When Aja Allen opened the doors of L.A.’s Sixty Four & Hope dispensary in September, she could finally celebrate a day she had begun to doubt would ever come. To make her dream of owning a dispensary a reality, she had navigated bureaucratic obstacles for three years.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster. It was long and frustrating, since we were sort of in the blind for three years,” she says. But the result is worth it. “It’s very fulfilling—I’m happy to go to work every day because it’s my business. A lot of people go to work for pay, but it’s a whole other ball game when you have an ethos.”
Allen is one of 21 social equity licensees under the Sixty Four & Hope umbrella, sponsored by the Black-owned investment startup 4thMVMT. Sixty Four & Hope is a state-of-the-art retail brand with a conscience, and one of the few true opportunities for a level playing field in the Los Angeles cannabis market. With 4thMVMT’s help, applicants go through development training that sets them up for entrepreneurial success while 4thMVMT assists with the myriad details of opening their store. Then, operating under the franchise model, each of the 21 licensees can open their own Sixty Four & Hope location that, apart from big picture decisions, operates under the independent management of the owner.
4thMVMT is attempting to correct L.A.’s bungled equity program: Even though one of the city’s qualifications to receive equity licenses was making income under the poverty line, they proposed no solution to the obvious lack of startup capital. As many equity candidates found out the hard way, some investment companies used the absence of meaningful wealth redistribution to their own advantage. As Allen puts it, “There’s a lot of predatory companies out there.” But 4thMVMT is serious about investing in communities impacted by institutional racism.
“Thankfully I was blessed with a great parent company,” says Allen. “I own 81% of my business.” She says 4thMVMT more than earns their 19% by negotiating with vendors, handling construction contracts, and working through the city’s red tape. “Without them, I would not have been able to do this,” she says.
As someone who was marked at an early age by the War on Drugs, Allen believes that her dispensary has relevance beyond personal prosperity. “I came from a community that was overpoliced. A lot of my family went to jail for marijuana-related offenses,” she says. “Now I have a lot of people from my neighborhood that look up to me.” Like Allen, each licensee who will be opening a Sixty Four & Hope location of their own has been persecuted by a system that has historically splintered Black and brown neighborhoods with police violence and punitive policies. But now, united by a common vision, the Sixty Four & Hope owners are part of a community of like-minded individuals determined to make a change.
As a result, the dispensary’s collectivist ethic permeates every aspect of the business. To keep the Sixty Four & Hope brand unified across the 21 owners, decisions are largely made as a group. “We meet once a week about products, PR, and marketing so that we’re able to all be on the same page,” says Allen. The products they offer come from vendors chosen with inclusion in mind. The lineup of LGBTQ, Black, Latinx, and AAPI-owned brands includes flower from Black-owned Ball Family Farms and edibles from the Chicano-fronted brand Bad Hombre.
Allen envisions her dispensary as a hub for her entire community. “We’ll have different events–we want to bring fresh fruits and vegetables with all Black farmers markets, so you can still come to the farmers market if you don’t indulge,” says Allen. But she never stops being a cannabis ambassador, looking to cure cannabis reticence with the right information. “A lot of people just pop in because we are a bright new shiny thing on the corner, and say, ‘This is beautiful— what is it?’ When we explain it to them, a lot of them turn their noses up, and that’s our opportunity to educate. Whenever we get that pushback we go out on a limb for the chance to convert them into a guest.”
While the Sixty Four & Hope licensees are grateful for the opportunity, they hope incoming equity candidates don’t have to go through what they did. In Los Angeles, the implementation of social equity programs has been a long and bumpy road. When the city announced in 2018 that they would reserve two-thirds of the cannabis retail licenses for Black and brown people who had most suffered the impact of the War on Drugs, change finally seemed to be on the horizon. But the lack of start-up capital conundrum was compounded by onerous requirements.
To qualify for a license, applicants had to have purchased or leased property for their potential business that they couldn’t invest in until the process was completed. The additional overhead would have been an exorbitant cost during the best of times, but at the height of the pandemic, paying for empty retail space in one of the most expensive real estate markets in America used up what was left of some licensees’ savings. The social equity program was mired in red tape, and the process barely crawled forward.
“It’s extremely hard to navigate the City Hall process,” says Wally Knott III, a licensee who is hoping to open his Sixty Four & Hope dispensary by the end of the year. “I’d go on my lunch break, or take a day off of work, and ask a hundred different people what I needed to do, I’d get a hundred different answers.” Describing an experience that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Kafka novel, Knott says he would find it hard to believe if he hadn’t gone through it himself. “They’d tell me to go to Room 202, and then when I got there the people would send me to another room, and so on. I spent dozens of hours and didn’t get anywhere.”
City Hall wasn’t Knott’s only obstacle on the road to his retail operation. Years before, he poured his life’s savings into a grow operation that turned out to be much more difficult than he’d anticipated.
“It’s not like growing tomatoes in your mother’s backyard,” he says. “It was such a comedy of errors that I finally had to admit that this was not what God had planned for me.” After a few years of feeling despondent about his future in cannabis, Knott heard about the 4thMVMT development program, and after one information session, he knew his luck had turned. “It was a revelation for me,” he says. “It was a great feeling. I was extremely impressed by everyone else in the room— they seemed hard-working, very clear, and had one eye on the community. I’d never thought to set up my own business for a community. This put my dream on a much larger scale.”
For Phyllis Dorsey, the community focus is front and center of her Sixty Four & Hope vision. “I have this idea that I want to fulfill this for my grandkids, and their kids,” she says, speaking to Sixty Four & Hope’s charge to build generational wealth. “In order to pass on wealth, you have to have some to give, and if you don’t have the tools to be successful you can’t propel anything forward. I have a strong desire to see Black and brown kids succeed.”
The promise of building back a community devastated by police aggression creates a positive ending to an otherwise sorrowful tale. In 2013, Dorsey was devastated to learn that her son Robert, now her Sixty Four & Hope business partner, was sentenced to four years in prison for cannabis possession. “It was four years of pure darkness,” she says. “He was brought up in a Christian home— I never thought this would happen.” As difficult as the experience was, the Dorseys aren’t the kind of family that stays down for long. When they saw the opportunity to turn a conviction into a business opportunity, they seized it.
“I envision everything we’re a part of to be a beacon for the community,” says Dorsey, who hopes the dispensary will be particularly beneficial to community elders. “I have elderly people that I’m talking to now, especially people who suffer from arthritis, who are beginning to understand the many benefits of the plant.” Dorsey sees education as one of the most important parts of the dispensary. Sometimes a little humor can help ease the stigma against cannabis among the older set. “Most times I start with a joke. I say if I rub this cream on your elbow you won’t get high.”
In spite of the sleek modern design of Sixty Four & Hope, Dorsey sees their dispensary as akin to a local grocery store that serves the needs of the community. “It gives me goosebumps when I walk up and down Santa Monica [Boulevard] and look at the needs that are there. It’s like passing out turkeys on Thanksgiving. When you are in tune with the community you are serving you can’t put a price tag on that.”