BY SUMMER MYATT | Photography by Nathanael Turner with additional images courtesy of Malcolm Joshua Weitz
“What they say is, ‘You grow through what you go through,’” mused Malcolm Joshua Weitz, laughing almost nostalgically as he reflected on his labyrinthine, decade-long odyssey from the illicit cannabis market to the legal one for which he helped lay the foundation in his hometown of San Francisco, California. And Weitz, founder of San Francisco’s first equity-owned consumption lounge and formerly incarcerated cannabis advocate, has indisputably been—and grown—through his fair share of legal setbacks, legislative triumphs, and corporate roadblocks to get to where he stands today on the threshold of an industry boom.
The doors the activist once had to kick down to get through are now finally flying open for him as he pioneers a path for the people who’ve been victimized by the War on Drugs to initiate the cannabis industry’s long-needed and necessary cultural reset. With a “cannabis as medicine” approach and an undying commitment to community and culture at the core of his mission, Weitz is hitting the streets of San Francisco, this time as a CEO, to change the narrative of the newly legal cannabis industry for the better.
Malcolm Joshua Weitz admits his adolescence was one of nonconformity and rebellion—one that didn’t easily facilitate a good relationship with his father Jerome—a friendly, yet firm, straight-laced dentist who ran a practice in San Francisco’s Mission District. In middle school, Weitz began selling cannabis in what was then referred to as the “black market”—though, as Weitz mentioned, the term carries a stigma today, so labels like "traditional," "legacy," or "underground" are now more widely accepted when referring to the cannabis market prior to legalization. As his self-started enterprise grew, Weitz began growing his own cannabis too.
“I was a black sheep,” Weitz reflected, citing his underground business and dropping out of high school in 10th grade as major contributors to a deepening rift between himself and his family. “That's not something my pops wanted,” Weitz said of his father’s disapproving opinion on his involvement with cannabis and the trajectory it meant for his life. “He had a different future he wanted for his kids, like any parent. So we had a very bad relationship for about 15 years of my life.”
Despite the lack of familial support, Weitz’s business took off. By his early twenties, the ambitious entrepreneur had grown his cannabis delivery service into a massive multi-ton operation spanning multiple states, but he knew his success was not sustainable long-term.
By his early twenties, the ambitious entrepreneur had grown his cannabis delivery service into a massive multi-ton operation spanning multiple states.
At this time in the early 2010s, though marijuana had already been legalized for medical use at the state level in California, it was still a Schedule I prohibited drug at the federal level. As a result of the increasingly chaotic legal clash that arose from this discrepancy, California experienced an unprecedented, heated era of harsh crackdowns by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents, as criminal charges, arrests, and raids surged across the state.
As many as 500 legal California dispensaries were shuttered in the span of eight months. In 2012 alone, California saw over 21,000 marijuana-related arrests, with 13,000 of those being felony arrests. Due to mounting pressure from the federal government, California’s Mendocino County ended its permit program for marijuana growers. The environment was dangerous and nationally controversial; as a young Filipino dealer in the underground market, Weitz needed an exit strategy.
It was in this climate, in 2012, that Weitz found himself at a St. Louis airport with $25,000 cash on hand and in need of somewhere to safely deposit it before he boarded a flight to avoid arousing suspicion. Unsure of where to turn, Weitz made a phone call to his father to present what he was sure was an outlandish proposal that may not be well received by the man who had disapproved of his son’s bold decisions for so many years. Weitz was stunned to find out his father was on board. Jerome Weitz’s willingness to receive the deposit of the funds not only shocked his son, but marked the beginning of a serendipitous business partnership that would eventually lead to the creation of Mirage Medicinal.
Even with the legal tension across the state during this time, Malcolm was keenly aware of the growing momentum surrounding cannabis legalization, and he wanted to seize the opportunity to get his foot in the door early on, as the cannabis industry inched closer to the precipice of what he knew could be a transformational change. “It just so happened that what got me in trouble and kicked out of school when I was 13 was now this huge, burgeoning billion-dollar legal business,” Weitz explained. “I was really gunning for that even though I was still in the black market.” With his sharp business acumen, Jerome could see this vision of prosperity and success too, and he began to advise his son on how to legitimize his dream into a sustainable career of which they could both be proud.
“It just so happened that what got me in trouble and kicked out of school when I was 13 was now this huge, burgeoning billion-dollar legal business."
Malcolm describes his father as “the engine and impetus” behind the duo’s drive to legalize the business. “The crazy ass idea of driving the weed was actually his idea,” Weitz confessed with a chuckle. For the better part of two years, in 2013 and 2014, the pair drove large quantities of cannabis across the country from San Francisco to New York to cut shipping costs and help them save enough to fund the opening of a legal operation.
With 17 to 18 hour days on the road every month, the two finally had the time and space to mend their own father-son relationship while hammering out the details of their newly formed business strategy. After registering Mirage Medicinal as a cannabis co-operative in California and launching the organization’s new website with the help and invaluable expertise of his father, Weitz set a goal for 2015 to open his own legal cannabis dispensary. Big things were on the horizon.
Devastatingly, in July of 2014, the progress Jerome and Malcolm had made towards a legal operation screeched to a halt. Malcolm and a friend of his—who had stepped in as Weitz’s travel companion when a heart condition made the cross-country road trips difficult for Jerome to participate in—were pulled over on a Texas interstate, and Weitz was sentenced to five months probation for possession of marijuana.
But before his probation was up, Weitz was arrested once again, this time in New York City. Because of his prior arrest, he was convicted. Weitz was headed to Rikers Island. And although Jerome heroically picked up the mantle and hustled to keep the business running by himself upon Malcolm’s arrest, it wasn’t long before he, too, was arrested and sent to serve time with his son at Rikers.
The hopeful flame of Mirage Medicinal had been prematurely extinguished; the bright, prosperous future and the potential the venture promised were now locked behind bars along with its passionate creators, the latest victims of a corrupt, decades-long War on Drugs. The partnership’s true-hearted intentions to legitimize their efforts were lost on an unjust legal system governed by outdated policies, enforced with racial bias, and designed to prey on marginalized communities with the fewest resources.
But on the other side of the country, back in their hometown, the Weitz family still had an agent in the field working to reignite their dream from the embers. Nina Parks, Malcolm’s sister, had always been interested and involved in criminal justice and advocacy work, focusing on alternatives to incarceration for juveniles and youth early on in her career. Parks, who later went on to co-found Supernova Women—a nonprofit organization that aims to help Black and Brown women become successful shareholders in the cannabis industry—was eager to carry the baton for Weitz and forge ahead in the Bay Area.
With Malcolm and Jerome both incarcerated, Parks was their last lifeline to freedom and their strongest voice for change in the cannabis industry. “When my father and I ended up both going to prison, she stepped up to the plate in terms of advocacy to get the ball rolling on the conversation of equity in cannabis here in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Weitz noted of his sister, adding that Parks was instrumental in cultivating the environment for an equity program in the region.
As a formerly incarcerated victim of the War on Drugs and the brother of the city’s fiercest cannabis advocate, Weitz was a seasoned legacy operator with critical insights for what fellow legacy operators need in an equity program.
Parks’ hard work in San Francisco City Hall granted Weitz a coveted seat at the table in the early days of the equity conversation upon his eventual release from Rikers in 2016. Fortuitously, Weitz’s release coincided with the passage of California’s Prop 64, which at long last—20 years after Prop 215 legalized medical marijuana—legalized the possession, cultivation, and use of recreational cannabis for adults, in addition to authorizing resentencing or dismissal for prior marijuana-related convictions.
Weitz held a crucial position in the movement at this point; as a formerly incarcerated victim of the War on Drugs and the brother of the city’s fiercest cannabis advocate, Weitz was a seasoned legacy operator—a term used to describe people who transition from the traditional market to legal—with critical insights for what fellow legacy operators need in an equity program. He grew to become a respected voice in discussions about how to make equity fully realized during a time when it was finally legally possible.
Together, Weitz and Parks created the language and criteria that became Article 16, a local law enforced by the Office of Cannabis that seeks to create equitable programs in the cannabis industry and ensure safe consumption, among other initiatives. Weitz and Parks also spearheaded the effort that resulted in the creation of San Francisco’s Cannabis Equity Program, which they designed to help cannabis criminals, legacy operators, and people of color obtain their cannabis permits and stake claim in an industry built on the sacrifices they made.
The spectrum of applicants for the program, Weitz shared, is wide. “You have some folks that had their lives ruined and lost housing over a joint, and then you have other equity applicants, like myself, who were already running multi-ton operations beforehand,” he mused. “The equity program in San Francisco is designed to create an on-ramp at every single level of experience.”
“The equity program in San Francisco [allows] a new generation of talent—that's coming over from the traditional, underground market—to set a new culture, to set a new tone, set a new standard."
The city’s Cannabis Equity Program collects applicant data and selects candidates based on past cannabis arrests, income, residency, housing insecurity, and criminal justice involvement to ensure that those hit hardest by the War on Drugs can have their place in the legalization movement as it continues to grow. The program offers financial incentives, business partnerships, and operational and technical support to qualifying applicants while serving as a resource to guide hopeful entrepreneurs through their application processes.
The program also offers training and paid internships, via partnerships with nonprofit organizations and the City College of San Francisco, across an array of cannabis jobs like budtenders, cultivators, dispensary owners, managers, and others. “I think the equity program in San Francisco is doing one of the best jobs in the industry to create the conditions that allow a new generation of talent—that's coming over from the traditional, underground market—to set a new culture, to set a new tone, set a new standard,” Malcolm beamed.
However, as Weitz has learned, the road to equity for many people is still a long, expensive, and exhausting one. Based on information from the Cannabis Equity Program’s website, the equity process, from application to obtaining a business permit, can take up to several years and thousands, if not millions of dollars, even with the program’s financial assistance—time and money that most applicants cannot afford to spend. Weitz added that his own equity application process has spanned more than three years, even with the support and backing of a large company like MedMen.
The biggest challenge posed by legalization is that it only accomplishes just that: legalization. All of the funding, permits, branding, licensing, logistics, legal knowledge, and real estate expertise that are required to start a business are still required to start a legal cannabis business, and legalization does not include ensuring that these expensive resources are readily available to those who deserve the biggest influence and the easiest access in the cannabis industry. An overwhelming list of additional support measures must be made in tandem with legalization to bring it even into the realm of possibility for a huge majority of the people who want to take advantage of it.
“It's such a heavy lift to really create an equitable program where legacy operators are able to come in and redefine the culture again, of what is now a legal business,” Malcolm admitted.
But with his grit, ingenuity, and deep knowledge of the industry, Weitz has tirelessly worked to find solutions and routes that applicants like himself can take to receive the most support as they take on the daunting task of entering the legal industry. The first step Weitz outlined is to contact San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. With requirements and qualifications in place to ensure they’re hiring equity applicants and native San Franciscans, the office helps people who are looking to break into the business get jobs in the field.
Cannabis advocates and community leaders like Weitz are making sure that this time, an industry boom won’t just benefit the wealthy and white.
Secondly, Weitz just so happens to have a good friend and business partner on the legal side of the conversation. Jon Heredia, legal counsel for Mirage Medicinal, is an adjunct professor and head of the Cannabis Law Clinic at the Golden Gate University School of Law. For the “hustle-minded” applicants, Weitz suggests putting networking skills to good use. “Contact GGU to get in touch with the new lawyers-in-training in the cannabis field, so you can build a legal backbone to the organization you’ll be forming,” Weitz shared. “They can help you navigate the process and make it more streamlined for when you actually apply for your cannabis license through the program in San Francisco.”
At the local, city, and state levels, Weitz recommends solutions like lower tax rates, an early application window, and corporate partnerships to incentivize more people to apply for equity. “High taxation is going to keep Black and Brown folks from participating in the legal cannabis market,” Weitz posited. “Point blank, it’s cheaper to buy weed on the street.”
Weitz has upsettingly found that corporations with the capital, business expertise, and resources to easily conquer the aspects of legalization that are more difficult to overcome for equity applicants, like high tax rates, are infiltrating the market with individuals who don’t have respect for the people, the plant, or the culture of cannabis.
The effort to redefine cannabis culture is an intentional and deliberate force driving the San Francisco equity program, as advocates work to not only patch the myriad potholes in the road to legalization, but also rebalance the scales of a cannabis industry that has become saturated with wealthy, under-qualified—and disproportionately white and male—individuals who have the funds and the privilege to carve out a space in it.
The legal cannabis market is having its own boom right now, mirroring, to some degree, the tech boom San Francisco has seen and been transformed by over the last decade or so. But cannabis advocates and community leaders, like Malcolm Joshua Weitz, are making sure that this time, an industry boom won’t just benefit the rich white guys.
Weitz’s efforts to create an equitable industry for people like himself go beyond the legislative and governmental level, and stretch into the corporate world too. His partnership with MedMen began when the company’s team saw him featured in an episode of Vice’s Weediquette series, after his release from Rikers, and reached out. Fresh out of prison and looking to accelerate turning his legacy operation into a legal one, Weitz saw an educational and financial opportunity in MedMen—a chance to leverage the resources and power of a big company for positive change—and embarked on what is now a five-years-and-counting collaborative partnership with MedMen.
The relationship, Weitz shares, has not always been easy. MedMen’s history as a leading multi-state cannabis retailer includes a former founding team comprised of individuals at the highest level whose actions and beliefs did not always align with the principles driving the company’s mission today. Over the past couple of years, however, MedMen has launched an organizational overhaul to facilitate a more inclusive company environment and prioritize the voices in the industry that it hasn’t always listened to or uplifted. Notably included in this revamped team is legacy operator Tyson Rossi, MedMen’s Senior Vice President of Product and Revenue.
“I feel like I’m proof positive that partnering with big cannabis can be a good thing. It’s been a long road with a lot of changes at MedMen, but the lessons I’ve learned have been invaluable."
“It was a huge relief when Tyson came into the picture at MedMen, because the group of people running MedMen before Tyson was... tone deaf of the legacy market,” Weitz revealed. As a fellow legacy operator, Weitz found an advocate, a mentor, a resource, and a supporter in Rossi. Weitz and Rossi also share a deep interest in streetwear and fashion—a thread that Weitz said connects most of his team at Mirage Medicinal and builds on his own experience as former manager of San Francisco streetwear brand, Upper Playground. Weitz found a shared foundation and sense of understanding with Rossi at MedMen; he felt like he could talk to Rossi the way he would talk to someone on the street about cannabis—without all the corporate and legal jargon getting in the way.
With a reinvigorated and rebalanced team that renewed MedMen’s commitments to equity, diversity, community, and inclusion, Weitz was unstoppable. "MedMen's former team left us with great bones, now we're bringing in the culture and the vibe,” Weitz said.
As someone with roots in the traditional market, Weitz also realizes that his partnership with a large corporation may make legacy operators skeptical, but he has seen first-hand the benefits that relationships like these can have for people with limited resources. “I feel like I’m proof positive that partnering with big cannabis can be a good thing,” Weitz said. “It’s been a long road with a lot of changes at MedMen, but the lessons I’ve learned have been invaluable. They’ve helped with every stage of the process—from licensing and permitting to drafting leasing agreements.”
Finally, Weitz’s partnership with MedMen, including a three-and-a-half year equity application process, is now culminating in a revolutionary equity-owned Cow Hollow retail store on San Francisco’s historic Union Street, which will be opening early this year. From the shadows of the underground market to a prime spot—next to an Apple store, at that—on a landmark city strip, Weitz has grown through adversity, incarceration, loss, and success to champion people like himself at the highest level of visibility in a legal cannabis industry now positioned to change for the better.
In addition to the opening of the MedMen store at 1861 Union Street—of which Weitz will head operations as CEO—Weitz’s Mirage Medicinal dreams are finally coming to fruition with the opening of his consumption lounge and retail space in the heart of San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District. At 985 Folsom Street, Mirage Medicinal won’t just be a place to smoke.
Weitz’s plans for the space include 3D-mapped nature landscapes, digitally immersive environments, and a variety of entertainment options for consumers who want their experience to be anything from relaxing and therapeutic, to stimulating and vibrant. The through line in this broad range of experiences is Weitz’s fervent drive to connect with and uplift the intersectional and diverse communities of San Francisco, while expanding their access to the joy, therapy, laughter, and light that cannabis can evoke.
Though Weitz’s father, Jerome, sadly passed away before he could see his son’s hard-fought battle come to such a triumphant win, Malcolm carries his father’s legacy of support and community enrichment through the very DNA of Mirage Medicinal.
At the heart of the company also lies a “cannabis as medicine” approach, instilled in Weitz at a very young age. Weitz’s first encounter with cannabis came at six years old when he watched a friend of his uncle’s use the plant to relieve the symptoms he suffered from as a person living with AIDS. Now, at the helm of Mirage Medicinal, MedMen’s new store, and a growing legal cannabis enterprise, Weitz uses the medicinal aspect of cannabis to guide everything he does.
“I want to make sure that MedMen still has “med” in it,” Weitz said of his vision for his partnership with the company. “I want people, even when they smoke a joint, or roll a blunt, just to watch some rom-com with their girlfriend, to remember joy is medicinal, laughing is medicinal. It’s therapeutic.”
And Mirage Medicinal’s new consumption lounge in SoMa realizes that vision with top quality products. Weitz’s Mendocino-sourced, sun-grown farm flower brand, stocked on the shelves of both Mirage Medicinal’s and MedMen’s California retail spaces, offers high potency THC and a lab-tested quality guarantee. With packaging designed by creative director and sustainable clothing designer Kenshin Ichikawa, Weitz’s flower brand represents a meeting place of his passions and love both cannabis and fashion.
“I want people, even when they smoke a joint… to remember joy is medicinal, laughing is medicinal. It’s therapeutic.”
Malcolm Joshua Weitz fought hard to get to where he is today, and the impact he aims to create in the cannabis industry, both in his own hometown of San Francisco and on a national scale, honors not only his own journey, but the legacy left—and the crucial work done—by the brave pioneers of the past.
“As this industry, legal adult-use cannabis, becomes a multibillion-dollar industry, in the next two years, I want to make sure that we remember where we came from,” Weitz urged. “San Francisco was able to create a medicinal program because of a man named Dennis Peron and his work with the Brownie Mary Club.”
The work Peron and other activists like him had organized, decades ago in the thick of the AIDS crisis, paved the way for the legalization of medical cannabis and changed the narrative surrounding a substance that had been wrongfully criminalized and demonized in American culture. Weitz wants to remind people that he, and everyone else in the cannabis legalization movement, truly stand on the shoulders of giants.
“Without them,” Weitz reflected, “we would have none of this.”
Summer Myatt is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. She has a particular interest in performance art, culture, and social justice issues of today. In her free time, she likes to bike, dance, and crochet hats for her friends.