SPARC Founder Erich Pearson on Activism, Equity, and the Future of Cannabis

Erich Pearson CEO of SPARC

When he first came to California to grow weed with a friend in Sonoma County, Erich Pearson couldn’t have known that he would land in the middle of a statewide and later a national fight for legalization, or that he would end up owning one of the most successful dispensaries in the Bay Area.

His story starts in the mid-1990s, while he was still in college, and traveling from Indiana to Northern California in the summer to do what many kids were coming to NorCal for at the time: smoke some really excellent cannabis. Within a few years, after graduating college and moving to Sonoma County and later San Francisco, Pearson quickly learned that cannabis was far more than just a fun recreational drug, and that the path to future success in the world of cannabis cultivation was intertwined with the path to legal legitimacy.

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“I was sick of seeing myself and my friends getting raided and arrested. And here we were growing and selling something that people wanted, something that was doing more good for people than harm, and the state had already recognized it as a legal medicine,” he says.

Pearson would spend two decades existing in the legal gray zones between city, state, and federal laws, all the while fighting with other cannabis activists to be heard by lawmakers and politicians in power.

Erich recently helped start the Cannabis Business Association of Sonoma County

After starting to establish indoor growing operations in San Francisco in the early days of medical cannabis, Pearson frequently ran up against these legal conflicts. He saw colleagues have their livelihoods threatened and saw his own business caught in the crosshairs of elected officials and political appointees who were either indifferent to or openly hostile to the increasingly legitimate space that cannabis dispensaries occupied.

One frequent foe in the last decade was former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who represented the Northern District of California from 2010 to 2015. Despite President Barack Obama’s Justice Department having issued a 2009 memo that directed federal prosecutors not to pursue medical marijuana purveyors in states that had legalized it, Haag launched a campaign in 2011 to target landlords who were renting to permitted dispensaries in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Pearson and fellow activist Wayne Justmann, along with a group of others, tried for months to get San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to intervene on their behalf or at least offer some support to local businesses that, in the city’s eyes, were legal.

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“We sent email after email and could never get him to write or call us back,” Pearson said. “So one morning we all just walked into his office and sat down on the floor and said we weren’t leaving until he talked to us.” By the end of the day, thanks to a sympathetic aide, the mayor had issued a strong statement in support of the dispensaries.

Similarly, Pearson and Justmann and their crew camped out at a breakfast being attended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that year, and coerced her to issue a statement of support as well.

Haag and the U.S. Attorney’s office ultimately moved on to other causes, and she stepped down from her role in 2015. Still, a federal suit against Oakland’s Harborside — and threats to seize all of its property — lingered on for a full four years, before the feds dropped it in 2016.

When it comes to social justice and equity in the cannabis business, Pearson constantly pushes for new ways that SPARC can do its part. He applauds the work being done by medical marijuana pioneer Steve DeAngelo (founder of Harborside) and his Last Prisoner Project. “There is no one alive in this industry today who has done as much for the cause as Steve has,” Pearson says. (SPARC is doing a Carts for a Cause promotion soon with a special, branded cartridge for the Last Prisoner Project, and $1 from every cartridge sold will be donated to the non-profit.)

Additionally, SPARC sells over a half-dozen equity brands in the Bay Area owned by people of color and those most impacted by the War on Drugs. And Pearson stresses the importance of hiring people of color at all levels of his cultivation, production, and retail business.

Related: Social Equity Resource Center

“The way these programs should work is that states should take all this cannabis tax revenue, and they should put it in a pot and give a chunk of it to a third-party cannabis consultant that knows the industry and knows what it takes to make it equitable,” Pearson says. He derides programs like the one in San Francisco where equity partnership deals are being encouraged to get new permits, saying that such 60/40 partnerships are often too fragile — with the equity partner ultimately the likeliest to lose out down the road. A better program, like one that is happening in Los Angeles, puts a cluster of new retail permits in the hands of a single non-profit which oversees and supports those businesses, helping them to navigate the landscape and be successful.

“The programs are broken, unfortunately,” Pearson says. “The government needs private or non-profit entities to help them implement these programs, in my opinion.”

“What I focus is on is how do we hire more people of color — whether it’s in San Francisco or Sonoma County — how do we treat those people well and promote them from within.”

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