How A Farmer And A Felon Are Trying To Bring Justice To Cannabis
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While the legal cannabis industry in America thrives, an estimated 40,000 people are in jail for cannabis convictions.
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The brand offers consumers a sustainable cannabis lineup of flower in eighths, quarters, small nugs, and prerolled joints. The sun-grown strains, packaged in a striking orange bag that echoes a prison jumpsuit, highlight Northern California's rich growing terroir. Cannabis in its current lineup range from dense Shark Shock to a pungent Vanilla Frosting.
The brand's name is a nod to CannaCraft's two co-founders: As farmers, both have been growing for decades, and in the licensed industry for over six years. Hunter earned the unfortunate felon title in 1998 when federal agents raided his cultivation site in Humboldt County. Since founding CannaCraft in Sonoma, California in 2014, Fussell and Hunter have evolved its umbrella of brands into one of the largest cannabis companies in the world (which today includes Care By Design, Satori Chocolates, AbsoluteXtracts).
The veteran cannabis industry growers are also advocates and philanthropists. Farmer And The Felon has already donated over $30,000 to The Last Prisoner Project since its launch. The nonprofit's mission is to free incarcerated individuals across the country who are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Hunter is a founding member of The Last Prisoner Project while Fussell is a core member of OSC2, One Step Closer to an Organic Sustainable Community, whose work orbits sustainable cannabis.
Fussell and Hunter spoke with Green Entrepreneur about the meaning behind the new brand, the effort to destigmatize the world felon, important support of The Last Prisoner Project, and what actionable change is needed to bring true equity to the cannabis industry.
Green Entrepreneur: What percentage of the Farmer & The Felon goes to The Last Prisoner Project efforts?
Dennis Hunter: It's hard to nail down the exact percentage, part of it is just the California regulations. If there is a financial interest in a cannabis product, we get into a sticky situation with the regulations. And so we donate a portion of our profits to The Last Prisoner Project. Since the launch, we've donated a little over $30,000 to The Last Prisoner Project. We really want to see change happen in that area. It has just been too long that it's been the way it is. The law has broken up families, and just really changed people's lives by having them be incarcerated for this plant that really has done no harm to anybody and has helped so many.
Did you conceive the brand to champion the cause of The Last Prisoner Project, or was this an idea for a cannabis line you had been chewing on for some time?
Hunter: It was one that we were chewing on actually. Our chairman of the board, Ned and I were at dinner with her, said she goes: 'I'm gonna write your book, the Farmer and the Felon.' From there, we were just like 'wow, that would be a great brand.' For us, we've been doing this for so long. We really felt this brand was going to tell the CannaCraft story. So it's one that we are just really going to have a lot of fun with and do a lot of good with.
It's going to be one of those things where, now, you get to see how this all came about. How CannaCraft came to be, all the struggles and successes we've had along the way, and really to tell that story. And to have that shine a light onto the other brands. And really to differentiate it from all of the new brands that have come out, people who have jumped into the industry trying to make a fast buck. Thinking that this is just an easy way to get rich in some cases. You'd be quite surprised that it's a lot of work to be in this industry. This was really a differentiator. It is to tell the crazy story we've had. And it also brings some light to all the different stages that cannabis has been in over the last 30 years.
Ned Fussell: The farmer and the felon, in this case, are Dennis and I. But in a lot of different situations, the farmer and the felon is the same thing. It's a play on words. The paradigm we are living in is, when making the decision to be a farmer and grow cannabis, you're consciously or subconsciously accepting the fate that the title felon could easily follow.
When did you first decide to really get out in front of the word "Felon", instead of hiding it? Why did you feel it was time to step out as a representation of "Felons" in the space?
Hunter: I've lived with this for quite some time now. It's been something that a lot of people are ashamed of, even myself. It's bullshit. It's something I haven't enjoyed, putting felon on every application I do for different things. When you're meeting people, the fact that you've been to jail is something you don't really want to put out there.
Over the last few years, instead of just being upset that I went to prison, I am more like, well. All of a sudden, the government wants to be our partner. Now that we're paying taxes, and they're so quick to take the money. And it's kinda the irony, that, 'you guys were just putting people in jail for this. And now you're trying to get all the tax revenue off of it.'
Which is fine, treat us like every other business. But when you gouge this industry now and you were putting people in jail for it before? It's time to shed more light on that. How ironic it is and how damaging prohibition has been, for so long, and did so much damage.
Shark Shock strain grown by Farmer And The Felon. (Image credit: Lindsey Bartlett/Green Entrepreneur)
It's a leap forward. To say I'm not going to be ashamed of it. I think a lot of other people shouldn't be. The cool thing that's happened recently from this, you get points if you're a felon. It possibly even helps you in an application process. I think that's kind of hilarious now, we have a better chance of getting this license. I think it's just that time, to show how ridiculous this has been. It's a schedule one drug. It's time to push back I believe, and say, 'this has been ridiculous and you guys have done so much damage, and it's time for a change.'
And that just falls right into The Last Prisoner Project and the social justice and change we are going to be supporting to shed light on these things, and to make change happen.
Fussell: To really dive in on the stigma of being a felon, that in itself, the number of people that by choosing to be farmers in our space now carry that title. That name hangs over their head and every job they do and everything they do moving forward. The limitations of that charge over people's heads really cause damage, not just in the short term but in the long term. It illustrates the fact the true felons are the policymakers who make this system where there are so many victims of this. Not only the farmers themselves. The thing that unifies both the farmer and the felon is the family around them.
"Felon has such a negative connotation to it. By launching this brand, I think it could really bring us a different narrative and different paradigm."
- Ned Fussell, Farmer And The Felon and CannaCraft co-founder
The people around, their family, is also affected if not more. Just trying to bring that to the surface. Felon has such a negative connotation to it, by launching this brand, it really could bring us a different narrative to the word felon. There could be a lot of positivity that comes from it.
While we are on the branding, I am interested: why did you go with this bright, bold orange?
Hunter: Obviously, orange jumpsuits are common in most jails. Another bold statement, along with the word felon, using a prison jumpsuit orange. And the font follows that theme: kind of stenciled-looking font that would be the print on those jumpsuits.
What practices in farming or cultivating sets the flower apart?
Fussell: All of our flower is sun-grown, we use either greenhouses or just full sun. We feel pretty strongly about not growing indoors. We feel it's silly to be living in California and to be spending the amount of energy and resources to produce something that can be produced equally, if not more premium, when produced outdoors in the California sunlight. In terms of our farms, we've been working on them for a solid 5-10 years. It's important for us to keep that soil alive and happy. We work with sun and earth certification. So different groups that do some certification programs in terms of regenerative practices. Obviously, we aren't able to use the word organic, but in terms of our nutrients, inputs, all of our tests, all of that is done organically.
Just like California produces the majority of the food and vegetables for the country, it's the same with cannabis.,
We are operating in a pandemic, the times are unprecedented as they say: has this sped up or increased necessity of Farmer And The Felon's launch? Has it increased The Last Prisoner Project's desire to really push to release those incarcerated for nonviolent or cannabis crimes?
Hunter: We were planning on launching pretty much when we did. Obviously launching a brand during the shelter in place order, and not being able to go out there and really publicly push it in the retail locations, definitely put a little bit of a damper on that. But we decided to just launch anyways and got such a great response from all of our retail partners that really wanted to be doing something. Having this social justice piece was just a way for them to participate as well. So we had this really amazing response.
Fussell: With COVID happening here, it obviously brings new light to its importance. Take the cannabis side out of it, there are all kinds of new calls for prisoners to be released for all kinds of nonviolent crimes. Whatever it is that they did, none of them were given death sentences. To be locked up in prisons where social distancing isn't even an option? It calls to renew the conversation to let these people out of prison, not just for cannabis, but for all kinds of nonviolent crimes, and if they have compromised immune systems. These are crazy times, it is timed well with everything that's going on.
Tell me how you feel about Social Equity programs, in California your state, or beyond. Are they doing enough? Do we need more cultivators in the space who come from the unlicensed world?
Hunter: it's just that the way that they're going about it, is, it doesn't seem very effective. Where there's sort of one, maybe its a minority, equity application that gets put as a case a year. But it doesn't spread that out to the whole community that is affected. I feel like there are better ways to have it benefit the whole community, rather than just one sort of lucky individual who happens to be in the right place. It just doesn't seem like it's effective in that way. But I am glad people are thinking of it. At least there is some effort towards it, but there is work to be done to figure out how to make it be more successful.
Fussell: Until the state takes it seriously, and really makes a move to not only open up the application process for social equity but also think about the financing element of it, then it's not enough. Whether it's grants or low-interest loans for some of the folks who want to get involved. It's a very high cash-intensive business in terms of capital improvements.
The social equity application is just the first step, once you get the permit, there are all the things that need to be done. it is very cash-intensive without some program in place where people have access to those finances. What I am seeing is, some of these smaller equity businesses are becoming victims of these larger private equity DCs, national MSOs, who want to spread their footprint everywhere. The social applicants end up being a stepping stone to get there which really seems counter to the whole thought behind it. Until they deal with the funding element for these people to get funded and have resources to develop their plan, I don't see how it could be that effective.
I know this is like asking you to choose between children, but do you have a favorite cannabis strain in the Farmer And The Felon lineup out now?
Fussell: As much as love weed, we love our kids more so it's not quite the same. Lately, I have been liking this London Pound Cake and some Lemon Kush mints. It's kind of a month to month basis for me. Little jars show up in our office, we bounce around. It's one of the nice perks for us living in Sonoma County, anytime family and friends come over, people always bring flavors for us to try.
Hunter: They come from some amazing farms, too. We have a lot of partner farms that we purchase from. A lot of them give us discounts on the flower going in. So we even get the farmers on the farmer's side wanting to contribute to this brand. Whatever that discount is, we are donating that to The Last Prisoner Project as well. Just being up in Northern California for decades, we have a lot of great friends who are really great farmers, who are they are excited to put their flower in this brand as well. It's nice to have this variety. To see the craft of these amazing farmers in the products that we put out.
Fussell: It's also been super inspirational to watch how the idea has rippled. We've seen this vertical contribution: from the farmers contributing, all the way up from us making the products, to the retail stores themselves doubling down with us. It has been cool to watch this little idea have such a ripple effect. And organically grow on its own and inspire others who want to jump in and get involved.
Hunter: Another thing that's always been on my mind a bit with legalization, is how much the cannabis industry supported the counter culture. People who are out there trying to, whether it was saving the Eel River, to medical advocacy. They were the protesters keeping society in check a bit. A lot of it was founded in by cannabis dollars in the private market. Now with legalization and regulation, I sometimes wonder, who is going to support those causes? So maybe this is how those causes will get supported. Maybe the best success we can ask for, is that more companies do this. They find ways to give back and ways to have their product support some of these causes that are so important to us.
If you had one distilled piece of advice for other cannabis entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Hunter: It is just that perseverance. If you're doing something that you really love and it's what you want to do, you just make it happen. You put one foot in front of the other you just keep pushing, eventually, those roadblocks will deteriorate and you will get through it. It's one of those industries that is very trying at times. It really does take that real solid push to get be successful. It's not as easy, and you'll see a lot of people who really had to struggle. If it's something you love, you make it happen.