrown strains. We have a Blue Slush at Seven Leaves that I’m really enjoying. Vovo and Bon Bons [are strains] from our facility that I’m also really enjoying. If you are in California and get a chance, check those out. Hopefully with our expansion, we can start getting them all over the country.

I don’t smoke as much anymore because I’m really busy, and I’m a father of three, but I still do have my two or three joints a day. I wake and bake; I’ll get a mid-day joint; and I’ll have one to put me to sleep, so I’m across the board as far as hybrids, sativas and indicas. It’s just kind of a way of life. Smoking has always been there for me, and it’ll always be there for me. I will continue to advocate for it, and hopefully help change some regulations in professional sports and even some laws.

The NBA halted their cannabis testing program when the 2019-2020 season resumed in order to avoid unnecessary contact due to COVID-19 concerns. This policy has continued throughout the 2020-2021 season. The NBA has not made a formal statement or confirmed if they will discontinue testing or penalize players for cannabis use.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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