Cindy De La Vega was 20 years old when her Mexican immigrant mother was almost hit in the head by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting in the Sunnydale projects of San Francisco. It was the middle of the night when the bullet came through her mother's bedroom window as she laid asleep — De La Vega a few feet away in her bedroom. "The gunshots woke us up, and it was a routine when shootings occurred to check if anyone got hit in our home or even outside," De La Vega tells Refinery29. "The War on Drugs was a fact of life in the area — crack, drive-by shootings, and arrests."
That reality went beyond those four walls in Sunnydale, stirring uneasiness when she'd occasionally smoke cannabis with her girlfriends in high school. She felt the police targeted her community in "SWAMPY D"— the nickname for the Sunnydale housing projects. She recalls moments when her sisters were harassed by the police. "Because of this environment, I was mostly scared of it and didn't experience the healing aspects of cannabis until later in life," De La Vega says.
Cannabis took on an entirely new meaning for De La Vega when she had to resign from her job as a Certified Hospital Unit Service Coordinator and Certified Phlebotomy Technician in 2017 because of a back injury. Her friend and mentor Rudy Corpuz Jr. at United Playaz, a local violence prevention and youth development organization — who was also a member of the San Francisco Cannabis Equity Group — introduced her to the idea of working in cannabis. That's when her journey began.
In 2018, De La Vega became a receptionist at STIIIZY, a premium cannabis lifestyle brand. She gained hands-on experience when she was promoted to budtender and shadowed the cannabis buyer at STIIIZY's Mission location in San Francisco. The brand flew her out to its flagship store in downtown Los Angeles for two weeks to teach her the general manager duties and how the business works. Additionally, she took it upon herself to learn more about the industry by taking courses at Oaksterdam University, the U.S.' first "cannabis college," to study budtending and other cannabis topics. Then, she decided to apply to the Equity Program, which is designed to lower barriers to cannabis licensing for those hit hardest by the War on Drugs, and began the application process in May 2018.
Working with the Equity Program would serve as a full-circle moment for De La Vega, as programs like these look to lead a paradigm shift in Black and brown communities targeted by the War on Drugs by creating equitable cannabis-licensing opportunities. What once felt like a target on her back in the Sunnydale projects became her opportunity to not only reclaim a space in which over-criminalization is rampant, but to eventually build a Latinx- and woman-owned business. Without the Equity Program, De La Vega says she wouldn't have had access to the resources to secure a retail location and vendors. Thanks to the program, she's a part of a network of other cannabis-focused professionals and mentors.
As a means to an opportunity, applicants like De La Vega needed to meet three of six criteria, which for her were: having a household income 80% below the average median income in San Francisco for 2018; have been, or have an immediate family member, arrested for or convicted of the sale, possession, use, manufacture, or cultivation of cannabis as a juvenile from 1971 to 2016; and attended school in the San Francisco Unified School District for five years, from 1971 to 2016.
De La Vega was accepted to the Equity Program in August 2019. By October 2020, she opened STIIIZY Union Square, making her the first Latina to own a retail cannabis business in San Francisco. De La Vega acknowledges it wasn't easy to be a pioneer in a white-male-dominated industry. In this booming industry, 80 to 90% of operating legal dispensaries are run by white, non-Latinx owners. "I've been in many meetings where I'm the only woman, and sometimes the only person of color," she says. "Those are the moments where my will to succeed is challenged, but strengthened."
The inequality in the cannabis world is not only about representation, but also about the unjust reality faced by Black and brown communities, which have a long history of targeted arrests for the possession of marijuana. "The War on Drugs was a war on us — the folks that lived in poor neighborhoods," the Mexican-American budding entrepreneur says. Although Latinx people comprise less than 20% of the U.S. population, half of federal drug cases are against people classified as "Hispanic." New York is one of two states with Latinx cannabis arrest data, and the numbers show that Latinx people are arrested at nearly four times the rate of non-Latinx whites. In De La Vega's hometown of San Francisco, at least 125 of 265 youth drug felony arrests were Latinx in 2007.
Latinx representation in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry matters. In 1903, the first cannabis prohibition law passed in the country was aimed specifically at Mexicans in Brownsville, TX. Possession and transfer of cannabis (excluding medical and industrial uses) was subsequently criminalized in the 1930s, and cannabis was officially outlawed for any use in 1970. It remains a key factor in Latinx deportation: Possession of marijuana was the fourth most common cause of deportation in 2013. Even if a minor offense doesn't lead to deportation, it can still prevent a legal permanent resident from ever leaving and returning to the States.
The first U.S. bill criminalizing the cultivation of cannabis passed in California in 1913. California later became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use in 1996 when the distribution, sale, and possession of cannabis were legalized. Legislation introduced over the years often excluded communities of color, including Latinx people, who now make up nearly 40% of California's population. It wasn't until 2000 when California passed the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, offering eligible offenders treatment rather than jail time for drug possession and use — which is instrumental for the communities most affected.
While she's one of the firsts, De La Vega hopes to see more Latinx people join her in this $61 billion industry. "SF is made up of many Latinx communities," De La Vega says. "It's about time we get a share in the city's wealth and opportunity." She takes her role as a representative of the Latinx cannabis industry to heart. Being the first Latina to own a retail cannabis business in San Francisco has made an impact far beyond California: She recalls when a Latinx family from Arizona came to California to support her business after seeing De La Vega on the news when the store opened.
Now, the store owner is paying it forward by giving a portion of her revenue to support other marginalized cannabis entrepreneurs and hiring her entire staff through Success Centers SF, an organization that assists marginalized communities with employment. According to Marisa Rodriguez, the Director of the San Francisco Office of Cannabis, 33 new Equity Program cannabis businesses are currently completing their construction.
"The Equity Program has become a force multiplier for social good, delivering on its goals of creating opportunities and access for individuals and communities affected by failed drug policies," says Rodriguez. In the last year, 11 equity-owned cannabis businesses officially opened, including De La Vega's.
While the Equity Program may be creating a path forward, it's important for consumers to support businesses like De La Vega's to remedy past harms. "I'd like to see continued support of businesses like mine and the many other applicants who grow, distribute, and work with cannabis," De La Vega says. "By purchasing their cannabis from people like me, they're not simply supporting my family and me; they're helping pour resources back into the communities that need them most."