Editor’s Note: Unless otherwise noted, opinions expressed in this story are those of the interviewee and not of the El Tecolote staff or publication.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” began Cindy De La Vega, San Francisco’s first Latina dispensary owner. When De La Vega applied for a cannabis business permit with the city’s Cannabis Equity Program in 2017, she was greeted with a sea of paperwork and bureaucracy, not to mention “a community that doesn’t want to see someone like me––Latina, that’s a minority––succeed.”
With grit, encouragement from friends and neighbors, and mentorship from partner organizations, De La Vega obtained her permit in October 2019 and opened the dispensary on O’Farrell St. in Union Square in October 2020.
Despite the promotional challenges of debuting during COVID-19, the dispensary’s opening was well attended. De La Vega recounted how a line of customers wrapped down Powell St. and even included visitors who travelled from Los Angeles and Arizona to show support. “That alone was incredible…I didn’t expect that,” De La Vega remembered.
However, “as amazing as it is to be the first [Latina dispensary owner in San Francisco], it also shows…that we have a long way to go,” De La Vega said. “We need more Latinas to be given the same opportunity.”
Seeing a Latina business owner “gives Latinx folks hope and inspires them to continue to work and fight against racial discrimintation,” De La Vega said. “I feel like it paves the way for women who are also capable of becoming leaders, business owners.”
De La Vega had few similar role models as a San Francisco native growing up in Visitation Valley, in “a neighborhood that was poor and highly impacted by the War on Drugs.”
“We were left behind,” De La Vega said. As a high school student, she lived in constant fear of fights, gang and domestic violence, and drive-by shootings. Her public high school invested little in her education, she said. De La Vega was taught math by a substitute teacher for nearly a full year after her previous teacher quit and wasn’t replaced.
If little else, high school taught De La Vega that “You have to make sure that you don’t depend on the system. You educate yourself. They’re not going to come out and hand it to you.”
De La Vega sees owning a dispensary as a way to help restore the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. “Cannabis heals. Cannabis is medicine that…was labeled as a drug and used to incarcerate people of color, Black and Brown folks,” she said.
De La Vega remembers being a teenager and watching police harass her sister for smoking a joint. The War on Drugs allowed police to “do what they want with us, like they had been––lock us up, get rid of us…because they could,” De La Vega reflects.
Cannabis “needs to be legalized in all states…our people are still getting deported, or incarcerated [for cannabis-related offenses across the United States],” De La Vega explained.
According to a 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates,” reported Michael Blood of the Associated Press.
According to arrest data by the California Department of Justice, there were 1,181 felony marijuana arrests in California in 2019, the lowest number since 1954. Still, Hispanics accounted for 41.7 percent of felony arrests, while Black people accounted for 22.3 percent and whites for 21.3 percent.
“Now that cannabis has been legalized [in California],” De La Vega said, “we need to empower and connect all of those individuals [who were impacted by the War on Drugs] with education on cannabis and how they too…can become business owners, entrepreneurs… getting what they deserve in pay.”
As a Latina dispensary owner, De La Vega holds cannabis’ troubled history in tension with its future possibilities. “I’m happy for my accomplishments but I’m also sad for the people that are still suffering, and that are paying with their life [because of the War on Drugs],” De La Vega concluded.
Ultimately, De La Vega said her story is “an example to our younger generation, to my daughters for example, that it doesn’t matter what you go through or where you come from.”
While Latina representation in the cannabis industry may be new, determination and resilience have long persisted in communities of color. “Anyone that has hustled in the past knows,” De La Vega said, “we’ve been doing this work forever.”