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Fifteen states, as well as Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana use, with New York among the most recent state to adopt such a measure. That bill, signed into law last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, included significant provisions to address issues of racial equity, such as clearing criminal records of past convictions for marijuana-related offenses and earmarking 40 cents of every dollar in tax revenue from cannabis sales for the communities that have been hardest hit by the consequences of drug enforcement.
One conversation about equity is the ownership of dispensaries and who stands to profit from the slate of new laws. According to MJBizDaily, about 81 percent of those who own cannabis businesses are white, while only 4 percent are Black and 6 percent are Latino — two groups who are historically criminalized for marijuana use and sales.
Jaleel White, best known for playing the popular character Steve Urkel in the 1990s sitcom “Family Matters,” is among those leading the charge. He developed and recently started a cannabis line under the name ItsPurpl, a partnership with 710 Labs, creating variants of a strain called Purple Urkle.
“We were never a brand that pursued celebrity deals, in fact we turned a few away,” Brad Melshenker, founder of 710 Labs, said about his decision to work with Mr. White, who is Black. “But after meeting Jaleel serendipitously on an airplane and becoming friends, the idea grew organically, and we knew we had the right partner.”
Mr. White, for his part, said he hoped to see more Black and Latino people leading cannabis brands. “I’d like to see a true multicultural spectrum represented from ownership to employment opportunities.”
I recently spoke with Mr. White about his new cannabis line, how he got into the cannabis business, the difficulties he has faced and how the cannabis business looks like now compared with just a few years ago. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you become interested in getting into the cannabis marketplace?
About seven years ago. Friends and family always thought it was funny to send me bootlegged pics of myself featured on products in dispensaries across the country. I smoke, so I decided to take a positive approach. A childhood friend from the second grade, Sean, is the person I credit with making sure I went about things the right way. Businessmen would come along with ideas that felt very exploitative of the Urkel legacy, and he would shut them down like a protective big brother. The thing that always stood out to me was that there was no clear brand leader for fire purple weed. It made no sense to me that no company had claimed this lane. So why not me? I just needed an opportunity to bring truly noteworthy products that represented me and my standards for quality to market, and now we’re here.
Were there any difficulties or obstacles you faced?
Only one other thing has taught me more patience, and that’s parenting my daughter, Samaya. The biggest obstacle was meeting with people who over-promise and don’t deliver. When I can see a vision in my head so clearly, it’s frustrating sharing that with individuals who just tell you what you want to hear, knowing full well they won’t be able to make it a reality. I’d get a gut feeling when a potential partner was wrong, and it was disappointing at times, but ultimately that led me to 710 Labs. I had the same gut instinct to guide me when the situation felt right.
Tell me a bit about being and becoming a brand leader for fire purple weed.
I love fine tequilas. But I also love an incredible mezcal and that unmistakable smokey flavor. I view purple weed the same as I view great mezcals. There are so many varieties and flavors. Consumers and fans of purples just feel woefully underserved in the marketplace.
The recreational market is really in its infancy, so we are truly in a space where only a few brands have stepped forward and established themselves as leaders. In 710 Labs, we found a unique opportunity. They’re a “quality first” brand that is also well-known within the cannabis community due to their commitment to the culture. Combining the organic relationship I have with purple cannabis in conjunction with a highly skilled cultivation team put us in the position to put out perhaps the best purple cannabis on shelves anywhere. I make this claim humbly, but I also know what our grow squad can do.
How has it felt seeing Purple Urkle strains flooding into cannabis marketplaces across the country throughout the years?
It’s been trippy to see how organically purple cannabis has made a comeback in the marketplace. But it also just made me want to do it better than anyone else.
For years, cannabis has been widely criminalized, mainly for Black and Latino people. What are your opinions on the shift now that it’s becoming legalized across the country? Any changes you hope to see within the cannabis industry?
Federal legalization has to happen and putting an end to these archaic laws that affect people of color the most. Once that happens, we can begin to explore and have access to real scientific studies from verified medical researchers that show us exactly how cannabis can help people who suffer from an entire range of health issues. Think of all the people that could benefit from proper access to the plant.
We’d like to see the true pioneers of this industry — the folks who were in it when it wasn’t as popular — have access to compete within the space they helped create, as well as some of our brothers who have been locked up for engaging in what has now become legal behavior. We need them out free and to be able to participate in the marketplace.
What’s your end goal? Do you want to add more variants and eventually sell it beyond California?
Our end goal is to build a brand that withstands market shifts, stays relevant and consistently delivers the highest quality product. We intend to stay in this game long-term so our end goal is infinite, not a real end. We are definitely a company that stays committed to collecting and working on our menu of genetics.
And we definitely want to expand all of our goods from streetwear merchandise to cannabis outside California. We want to be the first cannabis smoked in outer space.
What’s next for you as a brand leader? And what’s next for the cannabis line?
We’re just going to stay on our path. We will continue to provide that fire purple to all those who seek a truly unique cannabis experience. Keep introducing new genetics slowly over the next year and beyond, God willing. We definitely want to play around with some edibles and drinkables, topicals, you name it. We’re really excited to serve this growing community.