Cannabis Prisoners are Getting Second Chances at Eternel Hemp Farms
For Episode 2 of Our AMPLIFY Series (amplifying black voices, stories, and businesses in the cannabis industry) we interviewed Michael Brown the founder of Eternel Hemp. Michael started out as a computer programmer before getting into real estate. He saw an opportunity in vertical farming – and an even bigger opportunity for good in hemp. His goal now is to use the hemp farms they build to employ individuals that were incarcerated for cannabis crimes – to give them a new life, and equity so they don’t end up going back into the system.
“Do Well by Doing Good” is Michaels motto – and we love what he is doing in cannabis. Check out his transcribed interview below, or listen to the full interview on The Mary Jane Experience podcast!
Tell us About your history and how you ended up getting into the cannabis world?
When I graduated from college, I started out as a computer programmer. Over the years I built up my career as a consulting company and then transitioned into real estate, I was all about building things. In technology and even in real estate, there was a lot of inefficiency. I’ve always been attracted to industries that have a significant amount of inefficiency.
Getting into cannabis was through my partner Ashish Khatana and I looking at deals in real estate. We were looking for deals within opportunities zones. Opportunities zones were created in the 2007 Job Act. In essence, what they do is they provide a tax benefit for capital gains where people have capital gains if you invest in areas that are designated as opportunity zones.
We started looking at the landscape and realizing that there is more opportunity within starting a business or investing in a business within these opportunities zones, then buying a multifamily deal or building a ground up construction. I immediately thought of a vertical farm. I’ve always been fascinated by the entire concept of the supply chain.
Looking at vertical farming, we realized, wow, there’s this huge landscape out there. We delved a little deeper and we identified one of the highest margin crops out there would be cannabis and you could grow it indoors.
There is an industry but still there are a lot of inefficiencies. Serendipitously, we met Matt who runs an organization called second chances farms. It is an indoor farming operation, but they have an amazing social impact. They employ returning citizens that have served their time (ex-convicts).
Matt randomly said he was going up for a [hemp] license and asked if we thought there was a business that we could do with it? And we said, absolutely – give us five days and we’ll come back with a plan. Quite honestly, that’s how I stumbled into cannabis.
We saw this opportunity in cannabis as reclaiming the light and looking at it from the standpoint of helping out. We believe heavily in the company that we want to do well by doing good.
Can you explain to our listeners exactly what eternal hemp does?
We are a technology supply chain cultivator. What we do in internal hemp is we look for the best growing systems, platforms, processes, et cetera, within the vertical agriculture space. We also look at the different tools and utilities, within the agriculture space that we can fit together. Then we provide a consistent solution for the supply chain.
One of the main complaints, main hurdles holding the industry back is a consistent, reliable supply chain. Water is a utility, right? When we turn on the faucet in our homes or our buildings, the water always comes there. The reason why that is, is because the supply chain has been very well thought out. There are consistent, solid, reliable players within that ecosystem.
A simple thing like water can be applied to cannabis. And that’s what we do. We really try to solve supply chain issues.
Tell us about the social impact initiatives you are working on?
I think a lot of people on the surface think of the criminal system as failed. The war on drugs only increased the amount of drugs that were out. When we met with second chances farms and were looking at the prison problem, we noticed naturally how much the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex has disproportionately affected black and Brown men and women across the board.
I would say the most embarrassing stain on the cannabis industry is quite frankly that a plant that was deemed as illegal, is now legal in many States, yet those that were accused of having this plant, possessing it for their own use or selling it at a moderate level are in jail for tens of years.
We have a gentleman that works for us, he has spent 25 years in jail for growing marijuana. It just doesn’t make sense.
In looking at where we see the biggest issues in our society from the standpoint of what we can solve, we thought – What can we do to help people resurrect or construct a life that is fitting for someone who has paid their dues? Partnering with second chances and looking at how we can utilize this plant to help other people, we kind of married the two and said all of our farmers are going to be a part of this ecosystem.
We know that we have mental health issues that we need to address. We know full well, there’s an employment issue, which factors in self esteem and of self worth. We can address those issues. We also knew that there is a certain amount of knowledge that a lot of these people who were directly affected by the war on drugs have which could naturally enhance the product and the project.
There’s another gentleman I’m thinking of right now. He was in jail for 15 years for growing as well. When we started our first harvest, the amount of knowledge that is encapsulated in this one human being is phenomenal. We have an agronomist Matt Brewer who just came onto the team. He’s done growing throughout the world and he currently lives in Guatemala. When he met this gentleman (his name is John) when he met John he was like, this guy should have my job and we laughed!
We also knew we needed to provide an opportunity for true independence. Because the thing that we cannot have is we cannot have the recycling of this revolt, the recycling of people going in and out of jail. The way that we could do that is yes, through mental health, but it’s also through equity. So we have created an employee sharing program in which our returning citizens will receive a portion of the profits after investors have been paid back.
This is even before we, as principals, get paid. Our returning citizens will receive a portion of the profits up to 10% after they have been with us for a year. So now we’re creating equity. A person who might’ve had one course of action in their life, they have the chance to directly affect their economic status within this business.
We’re also teaching you things or skills that are transferable. We’ve tried to be very thoughtful in incorporating the inclusion of the returning citizens into the business decision making.
As a Black man in the cannabis industry, have you faced roadblocks or challenges because of the color of your skin?
The interesting thing about discrimination is that discrimination is never a straight line. Its not as simple as people not hiring African-Americans or I am not capitalizing African Americans. It comes as Mentorship, as money, as advice and advocacy, you know? The biggest hurdle I’ve experienced has been the lack of capital that is out there that is looking for diversity
Many times during our raise (we’re still in the process of raising funds) we’ve had to put other consultants in front in order for us to get through the first door. That is just the unfortunate reality. We know what we’re doing is valuable.
Less than 5% of all licensee holders are African American or black. That to me is an embarrassment when over 80% of the cannabis incarcerations are black and Brown. I think the industry is missing out on a significant amount of opportunity to communicate and innovate. Having a more diverse set of people in the room would only improve the community, improve the industry.
Could you share with us one piece of advice for somebody aspiring to be a cannabis entrepreneur or just to get into the industry in general?
I would say preparation is the key. The refining of the idea is critical. Where we have had success has been focusing on solving a specific issue that you believe is occurring within the marketplace. For us, it was the supply chain from strain to business to client.
Do the work to know the numbers because the industry is quite fluid. Understanding the cost, understanding your inputs and your outputs.
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