Meet four of New York’s first legal weed store owners, and learn why the state called them the cream of the crop among 900 license applicants.
There’s a good joke in there somewhere—a rabbi, a chef, a psychotherapist, and a nonprofit leader walk into a bar. Or rather, a dispensary. A dispensary they own and operate in Long Island, that will soon open as one of the first equity-led conditional adult-use dispensaries (CAURDs) in New York state.
No joke, this unlikely team is about to open one of New York’s first legal weed stores. And they intend to embody the many faces and flavors of the world’s melting pot while selling weed and keeping things 100% authentic at all times.
Unlike the states that came before it, New York was intentional about every aspect of its adult-use market. Specifically who will be licensed to operate considering the vast wake of destruction legal cannabis businesses can help repair.
The first rounds of licenses for dispensaries are going to justice-involved individuals, or social equity applicants that were directly affected by past marijuana laws. Only 36 applicants, split between 8 nonprofits and 28 individuals, received the first wave of licenses awarded this fall.
With a booming gray market, and limited recreational sales starting December 29, most of the state still has no idea who will be providing them tested, market-compliant weed. To fill in the blanks, Leafly met with new license holders Keep It A 100, a four-person-owned LLC that bridges nearly every aspect of the cannabis community. We discussed the team’s big plans to prove that grass roots leaders will set the tone in New York’s multi-billion dollar weed game.
Who is Keep It A 100?
Keep It A 100 is an LLC created for a professional partnership that is owned by Marquis Hayes, Christina Betancourt Johnson, James Kahn, and Kim Stetz.
Hayes is the New York City glue of Keep It A 100. A born and bred Bronx native, Hayes recalls his first experience with cannabis at his grandmother’s apartment, smelling it wafting in the air while playing with Cheeba, the resident pitbull. Hayes’ childhood coincided with the War on Drugs and crack epidemic of the 1980s; Hayes himself also cooked and sold crack as a teen and young adult, but never used it. Instead, he funneled his profits into community causes, and tells Leafly that cannabis was his small salve for generational, traumatic wounds.
Later, when Hayes was incarcerated, food became that salve.
“Imprisonment forced me to focus on food. You know I was the chef in the hood, I’ve been in the kitchen my whole life. It’s just the cuisine has changed,” he said.
When he was released in 2007, Hayes entered the culinary world, eventually founding the Brown Butter New York catering business and working at restaurants like Vai and Stanton Social. His life and business partner, Stetz, told him about the dispensary application in mid-2022, and the rest is history.
While Hayes was hustling in the Bronx, Kim Stetz was having her own lightbulb moment with cannabis in upstate New York. Her friend’s older sister was growing it (and still does), so Stetz took a hit. Soon, she was carving apple pipes and rolling up joints in strips of paper, hiding in one of her neighborhood’s treehouses.
From there, cannabis would inform Stetz’s career as a yoga teacher, meditation leader, and psychotherapist. Stetz has lived in every borough of the city, and the need for safe, accessible and equitable cannabis is everywhere.
“My career has been making my own jobs that never exist,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been watching plant medicine evolve for [the] last 10 years… and in that vein, [a] harm reduction approach is supremely important. My degree in psychotherapy comes through the Social Work line, which means that you are mainly interested in people in the environment and how lives evolve, how communities are part of their strengths and barriers to everything. It’s all about holding space for people.”
A friend of Stetz, who owns a farm upstate, told them about the dispensary window, and she says they pulled the application together in two weeks.
Stetz and Hayes are life partners and business partners, and they both believe in creating opportunities for one’s self. Before Keep It A 100, they were running Recipe for Humanity, a nonprofit to address food deserts and build financial infrastructure for marginalized communities through hospitality. It took them as far as Vancouver, British Columbia, working with Indigenous communities.
So how did they meet Kahn and Betancourt Johnson? Call it a whirlwind romance. When the application window opened for dispensary applicants, Stetz and Hayes jumped on it. For them, the biggest obstacle was capital, and some industry knowledge. Hayes says that they met with a few different potential partners and investors, but felt they would be giving up autonomy—and he didn’t want to be a figurehead.
Meanwhile, down in Maryland and DC, Rabbi James Kahn and Christina Betancourt Johnson, the first Black and Latina woman to hold a cultivation license in Maryland, were keeping their eyes on the Empire State.
Both Kahn and Betancourt Johnson already run cannabis operations that feel cinematic, in terms of both origin story and shopper experience. Kahn’s father was a rabbi during the AIDS epidemic, and recognized how much cannabis was helping save or improve lives at the time. Kahn’s own grandfather began using cannabis for medical purposes related to his multiple sclerosis, and when Kahn first tried it himself recreationally, he realized it was not just a medical tool, but “cannabis was an enhancer. It was a gathering tool, a center of gravity for a group of friends of mine, that brought us all together.”
His work as a rabbi has been to help acclimate his faith community to cannabis—recent archeological evidence suggests that cannabis has been used in Jewish ceremonies dating back thousands of years. Kahn has also held cannabis-adjacent events in synagogues and worked as the Executive Director of Liberty Cannabis Cares (LCC), the arm of Holistic Industries (which runs Liberty Cannabis dispensaries) focused on the social impact.
Christina Betancourt Johnson
Betancourt Johnson, by comparison, knew of cannabis as an incarceration tactic before she ever smoked it. Her father was a criminal justice attorney in the 1980s, and many of his clients were facing cannabis and drug-related charges. While she was never a big user (“I don’t really indulge, I’m a tester,” she said), Betancourt Johnson recognized how it was used against people who looked like her.
At the same time, she says she also “saw cannabis as a means to building a business empire. My dad’s clients were the ice cream buyers, for the kids in the neighborhood. They were the toy suppliers for the kids in the neighborhood. They were the turkey purchasers for the grandmothers and families in a community in addition to being people who committed crimes.”
And later, as she began a career in marketing and leading nonprofits, both of Betancourt Johnson’s parents started using medical marijuana to help with their cancer treatments. Betancourt Johnson attributes her work ethic (her LinkedIn page speaks for itself) to both her parents, a Black father and Cuban immigrant mother, with how she became the first Afro-Latina to own and operate a cultivation business, Standard Wellness, in Maryland’s medical cannabis industry.
She’s served as the executive director of Conscious Capitalism and holds a variety of board positions. On top of all that, she survived a serious bout of meningitis, which she says informed how she went about running her cannabis business, and expanded her perception of what equity in cannabis looks like.
“I leveraged my experience in the nonprofit sector to begin affecting legislative agendas around cannabis equity, of having capable women and people of color in the space here in Maryland,” she says. “I dare say that when we think about diversity, we should think about it in an even more diverse way. When James and I go to build out the business with Kim and Marquis, the goal is to be broad about how we engage people who are underrepresented. Ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. But there are also a number of people with special needs, who have not been included in this sector.”
What will Keep It A 100 do with their license?
Keep It A 100, if you haven’t already guessed, always planned to open a cannabis store. Hayes hopes to turn his focus towards empowering and employing his own community; And Stetz hopes that with the addition of a consumption lounge, the dispensary can also host wellness classes, yoga, and even private therapy sessions for those in need.
Like most other license holders, Keep It A 100 does not yet have its retail space designated by the Dorm Authority of New York. Per a board meeting on Dec 9, the OCM will allow dispensaries to operate as delivery services while they wait to receive and build out their brick and mortar stores. Consumption lounge regulations won’t be finalized until mid-2023.