In many ways, it makes sense that Priscilla “Queen of the Desert” Vilchis was among the first CEOs to receive a few of California’s first preliminary licenses to cultivate and produce recreational marijuana from the City of Lynwood. She’s a SoCal native who was raised just up I-5 in Pasadena, but also a member of the industrialization generation of businesspeople who are dramatically revamping the marijuana industry at the dawn of the state’s legalization. But at the same time, as a Latina woman, Vilchis belongs to a community that the legalized marijuana industry has largely shut out and that the government has heavily criminalized with its “War on Drugs.”
She’s bringing much-needed diversity to the the legal weed industry.
Vilchis’ eye is on both the profit margins and the health benefits of her beloved CBD products. Through her work, she’s bringing much-needed diversity to the the legal weed industry – often a white man’s game. She also hopes to also change her community’s perspective on marijuana.
The CEO’s earliest memory of marijuana came from watching movies at home with her young parents. When someone smoked pot on screen, her father lunged to change the channel and little Priscilla got a quick lecture about a substance she was years away from trying. “This is very bad, this is a drug, and if you ever do drugs you’re going to die,” she says, remembering him invoking the alarmist parental narrative.
She smelled weed for the first time at age 14 when she and her family had a picnic in the park. Once again, she pumped her parents for information, this time attempting to pinpoint the source of the strange odor.
“I will never forget the look on my parents’ faces,” she says. “But they obviously wanted to protect their children. At the end of the day, [many parents are] not properly educated to be able to express to their kids that there’s good and bad, just like in alcohol and tobacco, and everything just has to be regulated.”
“Just like in alcohol and tobacco, [weed] just has to be regulated.”
That information is growing more important as California, a perennial leader in national marijuana production, heads into its most serious green rush yet. On January 1, 2018 Proposition 64 will take effect, making cannabis consumption for those over the age of 21 a legal, regulated — and undoubtedly profitable — industry.
Vilchis estimated in her proposal to the City of Lynwood that her company would take in $25 million in its first year. California expects legal cannabis will take in $5 billion in its first year, and industry experts say that by 2020 the national revenue generated by CBD products could be up 700 percent since 2016.
But questions remain about who will see those profits. The US Drug War, originally ignited by Henry Anslinger’s 1930s anti-Latino fearmongering, has always been rooted in racial injustice, colonialist doublespeak, and disproportionate policing of communities of color. Though in 2016 half of all suspects tried in federal drug cases were Hispanic and 23.6 percent were black, as Prohibition lifts on a state-by-state basis, those who have managed to navigate the hurdles to legal business ownership are overwhelmingly white. One 2016 study showed that blacks owned an egregious 1 percent of storefront marijuana dispensaries. For her part, Vilchis was the first female of color to receive two cannabis business permits in Nevada, where her California-approved Premium Produce company also operates and where Priscilla originally founded her Queen of the Desert brand.
Some have suggested enacting plans of reparations to address these hypocrisies of Drug War capitalism, not to mention the disruption that mass incarceration has caused communities. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s proposed Marijuana Justice Act would not just end federal laws against marijuana, but also discourage drug-related deportations, and provide funds to communities that have been adversely affected by drug-related policing. Massachusetts’ Cannabis Cultural Association is one of several programs looking to expand opportunities for young entrepreneurs of color within the legal industry.
The US Drug War has always been rooted in racial injustice.
In May, Oakland’s city council unanimously approved the Equity Permit Program, which says that half of all medical cannabis permits must be awarded to applicants who are low income, have been convicted for a cannabis related crime in Oakland, or who have lived on a local police beat that experienced heavy Drug War policing.
Vilchis does not volunteer support for reparation-like efforts. When asked what the biggest boundaries are for people of color entering the cannabis industry, she speaks of local and state governments doing their best to put regulations in that allow entry to the well qualified. “It doesn’t matter what race or color you are at the end of the day,” she says. “If you meet the criteria that they’re putting in place for you, then it shouldn’t matter.”
Certainly, she has succeeded within the current system. The 30-year-old CEO described herself as a “good kid” who only dabbled with weed as a teen in social settings. But the conservative, prohibitionist views she was raised with were thoroughly dispelled when, after attending junior college and being accepted at Pepperdine University, she postponed school to became a successful entrepreneur in the healthcare industry. By the age of 23 she was making enough at her multiple companies that her mother could retire. “I had a window of opportunity,” Vilchis explains.
Often, her work as a consultant for doctors had to do with navigating worker’s compensation issues, which brought her into contact with patients with chronic pain and an opioid addiction to match. “I saw that [the prescription drugs were] being abused,” she says. “That’s when I started looking into marijuana.”
Vilchis discovered that among its other benefits, products made with the non psychoactive cannabinoid CBD helped her sleep well. That, and being able to witness firsthand how effective CBD is when treating children with seizure-causing illnesses, strengthened her resolve to produce CBD products commercially. She’d found her new career — but she was going to have to have a talk with Mom and Dad, much in the same way that she hopes to speak to Lynwood’s Latino community.
In the wake of receiving her cultivation license and a Type 6 Manufacturer 1 license, she plans to begin outreach efforts among Lynwood’s Latino community, whom she expects to hire as Premium Produce’s employees. To this end, she aims to invite activists like Mexico City father cum marijuana entrepreneur Raúl Elizalde to speak with residents about what CBD products can mean for their families.
When his daughter Graciela was born with Lennox-Gaustaut Syndrome – a type of epilepsy – Elizalde and his wife were eager for alternative treatments that would help with the up to 400 convulsions a day their child was experiencing. They discovered CBD’s effectiveness in treating Graciela’s symptoms, and Raúl founded cannabis patient advocacy group Por Grace. After they were able to see medicinal marijuana legalized in Mexico, Elizalde Elizalde joined HempMeds Mexico to supply CBD oil to patients.
“Everyone’s been so misled, they’ve been shown such negative things out there.”
Her didactic approach mimics the one Vilchis took with her own family. “My parents are … growing up with them, you know them inside and out,” she says. “They’re parents! They’re going to think about the worst case scenario and how to protect you.” So when she sat them down to explain her career shift into cannabis, she showed them testimony from the families of children helped by CBD. She gave her grandmother a topical medicated salve to help with her chronic knee discomfort, which had previously gone untreated due to possible complications of mixing her blood thinner medication with pain pills.
“Things like this are what changes peoples’ perspectives,” Vilchis says. “You have to show them, literally, hold their hand and show them exactly, from A to B. Everyone’s been so misled, they’ve been shown such negative things out there that they want to be educated.”
Vilchis’ focus on the older generation implies a love of community that will hopefully serve her well as a Lynwood entrepreneur. But for younger Calfornians, her message is a given: the green rush has arrived. Now is the time to start studying up on retail strategy, licensing regulations, and cannabinoid profiles that define the brave new marijuana industry.