Cannabis has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It was the "funny-smelling" cigarettes my Dad would smoke after dinner, the thing that kept my cousin Earl in fresh Jordans, and the only way I could put myself through junior college. It was the thing that caught the attention of the FBI. And it was the thing that brought me to the level of success I achieve today.
In 2010, I faced a felony charge and a 10-year minimum sentence. Luckily, I had a great lawyer and was not the focus of the FBI investigation. After a brief stint in prison, getting a regular 9-to-5 job, and completing 1,000 hours of community service, I received time served. I was free to go about my life—as long as I stayed away from cannabis.
However, it was too late. I had fallen in love with the cultivation process, and I still believed cannabis was my calling. Plus, I knew corporate America was not my thing. I just wasn't happy. I'm used to being an entrepreneur.
So, I quit my day job, took all of my savings, and bought a 5,000-square-foot cultivation warehouse in Los Angeles with only 14 lights in a tiny room.
And against my family's protests, I began my self-taught botany education. I burned through plants as I attempted to master my cultivation skills for the next two years. Then I started small, selling to old contacts who had Proposition D-compliant shops. I quickly made a name for myself growing top-quality flower, but I wanted to expand.
So, in 2018, when my landlord first mentioned LA's social equity program, my immediate reaction was, "No way, this can't be! You mean the city is going to give a felon a license to cultivate cannabis legally?" I couldn't believe this opportunity was real, that I finally had a chance to do what I loved on a bigger scale and with the comfort of knowing I had a license to do it.
Sure enough, I looked into it, and it was true. I moved fast, enlisting my younger brother Charles as my CFO and partner; he had a corporate background that I didn't have. And I knew I could trust him to steer this new business in the right direction. We went down to city hall and applied for and secured a social equity cultivation license.
And here is where the challenges started: a lack of resources, education, or support; cumbersome and evolving compliance; burdensome regulations (seed to sale) and permitting processes; long delays due to a lack of hard timelines and accountability by the city; limited and thus competitive license availability; excessive taxes (280E); lack of banking options (not federally legal and social equity policy doesn't address it). The city’s social equity program does not effectively target those who were intended to benefit from the policy, and the policy does not include funding or access to funding.
In my experience, social equity was a good idea, in theory, providing a pathway for those in the traditional market to transition to the regulated market. Still, in practice, it has been full of problems. I think the qualifications are correct: if you were in a disproportionately impacted area or had a cannabis conviction. What I think needs to change are the available resources. People just don’t have the resources, consulting, finances, knowledge, or tools to make it in this space. That's my biggest concern of the social equity program: access to resources, point blank.
State governments legalized something that was once a Schedule I drug after years of the war on drugs destroying people's lives. Some of these people would likely be in different positions in their lives had they not been thrown in prison for five to 10 years because they were selling an eighth of weed, or they got caught with an ounce of weed that they were using for personal use.
Now that we've come full circle, cannabis is legal and medicinal. I think the government must support social equity; you need to give people a chance to rehabilitate themselves since this industry destroyed their lives. It's just fair; it's the right thing to do. I wouldn't be sitting here with Ball Family Farms being as successful as it is if this program didn't exist. I know what it's done for me, my family, and people around me who now have opportunities. I know it can work; it just has to be done the right way and with the proper resources.
Chris Ball is owner and CEO of Ball Family Farms.