Legendary Haight Street Gets a New, Legal King of Weed

This past Valentine’s Day, Shawn Richard stood before the San Francisco Planning Commission and made the case for why the board should let him open the first cannabis dispensary in the city’s legendary Upper Haight neighborhood.

Given the Haight’s legacy as the epicenter of the weed-fueled counterculture movement, his shop would be historically significant. But it would be notable for more than its physical address: Richard is the first approval in San Francisco’s cannabis equity program, which is intended to “lower barriers to cannabis licensing for those hardest hit by the War on Drugs”—whether that’s for growing, distribution, or dispensaries.

Three decades ago, Richard was sitting in Folsom State Prison, doing a three-year stint for dealing cocaine. He’d grown up near the Haight, specifically at the Boys Club (now known as the Boys and Girls Club), where he spent pretty much every hour he wasn’t at school. He began selling drugs at 13, got busted and did his time at Folsom, and began selling again upon his release. But on Easter Sunday, 1995, his little brother was gunned down, “trying to be like his big brother,” Richard told the Planning Commission. Devastated, Richard quit dealing and founded a nonprofit called Brothers Against Guns, which to this day works to reduce gun violence in the city.

His pitch worked, and the commission gave him their blessing to open up shop. These weren’t the people that sent him to prison three decades ago, obviously. But an equity program like this one, which went into effect in 2018, means giving opportunities in the booming cannabis industry to those who’ve been affected by the War on Drugs—in particular people of color like Richard. While black and white Americans consume cannabis at about the same rate, black Americans are almost four times as likely to be arrested for possession.

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“Don’t give us no pity party,” he tells me in a coffee shop on Haight Street, next door to his under-construction dispensary. “We’re talking about the government. They will never admit wrongdoing, and that’s OK. But if you read between the lines, if you come from where I come from, you know. It’s their way of saying we’re sorry.”

Passing a resolution is only one piece of what it takes for the city to get that apology right. As with virtually every aspect of cannabis, from our understanding of the plant’s biology to the environmental effects of outdoor cultivation, social scientists know little about how equity programs like this might work best. In Oakland, slow-moving bureaucracies, among other things, have caused equity applicants to struggle to launch their businesses. Yet equity programs like those in San Francisco and Oakland still hold the promise of righting historical wrongs. “Looking at the racist history of the drug war, it’s important that equity be in the conversation around legalization,” says Rodney Holcombe, staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.

But because the drug is still considered a schedule I substance by the federal government, launching a business has extra hurdles. “Traditionally, with most businesses, folks have access to banks to obtain loans,” Holcombe says. “That just doesn’t exist.” If you don’t already have the cash, you’re going to have a hard time lining up the capital needed to rent a storefront, acquire stock, or pay workers.

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