Photo Credit: Sophia Chang
Raised By Wu-Tang: Sophia Chang's Journey Through the Weed Industry as a Non-Smoker
Photo courtesy of Sophia Chang.
My name is Sophia Chang and I was raised by Wu-Tang.
Based on that introduction, there are many assumptions you could make about me—a perfectly safe and sensible one being I roll that shit, light that shit and smoke it. And yet, you would be wrong. Despite having been weed-adjacent plenty, I’ve never partaken and can’t even stand the smell. As a result, I have spent countless hours backstage, in studios, on tour buses with my nose covered by my signature Gucci leather brim, an ersatz designer gas mask. As the guys in the Clan lit up, they would routinely say, “Sorry, Sophie!” and blow the smoke in the opposite direction.
So imagine everyone’s surprise, including my own, when I found myself working in the cannabis business last year. My friends laughed at the irony but understood it as a logical step in my consistent narrative as a serial entrepreneur. What better industry for a hustler like me than one on the verge of exploding? In the fall of 2015, a friend had asked me to sit down with MedMen, an L.A. based turnkey cannabis management company, who wanted to talk to me about a former client.
I met them after my morning workout and was singularly focused on consuming some combination of protein and carbs. As my muscles absorbed the amino acids and my blood sugar rose, I was able to focus on the new frontier they were laying out before me. It sounded like the Wild West and there was no doubt in my mind that these extremely smart men were on their way to creating a hugely successful and lucrative business. The more they talked, the more questions I asked and analyses I made. By the end of the meeting, they were so impressed by my inquisitiveness and insights that they said,“Whether or not we work with your client, we’re definitely going to work with you.”
They stayed true to their word and last spring hired me as Vice President of Business Development to create strategic partnerships with the entertainment world. At that point, the company was in the nascent stages of developing its marketing strategy which would ultimately give shape to how I would incorporate my network and experience therein. In the meantime, I performed a variety of tasks, including developing new business and helping raise capital for the private equity fund that they had just launched.
I was thrown into the deep end of a new pool and told to swim, a challenge which I appreciated and accepted with full commitment, as I do everything. Admittedly, this was the most mercenary position I’ve ever taken. Outside of music—my passion—the only other industries I’ve dabbled in were advertising and fashion, both still creative, and Shaolin, a deeply physical and spiritual journey that yielded two extraordinary children and a lifelong practice of Chan Buddhism and kung fu. At MedMen, however, only my entrepreneurial curiosity was piqued.
As I embarked upon my steep learning curve, I studied the astonishing medicinal properties of CBD, the strains, science, cultivation, production, regulations, retail, and, perhaps, most importantly, investing. I had never had enough money to invest nor had anything I was pitching to investors so it was all new to me. Chris Ganan, the Chief Strategy Officer, graciously pulled me into countless meetings and calls and answered every question I had about this unfamiliar territory. As a woman of color, it was incredibly empowering to learn to navigate this world.
I was further delighted by Newsweek’s August 2015 cover that touted “Women In Weed: How Marijuana Could Be The First Billion Dollar Industry Not Dominated By Men.” However, of more than twenty women profiled, only five were of color: two Asians, one South Asian, and the two black women were Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes Norton and Barbara Lee, who are not profiting from the industry. And, to my knowledge, none of the women were Latina. And, frankly, in my observations, this is an industry largely dominated by white men who hold the seats of power while women and people of color fill out the rank and file.
Photo courtesy of Sophia Chang.
I’ve never been in an industry so white and male but the idea of a new challenge was exciting. And though the idea of a huge payday was enticing, I’ve never been just about the money. I’ve seen up close and personal the toll the paper chase takes on people’s lives and it’s a price more dear than this soul can afford. I’ve had the privilege of pursuing my passion my whole career and it didn’t take long for me to find my purpose in this field: to advance the agenda of social justice reform. Seeing as virtually all my artists were moderate to heavy smokers who may have sold and perhaps even been arrested for it, it was impossible for me to exploit an opportunity in the cannabis industry and pretend I didn’t know what was going on in the prison system. Jay Z, Molly Crabapple, Jim Batt, Kim Boekbinder, and Dream Hampton’s New York Times opinion piece, “The War on Drugs is An Epic Fail” did a remarkable job of laying this out, as did Ava DuVernay’s tour de force documentary "13th."
The stats are staggering and damning. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest U.S. organization dedicated solely to ending marijuana prohibition, “African Americans and Hispanics are much more likely than the general population to be arrested for marijuana offenses, even though they are statistically no more likely to use illegal drugs… African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, and black males are eight times more likely to go to jail for drug offenses than whites...Of the 210,200 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2013, 62% were minorities.”
The end of marijuana prohibition will indeed be like the end of liquor prohibition: a select few will become wealthy beyond imagination. Big pharma and big tobacco will come in and buy all the small companies and consolidate the market. Billions will be made. The cannabis market is projected to exceed $20 billion by 2020. These returns rival and perhaps exceed those experienced during the dot-com boom and will not likely be seen again in our lifetimes.
Therefore, I believe it is incumbent upon the cannabis industry to create programs to give back to the communities like the equity permit program in Oakland spearheaded by councilwoman Desley Brooks which set aside half of the city’s marijuana permits for ex-convicts and communities that were most deeply affected by the War on Drugs. Though the implementation of the program has recently been debated, the idea strikes me as sound and fair.
The resources necessary to enter into this industry vary from state to state, but the some of the emerging markets are based on the Massachusetts model of a small number of licenses for a large addressable market as opposed to the highly saturated markets like Colorado (where recreational marijuana is legal) which has issued 2,500 marijuana business licenses for a population of just over five million as opposed to just five medical licenses in New York for a population of almost 20 million. Suffice it to say that anyone looking to secure a license in the emerging markets will need millions of dollars to do so. There is clearly a financial barrier to entry to play in this sandbox.
The genius of the MedMen model is that they understood that there is a desperate need for management in the industry because it lacks institutional knowledge. It’s not like a group of folks who want to open up a new French brasserie and poach the staff from Balthazar. Because it was operating illegally for so long, the industry could skirt the incredibly complicated compliance issues. In addition to having a full-time compliance officer, they hired experts in corresponding industries: big agriculture, petroleum extraction, and upscale retail.
In speaking to a lot of my friends in hip-hop who have been approached by people proposing marijuana endeavors, as well as countless investors interested in the space, one thing has become clear: there’s a lot of bullshit out there. The industry is filled with con artists looking to get over and make a quick buck on the ignorance of others.
This is as complex an industry as I’ve ever encountered. For instance, something as simple as distribution, which in music means putting a song up online for free and it’s suddenly globally available for consumption, is far more difficult in marijuana because it’s not federally legal. This means it can not cross state lines. So if you cultivate in Cali, you can’t ship it to Nevada. People ask what I think is the future of the industry in the current administration with the current Attorney General. Back in 2014 the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment was introduced, which prohibits the US DOJ from using federal resources to interfere with state marijuana licenses.
I am not an expert in policy, but I believe the toothpaste is out of the tube. That is to say, though federal legalization might not come as quickly as I wish, I don’t think laws will be rolled back. And I have to believe that one day we’ll look back at the 33,000 annual opioid deaths, which could be hugely mitigated by the federal legalization of medical marijuana, and think, “What took so long?” Never mind the countless other medical benefits that cannabinoids have.
Though I’m no longer full-time with MedMen, I am still working with them and will continue to do so in some capacity. I am truly excited about the possibilities that lay before me and have already had a number of conversations about my next foray into the world. I am a connector and would still love to create bridges between the hip hop and cannabis in ways that would benefit all parties. Wherever I may land, I am certain that there will be a social justice component to the endeavor.
One of the most compelling invitations has been to sit on the board of a non-profit called Operation Re-hire founded by California attorney David Welch, who is of Bajan and Chinese descent. The organization’s mission is to reverse the effects of the failed drug war by offering pro bono legal services to clear the records of drug felons and assist them to reintegrate into society by seeking gainful employment. It has been shown that such employment greatly helps reduce the rate of recidivism.
If you’re interested in getting into the cannabis industry, there are countless paths to follow. Much like the internet, I think there are income streams we can’t even imagine. But if you are going to get into it, I implore you to educate yourself not only about the viability and legality of the enterprise but also the social justice component of the industry at large. And to those of you who are already seeing insane ROIs or on the brink of it, I say do the right thing--a healthy portion of your profits should go towards helping the communities that were most devastated by draconian drug laws. Money may be a soft warm mistress, but karma is a stone cold bitch.
Sophia Chang is a music business matriarch who managed ODB (RIP), RZA, GZA, D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, Q Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, and Blackalicious in addition to putting in label time at Atlantic, Jive, and Universal. Follow her @SophChang.