#10 Giving Back with Cannabis Advising Partners- Connecting L.A.’s Social Equity Program

Cannalaw Connections

Arlene Mejia Robinson is a community organizer, activist and advocate. From her own home in DTLA, she shares her beautiful personal history with us, and how it shaped what she has become today.  She serves as a gentle, yet firm reminder of the inclusivity and diversity that Prop 64 and recreational cannabis in CA was always supposed to be about.

Complete Transcription

Chris: Hey everyone and welcome to another edition of Cannalaw Connections, I'm your host Chris Hoo with Evergreen Law. I'm an attorney and I've been practicing law for over ten years, I've been practicing cannabis law for over two years now and we specialize specifically in testing labs and manufacturing, but we have clients throughout the supply chain. As always, we're recording here in Los Angeles, California and we have a very special guest today her name is Arlene Mejia Robinson.


Arlene: Hi.


Chris: Hey Arlene, welcome to the show. Do you think you could tell us a little bit about what you do and how you're related to Cannabis and the commercial cannabis license industry?


Arlene: Absolutely, thank you for having me first and second, I got into the cannabis industry about a year and a half ago when the city of Los Angeles started conceptualizing the social equity concept and program. It really spoke to me being an Angelina born and raised in the areas impacted by the war on drugs. I spent about fourteen years in real estate management and resident retention in downtown Los Angeles and the belly of Los Angeles. I transferred my career into the cannabis industry because making money wasn't the only important thing to me but impacting my community has become more important as I've gotten older.


Chris: Absolutely, thank you for sharing some of your motives and some of your original interest in being involved in the social equity program, but I'm going to bookmark that for now Arlene so we can learn more about you and why specifically you're so interested in the social equity program and in providing housing and stability to communities impacted by the war on drugs. I think you mentioned earlier that you're from L.A. can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and where you grew up and how this kind of connected you to commercial cannabis?


Arlene: Sure, I again was born in Los Angeles, raised in many areas of L.A. and also the outskirts. I grew up in over twenty-two homes in eighteen years, so I don't really connect with certain neighborhoods, I connect to Los Angeles as an overall home. I grew up with- I have a hard time saying certain honest things because I don't want to disrespect my parents or make them feel like I am unappreciative, but definitely I grew up with my parents on welfare. My father, I'm always embarrassed to say it not for me but for him because he's had  a hard time with sharing to the public that he's an ex-gang member, but my father is an ex-gang member who went on to practice family law for the last twenty-five years and my brothers are all either gang related or have been in the judicial systems since they were teenagers. So, my experience in Los Angeles has been a child in poverty, I don't like that word either because I think of third-world countries and what poverty is like in other places and it's a very different look. But it definitely impacted me in a way that when I, like I said, went into real estate management and had all the nice things it didn't matter anymore because for me when I was a little Latina girl wishing and hoping for more and then I had more I wanted to return that to other Latina girls in the city of L.A. to be able to show them there's a way for us to make it out together, not just one, but all.


Chris: Wow, thank you so much for sharing some of your deepest secrets honestly and thank you for your candidness in sharing that all with us. Can you share a little bit more about some of your earliest memories about growing up in L.A. and how its kind of shaped your desire to help out and give back to your community?


Arlene: The easiest way to put it is growing up I always felt like an outsider looking in in my own neighborhood within my own family, within my own streets. Whenever I saw anyone fighting or I saw gang activity or people going to jail for stealing or prostitution or anything you could imagine that happens when you are seeking a way to pay bills or to survive, I always looked at it as what is wrong with all of you? And why are we doing this? I never identified with my situation, I never felt it was me, and I never felt like it belonged to me. I felt like an outsider looking in like I said. It's an interesting dynamic when you're a little child, let's say eight years old and you're looking at everyone around you and you don't understand why it's all happening.


Chris: Okay, and then you said that you're involved with Cannabis Advising Partners, partner with an s or partner?


Arlene: Cannabis Advising Partners, with an s.


Chris: Okay, so then can you describe your role with cannabis Advising Partners?


Arlene: Sure, I was brought on for the social equity program in particular for Los Angeles and really my role is the director of community affairs in order to bring social equity candidates to the city of Los Angeles we really have to get involved into the communities that produced the applicants or candidates and Cannabis Advising Partners was having some difficulty in being able to get within those communities and deliver those message, so I came on board to be able to facilitate that for them.


Chris: Absolutely, and I definitely can understand the "difficulty" in accessing these communities in technically the social equity program. Look, as a lawyer, as a cannabis attorney, we know how important social equity is and we know that if you're serious about getting a commercial cannabis license in the city of L.A. for other cities and probably eventually the whole state, and hopefully the whole country honestly, it's going to have some form of social equity program. If you're serious about that then you have to be series about social equity and getting involved in community. So, but yeah, I definitely understand not being able to connect. I've reached out there, and I've said, "Hey, we're here, we're ready to help, we're ready to donate pro-bono hours to social equity applicants." And I know there is a lot out there, but we haven't had a lot of response to that and that's what I was talking about with you Arlene was the trust gap that we're trying to bridge, can you tell us a little bit about how you bridged that trust gap?


Arlene: Absolutely, well what you just mentioned about offering pro-bona social equity candidate legal counseling hours when we met I even thought well, heck I mean I guess so I would need this myself if I'm a candidate, but what you experienced is also what these other companies like CAP is experiencing and how I bridge that gap is being that trust beneficiary of sorts. I'm the one that's saying, "Hey, everyone, I've vetted out this company." Or, "I've vetted out this lawyer." Or, "I've vetted out this investor and I feel confident that they're here to improve our neighborhood or improve our community and facilitate the meetings and the assurance that we can all work together."


Chris: Yeah, and what about the political level too? Because there's a trust vet everywhere, why should social equity applicants trust anybody who is part of the establishment, a part of the government, or puts a professional face, or is a suit who is trying to get into this cannabis industry now? How are you involved in that?


Arlene: That's a great question. Within this whole program and being on backside of asking myself questions of how this work and what kind of solutions we can create, I've definitely had to get involved politically, I've had to get involved, again, in the community and with community partners. And it's an interesting dynamic because I think on every fence you can find good in that. You're going to always find people who want to capitalize or exploit, but you can always find people who have good intentions and really believe in the program. So, I've really been cognizant of that and aware that I keep this my vision of the integrity of the program that I can be a facilitator between politician, the DCR, the investor, you know, every single portion, the community, the non-profit that can benefit. But there's no one way to do it and I understand. One thing that we've talked about off the record or not on the radio before on podcast is when you come from a certain environment and everything seems to go wrong and every time you try to do something well, my brother Danny is a great example of this, he went from gangs to grad school, he graduated with his NSW from USC. Even when he was going to USC all of the barriers, he had to be able to finish his degree were not the same as many other students and when you grow up with everything being so difficult and someone comes to you and says, "Hey, we have this great opportunity." It sounds like you're selling snake oil, and no one wants to believe it. And even if it is maybe true there's something in the back of your mind that's telling you, "This can't work, I don't know." Or you said these politicians are trying to pull something on me or-


Chris: No faith, there's not faith in the system.


Arlene: Yes, there's no faith in the system.


Chris: Wow, thank you so much for sharing that and really explaining that in a way that I can understand. Alright.


Arlene: No faith in the system I think is universal that's just when you look at the makeup of our country right now that's how everyone feels, but if you look at the last voter outcome more people were driven to vote because even though we can say we have no faith in the system or it doesn't work we're also partially responsible.


Chris: Very, very wise words from a wise Latina.


Arlene: Thank you.


Chris: So, one of your jobs was to connect social equity applicants or people who qualify for social equity with resources, with the government, with the community to make sure that they can take an advantage of qualifying and giving their applicants and being involved in this new market. So, what kind of things are you looking for, for these applicants?


Arlene: Oh, great question. Well first, you were God sent because when the DCR releases and the city releases proposed social equity rules or regulations the one barrier in-between getting a person to an investor, getting a candidate to the finish line is the legal counsel in-between. So, first being able to provide them with that legal counsel and that comfort that they have a guiding hand while they go through the process, that's definitely one. There are other things that I think would be beneficial to getting a social equity candidate to the finish line and that's something that I'm also including in my incubation model of what the business would look like. There's- I look at it from a holistic approach and I look at it from an approach of how can we heal people from the inside in order for them to be able to be good on the Northside for others?


Chris: So, as a cannabis law firm and someone who is offering answer for your services, we're not [inaudible 00:13:16] how can we empower these social equity applicants? How can we help them make sure that they succeed not just in the short-term compliance and license, but in the long-term like sustainability, five, ten, twenty years?


Arlene: That's a great question. One of the programs that I proposed that we're working within cap is mentorship and apprenticeships. No one can succeed without a partner, without someone to look up to and to give them the advice or counsel. And then another part of the business that we're incubating and working on is coaching programs. But what the cannabis industry can do is offer their services. If there's a company out there that is a cultivator, a manufacturer, or has their own community affairs department, how can they reach out, and coordinate, and work with social equity applicants in the long-term too?


Chris: Awesome, and you're going to continue to connect us, right Arlene?


Arlene: Absolutely.


Chris: Make sure that we're locked in?


Arlene: Yeah.


Chris: Awesome.


Arlene: We're just getting started.


Chris: Awesome. And I just always remind my clients of this and potential clients who kind of- Who through the social equity program or think that community involvement is not important, you better change your attitude because like I said social equity was part of [inaudible 00:14:43] four, that part of the reason why we got recreational cannabis in California and the biggest space in the city, and like I said probably the rest of the state and the country are going to have some, at least some aspect that requires social equity. So, even if you don't qualify, it be-hoofs you to get involved in the community and make sure that you have social equity partners because they're the ones that have the golden ticket, they're the ones that have a preferred licensing as I'm going to talk to with Arlene a little bit more about that.


Arlene: Well, what you're saying is really accountability for what has happened over the course of many generations in a country and we can't deny that although this is the gold rush era of cannabis and there's opportunity physically for many, many people that we can't ignore the problem that cannabis has created in our country with incarcerating young men and putting them in jail and saying now it's okay to do this, it's okay to sell it. And we're corporatizing a product that hurt people, we can't ignore that.


Chris: Thank you for reminding us of that Arlene. Just a ping back on that and getting into our next question, it's about the black and brown communities that were disproportionally impact by the war on drugs, how their communities were impacted, how their families were torn apart, like a generation of black and brown men missing, that's what it's going to strike as. So, even though it was the war on drugs that was a problem and not necessarily cannabis, there's still a very big stigma against cannabis especially in the black and brown communities. Can you tell us a little bit about how you're helping to break up stigma? That's part of our work too, our work is too as an HR campaign.


Arlene: Yeah, well what you just mentioned is let's say like the catholic church for example, or you're abuela your own grandma who and I know cannabis is only a portion of many of the problems that have incurred over the past generations, but when you've been arrested let's say for having a joint on you or trying to sell a dime sack, your mom and your grandma they don't want you to sell that, they don't want you to get near it, they don't want you to smoke it. So, we have to start from the bottom up and look at the root problems and create educational campaigns that show everyone this has a small value, this if used properly can benefit people. What about CBD? What can CBD do to help with PTSD and anxiety let's say? So, we have to start with teaching people that cannabis is safe if used properly.


Chris: Very good points, starting from the bottom up absolutely because especially people like Arlene and me, we get in our cannabis bubble where yeah, cannabis is perfectly fine, it's state, it's medicine, it's good for you. And we forget that most people, most Americans don't feel that way. And we have to start like you said from the bottom up, it's safe, it's medicine, it serves a purpose. Like something we take for granted in the cannabis world we have to really educate when it comes to people who are not part of our world, we invite them in.


Arlene: Exactly.


Chris: Very good. So, kind of circling back to your upbringing Arlene, can you tell us about a person who really, really impacted your life, had a really big influence in your life and really like you think about them and you check back in with them whether living or dead, they really brought you where you are today?


Arlene: I never thought of that until you said it right now and then when you said it the first person that popped into mind was my Auntie Lisa and my dad grew up with mostly brothers, or all brothers rather and he had one sister. And growing up everyone thought I had Lisa's smile when I smiled it was like ah yeah, you're Lisa. And she has her own children, two daughters, and I look more like her than her daughters. But it wasn't so much the looks, it's the spirit, I think our spirits match, she passed away a couple of years ago from cancer and actually right before she passed she did experiment with medical marijuana and it was radical for her that she would even be doing that, but growing up like I mentioned there was a lot of adversity and obstacles but whenever I saw my Auntie Lisa she was the most optimistic person you will ever meet and always had a positive outlook on life and just always saw the good in things.


Chris: Oh, thanks you for sharing your story about your Auntie Lisa.


Arlene: You're welcome.


Chris: And I know this is kind of like a side note, but you said that she never envisioned herself trying medical cannabis until like she got cancer and then she was willing to try anything I imagine?


Arlene: Exactly.


Chris: Did you play a role in changing her mind? Or opening it up? Or helping her experiment with?


Arlene: No, she went to the doctor and it was prescribed to her. It's actually a really important topic because when we discussed cancer and people get, I don't want to say the word desperate, but it is desperate they're like, "I'll try anything." And they try cannabis. Cannabis isn't the only answer for cancer, it's what are you using? And are you using let's say the Rick Simpson oil? Are you using CBD that has the healing factors? Cannabis can help with the pain and help you sleep and help you eat, but that's only the beginning, there's much more. And I think again it goes back to the educational campaign that making the public understand the benefits for cancer, but it doesn't just start with rolling a joint, it's the Rex Simpson oil, it's the diet, it's everything.


Chris: Absolutely. It's a totality of circumstances is what we like to say as lawyers.


Arlene: Interesting, yeah.


Chris: Alright then, and then can you tell us some of the lessons you've learned? I know you've had a lot of professional and personal experience in your short life, but in the past couple of years, especially with your career change and some the changes in your personal life, can you tell us some of the very important lessons that you can impart on us?


Arlene: Absolutely. When I decided to leave not only my real estate career, but the husband that was attached to that, I embarked on a journey that I couldn't have foreseen. When you really want something, and you really believe in something, you will be tested. Do you really want it? And what I've learned over the course of, it's been a little bit over two years is I do care about people and I care about myself, and I think the work that I do comes from wanting to heal within and in order for me to heal I'm seeing that I have to help others, it helps me, it's the true testament of if you want to feel better go out and serve. And so, I've learned over the course of the last two years to just be diligent in my beliefs and to not stray from the vision of what we mentioned before that in this industry you can find good and bad. There's going to be those people who are like, "Cannabis?" "I can make a lot of money off of this." You know, I can do whatever, but there's also people that believe that this is a medicine and that I've been trying to find that balance of sure, I want to be profitable, who doesn't? But I also want to be cognizant of people.


Chris: It sounds like you're very proud of your values that you stick up for them and that you-


Arlene: I've had to learn that. I've had to learn that because at first when I decided to lead the life that I had it was very fancy and for me I didn't think it was that fancy because I was jaded.


Chris: In a bubble.


Arlene: Mm-hm, I was jaded. And now actually I have an executive coach and I do these coaching sessions we talked yesterday, and I actually told him I am proud of myself, but that's new because I think it takes a lot of will to stand up for what you believe in.


Chris: Absolutely, what are the things you are proud of Arlene?


Arlene: Well, my daughter. When I had my daughter, her name is Haylan, she changed my life. Becoming a mother made me feel more responsible for being true and authentic. Before I had her I could just wonder around in this world and just be- You know, we kind of like just to go with the flow or just do what people say, maybe don't think so much about it, but once I brought a child into this world, I felt very responsible. Oh wait, this little girl is going to look at me when she's eighteen and what has mommy done? What does mommy do? And suddenly the responsibility of being an advocate or a philanthropist became very important to me.


Chris: Awesome. And so, for Haylan we know with the future holds for her for the next- How old is she?


Arlene: She's nine.


Chris: So, another nine more years, but the reality is this a lifetime it's not just nine more years. But so, we know you'll be raising her, you're a mom, so that's the future for you too. For your future professionally as an advocate, as a direct community builder, what do you think the future holds for you?


Arlene: That's the part I'm excited about because I don't know what the future entails. I know that if I stay true on my path and I ask how cannabis and community can connect for a collaborative effort and profit that also helps people that the world is my oyster. This is just the beginning of starting a program that's new and like I said for me I'm trying to marry, I'm not trying I am marrying my filmed rocket self with my professional self, and I don't know what that entails, I just know that I get to play. I get to play, I get to figure it out and find solutions somehow.


Chris: Okay, so I think you already said so, but how would you like to be remembered? Would you like to be remembered as a philanthropist? A community builder? What else?


Arlene: Yes, my brother Danny and me always talked about this because my brother has a non-profit called breaking through barriers to success and his legacy is to help keep peace. And I was like wow, Danny, that's so cool and I want my legacy to be how I incorporated philanthropy into business, and that's new right? So, creating this social equity retail dispensary incubation model, I want to be remembered as someone that is an advocate and an activist.


Chris: Advocate and activist, well I definitely think you'll be remembering as an advocate and activist Arlene. Final question I have of course but we're not rushed to get off of here, we can talk to you all day I think, but if you could build the social equity program from the city that had been the model for the state and the country, which it really well could be, what would it look like? What's a perfect social equity program look like for you?


Arlene: Wow, I've been writing this for two years in my mind. Well, I mentioned including untraditional avenues for success when I look at business models currently and I see the community benefit plans they're very stark and they lack the heart. And so, for me it's creating a community benefit plan that is particular to the community it's going to benefit and creating programs within the model that help the business person, the social equity candidate become successful long-term. It's not just about this whole success, it's about- Because you can have all the money in the world, right? And not still be happy. So, working on the person. So, if this person is let's say previously convicted of cannabis convictions there is a law that goes with that, you know, well being in jail what has that done to them? They were in poverty, what has that done to them? So, within the incubation model I've been creating solutions for the person as well.


Chris: So, and I think we were talking about this earlier Arlene, it was about not just giving the person the social equity applicant on paper as an owner and just forgetting about them after that, it's about really involving them and helping them as a person really benefit from processing forward and that the legal regulated cannabis market now really like, for a lack of a better word reparation?


Arlene: Yeah, and well when I go to non-profits in the city and I share what we're doing the one thing that I say is that I'm looking for diamonds in the rough. I'm looking for someone that you might look like on the outside and see an exterior that you don't believe in, but I'm looking for something inside that person that I can polish and make better and present to our counsel members or to our investors as someone that we can prime and grow.


Chris: And we're looking for diamonds in the rough as well. Great, thanks Arlene again for sharing your knowledge and sharing your compassion and your history and being so intimate with us. So, for our listeners, people who want to contact you regarding the social equity programs or anything else, how would they reach you?


Arlene: For social equity candidates or inquires from cannabis companies you can reach me at Arlene, Arlene@cannabisadvising.com or just to follow the story which I'm about to launch on Instagram my Instagram handle for social equity is @yeswecannala.


Chris: Thank you very much, and you know us Evergreen Law and Cannalaw Connections we're always here. We're actually expanding, we have a monthly meet-up in Hollywood, one in San Diego, and now we're expanding to Irvine next month in December. So, looking forward to seeing you all there. Alright, thank you have a good day.


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