“As a diverse candidate, it's like the barriers continue to stack. When you think you navigated one part well, you run into another issue that cost another 5k. The whole process is contradictory.”
– Alyza M. Brevard-Rodriguez
Veteran participation in the legal cannabis market is desirable yet lofty and beyond reach for most veterans. While veterans are allowed to participate in legal medical cannabis programs, there's stigma associated with it, as Alyza explains. Moreso, the federal prohibition of cannabis means that doctors affiliated with VA health care don't offer cannabis as an option. Consequently, war veterans who stand to benefit from medical cannabis for pain, PTSD, and other conditions are technically “locked out.”
Alyza, a veteran, minority, and mother, seems like the most unlikely person to be venturing into the cannabis industry as an entrepreneur. In this brief interview, she narrates her unexpected debut into the industry and the hurdles she has encountered along the way as a diverse applicant under the social equity program in New Jersey. She also highlights some of the challenges that veterans encounter when seeking medical cannabis treatment.
- Briefly introduce yourself and how you found yourself/selves interested in the cannabis space.
My name is Alyza and I’m a serial entrepreneur based out of Jersey. The idea of being in the cannabis industry was actually mentioned to me back in 2015/2016 by a good friend of mine (hi Keith!) He told me it would be a great industry to get into and that the state politicians were voicing that they wanted to empower more veterans with entry into the industry. I was resistant to the idea at first because I was still in the military and at that time I thought I’d do 20 years but after my last deployment where I got hurt my long-term aspirations pivoted as my mindset shifted.
Covid happened, I was deployed in the middle of it as a new mom. I was just going through a lot that made me start to re-evaluate the path I was on. I had a good career and was making great money but I wasn't happy. Honestly, I just started to desire a soft life. I began going to therapy, working out heavily, and meditating to calm my active spirit. It was like I felt myself evolve in real-time. The icing on the cake was my experience as a patient at the VA. They prescribed me so many medications I felt apprehensive like wow I can quickly become an addict if I continue to take all of these chemical drugs. Cannabis was holistically a better alternative. Then I thought wow this synergizes well with the SW3AT wellness and would be a great addition to the brand.
- You are a disabled war veteran. Has cannabis been of help to you personally and do you think that war veterans have adequate access to medical cannabis?
I don't think they do. More so because I think they're still afraid of the stigma. Cannabis is still very taboo in the military, which is crazy because the military culture consists of heavy drinking and getting tattoos, which to me is arguably worse. But cannabis is still something that can end a person’s career so there is a negative connotation to it.
The other issue is that because it’s not federally legal, the VA does not promote it as a remedy for any ailment. Since the VA health care is a federal resource, the doctors affiliated don't offer cannabis as an option. Instead, they'll give you crazier stuff like Percocet, tramadol, and trazodone. It's terrible because cannabis can help various ailments that vets suffer from. For me it chills me out, I experience fewer headaches, and I can finally sleep.
- You are in the process of applying for a marijuana business license under the social equity program in New Jersey. How has the journey been?
As a diverse applicant, it's like the barriers continue to stack. When you think you navigated one part well, you run into another issue that cost another 5k. The whole process is contradictory. They claim they want to achieve equity in this process by allowing licensure to black and brown diverse candidates since THEIR communities had been ravished by the war on drugs. But the systemic barriers embedded in the process make sure that very few of us will get the opportunity of a lifetime. Not those with prior charges or black and brown aspiring entrepreneurs like claimed. The biggest issue is that even if some of us get on, the majority will be with the capital of someone else who's probably not black. It's like you have to sell away half of your rights to a company to get the financial backing. It's terrible that black people’s backs are always up against a wall when an opportunity presents itself.
For me, I have paid all the “soft costs” out of pocket, which is basically the beginning cost associated with actually obtaining the license. Going through the licensure process is the first barrier because it's so expensive. It requires Attorneys, application writers, consultants, realtors, etc. It requires so much upfront money yet still comes with a chance that you DON'T get the license. If you fail at getting the license….you essentially take a loss on all that money. It's like an opportunity fee. If you have the money (or can figure out how to get it) then you can shoot your shot for a life-changing opportunity. Because once you have the license then you can attract investors more easily for the other cost like actually opening the facility. But in the initial stages, you need to front the capital to get started. I can go on and on about the different barriers I have experienced but to sum it up….essentially, it can take years between getting the license and ever getting up and running. It's a scary risk for black and brown people because we don't always have that kind of money to risk but I just had to do it. I can't look back and know I had the opportunity to change people’s lives and not do it.
- Is New Jersey getting it right with social justice in the cannabis industry and what improvements can be made?
In my opinion, not really. I mean with some efforts you can tell they are trying but in others, I'm just so disappointed. I remember in some of the first CRC meetings they said they would let the recreational markets get up and running first before entertaining medical facilities receiving recreational licenses. Then a few months later medical facilities in Jersey are selling recreational cannabis and all of the licenses for the recreational applicants from March haven't even been awarded. That decision disappointed me and I think it's going to impact the true recreational market. I also wish they didn't give municipalities so much power. It leaves room for potential corruption and is yet again another barrier for black and brown candidates. I have actually experienced more red tape with municipalities than the state. Ultimately, we still have a long way to go on many fronts so let's see how they continue to shift and consider the thoughts of the constituents.
- In your opinion, are multi-state operators dominating the legal cannabis industry in NJ?
Yes as of right now but that’s because most of them were medical and probably a big MSO. The landscape has the potential to change as boutique-style dispensaries and lounges get up and running. The recreational market will prove to draw a customer base that is intentional about their spending, their energy, and attraction to experiences.
- Do mom-and-pop shops have a place in the future of the legal cannabis industry?
Absolutely, we are going to be the culture of this movement. Plus I think everyone appreciates a grassroots story. They aren't great to endure as it can be a rollercoaster but it really allows the community to rally behind you. Also, you get to know your consumers firsthand. The reality is that most small businesses don't want to stay small. I’m assuming for most, the hope is to grow but scaling while grinding gives the brand so much personality and authenticity. Consumers start to seek you out and that's how you weave yourself into the culture.
It was a great pleasure to have this one-on-one with Alyza and we wish her all the best in her new cannabis venture.