Eight Portlanders Shaping the Future of Cannabis in Oregon—and Possibly the World

“I know for a fact a good number of [our] customers voted for [President] Trump,” Raja says. “It’s hard to hate when you’re high.”

The Entrepreneurs:
Raja & Kathleen Afrika

For Raja and Kathleen Afrika, the year 2015 was filled with highs and lows.

In January, they founded their company, then called OMMPOS.com. Four months later, they received free laptops from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In August, they married.

Then, in October, they became homeless. They simply couldn't afford Portland anymore.

The couple picked up and moved to Astoria—mostly inspired by the city's starring role in the movie The Goonies.

"When you're down and out," Raja says, "when you have nothing, you go back to basics, and for me, that was goofy '80s children's movies."

The pair slept in their car with their 2-year-old son and then found housing from the owner of a local real estate company. Raja walked around the corner to a cannabis dispensary and, despite "looking like a bum," got a job.

Things are different now.

Today, the couple's company Marijuana Software provides software services to roughly 1 in 10 Oregon dispensaries—about 60 in all, plus a client in Oklahoma and a couple of farms. In January, they won the 2019 Cannabis Collaborative Conference pitch competition, which was co-sponsored by Willamette Week.

Marijuana Software provides point-of-sale and tracking services, codes websites, helps clients satisfy state regulators, and offers an application programming interface that powers apps.

Its core function is "basically just a digital cash register for pot shops," Raja says. It's tailored for Oregon's regulations and marketplace, and works with Metrc, a "turnkey" tracking system now used in 13 states.

An African-American with self-described "wild hair" and a Stargate SG-1 tattoo on his forehead, Raja says driving around Oregon for work is "a little nervous-making sometimes," though he adds, "I'm amazed at how well I'm received."

Still, as an interracial couple working in the cannabis industry, they've had to overcome challenges that sometimes boggle the mind—such as the state rejecting their application for certification as a minority- and woman-owned business.

"I don't have a good word for it," Raja says. "Flabbergasted? Stunned?"

"Disappointed?" offers Kathleen, the company's CEO. "I was looking forward to officially being a woman."

"It could have been a real help to us," Raja says, "but because we have a weed leaf [logo], we don't qualify."

Their business has also been affected by the state-versus-feds cannabis tug of war. They've had credit union accounts shut down, and customers call "saying that when they pay us and it goes through their bank, they get in trouble, because it says 'marijuana,'" Kathleen says.

"We don't touch cannabis in a business perspective in any way," Raja says. "Ironically, I think people think I've sold weed my whole life."

Nonetheless, their enthusiasm is infectious, and they are hopeful for the future of their company and the role it might play in a burgeoning industry.

"The Oregon cannabis industry has made it possible for a black man and a white woman with nothing to start a business and become something," Raja says.

They now live in Aloha and have three kids, and occasionally add three of Raja's from a previous relationship.

With Marijuana Software's connection to minority-owned businesses such as Green Hop and the nonprofit NuLeaf Project, and groups that include the Minority Cannabis Business Association and Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, Raja says we are seeing "the beginning of this sort of nascent black cannabis entrepreneurial circle."

Despite our continuing societal inequities, Raja and Kathleen say, Marijuana Software—and cannabis generally—creates equity, and bridges political divides.

"I know for a fact a good number of [our] customers voted for [President] Trump," Raja says. "It's hard to hate when you're high." THACHER SCHMID.

The Chef:
Leather Storrs

By 2015, Leather Storrs had hit a wall.

After returning to Portland in 1999, following stints in kitchens in Northern California, the chef experienced both swift success and crushing failure. He made his name in the city's food scene by elevating Noble Rot, the innovative East Burnside wine bar, to critical acclaim, earning a visit by The New York Times and the title of Restaurant of the Year from Willamette Week in 2004.

But then he stumbled.

With Rocket, Storrs broke off on his own, crafting odd, impossible-to-categorize dishes, like carrot pancakes in ground lamb sauce. The avant-garde cuisine satisfied only Storrs' sense of humor and bravado, and the concept was lost on diners and critics. The restaurant closed in 2008 after only two years.

Now, however, Storrs, 47, believes he's found the path to the broader acclaim he's long been chasing: cannabis.

"When I revisited cooking with weed, I realized I could do the kind of food that excited me," Storrs says. "The things that make me, the things that I like—food, words and playing with the two—reach their apex with the addition of weed."

In 2015, Storrs teamed with friends Chris Angelus of Portland Food Adventures, Natalia Toral, and Pono Brewing's Erick Russ to launch a series of infused gourmet dinners under the banner Kitchen Chronicles. The menus feature meringues shaped like blunts, burnt on one end and served in glass ashtrays, and infused fois gras in peach fruit leather resembling slabs of shatter.

In a spin on Lucky Charms, radishes are cut into little hearts, turmeric potatoes serve as the yellow moons, oxalis are the four-leaf clovers, and blue stars are cabbage cooked with iron in a Japanese pickling technique that creates a blue hue. He adds Rice Krispies toasted with cilantro oil, so that when infused thai coconut chicken broth is poured into the bowl, the rice pops and crackles. Often, every face at the table lights up.

"Because they're high, people get it," Storrs says.

Over the past few years, Storrs has hosted dinners up and down the West Coast and beyond. He's plotting a line of gourmet edibles, including an infused hot chocolate and caramel sauce named Wezz—featured in the most recent issue of Kitchen Toke—and a CBD granola bar.

But Storrs believes television is where he can make his greatest impact.

In 2016, he got his first taste of TV in the form of an invitation to a competitive episode of Vice's Bong Appetit. He didn't win, but the experience showed him TV is where he could reach broad audiences. He calls his dream gig The Weediest, a travel show in the vein of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, centering on people doing interesting things with food, weed and/or alcohol in states where cannabis is legal, always ending with a dinner party.

The TV executives he's spoken to so far weren't "ready for it," he says. But given that the best cooking shows are woven with culture and controversy, and hosts can reach the heights of fame in an instant, Storrs seems as likely a candidate as any to become legal weed's first celebrity chef.

"Maybe I'm too white or too male or too old," says Storrs, "but I think I have something to offer and something to say that people would want to hear." LAUREN YOSHIKO.

The Accelerator:
The Initiative

In 2018, a Portland lawyer founded Oregon's first cannabis accelerator program and co-working and events space—and she dedicated it to boosting women entrepreneurs and their weed businesses.

Last July, Amy Margolis opened the Commune, a 4,000-square-foot "gathering space," on the third floor of an Old Town office building. It doubles as headquarters for the Initiative, a cannabis accelerator that aims to help women-owned marijuana businesses obtain venture-capital funding and grow quickly.

"The most important thing we'll do here is teach people how to raise money," Margolis says. "It's the first accelerator in the country dedicated to women-owned cannabis businesses. The hope is that many of these women will receive significant funding."

Cannabis accelerators are blossoming nationwide—including in Boulder, Colo., Oakland, Calif., and Las Vegas. Accelerators function much like business incubators, but instead of helping startups find their legs, accelerators aid existing companies to achieve rapid growth.

The Initiative formally launched in January, with 10 businesses that all have at least one female founder. The first cohort included Portland-based edibles brand Leif Goods, event organizers Tokeativity, and Make and Mary, which creates products ranging from cannabis candles to CBD-infused aromatherapy inhalers.

The Initiative's board of directors includes Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance, cannabis genome mapper Mowgli Holmes, and Rick Turoczy, who founded the Portland Incubator Experiment, or PIE.

"We've seen so much incubator and accelerator activity purely focused on software pursuits," Turoczy says. "What stands out to me is, this takes the accelerator model and applies it to a different industry. Amy's focused on women entrepreneurs and providing a mentoring space for them."

Some cannabis accelerators have shied away from working with businesses that have direct contact with weed, fearing federal crackdowns on legal markets. The Initiative welcomes them.

"These are absolutely businesses that are touching the plant," Margolis says. "We're particularly interested in consumer packaged goods: candy bars and vape pens and other innovative products."

While the Initiative is part of a trend in accelerators, it's also groundbreaking—both for whom it chooses to promote and how it presents cannabis.

The Commune, the space Margolis and the Initiative rented from Old Town real estate developer David Gold, feels like no other room in the Oregon weed business. With brick walls, rough-hewn wooden floors and bright flower arrangements, it's designed to serve as a rented event and office space for companies whose operations are typically conducted in anonymous warehouses and charmless office parks.

Margolis is an administrative lawyer who has played a central role in shaping Oregon's recreational weed market since its legalization four years ago. She founded the Oregon Cannabis Association, a leading trade association, and the Oregon Cannabis PAC, which lobbied for out-of-state investment in recreational weed.

She now wants to focus on making sure women CEOs keep a stake in cannabis—a disproportionately white, male industry.

"The driving force was, I found this industry to be highly self-congratulatory about the positioning of women," Margolis says. "I saw fewer and fewer women in leadership positions. If somebody didn't do something, we really were going to become a cautionary tale." AARON MESH.

The Educator:
Emma Chasen

Emma Chasen understands that Oregon's cannabis market is growing more quickly than many in the business can keep up. But she says that doesn't mean the state's craft ethos needs to fizzle.

"If we want to retain what makes Oregon so amazing," Chasen says, "then we have to start investing in the people on the front line."

For Chasen, that investment comes in the form of education. The Brown University-educated medical plant researcher co-owns and operates Eminent Consulting, which guides new cannabis entrepreneurs across the nation and offers online educational programs for budtenders.

Three years ago, Chasen moved to Portland from the East Coast to pursue naturopathic medicine. When she arrived, she got a job at the Farma dispensary to pay the bills.

"I thought that it was only going to be for a couple of months," she says, "but I found that I had a real knack for working with patients and customers."

A few months after being hired as a budtender, Chasen was promoted to manager. In 2016, she was voted Portland's Best Budtender in WW's reader's poll. When recreational cannabis was legalized that same year, Chasen helped Farma make the transition from medical to recreational. She left the company when she saw the need for formal education for budtenders.

"It was just inexcusable to me that there was not a standard for training and education in the industry," she says.

For the past two years, Chasen has offered her services as a freelance consultant. Last summer, she formally founded Eminent Consulting, where she licenses general or personalized learning modules to dispensaries and individuals looking to learn more about cannabis science and consumption.

"Patients and consumers, specifically in Oregon, are coming to dispensaries with questions that their doctor can't even answer," Chasen says. "If you don't provide basic training to these budtenders on the front lines, then that's a huge liability.

"The last thing we need to happen, especially in Oregon with this market of glut and crash," she continues, "is to turn anybody off to cannabis. We need to be bringing everybody that we can into the fold." ELISE HERRON.

The Economist:
Beau Whitney

Beau Whitney never imagined he'd end up traveling the world to advise governments on the benefits of legalizing weed.

He worked in the stultifying worlds of supply-chain management for Intel and, at the time of the smartphone explosion, helped companies dramatically ramp up production of parts cellphones need to send and receive data.

As an economics professor, too, Whitney knew his stuff. But he was stumped when a student asked him in 2014 how big the cannabis industry was in Oregon. The question piqued his curiosity. So he published a tax revenue model for Oregon that vaulted him into industry conversation.

When Measure 91 passed, the economics professor started a consulting firm to help Oregon's cannabis retailers navigate the switch from production levels needed for medical marijuana operations to those required to compete in the recreational market. Next, Whitney became chief operations officer for Golden Leaf Holdings, where he says he took the company from a $20 million valuation to $70 million in nine months.

"I'm probably the straightest-looking dude you could imagine," he says. "No dreads, no tattoos, nothing. So they wanted me to be the face with government officials."

Whitney's research was instrumental in getting Oregon to tax cannabis using a sales tax, rather than taxing on a per-gram or per-ounce basis. He also developed models showing that Oregon would get the highest conversion rates of buyers switching from the illicit cannabis market over to the legal one if the sales tax was set between 10 and 15 percent. Oregon ultimately set the tax at 20 percent.

"I would combine policy analysis, look at it from a business perspective and then say, 'Hey, Madam Senator, I understand what your policy is after, but the way it's written now, it's going to destroy the industry before it gets off the ground.' Because there was no data on the industry at the time, officials really appreciated what I was offering."

Now, Whitney is vice president and senior economist with cannabis industry analytics firm New Frontier Data. He advises governments, including Colombia, Panama and, most recently, Zimbabwe, on creating laws and regulations to govern legal cannabis use.

And he's not done. Whitney estimates that full federal legalization of cannabis in the U.S. would create 600,000 jobs by 2025 and contribute $100 billion to the U.S. Treasury, including business taxes, payroll taxes and a federal excise tax.

Whitney says he's still catching up to all the changes the cannabis industry has brought to his life.

"I went from a guy in a dorky sweater vest who was just intellectually curious to a guy who is influencing the global cannabis market," Whitney says. "It's really mind-blowing to me." KARINA BROWN.

The Nonprofit:
NuLeaf Project

January 2019 marked a milestone in the era of recreational cannabis.

On Jan. 21, Prosper Portland, the city of Portland's economic and urban development agency, awarded $30,000 each to two Black-owned cannabis businesses, the delivery service Green Box and Green Hop dispensary in Northeast Portland.

It was the first time any municipal cannabis program in the U.S. had used tax revenue from weed sales for that purpose.

The funds were administered by the NuLeaf Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing individuals from communities of color the resources to thrive in the legal cannabis industry—and, in effect, begin to reverse some of the damage wrought in those communities by anti-drug policies in the U.S.

"I hope people see that the city is investing in these communities," says NuLeaf executive director Jeannette Ward Horton, who founded the nonprofit with her husband, Jesce Horton of Saints Cannabis. "Every city and state needs to, because it's the city and state—and the prisons—that reaped from these communities economically by arresting Black men and women. These are your own citizens, and this is how you help repair that."

NuLeaf's mission is befitting of a couple who both have direct experience running afoul of the law for cannabis-related offenses.

Both have also contributed significantly to restorative justice efforts, locally and nationally. They were instrumental in the creation of the Minority Cannabis Business Association and advancing its agenda of economic empowerment for communities impacted by the War on Drugs. And both contributed significantly to the development of the language of Measure 26, allowing for the allocation of cannabis tax money to fund record expungement and workforce and business development, particularly for women- and minority-owned enterprises.

But even with their extensive experience, when the city of Portland called for applications for grant money in March 2018, the Hortons, then new parents, hesitated before stepping forward.

"There was this internal battle," Ward Horton says. "Are we this type of leader? Are we really the experts? Are we capable of doing this with everything else we have going on? In Portland, it felt like we had been doing this work for a really long time, and we certainly needed to get our butts in there and to make a play for [the grant]. We certainly had to try."

Beyond grant funding, NuLeaf is also extending its educational services arm, NuSchool, to the businesses in its program in an effort to close the resource gap typical of cannabis industry entrepreneurs of color. All participating business are required to go through the NuSchool program, which provides owners with a 360-degree audit to strengthen areas in need of improvement, while also building on their technical know-how by connecting them to mentors and community members that can offer long-term advice and support.

Ward Horton says NuLeaf is eager for the state of Oregon to do what California has yet to fully deliver on.

"They've already passed legislation at the state level," she says, referring to California's recently passed social equity program. "They've made a lot of noise, but they haven't actually done anything. We can get things done faster here. Why don't we beat them and invest in these communities?" TIARA DARNELL.

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