For the past ten years, Sue Taylor has had a dream: to bring cannabis to seniors.
A late convert to the healing powers of the drug (she once thought it was akin to crack), Taylor now believes it can free older people from the tyranny of pharmaceuticals, particularly opiates. A few drops of a cannabis-infused tincture, a few dabs of CBD cream and voila! – a person’s pain is lessened, and he or she can fall asleep more quickly, she says.
After years of preaching the wonders of cannabis to those over 50 – first at Harborside Health in Oakland and later in classes she led – Taylor is set to take her message to a broader audience. On Thursday, the cannabis retail store she has been envisioning for years, the one she had to convince the Berkeley City Council to allow her to open, the one that has seen construction and permit delays and a revolving cast of backers, will finally open.
At noon, Taylor will cut the ribbon at Farmacy Berkeley, at 3243 Sacramento St. (at Alcatraz), and open the city’s fifth operating dispensary. It will make Taylor, 72, the first and only African American woman to head up a cannabis operation in Berkeley — and perhaps the entire Bay Area.
“It’s been a hard journey,” said Taylor, an elegant woman who often wears silk shirts and tailored pantsuits — not a look typically associated with the cannabis industry. “A lot of times we cried. I’ve said ‘Lord, what am I doing?’ I’m a former Catholic school principal. I used my entire retirement to get this done. Even with all these challenges, I have enjoyed the journey.”
When Farmacy Berkeley opens, one entire wall will be devoted to the sale of products developed under Taylor’s guidance. The product line — just one of many cannabis items that will be for sale — is known as “Mama Sue” (Taylor’s nickname), and will be geared towards people over 50. There will products for pain relief and sleep aid, but not to get buzzed.
Seniors “don’t want to get high, they want to get well,” said Taylor.
Taylor developed the product line in conjunction with The Glass House Group, a cannabis company based in Southern California. It’s the third cannabis company to invest in Taylor’s vision, a reflection of how expensive it is to obtain a permit and open a retail operation, as well the volatility of the industry.
Taylor first raised money from her family to pursue a dispensary permit in Berkeley (members gave from $500 to $25,000, she said). Her son, Jamaal Taylor, and his long-time partner, Kitshwa “Kiki” Genama, also are partners and operators of the store. But, as the construction got further and further delayed (Taylor received her permit in 2016), she had to bring in outside financing. 4front Ventures from Canada was Taylor’s first backer. Then KBB, now known as the Kush Boys, bought out 4front, said Taylor. Then the Glass House Group bought out the Kush Boys, she said.
The Glass House Group is a vertically integrated company registered in Delaware with an estimated market value of $350 million, according to Kyle Kazan, the company’s founder and CEO. It projects it will have $100 million in sales this year. The company grows cannabis in 500,000 square feet of greenhouses near Santa Barbara, operates three dispensaries and a manufacturing facility in Lompoc. Taylor is planning to swap her shares in iCann Health (the original name of her endeavor) for shares in the Glass House Group, she said.
“They found me,” said Taylor. “They liked the model. They wanted to service seniors. They were in line with our mission.”
Kazan said he initially connected with Taylor because he noticed she promoted cannabis to seniors. His company’s dispensary in Santa Ana, Bud and Bloom, also caters to seniors and brings in busloads of older adults from nearby Leisure World to teach them about cannabis, he said. The two met and Kazan offered to produce the Mama Sue brand.
“I immediately liked Sue,” said Kazan. “I trust my instincts about people. I felt great with her.”
Charles Pappas, the former owner of a dispensary in San Francisco who served seven years on Berkeley’s Cannabis Commission, applauded Taylor’s focus on helping seniors since they are an underserved group. He also admires her tenacity. While a medical cannabis dispensary used to generate large revenues — a 2012 lawsuit against Berkeley Patients Group revealed it had revenues of $15 million in 2009— legalization has made the cannabis business exponentially harder. State and local permit fees are high as are state and local taxes, he said. Those fees have contributed to the rise of the black market.
“Over-regulation makes it difficult,” said Pappas.
Taylor is an unlikely person to be a cannabis proselytizer. She was born in Jennings, Louisiana, into a French Creole family with eight boys and four girls. Her parents moved all 12 children to California “by car and by bus” when Taylor was 12. The family settled in San Mateo.
Taylor, who has three sons, went into education and spent many years as the principal of both Sacred Heart and St Patrick’s schools in Oakland. After she retired in 2004, she moved to Atlanta, GA, with no plans to return. Then her son Jamaal started to talk to her about what he considered the benefits of cannabis. He had been attending classes at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, a cannabis school.
“I came to save my son. I ended up being the trusted face of medical cannabis.” — Sue Taylor
But when Jamaal started talking, Taylor became convinced that he was addicted to cannabis, a drug she equated with heroin and cocaine.
“I was one of those people who thought it was a hard-core drug,” Taylor said recently as she sat in her as-yet-undecorated office at Farmacy Berkeley. She still doesn’t smoke or vape cannabis, but regularly uses a cream to fight pain in her back and legs and a few drops of tincture to help her sleep.
Taylor flew from Atlanta to the Bay Area to “save him (her son) from drugs.” But Jamaal Taylor wasn’t an addict, but rather a burgeoning businessman. He thought Taylor could achieve her long-held goal of opening a wellness spa by combining it with medical cannabis sales. His pitch was effective.
“I packed my bags for two weeks and didn’t go back to Atlanta for 10 years,” said Taylor.
She worked for a number of years as the senior outreach coordinator at Harborside Health in Oakland educating people about how medical cannabis could ease their arthritis or cancer pain and help them sleep. She got a certificate from California to teach seniors about cannabis.
“I came to save my son,” said Taylor. “I ended up being the trusted face of medical cannabis.”
Then, in 2016, the Berkeley City Council decided to allow a fourth dispensary to open in Berkeley. Numerous companies applied and, after a lengthy and competitive process, the City Council chose Taylor’s iCann Health Center. The Berkeley City Council has now voted to allow seven retail cannabis stores in Berkeley. A seventh store, one that will go to someone who was penalized by the War on Drugs, has not been selected.
Taylor’s missionary-like message was persuasive — that she is perfectly situated to educate seniors about cannabis and get them off expensive and addictive pharmaceutical drugs.
“The larger part of my mission is bringing dignity and respect back to elderly people,” said Taylor. “The way you do that is to get them off pain because we are missing an entire demographic and their wisdom and knowledge.”
The Mama Sue line now offers three tinctures, one for sleep and two for pain. It is very low in THC, the ingredient that produces a buzz, and high in CBD, which affects the body more than the mind, so it should provide pain relief but no high, said Kazan. The company has big plans for the Mama Sue line and the senior market. It is experimenting making the products with hemp rather than cannabis, which means they could be sold in drugstores and other non-cannabis retail outlets, he said.
Taylor’s message that seniors and cannabis appear to have resonated. She has been prominently featured in national media. CBS Sunday morning focused on her for a seven-minute segment and the New York Times has quoted her.
“She has been able to reach conservative people of all ages and make them comfortable with cannabis,” said Laura Herrara, a consultant with Make Green Go, a firm that helps equity clients compete for permits. Herrara started consulting for Taylor after she heard her talk about the benefits of cannabis. “She is our moral compass. She is the one who brought the idea of being able to reach her generation.”
This article was updated after publication to state that Glass House Group has $100 million in projected sales and is valued at $350 million, not $100 million.