In N.J’s legal weed market, a Black female owner focuses on heritage and hope

EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is co-hosting a Cannabis Career Fair & Business Expo on April 5 at Stockton University. (Students free.) Tickets here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Suzan Nickelson was awarded a state license to open a medical cannabis dispensary in South Jersey.

Nickelson made history recently for being among the first Black female cannabis entrepreneurs to win a permit to sell cannabis to patients with her company, Holistic Solutions. For this interview, she sat down in Wilson’s, a jazz restaurant in Hi-Nella. She chose this location for its historic significance.

Jazz, the music genre that was heavily associated with cannabis and derided by the government for it, is just one of many examples of how the plant has always had historic footholds in the most influential aspects of American pop culture.

Nestled in Camden County, Nickelson, plans to open a retail store with an eye toward the legal market that is rooted from the cultural underground that has built it.

Amid colorful portraits, instruments and an entire band set, she talks about her background, transitioning from the underground market, also known in industry circles as the legacy market, and why the time is now for ethical business to culturally lead the way in laying down a healthy and — holistic — cannabis culture. This interview was edited for clarity.

Q: What’s your background and how does it inform what you bring to market?

A: I’m Jamaican-born. My people come from West Africa. From there, we’ve been doing farming and cultivation forever. Through spirituality and eventually the slave trade, our people ended up in Jamaica.

Our family comes from bloodlines of escaped slaves who, when they landed on the beautiful shores of Jamaica, fled into the hills.

From that, it’s been an informal tradition that many of the women in our culture have upheld and been called herbalists. Everything that I’ve learned about cannabis has been passed down through women’s traditions and my mother’s.

Q: When we talk about passing down tradition, a lot of cultures from the African continent do the passing down of knowledge through oral traditions. Is that how you gained your knowledge?

A: Absolutely. My mother was a great storyteller. In the herbalist, the spirituality, the origin of African roots still held true. In oral stories, [there are] our cultures, food, language, and identification of certain roots in the hill that were medicinal.

My mother didn’t believe in traditional medicine. She rarely went to the doctor. Most of her remedies were home remedies. She was an avid learner and we were avid listeners.

Q: When I think about that word, “traditional medicine,” what you just described was your family’s tradition, right?

A: It was. Not only medicine but spiritual. Cannabis has been a plant of reverence and spirituality that has been given to people to heal. Intentional stigmatization led to what we currently went through in the War on Drugs that hurt Black and brown people.

Now, globally, countries have come on and nationalized legalization. I hope that America can lead the way, especially since cannabis [arrests] impacts Black and brown communities at a higher rate of incarceration even though we all use the plant the same way.

Q: What’s the story you want to bring to your brand?

A: I think Holistic Solutions is an opportunity of seeing cannabis from a Black curated female voice. We are the keepers of our community. If there’s impact and disruption to the family, that disruption is normally held by the woman.

In that, there’s a lot of stigma in cannabis use. I’m hoping to reduce the stigmas because a lot of people use cannabis for a variety of reasons, whether it is to medicinally deal with any physical, mental health or other related ailments or spiritual and recreational use, I believe that providing a female voice in a space that has been male-dominated always gives a different light and opportunity.

I’m a mom.

Making sure a product is safe and responsible is forefront. We want to make sure that the cannabis we bring to the market is diverse. Many cannabis entrepreneurs aren’t recognized because they aren’t able to get the market to scale. They don’t have an opportunity for exposure. That’s one of the things Holistic Solutions will offer — diverse scale and shelf space.

I think having a woman — and Black women understand both sides — whether it’s business or the infrastructure of what’s needed, I often realized there weren’t a lot of products geared towards me.

We love a good bag. I have women that look at curated cannabis with the same level of sophistication, but it’s not being catered to us.

Those likes are cross-sectional and diverse, not one ethnicity. We all love fashion, we all love art. We’re sitting in a beautiful jazz restaurant where people are connoisseurs and jazz comes from different walks of life.

In providing that one life of commonality and respect for the plant and working with operators in the market that have the sophistication to give Holistic Solutions the exposure it needs, I think it’s going to be a fantastic opportunity.

Q: What about municipal opt-outs that don’t want to be a part of the industry?

A: I think those are continued discussions. It goes back to education. Understanding what some of the fears are and providing that exposure.

Form a committee, put down what your concerns are. Have the committee systematically provide education and exposure. Travel. I think sometimes when people are fearful of something it’s because they’re not familiar with it.

You’re doing something that’s an impediment by denying your residents that opportunity. They now have to go to other towns, municipalities and regions to partake in the cannabis business.

Just because people have opted out, doesn’t make it a forever opt-out. There’s still an opportunity to educate.

Q: How would you describe your journey thus far?

A: I always felt that if we had the opportunity — as the little engine that could — We’ve been thrown off the tracks, we’ve not been recognized, but we don’t do it for the recognition.

We do it for honoring the plant to provide patience. A different approach to medicine to provide communities, with a great place to come and interact. We want to remove the transactional engagement. Making relationships are important and I think in building those relationships there’s going to be a great opportunity for setting a different brand.

Q: A lot of legacy operators still have skepticism about legal cannabis being inclusive of them, what do you think about that?

A: It’s about leading by example. It’s about having a conversation where you meet people where they are. Having conversations about the value of why people may be in the legacy market for economic sustainability. If incarceration happens, the product is disrupted, when you’re locked up you’re not providing for yourself and your families.

You have an opportunity in the legal market.

You are building a business you can pass legally. One of the things people of color don’t own is generational wealth. This is an opportunity to create generational wealth that we can leave to our children. You cannot leave something illegal to your children.

Q: How does it feel within an American context to sit in a jazz club talking about selling cannabis legally?

A: It’s crazy. I think it’s the American dream. Living the best American dream. I always say that our ancestors are cheering, my mother, my parents are in Zion smiling. To sit here, now as a cannabis operator in my state is fantastic.

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Jelani Gibson is content lead for NJ Cannabis Insider. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jelanigibson1 and on LinkedIn.