Since New York state legalized adult-use cannabis in March 2021, and with applications for dispensary licenses expected to be available later this year, cannabis consultant Jacob Plowden is helping legacy operators transition to the legal market.

Many legacy operators, those who were selling and distributing cannabis before legalization, are hoping to continue their careers in the burgeoning legal market.

Yet, this transition can be a confusing and novel concept, full of paperwork and applications unfamiliar to the legacy operator. Plowden is hoping to simplify the process. 

Plowden, 32, a lifelong Harlem resident grew up surrounded by the effects of drug prohibition, also known as the war on drugs, which disproportionately punishes and incarcerates racialized individuals. 

Frustrated by these inequities, Plowden and Nelson Guerrero created the Cannabis Cultural Association (CCA), a New York-based nonprofit helping marginalized individuals, typically folks of color, transition to the legal market.

“We decided to be our own problem-solvers,” Jacob Plowden says of co-founding CCA with Guerrero in 2015. While CCA was created in 2015, its need could be more relevant today. 

“There was no arena to talk about black and brown people who were going to jail for weed and having opportunities to transition from the legacy market into the legal weed industry,” Plowden explains.

In his work with CCA, Plowden will often outline the range of licenses and applications available to clients, from ancillary licenses to microbusiness licenses. 

He also outlines the financial realities of owning a dispensary—the startup capital required in addition to the marketing and operating expenses. “A cannabis business, by and large, is not lucrative right now. It is something that can be in the long term,” he says. He hopes that by fully outlining all the costs, these legacy operators can make informed decisions. Guerrero often helps with translation and language barriers. CCA is currently working on a visual campaign analyzing the federal legalization of cannabis.

Growing up, Plowden watched friends and family around him go to jail. While in 10th grade, a friend of Plowden’s was stopped at a traffic light where “the cops illegally [without a search warrant] searched the car and found a bowl and maybe three grams [of cannabis]. They gave them a [distribution] charge,” he explains. He adds, “that started a hodgepodge of events that kept him out of jobs or even going to school.”  

A 2020 ACLU study revealed that despite white and black individuals consuming cannabis on similar levels, black people are nearly four times more likely to receive an arrest.

Dismayed by the lack of aid for those transitioning from legacy to legal operators, he explains that he decided “I’m going to talk to my boys and figure out how to do an organization myself.” 

Plowden does not receive a salary from CCA. When legacy operators turn to him for guidance, money and fees are absent from the transaction. To pay his bills, he holds a day job as the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut state coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy,  a nonprofit organization aimed at engaging youth in reforming drug policy. There, he plans events, starts local college chapters, and educates students about the importance of social equity and drug policy. During Passover, he co-led a “Psychedelic Liberation Seder,” where attendees participated in an “an evening of song, stories, and psychedelic celebration of Pesach [Passover].”

His client’s range in age and experience as legacy operators. Saki Fenderson, 49, has been working in cannabis advocacy in Brooklyn since 2012. She serves as the founder of Tainted Love BK, an LLC focusing on cannabis equity education and like many, hopes to enter the legal market later this year. She remembers Plowden turning to her and saying, “you are an OG in this space. People need to hear what you have to say.” 

Since then, Fenderson has spoken about cannabis inequity at New York University and the CannAtlantic Cannabis Conference, and has been featured by GrubStreet. Plowden encouraged her to be part of the Start SMART New York campaign, a city-wide campaign aiming to end the prohibition of cannabis. She looks forward to applying for a dispensary license when applications open up. 

Plowden’s aunt, Molly Adams, 69, explains, “He is completely passionate about the injustice part of cannabis because as a man of color, that’s always carried a stigma and a higher penalty.” She adds, “I think his personal experience and experience with his friends are what drives him to be as passionate as he is.”

While speaking at a 2019 Mississippi panel event on cannabis use in the black community, a woman approached him and said, “I appreciate the fact that you’re so young, and that you can break this down in a way that makes us less afraid.” 

There, he says he realized, “I had to be someone who was crazy enough to be skeptical of the cannabis prohibition and challenge my elders, my community and my family to show them that there are things within the law that misconstrued how we do this stuff. I have to show them the medical and financial long-term benefits.” 

Fenderson elaborates on her admiration for Plowden. “Jake is one of those heroes of the movement that goes unrecognized,” she says. “He is the person behind the person.”

Jordan Pike is a culture writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, Xtra, Hey Alma and The Uptowner, among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @jordanpike04.