Tech for Cannabis Equity? Entrepreneur Dr. Kortney Ziegler is Building the Tools

Dr. Kortney Ziegler's POC Canna Biz conference focuses on equity in the marijuana industry. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I parked in downtown Oakland, made sure no valuables were in the car and hopped out. After walking a few paces, I looked up from my phone, distracted by a billboard that read: "When life gives you lemons, we give you lemon kush." I let out an exasperated pshhht of disbelief as I shook my head, thinking: This marijuana industry stuff is out of pocket.

Then I returned to authoring my text message. "Just parked, there in 2 min," I wrote to Dr. Kortney Ziegler, who was already waiting for me at the cafe on Grand Avenue.

Ziegler is a serial entrepreneur. He and his business partner Tiffany Mikell are the forces behind AerialSpaces, a communications platform where people can hold meetings and conference calls, much like Skype or Zoom, but with more bells and whistles.

This endeavor comes on the heels of the duo's other recent project Appolition, an app that allows users to take the "spare change" from debit card purchases, and apply it to inmates' bail funds.

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After launching Appolition, Ziegler realized just how many people are incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. So when he and Mikell launched AerialSpaces, he thought it would only be right to use the platform for people to come together and learn about marijuana laws, economics and more.

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On June 15, Ziegler and Mikell are hosting the virtual Cannabis Conference for People of Color, or POC Canna Biz Con for short. The tickets range from $25-$75 and the event runs from 10am-3pm Pacific time. Using any device with internet access, virtual attendees can sit in on workshops and panel discussions, which will feature the likes of "chronnoisseur," comedian and host of the show Cooking on High, Ngaio Bealum, as well as Dr. Janice Knox of American Cannabinoid Clinics and Oakland's Chaney Turner, co-founder of The People's Dispensary, among others.

This idea of holding a national conversation, in real time, with stakeholders on multiple fronts of the cannabis industry intrigues me. And it's very timely.

As federal legislation to legalize marijuana, HR 420, makes its way through the gauntlet in Washington D.C., every week there's another note about a state moving to legalize or decriminalize it.

Last month, legislators in Illinois voted to make the state the 11th in the nation to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. Earlier this week Nevada, a state where recreational marijuana is already legal, announced that potential employers can no longer use positive marijuana tests as a reason to not hire someone.

And just this past Monday in California, the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that inmates in the state can legally possess less than an ounce of marijuana in prison (they just just can't consume it, and it is still federally illegal).

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The wild west that is the legal recreational marijuana industry is continuously taking shape, and Ziegler sees how important it is for traditionally marginalized folks to stay up to speed on changes in the industry. This is especially crucial in light of the negative impact the war on drugs had, and continues to have, on African American communities—where people are over-policed and over-prosecuted, a point Michelle Alexander explores in The New Jim Crow.

"Black folks and other folks of color are building business in the cannabis space," said Ziegler. "But they’re doing it in a traditional way—where events are on site and meet ups are happening. ... I haven't seen too many people have events in real time, where we can engage with folks who are doing work across the country."

Until Ziegler said that, I hadn't considered how a technology like AerialSpaces could bridge information gaps and build community in the marijuana industry, especially since regulations vary so widely from state to state.

Neon signs in the window of a medical cannabis club on Haight Street in San Francisco.
Neon signs in the window of a medical cannabis club on Haight Street in San Francisco. (Thomas Hawk)

"Our goal is to have people walk with something tangible, something they can use. And also to be more knowledgable about state and federal laws," Ziegler told me, noting that even though weed is legal in places like Colorado, and overall arrests are down, African Americans are still being arrested at three times the rate of white folks.

Ziegler took all of this into account and asked, almost rhetorically, "How do we capitalize on it? And how do we not become criminalized for it?"

When I asked how it feels to brand himself as a marijuana guy, without hesitation he casually responded, "I'm very public about my cannabis use." (It literally says "stoner" in his Twitter bio.) Then he added, "The perception that someone who presents like me can have my credentials and smoke a blunt blows some people's minds."

Understandably so. It's not too often you meet an African American trans man who started as a kid in Compton and grew up to be a tech entrepreneur with a PhD from Northwestern.

I asked Ziegler why—in profit-driven Silicon Valley—he's using technology to benefit marginalized folks. Dr. Ziegler took a second before he said, "There’s always a way to do something for good."

"Being who I am, coming where I come from and having the experiences that I have—and just seeing the things I see by working in the spaces that I do: the amount of wealth, and the amount of ridiculous shit that it goes to," he said. "It’s not beneficial and it’s doing harm to folks who look like me. So if I can do something to leverage my skills, that works for me."

A marijuana plant is displayed during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
A marijuana plant is displayed during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

He's doing something, alright. Even with all of the moving pieces of the marijuana industry, Ziegler is helping make sure there's representation across the board. Featuring the work of people of color, including those who are LGBTQ+, is important, as we know that being seen is paramount.

I told Ziegler about the billboard I saw on the way to the cafe. He laughed too—that same kind of pshhht you make when you don't believe something.

"The other day, Seth Rogen was on the cover of GQ magazine and he was smoking weed. And yeah, that’s cool—weed is sexy and stylized," Dr. Ziegler said, using air quotes.

"It’s unfortunate as to who is being seen for advancing cannabis lifestyle and stuff."

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Well, Dr. Ziegler, you may not have a billboard yet, but I see you.

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