America’s oldest Black-owned dispensary, Purple Heart Patient Center, has been closed since criminals used the cover of protests to decimate Oakland’s cannabis industry last summer. We talked with founder Keith Stephenson about the road to get the facility back open.
Last summer, Stephenson noted in other interviews the battle he’d gone through with insurance adjusters to honor his claim. As the drills buzzed behind us, Stephenson explained how it all eventually played out. It involved a lot of hoops and him putting documents in their hands as fast as possible.
“And they just kept moving the goalposts,” Stephenson told High Times. “So with that being said, that [process] alone was several months, and I found it an arduous painful journey in negligence just dealing with the insurance company.”
At one point he didn’t have contact with the adjuster for three weeks. He called it a “good cop, bad cop” communication system.
“They don’t want to pay out all of the damage to the facility. They don’t want to pay the business interruption claim which is interesting,” Stephenson said. The insurance company’s argument on not paying out the millions in lost revenue is that Purple Heart had been temporarily closed at the time of the break-in as Stephenson worked to get the facility up to Covid Standards with sneeze guards and an industrial fogger to sterilize the facility.
“When COVID first started, nobody was knowing what was going on,” Stephenson said, “I had to make sure that my staff—the most valuable human resources—and the guests that come here [would be] safe. Just because someone says that you can open doesn’t mean that it’s safe. So, my background has been as an aviation maintenance technician. It is always safety-oriented regardless of what’s going on.”
Stephenson argued with the insurance company’s line of reasoning; what would have happened if the business had burned down?
“They paid for the inventory. So, the insurer has chosen to pick and choose what parts of the claim they want to pay. And obviously, the business interruption was the largest part. So they denied that,” Stephenson said, putting losses at around five million.
Even those old numbers Stephenson used in attempting to quantify his losses to the insurance company are now questionable given the wave of cannabis enthusiasm that happened with all these people stuck in their house. How are Purple Heart’s old numbers supposed to account for that COVID wave? They can’t.
“It’s almost like missing The Gold Rush,” Stephenson said. “It’s like 1849 and you know, your wagon broke down in the middle of the cold somewhere in California, and by the time you got here they were excavating with mechanical tools as opposed to manual labor.”
A Changing Industry
Purple Heart is located roughly ten blocks down Broadway in Oakland, from where the earliest public conversations about equity in the American cannabis industry for the communities hit the hardest by the war on drugs happened. We asked Stephenson what it meant to get the doors open so he can participate in that conversation that’s grown alongside the industry over the last year.
“America, it’s…it’s, it’s been difficult,” Stephenson replied. “However, being in the position that I’ve been in, I just look at this as another moment to make lemonade out of lemons, you know? Life doesn’t always deal you the hand that your siblings, that your neighbors, that your community, fellow businesses, coworkers, may have been dealt. I think I’m used to having my back up against the wall. And that’s where I leaned on my faith so with that I know everything that happens in the universe is outside of my divine control. However, I am in the order of the universe.”
Stephenson admits that he was someone that truly valued his anonymity. Even as his competitors in Oakland found their way onto TV screens across America representing what was then one of the most regulated cannabis markets in the US, he worked to keep behind the scenes. At times he felt like his story should have been told.
But even as PR machines try and drive the conversation around Black cannabis business owners in America, Stephenson knows that at home in Oakland, people know what’s up. He also thinks everything happens at the right time.
Stephenson notes other Black cannabis business owners have also pushed him towards the light. “Folks like Tucky Blunt, who was the first social equity dispensary operator in America, encouraged me. So you know, here you have me as a thought leader. Who, years ago, recognized this is not gonna play out too well if [these are] the rules that we have to apply by, so to have me and Blunt and Moore be a part [of these conversations about changing the game.] It’s just a beautiful relationship because he and I communicate from a place of respect. Like I don’t think I’m above him, and he doesn’t think that he’s below me. It’s like we meet each other eye to eye.”
Stephenson said it’s wild to visit platforms’, like Clubhouse, vibrant cannabis community and talk to people who know who he is. He thinks making that decision to be more public has proven valuable even if the doors aren’t open.
When does Stephenson expect to be open?
“Oh judging by the way everything looks I’m thinking June, July,” Stephenson replied. “If it’s earlier, you know, great, but as you can see this place was a mess. And we were still waiting on parts and there’s a myriad of things that need to be done.”
Stephenson has also set up a GoFundMe page to assist in the reopening.