What It's Like to Run a Dispensary and Be a Mom at the Same Time
The road that lead Aundre Speciale to the cannabis business was not an easy one. After aging out of the foster care system and spending years living on the streets of Northern California, Speciale faced scarce opportunities to create a life for herself and young family. It was a chance interaction with her neighbor legendary hemp activist Jack Herer, Speciale found her calling in the budding the medical marijuana industry as a caregiver, activist and dispensary owner.
As the world prepares to celebrate the mothers, grandmothers and maternally-inclined this weekend, Speciale reflects on her personal and profession journey and shares how she balances being a single mother and a cannabis industry leader.
You're the director of three dispensaries including CBCB in Berkely, you do consulting as well as your advocacy work. How have you learned to balance all of while being a mother of two?
I'm also a very, very single mother. My kid's dad isn't in their life and we don't really have relatives close, so it's been very single. I'm just a charger. I'm very ADD, but I've always considered that a blessing. I like to stay busy, but I also have to be really selective with my time. I've also opened seven dispensaries total. I love creating new spaces and looking for the next opportunity.
Like, challenging yourself with each dispensary? How can this one be bigger and better serve the community?
That's the thing, I've also opened three community centers and a community garden. Right now, at our Oakland store, we've teamed up with a harm reduction unit. So once a month we have a HIV and Hepatitis C testing and counseling. We've teamed up with a local church next door, because our facility is in what's considered a poorer neighborhood and we help to meet the needs there. We provide necessities, like shampoo, soap and socks for neighborhood residents that come to the church to get it. I come out of the activist side of the cannabis industry. I aged out of foster care, was homeless for several years, and became an activist. Nobody wants to fund activist programs and so I realized. I had started with cannabis way back in the days with Jack Herrer because he was my neighbor in Venice. So, activism is something that I've been interested in and volunteered in. And then when California came out with the Proposition 215, the way it is written it says that you have to operate as a non-profit, so I took that to heart. We can operate as a true non-profit and use our money to fund all of these community programs that nobody wants to fund. We helped open homeless pre-school with the Catholic church, teaming with various people in the community that you wouldn't think would be working with cannabis people. I think that that is also what helped to bring it forward into the industry that it is today. Dispensaries were very grey area. There was nothing written in the law saying that dispensaries were legal. If everybody had come in all gangster, that it would've gotten a lot of dispensaries shut down. By teaming up with all of these other people and giving back to our community, people really started to have a positive light on what we were doing.
There are so many narratives about women rising to the top of the burgeoning cannabis industry. What is that women bring to the table that have made them front runners?
Being a woman in the industry has only ever helped me. As well, in all my years of operating my seven different dispensaries, I've had one general manager that was a man. There were a lot of other dispensaries that are run by men and have a different feel. I wanted to have a motherly soft loving compassionate place, and mostly found that women and people that I identify as women kind of were drawn to that.
Back in the day—and this is still true in a few counties in Sacramento—you could lose custody of your kid just for being a medical marijuana patient. I think that that shut some women out of the industry. And that was always my biggest fear, being separated from my kids. But other than that, I feel like every step of the way, people were thrilled to be working with a woman. I even got lower prices on cannabis. Back in the day, I think people felt like they had to be a little tougher or whatever. My office was a pillow room, full of silk pillows, no chairs. You had to take off your shoes and sit on a pillow if you wanted to work with me. Growers would come in all big and bad but then all of a sudden they take their shoes off and sit on a pillow and they'd be all meek while sipping their tea. A guy couldn't get away with that. A couple times, local gangs rolled in and they were like "what are you doing in our neighborhood?" I actually got to sit and explain our program to them because I was a woman. If I'd been a guy, they might've come in differently.
"I’VE NEVER EVER THOUGHT THAT THERE WAS ANY SHAME INVOLVED IN IT. I’D BE PROUD IF MY KIDS DECIDED TO GO INTO THIS INDUSTRY."
What was the industry like in those early days? And how has the dispensary business changed?
I think it’s so important to retain the history. People don't know, one of the things that saddens me the most, is that when I started it was a lot of marginalized people. None of us thought that this was going to turn into an industry necessarily. The guy that taught me about dispensaries, Bill Pierce, he was dying of cancer. He had gotten sprayed with Agent Orange as a soldier in Vietnam. He was getting horrible treatment for his cancer from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and he was just mad at the world.There were people with felonies that couldn't get jobs anywhere and just a lot of really marginalized people.
I started my first dispensary with less than a $10,000 loan and I was mad at the system, furious, because of what I had gone through. The cannabis industry gave a place for marginalized people to come up. I had been homeless for years. This change gave me a way to provide for my family. In fact, once my dispensary started doing well, I started sending monthly checks to welfare, because I had been on welfare at one point, so I paid them back and then some. I just feel like it was such an amazing opportunity for people that didn't have any other options. I'm not educated, I don't have big connections. What's the opportunity for someone like me? Now it's kind of sad because it's this big industry and you need millions of dollars and you need to be related to the governor—its really, really hard to get in, at least on the dispensing level. There's still definitely room for innovative people to come in with products, but it's just a lot harder now.
On that same thing, it's really weird because I've been through a couple raids. We had to come in and, back in the day, we knew that you picked the worst place in town, where nobody would ever want to rent. We'd go in there and clean up the neighborhood. My first dispensary, we were right across from the freeway and there was an empty block beside us and over the years it had turned into an empty dump. Everybody would dump their garbage there. The very first we did when we moved in there, was we put out security guards that started patrolling the neighborhood with the patient volunteers. I've always had a program where if you want to volunteer in exchange for meds, whatever it is, if you're a chiropractor and want to give treatment to my patients or if all you feel like you're able and willing to do is pick up trash in the neighborhood, you're gonna get meds equally.
All of your dispensary and community work, even the way that you communicate with you children, there’s a big sense of creating a community, looking out for others and responsibility to take care of your fellow man, woman or however you identify. Do you think that your desire to create community came from your roots in the foster care system?
Definitely. I think that absolutely, going through adversity is how you learn that. If you always just have one type of life, that’s all that you know. I think equally so, was my time being homeless. I was homeless for a few years and it’s really difficult. You become invisible, and there’s seemingly no way to get out. It’s hard. I think an important lesson that I learned, was that you get so overwhelmed with the problems of the world, you’re like ‘what can I do?" Being homeless, the tiniest gestures of kindness mean so much. I was homeless when I was pregnant with my daughter. One time I was in the back of a parking lot in San Francisco I was under this blanket literally shivering and someone pushed under the blanket a plate of hot cinnamon rolls. Literally, this was one of the top 5 events of my life with the top two being giving birth to my kids. It just changed everything about how I was feeling and it meant so much to me. It was on a real plate and it was warm and somebody cared enough to walk over there. I really really learned that the smallest thing that you can do for someone can change their life and that changes their world.
Would you encourage your children to get into your line of work?
Oh, absolutely. I think that it’s great. It’s a wonderful thing. I believe in what I do so much that they have the compassion. They’ve been part of the struggle. I have friends that are quadriplegics and they’ve seen some of our friends and patients dying. I think they would have the same compassion. I think it’s a great business for people. Really, it’s the fastest growing industry right now. I’ve never ever thought that there was any shame involved in it. I’d be proud if they decided to go on into it.
Where would you like to see the industry go? Would you like to see more inclusion, a bit more of that sense of community? Its very disheartening that someone would say to you ‘we understand the activist bit, but you don’t get the branding and marketing bit.
I think that the message that I want to get out there—not just for the cannabis community, it’s for any business anywhere—is that love is the best business policy. I think it’s so important. We’re coming around to something different now, and I want to encourage people that it’s the right thing to do. It’s not some hippy dippy thing. It’s the best business policy.
Over and over I’ve found that I’ve had the Compassion program but I’m also savvy enough to hire the best attorneys, to hire the best permit application writers. I know I need to surround myself with the best team. I can go in and have an equally great application but when I talk about what I’m gonna bring to the community, that’s always a welcomed game changer. I want to encourage people that that’s not only the right thing to do, it’ll also help your business. We’ve found that we have these services that probably a quarter of our patients actually use, but still, they'll tell us "Oh my gosh, there's a dispensary down the street and I went in there and they have no services for patients. That is such a rip off. "
I love that people love to come here where they can spend their money and also feel like they've also done something to help their community and their fellow patients. If you're a child with Tourette's syndrome, if you have epilepsy or if you're end-of-life, you get 100% of your medicine for free, however much you need. So people come in and they're like "Man, I asked this other dispensary what they're compassion program is and they just laughed at me." The patients get incensed almost. They're like "I will never spend my money there." So again, just having these programs has proven to be the best business model.