Growing up, San Francisco’s first Black dispensary owner Shawn Richard sold marijuana on the streets of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. He was far from the first person to do so. The Haight gave birth to the 1960s hippie movement and cannabis has long been a cornerstone of the area’s culture.
But now, on December 21, Richard will open the doors of Berner on Haight, the neighborhood’s very first legal marijuana dispensary.
Speaking of pioneer moves, Richard is also the city’s first business owner to emerge from its cannabis equity program. His success is an encouraging sign that San Francisco is taking some action to reverse the long-running injustices of the Drug War, and in so doing, support a Black community that has dwindled dramatically over the last decade.
“This is going to be a store like no other store,” Richard told High Times in a phone interview. “It’s going to be real up to date, real modern, but it gives you that Haight Street feeling when you walk in.”
Richard is partnering with San Francisco-born rapper Cookies a.k.a. Gilbert Milam, already a cannabis industry pro who opened his fifth eponymous marijuana store earlier this month in Oakland. But the two hit a snag when they went to name their Haight Street location. San Francisco regulations prohibit dispensaries from marketing themselves with kid-friendly language, and apparently “Cookies” didn’t cut it as an appropriate cannabis store name in the eyes of the authorities. The two opted to dub the project Berner’s, after Cookies’ alias.
That’s not to say that city bureaucracy hasn’t assisted the project in other ways. Richard is the first graduate of the San Francisco Office of Cannabis’ equity program, which prioritizes and gives financial support to businesses led by entrepreneurs who have been previously impacted by the War on Drugs; low income would-be business owners; longtime city residents; and those who live in low income neighborhoods.
The city also requires all prospective cannabis business owners to demonstrate how they will support equity partners to take part in the industry. But the equity program remains largely undefined, notwithstanding a series of six-week educational workshops that have been offered for potential entrepreneurs.
With his history of activism in the community, Richard was a natural choice for the program’s first equity partner. He started a 501(c)3 named Brothers Against Violence over 25 years ago.
He also spent three years at Folsom State Prison for selling cocaine. He first started dealing at 13, and found it hard to leave the illegal industry. He returned to selling drugs after his incarceration, and really only got out of the game in 1995 when his little brother died as a result of gun violence.
Since founding Brothers Against Violence, Richard has been working to keep his community members safe. But when the opportunity arose to open a cannabis dispensary with assistance from the city government, Richard knew he had to take it.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not getting any younger,’” he remembers. “I need to start chapters in my life. Now, not only can I put together a retirement plan for myself, I can put together money for my family, and this could rekindle multi-generational wealth.”
And the chance to become the Haight’s first legal dispensary owner, after all the world famous neighborhood’s decades of smoke-filled street corners, seemed too good to be true.
“When the opportunity came and I heard that everybody was trying to get up on Haight — me and my dude, we just work smarter,” says Richard. “Just put it into play.”
Richard’s family has lived in the nearby Fillmore neighborhood for generations — his grandfather ran a Mexican restaurant on Haight Street back in the day. The entrepreneur moved to the Bayview neighborhood after his mother passed away.
Richard is far from the only Black San Franciscan who has moved out of the central neighborhoods. In a city where the average house now sells for $1.4 million, communities of color have been largely displaced. In 1970, 13 percent of San Franciscans identified as Black. Today, that number stands at only five percent.
City Has History Of Targeting Black Individuals
In 2018, a report was published that found that San Francisco’s law enforcement was targeting its Black residents in the policing of drug-related offenses. The investigation was released two years after the city’s police chief was forced to resign after a string of fatal shootings by law enforcement of San Franciscans of color.
Given this backdrop, the city’s previously slow-moving cannabis social equity program seems crucial. A handful of equity partners have been approved, though Richard’s Cole Ashbury Group was the first, and will be the first to open their business.
Local politicians hailed Berner’s on Haight as an overdue sign of social justice.
“Cannabis legalization isn’t coming to the Haight-Ashbury; no, the laws are finally coming to the Haight-Ashbury’s way of thinking, of valuing healing, freedom of expression, and social equity,” said member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Vallie Brown. “It’s exciting and fitting that San Francisco’s first social equity cannabis store will be right here in the Haight, and that it will be led by a man like Shawn Richard who has spent decades in selfless service to our community.”
Richard says SF’s cannabis equity program has a long way to go. In his experience, the Office of Cannabis is understaffed and greater financial assistance would be helpful for those hoping to open their own marijuana brand.
But hopefully, entrepreneurs like himself will soon play their own role in supporting their peers in the cannabis business. “That’s my goal,” says Richard. “To generate enough income to be able to put it in play for them, for other equity partners who are coming after me.”