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In 2008, a young black man named Keshawn Warner was arrested in a sting operation for trying to purchase a little weed. He didn’t have to do any real jail time, but he was held at the local precinct for hours. Eventually...
By Mike DiPaola
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In 2008, a young black man named Keshawn Warner was arrested in a sting operation for trying to purchase a little weed. He didn’t have to do any real jail time, but he was held at the local precinct for hours. Eventually, he had to appear in court and pay a fine, but the real hassle came as he tried to find employment. 

Not long before the bust, Warner had graduated from Norfolk State University with a degree in computer science, but with a criminal record, it was a tough slog to start a career. “At that point, it’s on your record,” Warner says. “Anytime you get stopped, you know it’s going to come up again. That’s going to be more of a reason for them to scrutinize you. And that was ongoing, nonstop.”

Warner might have fallen victim to the war on drugs like so many before him, but his entrepreneurial drive—and some timely legislation—carried him on a different path.

Photo Courtesy – Dazed Cannabis

Dazed and not confused

In November 2023, Warner and business partners Rich Rainone and Chris Vianello opened Dazed Cannabis on Union Square, among the first adult-use dispensaries to open in New York City. The launch follows the company’s debut shop in Holyoke (October 2021) and precedes the opening of Dazed in Monson, Mass., in January 2024—the first, and so far only, dispensary in town.

The Monson shop is situated in a former strip club and, like the other two locations, is all about the vibe. Pink decor, carefully curated playlists, immersive events, and other innovations are geared to inspire nostalgia and good times—an experience augmented with a line of premium cannabis products. There’s also a healthy respect for cultural preservation: the shop has kept the old strip club dance pole intact.

The three sites all carry the full gamut of weed products and accessories of every stripe, but there’s also usually something fun and maybe classy on the shelves—Jibbitz for your crocs, hoodies, caps, and sunglasses. The Dazed crew seems to be dog people because you’ll find food bowls for your pet or perhaps a bong-shaped chew toy in the gear section.

Photo Courtesy – Dazed Cannabis

Overcoming the system

In New York, the partners were the beneficiaries of Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses, designed to give a leg up to individuals who were directly impacted by the over-policing and mass incarceration related to marijuana offenses. Warner was a good fit.

“Nobody could have imagined it,” Warner says of his arrest and subsequent rise in cannabusiness. “I know people now I’ve met throughout the process who tell me, ‘I wish I would have gotten arrested back then. I could have qualified now.’” 

The entrepreneur is nothing if not appreciative of his good fortune.

It’s like a Cinderella story. You can’t dream nothing like this.

Other states that center equity in licensing have had uneven results, to say the least. Illinois supposedly gave social-equity applicants priority, but by the end of 2022, two full years into legalization, only one percent of legitimate weed businesses in the state had Black majority ownership. Ohio, where medical marijuana is legal, tried to mandate that at least 15 percent of licenses would go to people of color, but that provision was later ruled unconstitutional.

Massachusetts does better as the first state to mandate participation in the cannabis business by communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement. To date, about 50 disadvantaged businesses (state-certified minority-, woman-, or veteran-owned companies) of varying types have opened, according to the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, to the benefit of nearly 900 individuals.

New York’s foray into legal weed sales began in March 2021, with the passage of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act and eventually CAURD. The city’s first dispensary, Housing Works Cannabis, opened its doors at the end of 2022. The rollout has been uneven since then, stalled by lawsuits and other growing pains, but it is chugging along and perhaps gaining momentum.

At this writing, there are 75 licensed adult-use cannabis dispensaries in the state, with 28 of them up and running in New York City across the five boroughs. Unfortunately, there are an estimated 1,500 illegal shops in the city alone, with a staggering 36,000 illicit joints operating statewide.

Warner is mostly sanguine about all that competition from bogus shops. “It doesn’t really affect me because I grew up in a city where there’s a store on every corner you could go to,” he says, noting that you can find a Burger King next to a McDonald’s and a White Castle on the same block as a KFC. These places thrive, even in an atmosphere of intense competition. “So I know enough about the city that if you run your business right, you can maintain, right?”

Photo Courtesy – Dazed Cannabis

Doing it right

So far, Warner and his company are running the business right. He attributes the tight ship to the synergy among the three partners, each with particular skill sets that complement the partnership nicely. Warner, with his computer science degree, is the IT guy. Rich Rainone, the Marine vet and former squad leader, is a natural for running operations of the stores. Chris Vianello was a marketing major at Manhattan College, so he handles that end. 

While other legit dispensaries want the city or the state to crack down on the illegal shops, Warner cautions against going too hard. “What I tell people is that law enforcement is going to have to take a light-handed approach to this because they can’t come in and start making major drug busts like this in the 1980s or 1990s because now that it’s legal, they are trying to right the wrongs of the over-enforcement of those times.”

So, how should law enforcement proceed? Warner offers this advice: “(Get them) the way that they’ve gotten every gangster: tax evasion. That’s what got everybody.”

As for Dazed, it’s going gangbusters. Still, the partners are looking ahead. “We’re trying to expand our footprint in New York, so we’re hoping to get into upstate, and then we’re looking at an opportunity in New Jersey,” says Warner. “But obviously, we don’t want to expand too much too fast or we’ll lose brand identity. That’s our bread and butter.” Warner and Co. are also looking to open in West Boylston, possibly by the summer of 2024.

Regarding their brand identity, the folks at Dazed Cannabis like to say they are “far beyond a dispensary” and more like a cannabis lifestyle. The brand is focused on authenticity, a laid-back vibe, and a community of like-minded collaborations.

“We like to collab with up-and-coming businesses who are moving and shaking and disrupting in their industry,” says Warner. To that end, Dazed has hooked up with Stache Co., a clothing line featuring hoodies and discreet, odor-proof pockets. “Personally, I like to smoke weed, but I don’t like to necessarily smell like weed, you know what I’m saying? So if I want to bring my cannabis with me somewhere, I can do it fashionably and keep it a little bit obscure,” says Warner.

This is ironic since if Warner had been more obscure in his youth, he might never have been arrested, and there would have been no Dazed Cannabis. 

Photo Courtesy – Dazed Cannabis