Although the cannabis industry is experiencing accelerated growth, more than 40.000 people are still incarcerated for cannabis in the United States.
Mary Bailey is the managing director of The Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a non-profit dedicated to gaining the release of cannabis prisoners. On Thursday, she moderated a panel at Benzinga’s Cannabis Capital Conference in which they discussed the effects of cannabis prohibition, and the transition of legacy cannabis to formal regulatory frameworks.
“I have a couple of legends from the industry, come on up everybody!” Bailey said as she welcomed Richard and Rick DeLisi, legacy operators and co-founders of DeLisioso LLC, Marie Montmarquet, also a legacy operator and co-founder of MD Numbers Inc; Willie Mack, CEO of Frank White and Stephanie Shepard from LPP.
L to Rt: Stephanie Shepard, Marie Montmarquet, Willie Mack, Rick DeLisi, Richard Delisi, Mary Bailey
The Impact Of Prohibition: Rebuilding Lives And Families Post-Incarceration
The panel members shared their experiences about the impact of prohibition and the importance of guaranteeing the integration of returning citizens.
Richard DeLisi served 32 years in prison (of a 99-year sentence) for smuggling cannabis and now has a legal cannabis brand name DeLisioso, which launched on 4/20 in Florida in association with Truelieve TCNNF. Their product sold out in two hours.
His son, Rick DeLisi, who was eleven years old when his father was imprisoned, is now the CMO of the cannabis company. As a child, Rick experienced firsthand the effects of cannabis prohibition on families. “When my father went to prison (...) I saw my whole father's family side crumble. It is traumatic for everybody, and after a while, everybody starts to lose some sort of faith in the correctional system,” Rick said. “Almost every family member he had passed away while he was in.”
Meanwhile, Stephanie Shepard received a ten-year federal prison sentence in 2010 as a first-time non-violent offender. She served nine years. She now works with LPP advocating for the release of other prisoners and raising funds for “returning citizens.”
“It felt difficult when I got home after nine years in prison, I was wondering what was I going to do. I could not return to real estate because I had a felony,” Stephanie said. She met Mary Bailey at a fundraiser for LPP and soon after started working for the organization. She found out her calling in life.
“I know what it feels like to sit in prison when there is a booming industry outside (...) I know how it is inside, while this is happening,” Stephanie told the crowd at the Fountaibleu Hotel in Miami. “I am blessed to work with LPP, and raise money that people need when they re-enter society. I was lucky enough to be a recipient of that [grant] which gave me a little more self-confidence after not touching a dollar in nine years. It helped me move forward.”
How To Achieve a Competitive Edge In Cannabis
Marie Montmarquet is a former legacy operator and co-founder of MD Numbers Inc, a family of vertically integrated cannabis brands. She shared a few lessons on how to gain a competitive edge -advice that can be useful for operators of all sizes, including cannabis corporations.
“We were the original R+D, the original brand pioneers and we were the first to know and understand about product specialization, genetics and even logistics, for decades,” said Montmarquet before offering a crash course on product innovation.
“A lot of people come into recreational cannabis and they forget that everything we do is medicinal. There is a true reason why all of your consumers want to participate in cannabis," Montmarquet said. "It is not just because they want to get lifted, is because they are solving a particular problem in their lives, and if you understand that problem then you can dig into that specific product, the void in the marketplace, and understand what your competitors do not understand.”
While huge cannabis companies invest money in finding the perfect cannabis genetic, legacy operators already know how to grow it and about its therapeutic potential. Indirectly, Montmarquet speaks about cannabis culture as an asset that allows legacy operators to thrive in spite of legalization and differentiate from corporate cannabis.
“Those of us who have been in this industry the longest understand which genetics are the best for specific geography and elements of the soil. They, the large companies should understand and respect that, and bring us in because you don't want the people that have all the knowledge to be your competition...tax-free!” Montmarquet said.
“When I look at how corporate cannabis approaches the legacy market, the number-crunching goes on too quickly before the research,” Rick DeLisi said. “People see opportunity and rush towards it, to try to make it happen, and before they know it they're in a situation they can’t control."
Montmarquet: "People forget that legacy is a profitable business. A lean money-making machine."
“Yes, we were in a different regulatory framework, but the bones and the structure of understanding the value of customers are making money with a long-term approach,” Montmarquet said. “It is still interesting to see companies burn millions of dollars, and craft growers that have beautiful genetics that could use a million dollars. The number one thing we learned is how to be profitable. We know how to make money and if we can find the right people we can make a lot of money for a lot of people.”
Honoring The Legacy Of Notorious BIG
Willie Mack, who is working on Think BIG, a cannabis company, with C.J. Wallace, son of Christopher “The Notorious BIG” Wallace, explained the initiative that allowed C.J. to celebrate cannabis's impact on creativity, black culture and how to approach issues like generational wealth and ownership within the black community, the dreams of a black man like Notorious Big, who was assassinated at the age of 24.
“If Christopher Wallace senior was alive today, he would be in cannabis,” Mack said. “He was a notorious cannabis user, and it really helped him connect to his creativity.” He also noted that they have been applying for licenses in New York, so probably, in the future, we will be able to visit one of their stores in Bed-Stuy where Biggie Smalls used to hang.
Photos by Maureen Meehan
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