[Pictured: The Tapia brothers (from left) Isaac, Isaiah and Elijah stand in front of Poncho Brotherz, their new dispensary on Cesar Chavez Street. Photo: Andrew Brobst/Calle 24]
On the corner of Cesar Chavez and Bryant streets, a vibrant mural unfurls into the scene of lush greenery and swinging monkeys. The youthful spirit of art flags a new addition to the block: Poncho Brotherz, a family owned cannabis dispensary devoted to holistic healing and giving back to the Bay Area community.
Behind the Mission’s latest dispensary are the Tapia brothers — Isaiah, Isaac and Elijah — a trio all in their early 20’s whose long-time dream comes to life on the last weekend of July when the dispensary opens.”
But it was in the fall of 2016 when the Tapia brothers found their name — or one could say their name found them. Alongside their Aztec dance group, Cuauhtli Mitotiani Mexica, the Tapia brothers traveled to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) — a proposed project violating the Laramie Treaty and placing the land at risk of desecration.
“We were always rocking a passed down poncho from our grandmother, so we got recognized as the poncho brothers,” said Isaiah of his time at Standing Rock.
The meaning behind their name formed even further as the three delved into Indigenous cultural practices, honoring their ancestral ties — ties that trace back eight generations to Apache Chief Victorio. In this journey, the brothers found their calling.
“The further you dive into yourself and have the courage to do so, it all then becomes lighter,” said Isaiah. Isaiah conveys this message on the building’s exterior mural, which features a temple, a symbol of self.
Yet it’s inside the temple where the gifts of each brother converge.
For the eldest brother, Isaac, his relationship with cannabis first began with his relationship to the body. Diagnosed with type one diabetes, and defiant to all pessimistic prognostics, Isaac took his health into his own hands through holistic wellness, veganism and cannabis.
“I began researching the health benefits [of cannabis] — intaking it, oils, CBD/THC tinctures — and I found the different aspects of healing you can get from cannabis besides a party high,” said Isaac, 25.
In this same vein, the youngest brother, Elijah, is a professional vegan chef who carries the philosophy of “food is medicine.”
“Our standard American diet does cause a lot of diseases today and pharmaceutical companies don’t care about us — but, I want to change that and I want to make food accessible to our people,” said Elijah. “Especially being Brown and Black, a lot of diseases are hereditary, but it also has to do with the food we eat.”
From this value of health, the Poncho Brotherz products are all vegan, organic, non-GMO and are ethically sourced from land that the brothers farm themselves.
In 2019, the Tapia family purchased their first 40 acres of land in Humboldt County and a year later bought another 64 acres, with a pre-existing permit to cultivate cannabis. With one step closer to making their dream a reality, Edward Brown, their ‘adopted brother,’ entered the picture.
While guests on a podcast together, Brown met the father of the Tapia brothers. Three days later, the four met in person. And the rest is history.
“It was like, ‘Brother from another mother … where you been?’” said Isaac.
A cannabis activist and a Golden Gate University law school dropout, Brown has volunteered his legal expertise to Black and Brown people since 2018. Brown’s volunteerism is driven by love for community and seeing that people of color have equal access to opportunities in the cannabis industry.
“I want to see more Black and Brown people in this space, the people who were harmed the most, the people who weed was used to target, to take the male out of the household,” said Brown.
The War on Drugs, Brown references, masqueraded as a public health crusade in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but directly targeted Black and Latino communities, incarcerating men of color by the masses. Today, the Center for Law and Justice reports that 75-percent of people in state prison for drug convictions are people of color, despite the fact that people of color and white people use drugs at the same rate.
In an attempt to remedy harm from the War on Drugs, San Francisco created the Cannabis Equity Program, which reserves cannabis permits for people who can prove harm from the War on Drugs — people like the Tapia brothers, whose grandfather was arrested for giving a joint to an undercover officer.
Despite the good intentions of the equity program, accessibility issues arise from within the bureaucratic process, as well as a burden of disproportionate taxes, and expenses at large.
This last year, the National Conference of State Legislatures policy brief reported that California’s cannabis tax burden is amongst the highest in the country. Furthermore, California taxes cannabis more than other commodities, such as alcohol or tobacco.
To compensate for the economic risk, newer state equity programs like that of New York, provide capital to qualified applicants. But San Francisco remains behind.
“The process is not an easy one,” Jackie Tapia, an accountant and mother to the Tapia brothers, said of the process and risk. “In a sense, if you’re made of money, and you’re OK with losing money, then you’re one of the ones who can make it to the top.”
For families like the Tapia’s who live check-to-check, losing money is not an option. Those who can afford to try their hand at cannabis are usually white and wealthy. In 2020, Forbes reported that the cannabis industry is 80-90 percent run by white owners and this is a number largely unchanging.
Undeterred by this fact, the Tapia family and their business partners are stepping up and into the challenge, making it known that there is space for those who look like them and who come from similar backgrounds.
“In 10 years, we want to be the test of time for the people — not corporate backed, without lawyers with big money ties,” said Isaac.
Jackie chimes in. “This is as real as it gets.”