Virgil Grant, second from right; next to L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson, center.
Virgil Grant has a been a pillar of the Los Angeles cannabis community for fifteen years, a career which began with Grant running six medical marijuana dispensaries before being targeted in a DEA dragnet and sentenced to federal prison. Yet that didn’t deter him from crusading for cannabis: upon his release he opened another dispensary, and co-founded both the California Minority Alliance and the Southern California Coalition, to advocate for minority representation in the industry as well as rational laws for canna-businesses and consumers alike. Both these groups recently rallied L.A. voters to pass Measure M, a city ballot initiative decided this past March that enables the world’s largest economic market to majorly expand its cannabis industry while clearing a path for city legislators to introduce more refined regulations. Grant recently spoke with MERRY JANE about his professional path in pot, how it led to him to become a proponent of Measure M, and what he believes it will achieve for legal cannabis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MERRY JANE: How did you become involved in cannabis, and what's the path that took you to this point?
Started back in 2002, I was doing patient advocacy work. I was encouraged to open up a shop, because the majority of the owners and operators back then were operating in Hollywood, so there was no service within my community in South L.A. and Compton. So I opened up my first shop in Compton in 2004. There was a huge need for medical cannabis in those communities, but there was no safe access.
When did it begin to seem like cannabis would get big and eventually look like a regular industry?
I got into it really to provide safe access, so it wasn't really about the industry and about the money, it was about providing medicine for patients that needed it at the time.
Once I got into owning and operating a medical marijuana facility, I began to really see the true benefits, not only of the medicine, but being an owner and operator as well. I come from a different side of the tracks, where I was maneuvering with cannabis prior to owning the shop. And it was lucrative then. More lucrative than me opening a shop at that time. But I made the sacrifice and the commitment to disconnect from that side and go over to the legitimate side of business. I knew that it was a future there for me, not a future on the other side.
You were sent to prison. How did that happen?
Well, back in 2007, the federal government started investigating me. It was all due to the city of Compton; a city attorney there had sent me a notice telling me that they didn't want me in the city. It wasn’t that I was a bad operator or I had police calls or anything like that. It's just that for whatever reason, someone, a neighbor, whoever, may have had issue with me. I don't know.
Anyway, I was notified telling me that they didn't want my business in Compton, so I told them, "We'll let the judge decide." So I filed an injunction and then we went to court. We were gonna let the judge decide. [The city] called the Compton Sheriff's Department five times to put me out, and talked to the captain and five times he said, "No, he's legit, we're not gonna touch him."
So they called the DOJ, since they weren't getting any help from the local sheriff’s department. And of course, the DOJ under the Bush Administration, were happy to take that job on. So they started investigating me, and I would see them sitting out in front of the shop, taking pictures with the video cameras. And I just told my staff, I say, "We being watched by the feds, just make sure you guys are doing the right thing and operating a clean ship, check recommendations, make sure we’re on point."
Eventually, they raided all six of my shops. They raided all six locations plus my house. That was the first raid, in 2008 and I reopened the next day. That was kinda how we did things: civil disobedience, continue this, we're not going anywhere, we're gonna be here, this is an industry, and we're here to stay.
About 40 days later they came back and raided me a second time, all six locations and my home simultaneously, and took me to lockup. A magistrate gave me $250,000 bail. I bailed out 31 days later after that. I'm on what they call pre-trial, so I had an ankle bracelet on. About a week or two later, I opened back up my shops, while I was on pre-trial. I mean, you know, this is what I do. I wasn't gonna let someone rob me of my livelihood, not even the federal government.
They came a third time and this time they kept me in, there was no bailing out, they revoked my bail. I ended up going before a judge, and they arrested my wife in the case. And she never worked at any of my facilities.
They knew I wasn't gonna just lay down. So they pulled her in and that kinda made things different. We have five children, I wasn't gonna risk both of us going to prison. So I took what they call an open plea.
Well, I went in front of the judge, and the judge sentencing me to 72 months in federal prison. So I ended up doing six years in federal prison.
And all of my shops, by the way, were licensed. They were pre-ICO [ordinance limiting dispensaries in L.A.]; they were legit.
When did you get out?
I got out, when was that, shoot. Two years, and a few months.
It takes brass to just dive right back in.
There was a lot of unfinished business. I started the movement for regulations back in 2005. I noticed once I got home, nobody continued to move the needle - no sensible regulations, no licensing mechanism. So I felt it necessary to finish what I started. The cannabis community rallied around me. And now the neighborhood council, city council, and the city of Los Angeles have rallied around me. And we started having that conversation with city council to create what we have now, as Proposition M, which just passed [in a vote by L.A. residents] by 70-something percent. So I think the people spoke, and the support system spoke.
When you came back from prison, how did you notice attitudes around cannabis had changed?
You now have more patients that are involved, more people who understand the law. That part of it had grown tremendously. With the Obama administration telling the federal government to leave the states alone that empowered people to get more involved.
What do you see Measure M as doing, and how did it come about?
I see Measure M as being the model for the whole country, because L.A. is the leader of the cannabis industry. Before anyone. Before Denver, Washington, Oregon, was even thought of. 21 years ago we're here, with medical marijuana. Plus this is the number one cannabis market in the world.
As far as what [Measure] M actually does, it's smart and sensible regulations [and] a licensing mechanism. This is very important, because it just makes it black and white for businesses, there's no gray area, there's no limited immunity. There's license; no license. It's black and white. And then enforcement now can be done properly, because law enforcement now has something they can enforce. The limited immunity ban [current L.A. law capping the number of dispensaries] is not enforceable. M will allow the industry to function as a legitimate business.
You've also mentioned that it will support minority business owners. How does that work?
Absolutely. We are still drafting the equity piece, but we want to make sure that these communities that have been most impacted by the War on Drugs are not excluded from the industry. We want to focus on districts where [drug] arrests have been most concentrated and make sure they’re included in the industry.
Now, with Measure M, my understanding is, it's not a [regulatory] framework itself, but it passes the power to the city council to figure out that framework. What are some of the things you're looking for now, now that the measure is in place?
We have a very open council that we’re actually partners with, so the Southern California Coalition is right there, sitting at the table, making sure we are a part of that process.
The whole purpose for Measure M was to create four things: smart and sensible regulations, a licensing mechanism, proper enforcement, and taxation.
We were so focused on the dispensary [in the past] that we didn’t think we needed to license cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, transporters, delivery services. These are all players that have been in the industry for many, many decades. So it's time to now usher this part of the industry in from out of the dark.
That is also done through taxation. [Measure M] taxes 2 percent cultivation; 2 percent manufacturing and distribution; 1 percent lab testing, and the reason why it was taxed so low is to encourage business in the city of Los Angeles. It being the number one market in the country, you want to make sure that cannabis production remains in that number one market.
Not only that, but we're talking tens and thousands of jobs that we're gonna be creating. The average cultivator makes $20.50 an hour. It's a blue-collar job; it doesn't need a degree. Your average manufacturer makes anywhere from $25-35 an hour, and that's another blue-collar job. So we're bringing a lot of jobs to Californians in all of these different areas of the industry, which is super positive for our economy.
You’re talking a billion-dollar industry. California's debts [will] get cleaned up pretty quick, ushering this in. We have to look at this market — the number one market in the world; sixth-largest financial market in the world. It'll be a huge lift for the city of Los Angeles, and then the county. We're going after that next. That's our next stop.
There’s people in Oakland and San Francisco who see the Bay Area as the natural capital of cannabis in California. Why do you think they're mistaken?
L.A. has created the largest indoor-grown cannabis market in the world, so pretty much all of the high-quality product is grown right here in L.A. City. We've always relied on Northern California for the production of our product, but now we're starting to rely on ourselves more. And you'll see L.A. become its own production source and market, as it used to be back in the days where Humboldt was.
But those are our partners, our brothers and sisters up there, Californians, so we respect what they do.