The November vote in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey was just what the owners of Roll Up Life, a CBD distribution company, say they have been waiting for.
“A lot of people just don’t know where to start. A lot of people don’t know how to get in (to the marijuana industry),” said Tiyahnn Bryant, an executive who runs the Wayne-based company along with his partners, Precious Osagie-Erese and Kevin Monangai. “Our aim is to be the premier provider and transporter of cannabis and related products in the state of New Jersey.”
The trio, who started preparing for this four years ago and opened Roll Up Life this past November, is rare. They are among only a few Black owners of marijuana-based businesses in the state. Nationwide, only about 4% of cannabis business owners and founders are Black, according to a Marijuana Business Daily study. Even before New Jersey lawmakers passed their first set of recreational regulations late last year, marijuana advocates for social equity and Black entrepreneurs have been fighting to boost grassroots Black ownership in the Garden State’s recreational space.
It’s one of the reasons the three started Roll Up Life in the first place, they say.
“A lot of us are arrested…because of this plant, yet you don’t see a lot of us making the money and revenue in the legal market,” Osagie-Erese said. “So that can be discouraging.”
To combat the statistics, the company’s founders say they have spent years educating themselves about the cannabis space. So far, Roll Up only delivers CBD-infused products like teas, essential oils and lotions to customers in parts of North Jersey, and sells its own products on its online storefront.
There isn’t as much money to be made in CBD products, Roll Up Life’s founders say, but it’s a good way for the company to test its infrastructure before the much more profitable THC market rockets in New Jersey.
While funding can be a major barrier of entry for some cannabis entrepreneurs of color, Bryant says he thinks there’s a bigger hurdle in his community — education.
“If you’re looking to break into (this), I would immediately suggest heading into it research-wise, figuring out exactly what you want to do, going to conferences, going to meetings, going to expos in the cannabis industry, literally entrench yourself,” Osagie-Erese said, emphasizing there are several more pathways to ownership other than just going into cannabis cultivation, a service the company says it eventually plans to provide, as well.
“Once you learn, you network. That’s the second essential thing. From networking that leads you to capital.”
Included in New Jersey’s initial recreational bill are a few racial and social equity provisions. Fifteen percent of the state’s licenses will be reserved for minority-owned businesses, and 70% of the state’s sales tax on marijuana purchases and 100% of an excise tax on growers will go to New Jersey communities where people of color have negatively been impacted by law enforcement crackdowns on marijuana and other drugs. (In New Jersey, Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, according to the ACLU.)
The provisions in New Jersey’s law fall short of standards set forth by some social equity advocates and some legislators; many want to see those convicted for marijuana possession be released.
“I’ve testified at an Assembly hearing and the most recent Senate hearing. To go there to show our faces is definitely important,” said Nadir Pearson, a Clifton resident and the Founder of the Student Marijuana Alliance For Research and Transparency. “But the attitude is not as open as you would like it to be, especially towards Black and brown folks being involved, and the depth and nuance of provisions that are needed to make these actual initiatives sustainable and worthwhile.”
Pearson says 15% of licenses set aside for diversity applicants isn’t enough, when considering the ratio of people of color arrested for weed possession.
The owners of Roll Up Life echo those sentiments, but say the recent regulations are a start.
“As long as you’re one of the best companies, no matter whether you’re a minority company or predominantly white-owned company, the best companies win,” Bryant says. “We’ve been preparing to win this race…without the social equity application. We’ve been preparing to take this as far as we need to go. So fitting the criteria will just be a help for us.”