Business & Economy

He was prosecuted for selling weed. Now he wants to be the McDonald's of pot

Marijuana mogul Virgil Grant poses for a portrait at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Marijuana mogul Virgil Grant poses for a portrait at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

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If, when thinking about buying marijuana, you still have a vision of a shady guy with unwashed hair, handing you a ziplock baggie of shwag weed in the front seat of his Toyota Tercel with a broken rear view mirror, you need to adjust your expectations. 

This is 2017 and both customers and those that run the industry see things differently.

"I would like to be the McDonald's of the cannabis industry, where we franchise and have 1000 California Cannabis shops," said Virgil Grant, sitting on a sofa in the back room of his dispensary in South Los Angeles. 

Grant imagines welcoming stores, friendly staff and consistent products when he thinks about the future of weed in the state. And it’s a future where he sees his brand, California Cannabis, everywhere he can put it.

Products from Virgil Grant's California Cannabis brand are displayed at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Products from Virgil Grant's California Cannabis brand are displayed at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

Ask people around L.A.’s pot scene and you’ll hear similar dreams. The thirst to cash in on California’s green rush is real. With a potential $700 million dollar market in the first year in Los Angeles alone, everyone from moms who want to sell baked goods, to shop owners, to big money investors, both local and international, are trying to get a piece when the new recreational market comes online Jan. 1.

But while the recreational marijuana market is new, there are players that’ve been around for decades, like Grant.

In L.A.’s marijuana community, his name comes up again and again. Locals say he’s one of the guys who’s been around for a while, who’s paid his dues, and who’s now back to get his.

Marijuana mogul Virgil Grant poses for a portrait at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns,  on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Marijuana mogul Virgil Grant poses for a portrait at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

Grant's been in the industry since the 1980s. He grew up in Compton, went to Cal State L.A. and stayed close to home to help his father run his local liquor stores. 

"We're talking a lot of shootings and killings over drugs, gang violence, and the riots. So, me working at a liquor store in Compton, I needed to be very focused. I didn't need anything taking my focus away, so I did not drink or smoke," he said.

It was there that he learned the ins and outs of business, buying his first quarter ounce of weed from a Rastafarian man who, he said, espoused to him the healing powers of marijuana.

"I begin to bag that up into 20 bags and begin to sell that," he said. "Once I bought my first quarter ounce and I sold it so fast, I bought another one … it just started going and I never looked back."

Eventually, he connected with growers in Northern California, driving north from L.A. to Humboldt, the Mecca of marijuana. He’d make his way to the middle of the forest, park down on the side of the road and hand his contact $80,000 for 35 pounds of weed. Knowing that the marijuana was pungent, he’d double wrap it in plastic and stick it in two airtight Samsonite suitcases in case he got stopped by the police.

"If someone of African-American descent was traveling through those sticks and hills in Humboldt, they would kind of look out place," he said. "Nine times out of ten, they would get pulled over."

For years he transported marijuana in suitcases from Humboldt back to Compton, becoming a wholesaler of the drug to those in the neighborhood. Things went well for him, he said, until 1999, when he got pulled over in Mendocino County, right after picking up a shipment of product. The police searched his car and found the Samsonites.

"It’s kind of like OK, this is where it’s going," he said. "You kind of just sit back and you take the ride whether you want to or not."

He went to prison for a year, but was drawn back into the industry when he was released. This time, he decided to go legit, since California had legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Grant saw an opportunity to take advantage of that.

"I was actually making more money on the streets," he explained. "I was making $20,000 every two days. And I walked away from that to open up a shop. And my first few days in that shop I made $200 to $300."

A magazine featuring Virgil Grant on its cover is displayed along with other marijuana industry publications in the waiting room of Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns,  on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
A magazine featuring Virgil Grant on its cover is displayed along with other marijuana industry publications in the waiting room of Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that he owns, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

With his already established distribution network, he built up six shops across Southern California by 2008.

Everything was going well, he said. He was making money. His empire of medical shops was growing. Until one day, at his store in Compton, he looked out front to see a burgundy Jeep parked on the street with people sitting in it.

"White guys," he said. "In Compton. On Compton Boulevard. Yeah. OK."

Shortly thereafter, federal agents in tactical gear with weapons raided his six stores and his home. He was charged with "one drug conspiracy count, four counts of  aiding and abetting the distribution of marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school and four counts of maintaining a drug-involved premises within 1,000 feet of a school," according to the United States Attorney's Office of the Central District of California. After a protracted legal battle, and a second round of raids, Grant took a plea deal. He was sentenced to 72 months in federal prison in 2010.

He got out in 2015. And again, decided to return to the industry.

"You have to have faith in what you do and who you are," he said. "And I knew where I was going with this."

Since then he’s been busy, reopening marijuana shops and helping to shape marijuana laws in L.A., working closely with City Council President Herb Wesson.

Marijuana samples and paraphernalia line the walls at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that Virgil Grant owns on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Marijuana samples and paraphernalia line the walls at Med X, a dispensary in Westmont that Virgil Grant owns on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

"Virgil Grant is just so credible where it comes to this issue, that (with) his background, he could just give us direct insights into a segment of that culture, and I think it’s been very valuable," Wesson said. "No matter how many times Virgil has been knocked down, he seems to get back up. And at the end of the day that’s what counts."

Grant and his business partner Donnie Anderson have worked with Wesson to draft a social equity program in the city. It's an effort to prioritize people who’ve been impacted by the war on weed, including those from underserved communities, making sure that they have access to the limited number of licenses that the city plans to distribute. The rules around the program haven't yet been finalized.

Grant and Anderson have also established two groups: The California Minority Alliance and the Southern California Coalition. The former is their attempt at helping people from communities, including Compton and South L.A., to enter the industry. Grant said that he wants to help those interested to secure financing and to get their shops up and running. The latter is an industry group that's formed to influence policy, most notably, by pushing for Proposition M in L.A., back in February.

California is expected to start handing out licenses to operators starting Jan. 1. In Los Angeles, the  licensing process could be delayed as the city council continues to debate regulations. For Grant and his ilk that means that they're going to have to wait a bit longer before going full speed ahead.