Cindy De La Vega was 20 years old when her Mexican immigrant mother was nearly hit in the head by a stray ball during a drive-by shoot at the Sunnydale projects in San Francisco. It was in the middle of the night when the bullet came through her mother’s bedroom window when she fell asleep – De La Vega a few yards away in her bedroom. “The gunshots woke us up, and it was a routine when shots were fired to check if anyone was hit in our house or even outside,” De La Vega told Refinery29. “The war on drugs was a fact in the area – rifts, passing shootings, and arrests.”
That reality went beyond those four walls in Sunnydale and caused discomfort when she occasionally smoked cannabis with her high school friends. She felt the police were targeting her community in “SWAMPY D” – the nickname for the Sunnydale housing projects. She remembers moments when her sisters were harassed by the police. “Because of this environment, I was mostly afraid of it and didn’t experience the healing aspects of cannabis until later in life,” says De La Vega.
Cannabis took on a whole new meaning for De La Vega when she had to resign from her job as Certified Hospital Unit Service Coordinator and Certified Phlebotomy Technician in 2017 due to a back injury. Her friend and mentor Rudy Corpuz Jr. of United Playaz, a local violence prevention and youth development organization that was also a member of the San Francisco Cannabis Equity Group, introduced her to the idea of working with cannabis. Then their journey began.
In 2018, De La Vega became a receptionist at STIIIZY, a premium cannabis lifestyle brand. She gained hands-on experience while being promoted to budget tender and shadowing the cannabis buyer at the STIIIZY mission site in San Francisco. The brand flew her to their flagship store in downtown Los Angeles for two weeks to teach her the roles of general manager and how the store works. She also took it upon herself to learn more about the industry by taking courses at Oaksterdam University, the US’s first cannabis college, to study budgeting and other cannabis topics. It then decided to apply for the equity program, which aims to reduce the barriers to obtaining cannabis licenses for those hardest hit by the war on drugs, and began the application process in May 2018.
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Working with the Equity program would mean a moment of the circle for De La Vega as programs like this are designed to shift paradigms in the black and brown communities targeted by the war on drugs by creating equitable opportunities for cannabis licensing. What once felt like a target on the back in the Sunnydale projects became their opportunity not only to reclaim a space where overcriminalization is rampant, but ultimately to build a Latinx and women owned business. Without the equity program, De La Vega would not have had access to the resources to secure a retail location and vendors. Thanks to the program, she is part of a network of other cannabis professionals and mentors.
As means of an opportunity, applicants like De La Vega had to meet three of six criteria that were for them: a household income that was 80% below the median salary in San Francisco for 2018; were arrested as an adolescent or have an immediate family member from 1971 to 2016 for selling, possessing, using, manufacturing or growing cannabis; and attended school in the San Francisco Unified School District for five years from 1971 to 2016.
De La Vega was added to the share program in August 2019. By October 2020, she opened STIIIZY Union Square, becoming the first Latina to own a cannabis retail store in San Francisco. De La Vega admits that pioneering an industry dominated by white men wasn’t easy. In this booming industry, 80 to 90% of operating legal pharmacies are owned by white non-Latinx owners. “I’ve been to a lot of meetings where I’m the only woman and sometimes the only black person,” she says. “These are the moments when my will to succeed is challenged but strengthened.”
Inequality in the cannabis world is not just about representation, it is also about the unjust reality of the black and brown communities that have long been deliberately arrested for possession of marijuana. “The war on drugs was a war against us – the people who lived in poor areas,” says the Mexican-American budding entrepreneur. Although the Latinx population is less than 20% of the US population, half of all federal drug cases are directed against those classified as “Spanish”. New York is one of two states with data on Latinx cannabis arrests, and the figures show that Latinx people are arrested almost four times as often as non-Latinx whites. In De La Vegas’ hometown of San Francisco, at least 125 out of 265 juvenile drug crime arrests in 2007 were Latinx.
Latinx’s representation in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry is important. In 1903, the country’s first cannabis prohibition law was specifically aimed at Mexicans in Brownsville, TX. Possession and transfer of cannabis (without medical and industrial uses) became a criminal offense in the 1930s, and cannabis was officially banned for all uses in 1970. It remains a key factor in Latinx’s deportation: Marijuana possession was the fourth leading cause of deportation. Even if a minor crime doesn’t result in deportation, it can still prevent legal permanent residence from ever leaving the states and returning to the United States .
The first U.S. law criminalizing cannabis cultivation was passed in California in 1913. California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical purposes in 1996 when the distribution, sale, and possession of cannabis was legalized. Laws put in place over the years often excluded color communities, including Latinx people, who now make up nearly 40% of California’s population. It wasn’t until 2000 that California passed the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, which offered eligible offenders treatment rather than jail time for possession and use of drugs – which is vital for the hardest-hit communities.
While she’s one of the earliest, De La Vega hopes more Latinx folks join her in this $ 61 billion industry. “SF is made up of many Latinx communities,” says De La Vega. “It is time we shared the city’s prosperity and opportunities.” She takes her role as a representative of the Latinx cannabis industry to heart. Being the first Latina to own a cannabis retail store in San Francisco has made an impact well beyond California: she recalls when an Arizona Latinx family came to California to support their business after joining De La Vega had seen on the news when the store opened.
Now the shopkeeper pays a portion of her sales to help other marginalized cannabis entrepreneurs and hires all of her staff through Success Centers SF, an organization that helps marginalized communities find employment. 33 new cannabis companies on the Equity program are currently completing their construction, according to Marisa Rodriguez, director of the San Francisco cannabis office.
“The Justice Program has become a force multiplier for social well-being, fulfilling its goals of creating opportunity and access for individuals and communities affected by failed drug policies,” says Rodriguez. Eleven share-owned cannabis companies officially opened last year, including De La Vega’s.
While the equity program may find a way forward, it is important for consumers to help companies like De La Vega repair past damage. “I would like companies like me and the many other applicants who grow, sell and work with cannabis to continue to receive support,” says De La Vega. “By buying your cannabis from people like me, you are not only supporting my family and me. They help return resources to the communities that need them most. “
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