Kiawah Island, off South Carolina, is rich with history. It was home to the Kiawah tribe, part of the Cusabo Nation, the first people who came in contact with English settlers in 1670. Though it’s just a few miles from Charleston, a center of the domestic slave trade, in the late 19th century, sharecroppers chose the barrier island’s low country beaches for vacations. By 1975, Kiawah became open for real-estate development, and the land was sold to Kuwaiti developers who transformed it into a luxury hideaway for well-heeled travelers.
In the spring of 2019, the island’s story was given a new chapter, when Robyn Coles, an investor in biotech and healthcare, decided to host a small get-together at her vacation home there. The weekend retreat, a gathering of girlfriends, was meant to allow the friends to reconnect and recharge. There was Gwen Adolph, a former corporate attorney and executive crisis manager, and her older sister Sherri Blount. There was Karen Phillips, co-founder of the Phillips Charitable Organization and a board member of the American Ballet Theater; Marva Smalls, a media executive and philanthropist; and Rita Scott, a retired broadcast executive and childhood friend of the Blounts. They had been in one another’s social orbit for years, forming friendship around their shared Southern roots and passion for social causes. It didn’t hurt that they were also some of the most powerful black women in America.
That April, over three days, they talked about empowerment, future goals, health and wellness, and a common chord for each of them, “giving back.” On their final day at lunch, as the crew prepared to leave, Adolph puckishly urged Blount to share with them some big news.
Ranging in ages from 57 to 72, the women of Blounts & Moore laughingly say they are “GRITS” — “Girls Raised in the South.”
“Sherri, tell us about your cannabis dispensary!” Blount — pronounced “blunt” — an attorney in Washington, D.C., had recently partnered with friends in a medical-marijuana business that opened its doors in January 2019. Blount, who until then had worked mostly as a corporate attorney for one of the nation’s leading law firms, became partner in a medical-cannabis dispensary in Anacostia, one of D.C.’s African American communities. Adolph recalls feeling nervous about how Coles, Smalls, and Phillips would respond, anxious what they might think of her sister’s involvement with what has been culturally understood as a serious taboo among their social circles. Yet, to Blount’s surprise and delight, the group’s reaction was encouraging. “They all were like, ‘Tell us more, we’re interested,’” she tells me.
Ranging in ages from 57 to 72, the women of Blounts & Moore laughingly say they are “GRITS” — “Girls Raised in the South”: real-life sisters, longtime friends, members of a network of an elite class of African Americans. They served on the boards for advocacy organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Links Inc., one of the most influential and prestigious volunteer networks for black women. Coles was one of the founding donors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Coles, Smalls, Adolph, and Phillips were founding members of the Black Economic Alliance, a political action committee advocating for education, employment, and voting rights. They’re like stylishly middle-aged sorority sisters — your cool and posh aunties, resplendent with grace, humor, and classic Southern charms.
After the initial conversation on Kiawah Island, the women started reaching out to friends, other successful black businesswomen of a certain age who could see past the stigma and understand the cannabis business for what it was: an emerging industry that could one day offer generational wealth. They hit up Earline Richardson, Scott’s sister, a successful retail furniture businesswoman out of High Point, North Carolina; they got in touch with Dale Cochran, CEO of an airport retail concessions company, and widow of the late Johnnie Cochran. She, in turn, tapped her friend Terri Roberts, also from the world of airline retail concessions, who, like Cochran, had built one of the largest independent minority-owned companies in the nation.
Together, they started Blounts & Moore, an LLC investing in cannabis and that seeks to start marijuana businesses across the country. Throughout the pandemic year, the group — which is named after the two sets of sisters who grew up together — has been focusing on becoming the first black-owned multistate operator.
In an exclusive to Rolling Stone, the women of Blounts & Moore are talking publicly for the first time about their efforts in cannabis and their overall vision advocating for more participation by African Americans, from the affluent to the exonerated, and forging a path toward economic equity. These nine women, who have individually achieved great professional heights and recognition, are now a sisterhood of socially conscious entrepreneurs, vying to unlock barriers preventing black Americans from participating in the booming cannabis industry. They represent a social and economic class of African Americans unseen in the cannabis space, ready to shatter the last vestiges of bias against the plant. Their individual and collective prominence and connections could be a game changer in this moment in the cannabis industry. “In our minds, this is just another business that black families will not be able to benefit from if we don’t wake up and be about it,” Coles says.
For the past decade, cannabis has been increasingly profitable for white people, while people of color continue to be targeted by the drug war. Twelve of the nation’s top multistate operators were valued between $59 million and $4 billion in 2019. Most of these enterprises — nearly 81 percent, according to a 2017 survey by Marijuana Business Daily — are owned by white people, mostly white men.
The story of cannabis criminalization dates back to 1933, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had its budget all but neutralized with the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Harry Anslinger, the bureau’s chief, pivoted to cast cannabis as the new public enemy. And like most things in America, this particular propaganda campaign was rooted in xenophobia and racism.
“If you pair this drug with some exaggerated, heinous acts committed by black people [or] Mexicans, you could get the public to hate this drug,” explains Carl Hart, professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. “You could get the public to ban this drug, and if this drug is banned, the Bureau of Narcotics now has a new raison d’être.” Yet, nearly 80 years later, as decriminalization and legalization advances forward, marijuana still accounts for 43 percent of all drug arrests nationwide, according to a 2020 ACLU report. Since 2010, racial disparities have worsened in 31 states, even as many have moved to legalize cannabis for medical and adult recreational use. Marijuana possession remains a pretext for police contact with African American males.
Members of America’s black elite have long curated lives that tried to distance themselves from stereotypes about black Americans. Marijuana figures sharply in those stereotypes, feeding myths of black social deviance. For too long, generations of African Americans, from the wealthy to the working class, had internalized the lie and decried and shamed others for its use. “Decriminalization started that conversation,” says Roberts. “And now that it’s the possibility that that could shift, I think that’s had a big part of the shift in terms of acceptance.”
“This drug was simply used to criminalize African Americans,” says Coles. “And it still is the number-one reason that our youth are being incarcerated.”
For Coles, it was her eldest son, a cancer survivor who extolled the virtues of marijuana’s medicinal properties, who dispelled any remaining stigma she harbored on cannabis. He pointed her to the 1944 LaGuardia Committee Report commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and conducted by the New York Academy of Medicine. The report debunked many of these claims promulgated by Anslinger and others, determining that marijuana was safe. Still, law enforcement relied on cannabis as a vehicle to target and arrest black and brown people. By the 1980s, U.S. policy was in full throttle through the War on Drugs, powered by false claims that marijuana acted as a “gateway drug” to more harmful narcotics.
“When you read the 1944 report, they show that there’s no addiction problems,” Coles says. “This drug was simply used to criminalize African Americans, especially Caribbeans that came to Harlem. And it still is the number-one reason that our youth are being incarcerated.”
The decades-long propaganda campaign against marijuana was waged when most of the women of Blounts & Moore were coming of age. Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Blount sisters had been kids when a group of black students from the North Carolina A&T University staged a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, a tipping point in the civil rights movement. Their father, Alvin Blount, was the first black surgeon to operate in Cone Hospital, Greensboro’s white-only medical facility. Sherri and Gwen were part of the first students to integrate Greensboro’s schools. “Sherri was the first black cheerleader in her high school, which was a really big deal,” Adolph tells me. “So many of the things that my older siblings did as the first, also then paved the way for me.”
As Blount — who had once been named Lawyer of the Year by D.C.’s Women’s Bar Association — began to research the legalization developments in Colorado and D.C., she immediately recognized it as another space where systemic inequities could be replicated. “I just saw [these] barriers to entry as I went around,” Blount says. “You know, we just didn’t have a community, just didn’t have that kind of capital to put up and play in that game.”
Colorado saw immediate rewards, yielding $700 million in legal sales that generated nearly $77 million in state tax revenue in 2014. California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington state, and Massachusetts soon followed. For Blount, the path toward national legalization seemed inevitable. Yet as she educated herself about this new industry — flying to Colorado for conventions, meeting operators, growers, and consultants — she recognized a glaring pattern in the faces. “I saw few if any other African Americans,” Blount tells me. “And never saw any women that look like me.”
By March 2020, Blounts & Moore decided to ramp up its meetings to twice a week. Covid-19 was spreading, and with everyone sheltering in place, Zoom became an easy option. As the world scrambled to fight the new pathogen, the women of Blounts & Moore grounded themselves in unpacking the labyrinth of the cannabis space, deconstructing cumbersome policy and byzantine rules. Cochran would log in from her home in California, while Adolph and Phillips popped in from New York, Scott and Richardson from North Carolina, and Coles from Kiawah, with Smalls logging in from Charleston. The ritual powered the group, and their education was swift, recognizing that despite their expertise — entrepreneurs with the bandwidth, experience, and acumen to compete with other, larger multistate operators — they were coming up from behind.
But the number of licenses available is picking up. In 2021 alone, New York and Virginia decriminalized possession and developed policies for opening the market for adult use, while North Carolina and South Carolina considered legislation to legalize and license medical use. Blounts & Moore, which started out looking at the entire country, has refined its strategy to focus on the Southeast, in particular on South Carolina.
As more states move toward legalization, it underscores a problem for those who want to participate: the head start that the largest multistate operators — deep-pocketed entities that have adapted to existing federal restrictions regarding interstate sale and investment in cannabis — have in securing limited licenses in newly legalized states. Multistate operators, or MSOs, are corporate entities that are able to leverage private equity to fund participation within multiple segments in the cannabis industry with relative ease, setting up operations that follow guidelines set forth by individual states. In Illinois, one of the first states where Blounts & Moore partnered with a local operator, new applicants were competing for limited licenses to grow and sell cannabis within the state. Last spring, there were more than 900 applicants for 75 dispensary licenses alone. New Jersey issued only four fully integrated licenses for medical use in 2019, and only legalized adult use in 2020. Blounts & Moore are now laser-focused on South Carolina and the Southeast, and see it as the next frontier for African American–owned companies to get a competitive piece in the cannabis economy. “We are actively advocating in those states to get passage of legislation that will bring the medical programs there,” says Blount. “Our goal is to be involved from top to bottom [in] the whole larger piece of this industry. We want to be a part of this, because then [we can] create some generational wealth.”
And much like the Anneheisers, Busches, Millers, and Schlitzes — German families who operated both breweries and saloons in the 19th century — the current slate of vertically integrated operators will hold a similar advantage once the federal prohibition on cannabis lifts. This lack of representation cuts close to the quick when considering the depth of the U.S.’s racial wealth gap. “For Black Americans, this is the first opportunity that we’ve had, since the lifting of prohibition, to actually go into an industry that could potentially create legacy wealth,” Roberts told me. In 2020, the cannabis economy yielded upward of $18.3 billion in legal sales. Forecasts project that by 2025, the cannabis economy in the U.S. will be worth $58 billion. Cannaclusive, an advocacy group dedicated to diversifying cannabis culture, partnered with the marketing agency Almost Consulting to create a database of BIPOC-owned cannabis and cannabis-related businesses that boasts of more than 700 entities in the U.S. While promising, these groups are eclipsed by the resources of the most prominent MSOs. States like California, Illinois, Arizona, Massachusetts, and, recently, New York have attempted to create opportunities for potential applicants through what is commonly referred to as a “social-equity program,” either through bonus points or license set-asides, to allow entrepreneurs affected by marijuana criminalization to participate in the economy.
Blounts & Moore are laser-focused now on the Southeast, and see it as the next frontier for African American–owned companies in the cannabis economy.
As encouraging as it is a corrective policy, the need for these measures demonstrates how the cannabis business is also an issue of economic-equity and justice. “It really does say something about the cannabis industry that it’s still so structural, those obstacles are still there, regardless of [the] level of capital,” says Vince Fields, vice president of business development for Justice Grown.
For many African American entrepreneurs and investors, entry into the cannabis industry has typically been through the establishment of retail: opening dispensaries. Each state mandates leases for a physical retail space outfitted to conform to specific operating rules, so to become operational requires a considerable amount of capital; in some instances up to a million dollars or more, which can only be raised through private equity. Further, the expense to compete for these licenses is inherently prohibitive for small companies and operators because of their lack of access to capital. And as long as cannabis remains a federal Schedule I narcotic, big banks cannot loan to smaller entrepreneurs. The supply side of the cannabis economy — operators who grow and produce products that stock dispensary shelves — largely occludes African American entrepreneurs. “Looking at the plant-touching elements of the industry, there’s three components,” Blount tells me, referring to cultivators who grow the plant, processors who turn it into its myriad forms, and dispensaries, which sell it to the public. “What I discovered was that in each of these states, more minorities were getting some of the dispensary [licenses], but we weren’t really involved in those other two levels of the industry. We are looking to be vertically integrated in states that have just limited licenses.”
In these circumstances, the new green economy brushes dangerously close to replicating an old system that had historically plundered black wealth and profited from black labor.
Blount notes that when they sought to apply for cultivation licenses in other states, officials, though well-meaning, often steered toward licensing opportunities within equity programs for cannabis. It’s subtle, yet it incontestably reveals a bias and the incredulous surprise by white people that African Americans with access to capital can even compete.
Roberts sees a parallel between cannabis social-equity programs and past initiatives created to encourage black-women business ownership in other industries. It’s similar, she says, to what she’s witnessed in winning contracts for airlport retail concessions. “These programs are developed because disparity studies show that plans have not been level for minorities and women,” Roberts says. As each state opens itself up to the cannabis economy through legalization of medical or recreational use, the mechanisms for participation by minority and women entrepreneurs will follow a similar playbook: Contracts or licenses will be overrepresented by white-owned firms, and thus will demand an overcorrection with a middling policy that only lets a handful of black- and minority-owned firms into the system, codifying inequality.
And while Blounts & Moore recognizes the value and importance of social-equity programs, it differs from entities seeking that tool as a path of entry into other areas in this industry. It has the professional and social network to raise millions.
“They are the ideal group for diversifying and improving the cannabis space when all of these states pay lip service to social equity and social justice,” Fields tells me. “[It] would be very easy to go after the low-hanging fruit. That’s not what they want. They want to win licenses in their own right, based on the vision and mission that they have, and to improve the space in the states that they win licenses.”
In early April, after 15 months of virtual meetings, endless phone calls, and rigorous due diligence, all nine members of Blounts & Moore met face to face, some for the first time, back at Coles’ estate on Kiawah. “It was a homecoming,” Adolph says. “We started there. We’ve come back there.”
It was a giddy and emotional reunion after a year of distance. “The thing that was most amazing was even though some of us had never met before, you couldn’t tell,” Adolph says. “It was as if we’d all known each other for forever. It was perfect. It was seamless. It was loving.” Roberts and Coles, who talked nearly every day through the pandemic, met in person for the first time. If 2020 was an incubation period for the group, then 2021 is a year of resolute action.
They see a kind of poetry in their return to South Carolina to plot out prosperous futures for their kin and the larger community. “When you think about what Charleston means to America, [it] represents like the DNA of the American trauma. Sixty percent of all enslaved Africans came through the port of Charleston,” Coles tells me. They were dispatched to work on plantations to harvest tobacco or cotton, and in the low country lands to cultivate rice for wealthy white plantation owners, the very cash crops that help build the wealth of the state and, by extension, the nation. “I think of it as the seed of trauma,” Coles says. “You almost have to go right to the sore, to pick the scab, to heal it.”
Could cannabis — the very tool for the punishment of so many African Americans, the very plant that has properties, when extracted, to support multitudes of health problems endured disproportionally by African Americans — also become the vehicle to build wealth to African American communities to thrive on this land? “Your community is only as wealthy as you are, because then you can give back,” Roberts says. “When you’re successful, you employ people, you procure, you give back. It just makes the whole community a little bit richer.”
This past March, Smalls chose her induction into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame to amplify the necessity to end the stigma surrounding cannabis and highlight the promising prospect of the cannabis economy to aspiring entrepreneurs. “I will continue to do everything I can to include the marginalized, lift up the underrepresented, invest in the disinvested, empower the disenfranchised, and open doors of opportunity to every aspiring entrepreneur with a dream to succeed,” Smalls said in her remarks. “Yes, that includes destigmatizing those who aspire to [enter] the new green economy with cannabis.” Among the folks in the socially distanced audience were Smalls’ partners Coles and Scott, while Adolph, Blount, Scott, Richardson, Cochran, Roberts, and Phillips watched online at home and cheered with pride.
For a state as conservative as South Carolina, Smalls’ declaration was “powerful,” according Adolph. “It was the proverbial shot heard around the state.”
Like many African American entrepreneurs in the cannabis space, Blounts & Moore don’t see a separation between economic equity and social justice in the march toward cannabis legalization nationwide. The women believe that their participation is an urgently necessary step for African Americans still too timid to invest in cannabis enterprises, and as a continuation of their shared mission to support African American communities and prosperity. “There is this major economy out there that is about to blow up in America,” Adolph says, “and unless we help destigmatize cannabis and spread the word to every black American who listens and wants to be a part of it, then we’re about to miss a major opportunity.”
Correction: Sherri Blount has been named Lawyer of the Year by the Washington, D.C. Women’s Law Association once, not twice. Two photo captions previously stated they were taken in 2020; they were taken in 2021.