As Gorilla Rx celebrates one year as a retail model for the possibilities of L.A.’s social equity program, most of those who attempted to take part in the program still linger in limbo with a likely action against a proven anti-Black city council likely.
Despite these troubles, this tale starts as one of conquest and Gorilla Rx founder Kika Keith jumping the hurdles to get open in the first place despite whatever mentality those who approved of the rules had about people that looked like her. Most importantly, Keith continues to rise to prominence as an operator advocate nationally.
She feels that community support accelerated the process of Gorilla Rx becoming a destination for Los Angeles cannabis enthusiasts. She thought it would take a few years to get where they are right now,
One of the struggles of social equity programs everywhere is the gap between advocacy and execution. Many well-intended social equity advocates do not have the experience Keith does in running a retail entity during one of the darkest times ever for the California industry. So the last year will give Keith’s message that much stronger of an ethos while making it easier for her to call bullshit on bad ideas, given her personal experiences.
Keith herself called Year One for the shop interesting.
“The juxtaposition of the celebration of just making it and having so much of a community be in support of what we’re doing has been tremendous,” Keith told L.A. Weekly. “And then you get hit with the real-life cannabis industry bullshit of these taxes. When I look at how much more good I could be doing in the community, and being the benefit of the community.”
When asked the most surprising thing from Year One, Keith again pointed to community support. She emphasized how intertwined Gorilla Rx and its 30 employees are with the community they call home; Keith noted 90% of the staff live in the area.
“Trying to get them up to living wage jobs and be able to have enough health benefits and dental benefits. That’s all eaten away by taxes. So that realization, you know?” Keith said.
Gorilla Rx paid the state and municipality $1.3 million in taxes during its first year in business.
A big number, but we noted it also was kind of cool that she had to pay that much in Year One.
“And that’s exactly what I’m saying,” Keith said with a laugh. “We have done extremely well for our first year and yeah, you know, we, we opened on the premise of what we intended on doing for our community. And I’m just looking forward to being able to be more of a benefit to the community.”
Keith said now that they made it past year one, the next endeavor is the training center next door, for sure. There she will provide training to community members hoping to get their foot in the cannabis industry’s door.
Wider social equity training has turned into a community-based endeavor given the current status of L.A.’s social equity program. We asked Keith if she thought Year One for Gorilla Rx was proof more equity operators would have had a shot to make their cannabis dream a reality had the permitting process not dropped the ball?
“Yeah, oh man,” Keith emphasized. “That might be one of the top things.”
Keith pointed to the model that Gorilla Rx has become. Even the Mayor of London stopped by on the recommendation of the mayor and DCR. But despite the acclaim from officials, Keith is most thankful she’s proving the equity model is financially viable to people who might support her peers’ efforts to get their doors open.
“And as we’re seeing social equity programs roll out throughout the country, we’re also seeing investors be more hesitant because they’re trying to see that it can actually be a successful model,” Keith said. “And we’ve proven that every day we continue to do that. So to me, that’s the big win that we have in our success right now. Folks cannot doubt whether social equity can actually be a viable business model.”
The conversation would turn to Keith’s advocacy and how it’s been impacted by her new experiences. She is hoping not to spread herself too thin because she feels like an asset in the room to the community members to say how it actually works.
“And on the other side, you know, when I go into the room with the politicians, I’m also able to say the same thing, like these policies don’t work in the real world,” Keith said. “And it’s great to be able to have that unique experience of both sides to really positively influence policies and decisions that are being made right now.”
But advocates have it rough. They can carry the ball most of the way, just to have people tweak things to their preference at the last minute regardless of consequences.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen politicians take advantage of… I’ll get calls. I get invited to these groups,” Keith said, noting those calls have included policymakers from New York and LA County.
Many of the time those regulators are asking if the policies they are writing actually work within real operations.
“We see that void with most advocates, because shit, when do you have the time to advocate and run your business,” Keith said. “That’s usually where we see that divide. So I’m blessed with an incredible team that actually has the time to be able to run a store but then go out and share this information, which can actually be a real difference maker in terms of how we really truly diversified this industry.”
Keith went on to note one of the biggest challenges to the social equity program’s hopes of diversifying the industry was the lack of educational support for her peers in the program. Everything from understanding operations to compliance is obviously a hurdle if nobody ever gives you the knowledge.
This only makes the effort to get the training center open the training center that much more critical for the community.
We asked Keith if the forthcoming city council shakeup would lead to more executable paths for the goals of the equity program.
“I don’t have hope in the city council. I’m hoping to inspire community members to apply pressure,” Keith said. “With so much anti-Black commentaries that have gone on, it proves what we’re saying, the need to do something different. And I would hope that would ignite enough of us to be organized.”
Some would argue the events around the anti-Black commentary reshaped the whole narrative of what has happened to equity applicants in L.A. over the last few years. Keith found the situation to be a big I told you so. She couldn’t get meetings with folks. Keith had to have one of her Latino brothers and sisters get in and intervene for her.
“You never had to be politically engaged to this extent to operate a business,” Keith said. “So you never know if you’re doing the right protocols, and have you got all the angles and then they find out that these blocks were real. To me, it makes us push harder. That’s the first thing I saw when I saw the news like, OK, listen, what are the things that were demanding and this is the time to make it happen.”
One thing that might happen is a legal challenge of the entire Social Equity Program. Keith already has received plenty of phone calls on the subject.
The line of thinking here is, a lot of Black families lost generational family resources holding on to retail locations as required, to get permits. Should those people get reimbursed by the city since the whole process was not coming from a proven place of racism?
“There is a growing conversation, specifically from social equity applicants saying that they lost everything,” Keith said. “I’ve gotten numerous phone calls like, Kika can we do something? Is there some legal action? You know, we’re in a situation to qualify for Social Equity, you have to be low-income. And so though I do believe that we have such a strong case to present the key is the cost.”
We asked Keith what she would do if she was one of the people still waiting to get open.
Here, my plan would be to organize a class action lawsuit, period.
“And even though you know I am celebrating, that’s still my first thought. Because how many of my peers have their doors open? Five or six, right? Out of the 200 still to this day. As of the beginning of next year, they’re the folks that are still left, which I believe is 140, who haven’t even gotten temporary approval, their licenses will be abandoned.”
Keith explained the city’s obligation was only to process 200 licenses, not give out 200 licenses.
“It’s something that real effort has to be made on, at this point of organizing still. Because that racist-leaning council definitely held back policies and rules that would have allowed us to advance and open our doors. And so the fight still continues and the only reason why I have my doors open today is that we fought to get these doors open. This wasn’t even handed to us.”
We asked Keith to think back on the wider equity fight and her own personal battle to get open. Were there any particular moments where, at the time, she couldn’t understand the thought process?
“I think as many times as we went down to City Council and the Commission thing, this is happening to us, and this is why the mayor’s office called that audit,” Keith replied. “And then, it was still wrong and they still wouldn’t budge in our favor and we had to go all the way to raising funds to sue the city to get them to change – that’s the only reason I’m in this position right?”
Keith noted as much as they tell people to get out and get involved, the normal civic process didn’t work because the public officials weren’t even abiding by the moral and ethical guidelines.
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