CHICAGO — Countless Black Chicagoans have been arrested and jailed for selling cannabis since the start of the War on Drugs. And while recreational weed was legalized in 2020, the booming billion-dollar cannabis industry that emerged in Chicago since then has been dominated almost entirely by white-owned companies, rather than the communities most impacted by cannabis criminalization.
But after more than two years of legal weed in Illinois, the shelves at Chicago’s dispensaries are finally stocked with cannabis products made by a local Black-owned company. The company, 93 Boyz, is helmed by Vic Mensa, making the rapper’s line of weed products the first Chicago-based, Black-owned brand to get a foothold in the city’s recreational cannabis industry, he said.
93 Boyz, which Mensa co-owns with Preston Oshita, also known as rapper Towkio, has already launched a selection of pre-rolled joints at several dispensaries. The pre-rolls come in three different strains curated for the “tastemaker cannabis brand,” that 93 Boyz is aiming to bring to Chicago’s “dry” weed scene, Mensa said.
“We’re a premium gas company. We’ve got our finger on the pulse as far as genetics go,” Mensa said. “There’s no flavor in the Illinois market. There’s no cool, like streetwear-akin brands like there are in Los Angeles and other markets. There’s nothing ill over here. Our intention was to bring in the really ill cannabis.”
93 Boyz pre-rolls are currently in stock at Dispensary33 in Andersonville and West Loop, Mission Dispensaries in South Chicago and suburban Calumet City, and other dispensaries across the state. The brand is also slated to release a wider menu of strains and products including flower eighths and vape cartridges in the coming months that will be available more broadly across other dispensaries.
While many Black entrepreneurs have sought to enter the industry, and even acquired the necessary licenses since recreational weed was legalized in 2020, their companies have hit hurdle after hurdle that have largely kept them out of the industry. To break into the legal weed industry, Mensa’s company had to take several legal maneuvers and closely monitor the licensing process to deal with issues where 93 Boyz’s application was mismanaged, he said.
Despite being lauded for a social-equity program to create opportunities for entrepreneurs of color to benefit from the recreational cannabis industry, the state of Illinois has still made it practically impossible to compete with large corporations, Mensa said. As a result, the industry still has few Black faces in it.
“The process in Illinois was touted as this model of social equity. But when you peel back the layers, even the structure of the way the license application process was built, it was full of hidden pulleys and levers and trap doors,” Mensa said. “It’s outrageous and ridiculous that this industry has been allowed to boom and flourish while completely excluding us.”
The Illinois Adult-Use Cannabis Social Equity Program was designed to reduce barriers for getting cannabis licenses for entrepreneurs from communities most impacted by the historic criminalization of weed. But the social equity licenses have been mired with issues, including several lawsuits that led to a Cook County Judge freezing 185 licenses previously granted to social-equity applicants for nearly a year.
Due to the lawsuit, which was filed by out-of-state individuals, businesses granted the social-equity licenses were unable to open shop and bring in revenues, even as they incurred operating expenses like rent. The license freeze was eventually lifted in June.
“We’re withering and dying on the vine,” said former State Senator Rickey Hendon, who was awarded a license but is unable to open for business due to the freeze. “Without a doubt, this is an effort to keep Black people out.”
Although Mensa’s company wasn’t affected by the social-equity license freeze, he nonetheless ran into several hurdles, and is still navigating the complex process to get a cultivation license, “which is the most important one for us,” he said.
While pushing through the tricky licensing process, 93 Boyz focused on building a brand with “an aesthetic that stands out from the drab,” Mensa said. Eventually, his company connected with a sustainable aeroponic marijuana cultivator, aerīz, to start developing a product to bring to the market.
Central to the 93 Boyz brand is a “socially conscious ethos,” Mensa said. The company’s Books Before Bars program is the first of many planned 93 Boyz projects aimed at using profits generated by the cannabis industry to address the legacy of mass incarceration in Black communities caused by cannabis prohibition.
The Books Before Bars program partners with Semicolon Books to send books to people who are incarcerated. Mensa has been sending books, including Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton’s memoir Revolutionary Suicide, to people in prisons since he was a teenager. He made it a habit after hearing from an incarcerated friend that literature, especially autobiographies of formerly incarcerated Black revolutionaries, helped him survive unlivable conditions in solitary confinement, Mensa said.
“I just started to think about what I can do to bring freedom, how I can actualize freedom, knowing the industry I’m stepping into is capitalizing off a thing that has stolen freedom from so many of us. It became imperative for me to bring freedom to people through this brand,” Mensa said.
While Mensa admits that “being able to personally partake in the industry does not equal success for all of us,” he aims to use his foothold in the market to develop a platform to uplift those most impacted by the War on Drugs, he said.
While 93 Boyz is among the first Black companies in the regulated marijuana market, the venture isn’t Mensa’s first foray into the cannabis business.
“We been in the cannabis industry way before it was legal. Selling weed was my first hustle. … All my studio projects, my music videos… were all funded by selling weed,” Mensa said.
Long before the taboo around weed was eroded and the emergence of artisanal cannabis strains and chic, minimalist branding made the idea of selling marijuana more palatable to the general public, Mensa took pride in the hustle. Since his days at Whitney Young High School, he’d been interested in getting his hands on the most cutting edge strains and exploring how cannabis culture has been integral to hip hop and urban aesthetics akin to music and streetwear, he said.
“We were taking pride in having the illest strains, which at the time was OG Kush, Master Kush. I had this hybrid called Jack Frost that was tearing the streets up,” Mensa said. “I took pride in it and I was invested in it. In the same way clothing culture and sneaker culture played a big part in our upbringing… weed was the same level of cultural focus for us.”
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