In the two years since opening Gorilla Rx and the four years prior spent fighting for the right to do just that, Kika Keith became a force in Los Angeles cannabis. But the idea wasn’t on a whim. The serial entrepreneur told High Times she first got the idea to open the South-Central Los Angeles dispensary in 2007. She was attempting to get her non-infused beverage line Gorilla Life into dispensaries when one of the owners recommended adding some decarboxylated hash.
“We ended up partnering on an infused version of Gorilla Life called Chronic Tonic; it sold really well,” Keith said of her first dip into the cannabis game during the Prop. 215 era in California. “When I found out about recreational cannabis being legalized, I had an opportunity to get in as a social equity entrepreneur. And so that’s when I was like, ‘OK.’”
At first, she thought she would be returning to the beverage space. She’d done well in it before, and as the last few years have shown, it’s definitely lucrative. But the real play for social equity early on was not in manufacturing.
“The first opportunity was really to come in on the retail side for social equity. And so that kind of just changed my trajectory to launching Gorilla Rx as a retail dispensary,” Keith said.
As 2017 rolled on towards the beginning of legal sales the following year, Keith saw the writing on the wall as she attended meetings on social equity and what the forthcoming LA recreational market would look like.
One of the early mandates of social equity, which has now been tossed out due to predatory landlords and the clearing of generational wealth, required someone applying for a license to already possess the property, whether it was rented or owned. Keith would secure her location on Crenshaw Boulevard in March of 2018.
“I grew up right down the street from where we are currently,” Keith said. “I had thought back then that it was going to be some months before they opened up the licensing process for the pre-ICOs in January. We just knew by spring they were going to open it up.”
Pre-ICO dispensaries are the oldest legal operators in Los Angeles. They all transitioned from being medical cannabis dispensaries and had to be open by September 2007, when the Medical Marijuana Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) went into effect.
While many thought the ball would roll quickly after the pre-ICO shops were permitted, it did not. Delay after delay and a trip to court with the city of Los Angeles to get 100 more licenses issued would see Gorilla Rx have to wait three and a half years to open its doors. While the landlord gave them a deal for half the price of the $12,000 for the first six months, that runway quickly ran out as the delays rolled on.
“By the time before I opened my doors, my rent was up to $16,000 a month,” Keith said. “We ended up spending $350,000 on rent before I ever even opened my doors.”
The kind of recourse drain knocked a lot of other people out of the mix. We asked Keith if she had ever heard a number of just how much cash was wasted by equity entrepreneurs sitting on properties.
“I know 800 people applied, but some of them were applying for multiple properties, so let’s just say 500 to be conservative,” she said. “And I would say I was at the mid-level of what people were paying for rent. So you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars wasted.”
If they all had spent as much as Keith, the total amount wasted would be somewhere around $175,000,000.
We asked Keith when she saw the light at the end of the tunnel after all those years of work. She argued it wasn’t until she joined the lawsuit against the city after equity operators felt they needed to take action over the way the permitting process was going and how much money they were blowing sitting on locations. Keith noted at one point, they were funding the legal expenses with small donations, just like the Obama campaign pioneered in 2008. But they did it. Keith and 99 others would have their chance to open their doors.
Giving Back to Crenshaw
A lot of people in life talk about going back and doing good in their community. Few in life achieve it to the standard Keith has done in empowering her community through entrepreneurship. We asked her how dope that feels.
“Yeah, man. It is what drives me every single day,” Keith said. “Especially given how wacky the cannabis industry can be. I’m a serial entrepreneur. This is my fourth business, and I’ve been in multiple industries. This cannabis—little did I know until I’m in it and running these numbers and looking at these taxes—it is the worst possible business model, with the worst possible margins of any business.
“So if it were not for the fact that I invested so much making sure that there was diversity in this industry—that Black and brown people, that we would not be witnesses to another industry where we were left out—then I actually had the opportunity to educate folks and build power that we can effectively sway policy and then take it to the next level of actually having centrally one location where we can support each other. I mean, besides my children, it’s one of the best things in my life to be able to realize the fact that we have an opportunity to effectuate change in this industry.”
In the two years since Gorilla Rx opened, cannabis retail hasn’t gotten any easier. But thankfully for Keith, the community has been quick to adopt the shop as their local club. Keith’s roots in the community and the fact that 95% of her staff call the neighborhood home helped them weather the storm.
“I have to say it feels like a calling from God,” Keith said of the community’s reaction to the shop. “Because even though I have been in all these businesses, never have I been so well-received in the work, the fruits of my labor, fed so many people from the community.”
Keith appreciates when elderly patients come in and find some product they didn’t know existed that ends up changing their lives. She believes, for many, that alternative medicine will become a beacon of hope compared to what big pharma is pushing out.
Gorilla Rx’s short hop to LAX has made it a popular starting location for people beginning a California adventure. Keith loves it when folks come in and say they’ve heard about what Gorilla Rx was doing and wanted to see it for themselves. They want it back home in their cities, and Keith hopes Gorilla Rx will inspire them to make that happen.
She also hopes to inspire her peers still caught up in the licensing maelstrom, some since 2019. It means a lot to Keith for those who still don’t have their doors open to come in and say things like, “You’re doing it, and we still believe that we can do it and be a part of this industry.” She does, too. She still takes the time to travel to city hall and Sacramento in support of her peers, regardless of the fact she already has her permit.
Building her staff from the seven she started with to the 25 she now employs has also been a positive experience for Keith. She loves showing others how she does business so they can help her pull it off and learn it for themselves.
“For employees that come from other dispensaries and say, ‘I’m finally in a place where I feel seen,’ it is so inexpressible, and I feel inexpressible joy every day,” Keith said. “That is what helps me get past all the bullshit of the compliance and the other problems that we have as an industry as a whole and allows me to keep pushing because I have so many people that are inspired and are able to take advantage of the wellness side of what we’re doing.”
Keith said she believes the most important trait she brought with her to cannabis from her previous businesses was endurance. Keith was a single mom in a homeless shelter when she founded her first company. While one might take any opportunity in those circumstances, she chose entrepreneurship.
“I’m a single mother; I’m going to start a business at the lowest point and rise up from that. That resiliency is what allows me a smile on my face today like, I’ve already been at the bottom,” Keith said. “You can’t throw nothing at me that’s worse than where I’ve already been. Having failed in other businesses and then I started again, I have removed the fear of failing. And so that really has allowed me to strive where most people will give up by now.”
We asked Keith what has been the most surprising thing about her time in cannabis besides the crazy regulations and taxes. She paused, then firmly noted it’s the amount of time she has to spend on government relations. She felt she often spends more time on that than in the shop working.
The next phase for Gorilla Rx’s community giveback is the opening of a mock dispensary next door called Gorilla University. When Keith was going to city council meetings in 2017 and 2018, she would take notes that she would bring back to the community groups she worked with to explain what she had learned. When it came time for licensing, two lawyers from a firm in Long Beach donated their time to help Keith teach people how to fill out their permit applications.
“And I had them start volunteering with me so that we were helping people do their licensing applications, and then throughout the two-and-a-half year period of time, I was seeing how much hand holding and information that we had shared in groups that we were forming for people,” Keith said. “Even what they were getting into and then how to succeed in this industry.”
Gorilla Rx hosted these sessions for years, but once it became a working dispensary, they needed a new place to host the classes. Keith was intent on ensuring Gorilla Rx succeeded, but she knew that she had to simultaneously do something to ensure that folks were actually on par with her in this race. Within the first year of being open, the building next door came up for sale.
“We stretched ourselves to be able to lock down their property. And so we’ve been holding on to it. We’re gonna raise money, but it will be our center, our mock dispensary where we’ll train folks on the workforce side, even our own employees,” Keith said. “I liken it to McDonald’s University, where you know we have a place to train folks and then be able to recruit them and pull them out and place them either in our dispensary or other dispensaries across the city.”
Gorilla University hopes to train people at every level of the industry, regardless of whether they are budtenders, inventory specialists, or managers. They’ve even partnered with METRC to become a certified training facility for the track and trace system that tracks all cannabis in California’s recreational market.
Gorilla University just received $3.3 million from the state to help launch its programming. Keith is working hard to match that money via grants and recently started an Indiegogo campaign. After hosting several expungement clinics, Gorilla University started its cannabis health education classes in the fall of 2023. Training will continue to diversify as the funding comes in.
Visit Gorilla RX at 4233 S Crenshaw Blvd. in Los Angeles.
This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of High Times Magazine.