Growing up in Oakland, California, Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt was exposed to and experienced firsthand the impacts of the War on Drugs. He grew up around cannabis: his grandmother was the one who brought him to his first dispensary in 1999, and from that point forward he knew that was the dream. For five years, he worked as a security guard, sales associate, and grower for dispensaries across the Bay Area. When he attempted to open his own dispensary in 2003, he was told that “Blacks could never be owners.”
A little over a year later, Blunt was arrested for possession with the intent to sell and was sentenced to ten years of felony probation with a four-way search clause. He attended Oaksterdam University – the US’s first certified cannabis college – and was a part of their second graduating class in 2008, still determined to open up his own dispensary.
A year after California legalized the recreational use of cannabis, Oakland City Council enacted an Equity Program Permit that addressed the cannabis industry’s social disparities by, “prioritizing the victims of the war on drugs, and minimizing barriers of entry into the industry.” Tucky Blunt is the first person to receive a permit from the city, and in 2018, he opened the first dispensary under Oakland’s Social Equity Program. Today Blunts & Moore is recognized as one of the leading dispensaries on the West Coast, having been featured everywhere from CBS to Forbes to High Times. The company has fans and followers around the country for its trailblazing mission and dedication to offering a wide range of products. Blunt likes to call it “the Wal-Mart of cannabis.”
Honeysuckle had the opportunity to sit down with the entrepreneur and discuss the current environment surrounding Oakland’s Social Equity Program, his legacy-to-legal transition, and Black leadership in cannabis.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: Tell me a little about how cannabis became a part of your life. How did growing up in Oakland, California during the War on Drugs era impact your childhood? Did you always know you wanted to sell cannabis?
I’ve been selling cannabis since I was 16 years old; I’m 42, now. I was arrested for selling cannabis in 2005. I’m the first social equity dispensary [owner], the first ex-felon arrested for selling weed to be given a shot. That’s me. I’m a father, a husband, a businessman. I use all those things to help me sell weed.
Weed had been in my family all my life; we grew and smoked [cannabis]. At one of my first jobs, my coworkers smoked weed, but they had bullshit weed. They smelled some of mine one day and said they’d buy all of it. At first, I didn’t tell them it was coming from me, I just said I’d go pick it up for them. After a while, I told them.
That’s when I realized, you don’t have to be on a corner to sell this illegal product. If you’re on the corner, that’s advertising to go to jail. I could sell [cannabis] at work and make the same kind of money, and that’s what I did. In every job I had, I sold weed. Once I realized you could grow and sell kind of legally–Prop-215 days– I learned how to grow my own weed and started selling it to dispensaries.
In 2005, I caught my case. I was in between jobs, bored at home, and thought I could go sell on turf. One of the guys I was buying from snitched, and that’s how I’m talking to [Honeysuckle] now. Had I never taken the chance to go to the turf in between jobs, I would never have gotten snitched on; had I never been snitched on, I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t be the owner of Blunts + Moore.
Now Blunts + Moore is open, thriving, trying to get into the grain, but it’s the taxation we’re dealing with–that the cannabis industry as a whole is dealing with– that’s kicking my ass. I literally open my doors every day to pay taxes and pay staff, unless I make $5 million. I don’t want to sell weed to not make money; I’ve always made money selling weed.
Is this taxation on the selling of the plant or is it on the owning of the business?
In any plant-touching industry, you have to deal with 280E. Section 280E is the [federal] tax code that basically says “you’re selling an illegal product, and we’re going to tax you as such.” [Cannabis business owners] don’t get any write-offs; the only write-off is the cost of goods, and those tax rates are embedded into our price.
The City of Oakland Tax Department has made more money on cannabis sales than cannabis retailers and vendors have made. How is that possible? How are we supposed to make money if they are making more money than us? If I don’t make $5 million dollars a year at the retail level, I pay $250,000 in taxes every year, and that’s just to the feds–we’re not talking about the state. That’s on top of me paying my staff, buying the product, paying rent, etc: there’s no way to make money in that system.
The Oakland Social Equity Program is the program that helped you get your license. Do they have anything that helps with the taxes, or once they give you the license are they out?
That’s it. There’s grant and loan money out now, but you still get taxed for it. Oakland has one of the highest, if not the highest, tax rates in the country for cannabis. When people leave my store, they leave spending roughly 35% on taxes. I have to keep my prices as low as I can so the customer doesn’t see, but I can’t keep lowering my prices. The Social Equity Program has nothing to do with taxes. They just help facilitate getting the license.
Were these grants and loans around for you?
The City of Oakland has grants and loans; the Social Equity Program has nothing to do with it. When we got our license in 2018, there wasn’t any of that. [The council] had voted for it, and it had been approved, but there was no money in the fund yet. Now there are grants; I think at the dispensary level you can get up to $150,000. Granted, that’s something. You also just heard me say, it takes $3 million to open up a dispensary. $150,000 is nice, but it’s a toss in the bucket.
My first partners took thousands of dollars from the business. Now, of course, the city can’t do anything about bad partners, but at the same time, we had to pick partners fast to meet deadlines. There’s a certain amount of time before you have to come back with a Letter of Intent proving someone is going to rent to you, allow you to be in a space to use this license. If you don’t have that LOI within a certain amount of time, you lose your place in the bracket. It’s kind of like we’re set up to fail.
It’s like they’re trying to do something helpful, but they’re just not quite there.
I’m calling it a Reverse War on Drugs. I get the concept of what they’re trying to do. But the process by which they’re doing it isn’t working. They’re killing us. As much as Oakland needs cannabis – I mean, cannabis is needed everywhere – Oakland is like a mecca of cannabis. But the way they’re doing it now, they’re going to lose all the businesses. If my lounge doesn’t help get me to that 200 people a day, $50 a ticket threshold to get above that $5 million, I’m leaving this site in two years. I’d rather sell, take my money elsewhere and open up somewhere where the market is better.
Let me tell you: no one is doing good in Oakland, no one. Us? We’re doing even worse because we have no funds. MSOs can move some money around, but equity ownership? We’re getting railroaded: set up in a position to have a license to fail. At the end of the day, this is still America. America is built on taxation and pills, so there’s a lot that’s morphed into it.
For me to be here in Oakland, for me to be the first, it’s unreal; don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful: I’m so happy I get to do this. I get to sit in this location, in the same zip code I was arrested for selling cannabis in and [now] sell legal cannabis. But unless I make $5 million a year, I’m essentially open and making nothing.
So how did you learn about the program?
Now that’s a crazy story. There’s this guy, Mike Marshall, the voice from I Got Five On It: good friend of mine, grows weed, I supplied him with seed before. I had just been fired from Tesla, [where I’d worked for several months as a Regional Detail Trainer], stressed at home, and that’s when Mike Marshall calls me and asks, “Hey Tucky, you ever caught a weed case in Oakland?” He tells me there are two sisters out of Atlanta, tells me about Oakland’s Social Equity Program that gives people who caught cases licenses for legal cannabis, when I ask him what I had to do next, he just said I had to meet them, see if I was the right fit, and go from there.
I didn’t know about the Equity Program at the time, but I remembered learning at Oaksterdam that there would come a time in the future when there would be reparations for those who went to jail for cannabis. That’s what resonated with me – reparations: that is the exact word Mike used. I'm typing up all this information on the same laptop I’m using right now–the laptop I got from Tesla–the Equity Program was legit, and the rest was history.
I literally won a license. It was meant for me to win. I mean, what are the odds of me finding out about the Equity Program in September 2017, applying for the license in December, and then getting the license in January 2018? It was just meant for me to do it. The stars aligned.
What does it feel like to be one of the first people to open a dispensary using the Social Equity Program?
Actually being the first one, it was a great feeling. I didn’t really realize the impact of what I was doing, but I knew that to have that attached to my name: I knew that it was great. Nobody else could have the first equity dispensary in the world, so I took it all in.
To be honest with you, and I didn’t think about this until three or four months ago, it’s a heavy weight to carry. You’re what everyone looks at now, you’re the bar that everyone wants to reach, so you have to make sure you’re on point all the time, when you’re doing interviews you’re on point, when you’re in public you’re on point. When you’re the first to do something of this magnitude that comes with a lot. Sometimes I just want to be Tucky, not Tucky Blunt of Blunts + Moore.
So, it’s come with a weight. It's a good weight, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a weight. But it’s what came with the territory so I have to accept it.
How does being a Black man owning and running your own dispensary add to that weight?
I can’t even get into it–being Black and being in this space–because I know that’s already there. I know my color, I know that’s only two percent of who is represented in this space. All I can do is keep doing what I’m doing: talking about it, bringing other people in, teaching them. Because if I allow that weight on top of the other, it’s too much.
I’m thankful; I’ve got a good team that listens. I’ve got a good wife; I’ve got good family support. That helps with the weight. I got people on the side helping me.
What has been the biggest challenge in the opening of the dispensary?
Believe it or not, the opening wasn’t really a challenge. When I say it was meant for me, I mean I’m really on a path that was preordained for me. When you get the license, you have to go find funding, because most of us don’t just have $3 million dollars laying around to open a store. In most cases, those people are assholes, they just want your license, and they don’t actually care about you... You’re basically blood in the water of sharks.
I met with my current partner now who owns the building, and just like everyone else, they wanted ownership. I said no, so we worked out a deal where we gave them more rent, bought weed from them, and made them a managing partner; we created a partnership with them that thanked them for giving us the money but didn’t make them an owner.
So for us, it wasn’t that hard. But for others who won licenses when I won mine, they’re going two years without being able to open their dispensary. They had to go out there and figure it out and that means potentially signing bad deals, signing your life away, signing your ownership away. At the end of the day, you’re talking to people you don’t know, and you’re asking them to give you millions of dollars. How are you going to make them give you that money?
I was able to learn what was going on, and now I can give back that gain. The bad stuff I could have gone through I didn’t, because it was meant for me to be in this position first and to be able to share what I learned with others.
What did you take away from your years working in dispensaries in the early 2000s? Have you applied anything to your own dispensary?
Of course. I’ve always approached selling weed as a business. Cannabis businesses are run the same way businesses are run; we’re just not treated the same way other businesses are treated.
I’ve taken the same security protocols and the same customer service skills. Everything I learned working in cannabis spaces, I use now. The one thing I see now that I didn’t see then: Black ownership. There was no Black ownership back then. Keith Stephenson, owner of Purple Heart Patient Center, was the first one [in the country]; that was in 2006. The only thing that’s really changed is the law and taxation.
What’s your advice for other dispensary owners?
This is for anybody trying to get into the cannabis space: think outside growing and selling. With the way 280E is and until federal legalization happens, get into something else. Unless you’ve got the heart, the wherewithal, the resilience, the capital, and can deal with what’s going on in terms of taxation, make lighters, make t-shirts, clothing: think of something to do other than growing and selling. Raise the capital needed to grow and sell if that’s what you really want.
And educate yourself. Educate yourself on what’s going on, on the market you’re trying to get into, on what 280E really is, and how it can really affect your business. I really believe if people knew what 280E is, they would be doing anything but plant-touching.
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to get my hands on a little bit of everything. I’m hoping to open a second store: New Jersey is my target right now. I drafted the application and designed a consumption lounge myself called the Happy Lounge. It’s its own separate entity, so when I go to these other states and try to bring Blunts + Moore out there, I can bring the idea of a consumption lounge too.
I’m doing a lot of digital work now. I’ve been working on becoming a subject matter expert, so I can go and get paid to talk to people about what’s really going on.
I teach for Harrington Institute, [the cannabis education program created by Black-owned brand Viola and the Cleveland School of Cannabis], and soon for Oaksterdam. I got a lot on my plate, as I always do. I’m trying not to be known as weed-man; I am Tucky Blunt, I am known for selling weed, but I also want to be known as a businessman.
So what’s next? Growth. Overall growth, as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a brand.