Building a More Inclusive Industry: Q&A with Corey Barnette of District Growers

“We have to build long-term relationships to build a stronger cannabis community among ourselves to be competitive and profitable for years to come,” Corey Barnette says.

February 24, 2021

District Growers established itself in Washington, D.C., in 2012, part of a medical cannabis market that has grown steadily ever since. 

Founder and President Corey Barnette says that his extensive business background gave him a solid foundation for his entrance into the cannabis space. And now that he’s spent years here, navigating the cultivation side of the industry and monitoring broader trends in the U.S., he says that there are ways for business owners to challenge the working assumptions about social equity and market development.

While he may be in D.C., a smaller market than many of the larger states coming online, he points to the fragmentation of the U.S. cannabis space as a major problem.

“We have to build long-term relationships to build a stronger cannabis community among ourselves to be competitive and profitable for years to come,” he says.

Here, our recent conversation with Barnette helps illuminate that need.

Mila Marshall: You are one of the licensed industry’s few African American growers. How did you find yourself one of the few history makers in the cannabis industry?

corey barnette district growers

Corey Barnette: I have a background in business and graduated from Duke School of Business. I had been strategically buying and selling businesses—like an automotive parts manufacturer, a clinical research company and other small businesses. In 2008, I was invited by a colleague to sit on the Board of the San Diego Medical Marijuana Collective, and subsequently ended up purchasing the company. After owning and operating that company I opened a second dispensary, Chi Holistic Collective.

My companies were two of the top 10 largest businesses in San Diego at the time, and, while that success was phenomenal, my family was based in Washington, D.C. The industry was just beginning and I was able to engage and help influence the market using my previous experience. When the Capital market began to move toward medical marijuana, I took advantage of the opportunity to help shape the market and opened District Growers.

MM: You have engaged in a diversity of business. What was so special about the cannabis sector?

CB: Not only did I think cannabis was an incredible opportunity to monetize and do well financially, I thought it was an opportunity to do good at the same time. For me, it was a situation where I could now put the tools that I had spent time developing over my career to work for me and benefit the broader community too.

MM: There is something quite special about your cultivation process. Where did the idea to use aeroponics come from and what is that exactly?

CB: Aeroponics is growing without soil, using air or a mist environment. District Growers is actually an extension of what I had been doing in San Diego. I had been inspired to maximize the use of space to increase profitability from the gardens on the West Coast. By the time I had returned to the Capital, I had a really solid plan for clean growing.

MM: Aeroponics is not a common practice. What are your thoughts about clean growing as a strategy for social equity growers?

CB: I know some absolutely magnificent master growers that use soil. I can’t knock anyone’s preferred method of growing. Everyone has what they are good at. Ultimately, you know what you like and you learn to do that well. There are other growers that use aeroponics and what we are looking for is always consistency and quality for our customers. However, using soil is very, very forgiving. A grower can lean on the living nature of the ecology of the soil if management practices are still being figured out. Essentially, Mother Nature saves us as growers. With aeroponics, an error can be financially costly and disrupt access to the patients that rely on our products for their health and well being.

MM: What is the benefit of “clean growing” then if it is so high-risk?

CB: It is indeed high-risk but a very high-reward method of cultivation! I think the yield and cleanliness of the smoke itself gives us the results we are looking for in a medical marijuana product. You get a better terpene profile and I enjoy that our process gives us direct access to influence the outcome of the harvest in an intentional way.

MM: We cannot talk about cannabis without addressing equity. As a grower, how have you engaged with the social equity aspects of the industry?

CB: While we are strictly focused on medical marijuana for our consumers, we have worked with the city to remove all legislative hurdles that pose barriers to impacted communities. We have worked on medical marijuana legislation; decriminalization; Initiative 71, which allowed for the possession of two ounces of marijuana and home growing of no more than three marijuana plants; and we are currently deeply engaged with helping the city create its adult-use recreational policies. District Growers wants to create some opportunities in the city, so we do the policy work to help make that happen.

MM: Much of the equity and ownership conversation has been directed toward dispensary ownership. Can you share your personal reflections on the broader conversation of social equity in the industry?

CB: You know, honestly, I believe that we’re doing it all wrong. There has been a vicious costly war that has played out in our communities that has destroyed our families for generations. We are feeling it now, and our society will feel the effects for decades to come. A terrible price has been paid, and the programs designed to address the systemic inequities are weak and unreasonable. The limitations and legalities of licensing in states isn’t working for who it is even designed for.

It doesn’t sit well with me how prisons are filled with citizens who were trying to pay their bills selling the very product others are making money off of legally at the same time.

MM: In your opinion, how do communities get what they deserve from this industry?

CB: I think the approach we’ve taken in Washington, D.C., going to our regulators and city council and demanding pathways to influence the industry so that we are setting the equity agenda for people who have been hit hardest by the war on drugs, is necessary. We are owed a place in this industry and it isn’t about waiting to get what they give us but moving forward to get what we deserve. We want people that look like us and it is our responsibility to help make that happen.

MM: Is it true that the Capital has the largest number of African American dispensary owners?

CB: Yes, the majority of dispensary owners in D.C. are Black. I’m not saying that the largest shareholder is Black, but 51% majority ownership. I believe Black ownership is important, it means jobs for Black people. When you go into a dispensary in Washington, D.C., and you look to see who is employed, you have Black employees. You see us working in there, managing stores: We are the marketing experts and getting accounting contracts. You see us getting the jobs for advisers, consulting and more.

MM: What are some of the policy barriers as it relates to social equity access to the industry?

CB: A lot of times our elected officials that represent us lead from fear rather than the desire to push the envelope to serve our community. In my opinion, people want to stay elected, and championing cannabis is risky. If we think jobs are important, we have an opportunity to participate in the birth of an entire industry, but politicians between 2008 to 2011 were not even open to a conversation on marijuana—legal marijuana in the Black community. So, I believe educating elected officials on the facts about the industry and its potential to address employment, and entrepreneurship is key to advancing access to the industry.

MM: What are your words of wisdom for emerging minority cannabis entrepreneurs and industry leaders?

CB: Minority businesses have to find ways of working better together. Make sure you are willing to work to make this market inclusive whether you win a license or not. Make sure your emerging cannabis market directly benefits your community. There has to be a goal of inclusivity and diversity for owners but also on these cannabis councils, advisory boards, grant committees and policy working groups. Occupy and diversify at all levels and across the supply chain.

We also need to be willing to merge, willing to connect and contract with each other. We have to build long-term relationships to build a stronger cannabis community among ourselves to be competitive and profitable for years to come.