For Keshawn Warner, co-founder of Dazed Cannabis, the plant experience has always been about connecting people. “Cannabis is one of the few things you purchase to share,” he says. “It’s from the earth. We spark one, pass it around in rotation. With alcohol, you might buy a bottle and give your friend a drink, but you can’t share too much because then your bottle’s gone. Cannabis is for everybody. I don’t know any other substance people use like that, but that’s the feeling we wanted with the brand and our stores. That community feeling – that you come in and it’s familiar to you.”
Dazed Team Prepares For New York Grand Opening In Union Square
Those who’ve visited Dazed at its pop-up location in Union Square can attest to the welcoming vibe. This week, Warner and his team will reopen the store to the public, displaying its completed buildout and new merch lines, among other exciting reveals. Festivities begin with an exclusive media and VIP night on Thursday November 9th, followed by a public grand relaunch on Friday the 10th, and a Veterans Day celebration on Saturday the 11th which includes giveaways to those who show military ID.
“I feel that Dazed is the intersection of cannabis, food, music, art, and fashion,” Warner explains. “Cannabis is the vehicle that brings unity… But ultimately, like sneakers, it sells itself. What we’re selling is not necessarily cannabis. We have it available, but we’re selling an experience. We want you to come in, have a good time, learn something, meet somebody new. That’s what cannabis is to me.”
The entrepreneur first created Dazed in 2021 with his business partners Rich Rainone and Chris Viannello, setting up their inaugural store in Holyoke, Massachusetts. They soon developed a devoted following. But as a born-and-raised Harlemite, Warner was anxious to bring his vision back to New York. In Fall 2022, he got his wish, being granted one of the state’s initial Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses. Dazed Union Square opened as a pop-up on the 420 holiday this past April.
How Did Dazed Co-Founder Keshawn Warner Get Into Cannabis?
It's a vision the lifelong cannabis enthusiast is grateful for, but one he never expected to see. “I didn’t consider cannabis as a career move,” Warner insists. “I sold weed off and on [throughout the years], but I was never moving crazy weight. If your friends smoke, it’s easy to sell. For me, it was an easy way that I could get weed and smoke it for free. It was just always there.”
Growing up, Warner envisioned a path in athletics and technology. He played sports throughout the school year. Summer, he recalls, was for relaxation – and that’s when he got introduced to the plant, as a teenager hanging out with his sister’s friends, the lone guy in a group of girls.
“There’s nothing pleasant about your first time smoking,” Warner laughs, “because you’re coughing and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. But with the aftereffect, everyone’s giddy. And for me being around six women, laughing, having a good time, how could that be anything but great? In my mind, cannabis was synonymous with fun and women, and there we go – that’s all it takes.”
Today, one could say that early exposure influenced the overall Dazed energy, which in-store is characterized by warm, inviting pink tones and soothing music. “We give love all day long,” the visionary enthuses.
As a young man, Warner attended Norfolk State University in Virginia, where he became the cannabis connection for many of his friends because of his access to quality New York product. Still, his concentration was on getting his degree in computer science. The plant continued to be just a way to make people happy.
The Dangers Of Cannabis Prohibition: Keshawn Warner's Pathway To CAURD
Of course, loving cannabis wasn’t without its dangers. When asked how many times he was subjected to police targeting in his youth, Warner replies, “I couldn’t tell you how many times because it was a regular occurrence. It was something I had to pay attention to when I left the house every day, the same way I had to pay attention to the stickup kids. That’s sad to say, that you have to watch your back from law enforcement that’s hunting you the same way a stickup kid will hunt you. I have many, many stories. My friends and I would try to find locations away from everybody to go smoke. First, because our parents didn’t like it, so you had to hide from them. You’re trying to find an inconspicuous area to smoke, but now that means you become a target to law enforcement. They see a group of kids in an area where ‘you’re not supposed to be,’ and now it’s game on. A couple of times my friends could have gotten shot because they come out guns blazing. If you see people running toward you with guns, your natural reaction is to run. When that happened, some of my friends ran… And you’ve got guys chasing you, ‘Don’t move! Don’t run!’ They have guns on you. A wrong move from them could have resulted in a bad-case scenario. These were the types of things we had to deal with in the city, just trying to smoke cannabis.”
In 2008, after graduating from college and in the process of applying for jobs, Warner was back in New York when he got arrested for trying to buy weed. He had the unfortunate luck to enter a building that was being used for a sting operation. What he remembers most vividly was walking through the door, only to be staring into the barrel of a gun.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m getting robbed,’” Warner says. “But then I heard, ‘Come here, come here.’ I realized ‘Oh shit, that’s an officer.’ He was in full uniform. I didn’t even do nothing yet except walk into the building. But they snatched me up, took me halfway down the hallway, and then it was a cat and mouse game. They shake you down, frisk you, ‘What’s going on?’ A few different guys got caught up that night. It was messed up, but it became funny because everybody who came in all had the same damn story. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Upstairs to the third floor.’ ‘Who are you seeing?’ ‘I’m not telling the police who I’m seeing.’ ‘Okay, come this way.’ Happened over and over.”
Fallout from that evening derailed the young man’s plans for a more conventional path in tech. But reflecting on everything, the business owner concedes today, “That fateful night resulted in me being able to check that qualifying box on the new application that New York rolled out for CAURD [a program that required participants to have cannabis convictions]. Lemons that time became lemonade now.”
Dazed And Branson: Harlem's Cannabis Legend Goes Legal
All things come full-circle when cannabis is involved. Just a few weeks ago, Warner got to fulfill a longtime dream when Dazed Holyoke premiered its collaboration with legacy legend Branson. The Harlem icon, known as “the Godfather of New York Weed,” has been immortalized in over 73 classic hip hop tracks, including “Keep Your Hands High” by Tracey Lee and The Notorious B.I.G. Renowned for his discretion and gourmand sensibilities, Branson gives his stamp of approval only to select, trusted colleagues. Becoming the exclusive purveyor of the trailblazer’s eponymous cannabis brand in Massachusetts is a high honor for Dazed.
“The Branson brand has been known forever,” Warner affirms. “Throughout the 90s and 2000s, he was the go-to guy for quality cannabis. Anytime celebrities came to the city, they had to come to him. [With us both] being from Harlem, it only makes sense to represent and pay homage to a true Harlem legend. His name was mentioned in so many songs, videos, on the street, by different personalities, yet he was able to sustain underground for all those years and never get caught up in nonsense. That just tells you the type of person that he is, how well he ran his business, and the fact that he’s known as being the first real cannabis brand in the black market at that time. I’m excited to see that he’s working to bring his brand to this new legal market that we have.”
Though Warner describes himself as being too young and not well connected enough to have been an official Branson customer back in the day, he says you couldn’t go anywhere in Harlem without hearing the name. He can recall being lucky enough to sample Branson’s product through his network on a few occasions. Actually getting to know the man himself, years later, would prove to be much more straightforward and organic.
Warner met his idol at an event at Soho’s THC NYC museum, excitedly discussing their shared Harlem history. “I’m sure he was a little apprehensive because he hears the same song and dance everywhere,” the Dazed leader relates. “But I came from the perspective of ‘I’m from Harlem, I’ve known you forever, it’s the 50th anniversary of hip hop.’ It all makes so much sense. My ideas are just ringing off and he’s being receptive to them. He liked [my proposal] and he didn’t really interject himself into the process too much. He just kind of stood back and watched what I was doing, but still gave me advice on what he thought would make the event really good. Once all was said and done, he got to the [Holyoke] store and saw the reception of people who genuinely came out to show him some love.”
Surprisingly, Branson stayed for a substantial amount of time at the Holyoke celebration (those familiar with the man of mystery know he puts in only sparing appearance at events). Warner attributes this to the fact that several of the trailblazer’s closest friends traveled to Massachusetts for the celebration. One woman, who had immigrated to New York from the Middle East over 20 years ago, shared the story of how she had naively wandered into Branson’s shop during her first week in the city without knowing who he was. After assessing her trustworthiness, the “Godfather” welcomed her in; she’s been in the circle ever since.
What's Next For Dazed New York?
Naturally, fans of Dazed Union Square are hoping to see the Branson collaboration bring the Harlem magic home to New York. Details are still under wraps, but Warner is hopeful that the joy from Holyoke will be recreated in the Big Apple soon enough. In the meantime, he’s hyping everyone up for what they can expect at the store’s grand reopening this week – new fall jackets and merch with the Dazed logo, and giveaways with a lot of heart. The social impact arm of the brand, Dazed Cares, is starting its first initiatives; on Friday November 10th, customers will receive free lockboxes courtesy of the retailer’s partnership with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), allowing parents to keep their cannabis safely away from children. On Veterans Day, Dazed will be donating the day’s proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project.
“We just want to be good stewards for the cannabis industry,” Warner concludes. “That’s the New York way… And that’s probably the main key to our success. We’ve been able to define who we are, what we represent, and people who align with that find us. Then we end up having long-term customer-friends. After all, cannabis was made to share.”
Dazed at 33 Union Square in New York City celebrates its VIP opening on Thursday, November 9th and its public opening on Friday, November 10th. For more information, visit dazed.fun.
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Featured image: Branson (left) with Dazed co-founder Keshawn Warner (right) at the Dazed Holyoke launch of Branson cannabis (C) Dazed