Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Q&A with Ulysses Youngblood
Interviewed by Stella Ikuzwe
Despite the fact that Cannabis has been recreationally legalized in 19 states and medicinally in 37, there are roughly 40,000 individuals currently incarcerated in the United States on Cannabis related charges. According to a 2021 report from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), retail cannabis sales in the U.S. are projected to reach $43 billion/year by 2025. So while the cannabis industry is growing exponentially, communities that have been harmed by the criminalization of cannabis continue to be kept out of the legal cannabis industry and remain incarcerated. In order to highlight the POC experience in the legal Cannabis Industry, I spoke to Ulysses Youngblood, Co-Founder of Major Bloom (a cannabis establishment) and professor of Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Cannabis
Regulations at Clark University.
Tell me about yourself and a bit about your background
I am the co-founder and president of Major Bloom based out of Worcester. I moved to Worcester in 2006 for college, then got kicked out of school for marijuana-related offenses. I’m originally from Connecticut, and Worcester embraced me as my second home. I’m just trying to sell weed for the rest of my life [laughs].
Why did you decide to join the cannabis industry?
To be honest with you, I don’t think it was a decision. For me, it’s all about the culture. As a teenager, it was seeing my sister smoking weed, my cousins… etc. So to me, the industry is about culture first. Back then, 15 to 20 years ago, it wasn’t like ‘oh I wanna be in the cannabis industry,’ I just fucked with weed because my people fucked with weed. So that’s why it’s not really about choosing, but just being aware of what’s going on around us.
What really pushed me towards getting a license was the disparities that exist. It was about me getting in trouble for cannabis and then 2 years later, all of a sudden it becomes decriminalized. So that was questioning how I could get in trouble for something that other people were making money off of. The motivation is representing the underrepresented. We get in trouble for cannabis more than any other ethnicity, especially black men, so it’s like then where are the licenses and resources for POC in this space? Initially, I tried to work in the industry, reached out to these bigger corporations, but no calls back. So I gotta create my own shit then.
How has your experience in the industry been like so far?
At this point, I’m being very present in it. A lot of operators just get happy with getting their doors open and getting customers, but for me, I’m trying to strive for greatness and lead the company in the direction where it should go. We have a really good team and we are very spiritual about how things have aligned and how we are operating. So I wanna put up less friction, and just provide guidance. My mindset currently is on getting all our licenses, but also making sure to narrate the right story to people.
With few black people in the cannabis industry, how does it feel to be one of the first?
I’ve started to realize that we can’t rely on being the first and being the only black people. To be honest, I don’t love the narrative of ‘being the first black...’, I want it to be these guys are killing it, and they just happen to be black. I struggle with this sometimes but it’s like that story of being black-owned or the first-to-do-it is gonna crack the door open, but you can’t always rely on that as a way to create value for people. It’s gonna get you through the door but the way you operate is what’s gonna get you to stay there.
Most people learn about cannabis through trial and error, so what do you think about current Cannabis education, and what are some ways we could improve it?
Since cannabis used to be deemed to have no medicinal value, it was perceived in a different way. I remember having this conversation with my dad at 17 years old and his problem with Cannabis was that it was literally by law next to heroin and cocaine. So his mindset was that I was gonna start selling coke out of the house, which was about causation and the federal govt saying these things are equivalent but we know they’re not. So the education of knowing that cannabis and other drugs such as heroin and cocaine can’t be classified the same.
Any line of education has to come with public education, and the government acknowledges that they have lied to the public for years. I will also say that formal education is a safe route as well. I teach cannabis at the graduate level at Clark University, so I always love the fact that you can get your experience out in the world, then you can also formally educate yourself on cannabis. Education needs to happen in more than one form. It’s a mixture of experiencing it yourself, getting a formal education, and getting public education from the government.
You have spoken a bit already on how you tie spirituality and cannabis together, could you elaborate more on that?
I grew up until I was 13 going to church, but once I got involved in sports I wasn’t attending as much as I used to. I still don’t go to church often, but I am a firm believer in God and karma and divine power. As a leader, I tend to live by principles that relate to times of going to church, believing in God, believing in a higher power. There is a separation though, where you don’t wanna mix too much business and too much religion. The spirit has led us this far [laughs].
Have you seen a shift in culture about how Cannabis is discussed?
The shift for sure is that cannabis is new, sexy, and cool. It’s this new emerging industry but there is an underground industry that has existed for a long time. So I think regardless of skin color or ethnicity, the underground has somewhat been left behind and what’s emerging is appealing to soccer moms, or the medical narrative. In the black community, the culture towards weed remains somewhat the same. Black people are notoriously reluctant because we don’t trust the government. So if I’m telling people there is a government program for POC in cannabis, it’s like ‘nah that shit ain’t real’ and I don’t fault people for thinking that way, it’s just the notion in the black community of why should we trust our own government.
I know you own your own dispensary, so who tends to be your main clientele demographic, who would you say is buying ‘legal’ cannabis?
Legal cannabis is more appealing to the soccer mom, the canna-curious, and trying to appeal to that market. Major Bloom does a good job of being intentional in who our target market is, which is not the canna-curious or soccer moms, but very much the legacy, the traditional, underground user essentially. Our location is in a low-income area which we did deliberately so that we could be accessible to our target user. The first public dispensaries that popped off in Massachusetts were in affluent, predominantly white areas where no one has ever been impacted by cannabis. So for us, we know who’s being impacted by cannabis the most so we set up shop in those neighborhoods. Naturally, we attract those in the neighborhood, but we are also attracting other markets, which is okay too, but we have to stay intentional with who our target market is and stay true to that. So that means from the moment you step in our doors, you see the underrepresented representing our spot.
How could we do more to make sure capital in the cannabis industry goes into diverse hands?
I think it’s the job of the government to lead how we can diversify capital being dispersed into different communities because they’re the ones who put us in this predicament. On the other hand, there are also large private and public organizations that have raised billions of dollars and they have to do their part as well. It has to be led by the government but we can’t just rely on the government.
What are some ways we could support people from the underground into succeeding in the legal cannabis space?
I think it starts with listening for sure. They have ideas that can come to fruition and transition into the legal industry. Honestly, a lot of it is about a level of discomfort and disbelief on what it means to fully get into the operational/legal side. It just takes some time, open communication, and collaboration
What do you think is a solution for black people who have been, and are still incarcerated due to the criminalization of cannabis?
I think the responsibility is on the federal government because that is how we got into this predicament in the first place. On the private or business side, it’s about being very intentional. In Massachusetts, the state requires every business to have a positive impact plan and diversity impact plan, so how are you going to support those who’ve been harmed by cannabis, and how will you diversify your organization? For us, it comes very naturally to want to provide resources for those who have been harmfully impacted by cannabis.
Do you ever feel imposter syndrome being a black man in this space?
Not really because I know the history of many influential movements in the U.S. and black people usually have something to do with it. So we can’t really be an imposter if this is our shit. Yes, the legal industry was created for wealthy people, but cannabis culture is ours so we have to take the harm that was placed on our communities and flip that shit, take control of it. This is for us. I feel comfortable in that perspective because my journey in the industry came from culture; family, and friends who smoked weed. The mindset wasn’t we’re gonna get in this to make money, it was we’re gonna fuck with it cuz our people fuck with it.
What do you think is the future of Cannabis?
I think the future that comes to mind is international. There are climates in Africa, South America where we should be growing weed and then importing it/exporting it as a commodity. My gut is telling me the future of cannabis is definitely gonna be in the southern hemisphere, especially thinking about underdeveloped countries where there is a huge opportunity for certain strains, operational excellence, and exporting from there.
Any advice or reflections for POC who want to get into the cannabis industry?
1. Live in your truth. It’s important to feel passionate about something because you feel like that’s your calling.
2. If you are striving for something, it’s continuous. It’s very important to be intentional and write down what you’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s long-term or short-term. People don’t realize that when we set goals, we have to take little steps and over time, they will consume us.