Woman keeps cannabis green in Black community

New Crenshaw dispensary is first in L.A. owned by a Black woman

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LEIMERT PARK — Kika Keith has long wanted to open a cannabis dispensary in her Crenshaw District neighborhood.

The feisty, 50-year-old mother of three girls knew it wouldn’t be easy, but that wasn’t going to stop her.

Anyone who knows this unapologetically Black grassroots and social justice activist knows that although she was met with one obstacle after another, she was not going to back down or be denied.

On Aug. 25, Keith opened Gorilla Rx Wellness on Crenshaw Boulevard, which became the only Black, female-owned dispensary in the city. Keith, who owns 65% pf the business, said the dispensary is 70% owned by Black women, 90% of the management team are Black women, and the store is designed by a Black woman.

While there are hundreds of cannabis dispensaries around Los Angeles, most do not have Black ownership or put money back into Black neighborhoods. Keith said that stops with her.

“My mission to be the first Black woman and first Black social equity to open in Los Angeles, the largest market in the world, was not just to say I did it, but to be an example to show how you can do it without compromising,” Keith said. “You can do it and put money back into your own community and you can do it without having to take on someone else’s brand and do it their way.

“You can gain investors, build your knowledge base and be a CEO. If we have knowledge, we have power. That’s why it was important for me to set the tone and the standard.”

Once she learned about the city’s social equity program for cannabis businesses in 2017 and realized she qualified for the program because of her residential status, Keith made it her mission to get a retail license and put a Black-owned cannabis business on the South L.A. map. The social equity program aims to help cannabis entrepreneurs from communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.

In 2018, the state Legislature passed the California Cannabis Equity Act that would allow for the development and operation of cannabis equity programs aimed at including the minority communities that had been adversely affected by cannabis criminalization, according to the city of Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation.

Keith, who studied business and managerial economics at UC Davis, said while she believes the program started with good intentions, she was “disappointed with the failures of the equity program” whose application process, she felt, was “flawed.”

“The office has done nothing to help those to create a pathway,” Keith said. “They failed in doing their outreach.”

Keith, who chose to rise above the failing cannabis equity programs, has been building her wellness brand for many years, including THC and CBD products and Gorilla Life Beverage (her mother’s recipe), an infused chlorophyll water. Keith is proud to say she did it her way, without having to compromise.

“Most investors wanted me to compromise the Gorilla Life Beverage recipe, the name and how we did,” said Keith, who successfully raised $1 million to launch her business. “It created a great learning experience and a longer path. It’s the same path I see social equity advocates having to face right now.

“With this Measure M law, they do give prioritization to social equity folks, but then where do you get the $1 million from? So what do you do? Do you compromise your community reinvestment or the legacy building and generational wealth in order to get that quick dollar?”

Keith, who was raised a revolutionary by parents who were community activists, said she went to city council meetings and read everything she could get her hands on to educate herself about the cannabis business and the process.

“I realized the way it was set up, it was formed to fail,” said Keith, who co-helms the Life Development Group and the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association. “But I kept at it because Black people have not been part of these industries. We’re always consumers.

“My mission was to prepare for licensing and once I knew what I was doing, my goal was to help other people with their licensing applications. I knew when cannabis was going to be legalized that there was going to be an opportunity to seize the moment. I couldn’t sit by and let this pass. This is a trillion-dollar industry. This is when you see the money gets recycled.”

Keith believes ownership in the cannabis industry is a “human rights issue.”

“There is no other industry that has developed off the backs of the war on Black and brown people,” said Keith, who is concerned about outsiders opening businesses in Black communities and not investing in the same. “When we say we want these opportunities, they are not just going to come.

“We have to go after them. About 90% of cannabis licenses are owned by white men. It’s less than 3% for Black people across the country.”

Gorilla Rx Wellness is a colorful, spacious dispensary on Crenshaw Boulevard in the heart of Leimert Park, adjacent to Maverick’s Flat, just south of Stocker Street.

Keith said the layout and shelving are similar to Trader Joe’s and GNC store models to give it a health food store look and feel.

“I call ourselves the Trader Joe’s of cannabis,” she said.

The dispensary, which has a large supply of products from Black vendors, boasts 1,600 products ranging from edibles to BBQ sauce, bath salts, coffee, other drinks and more.

“It’s more than just smoking something and getting high,” said Keith, who say she does indulge. “We have something for everybody including mothers, fathers and grandparents. Think about it as a part of your well-being.”

Keith hopes in some way her business helps to combat gentrification.

“I hope so,” she said. “That’s my ultimate goal. I believe in Black gentrification. I believe we need to come back to our own communities. It all starts from the economics side.”

She would like her business to be an example of community reinvestment.

“This isn’t about my own personal generational wealth,” she said. “This is about community reinvestment. That’s how we intend to spend our profits. We want money to go right back into our community.”

To start, Keith hired employees from the Crenshaw District, including Dametria Smith, a 35-year-old South L.A. resident.

“I came to the opening as a customer,” said Smith, who has Crohn’s disease and uses marijuana for flare-ups. “The place felt good and whole. This is the first dispensary I had ever been to. I loved it so much, I decided I wanted to work here.”

Marilyn Shugars, 72, who lives in the area, started smoking weed seven months ago to keep her “spiritual balance.”

“I have a master’s in behavioral science and substance abuse,” said Shugars, who attended Dorsey High School and USC. “I don’t consider it a drug. I don’t do it to get high. I do it for balance.”

Keith, who has been an entrepreneur most of her life, said she realizes the selling aspect of cannabis has been connected to gangs and violence.

She would like to shun the stigma that surrounds cannabis usage.

“I’ve been an educated consumer for years,” said Keith, who plans to have a wellness advisor in the dispensary twice a week. “It can be a part of your lifestyle. Back in the 70s, my father was a Rastafarian. From him, I learned that everything we need to heal our bodies comes from the earth. It was around me and I understood the healing properties of it.”

Keith said it was not about getting high.

“Getting high was the added bonus,” she said. “I come at it with quite a different perspective. I have never turned to alcohol or other vices. It alleviates stress. I have a great relationship with cannabis.”

Gorilla Rx Wellness’ tagline on the shop’s merchandise says, “Black Women Get Us Higher,” which Keith said also serves as a mantra of empowerment for the community.

Customers must be at least 21 years old and must have identification.

Gorilla Rx Wellness is located at 4233 Crenshaw Blvd.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.