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#PermitPatty Episode Blows Up on California Cannabis Company

The California cannabis tincture company TreatWell Health has been pulled into a national controversy by its founder, Alison Ettel, who was captured on video reportedly calling the authorities on an 8-year-old girl for selling bottled water on a San Francisco sidewalk without a permit. Ettel, 44, is white. The bottled water entrepreneur is African-American.

At least three Bay Area retailers have announced that they will no longer carry TreatWell's products because of the #PermitPatty incident.

The video went viral on Instagram and Twitter on Saturday morning as another example of a white person calling the police on a black person for enjoying an innocuous everyday activity.

By Saturday night a chorus of critics were calling for a boycott of TreatWell. At least three Bay Area retailers, Magnolia Oakland, SPARC, and Barbary Coast have announced that they will no longer carry the company’s products because of the #PermitPatty incident.

“TreatWell was one of our best selling products but to us, integrity is always before profits,” Magnolia Oakland said on its social channels. “For our remaining inventory, we are doing blow out deals and donating all proceeds to a local nonprofit.”

Here is the video that set things off on Saturday morning:

‘The Whole World Gonna See You’

Ettel has not disputed that she’s the woman in the video. She spent much of the day scrambling to defend her reputation and her company, as customers expressed outrage via social media.

Leafly reached Ettel via text, where she stated that she did not actually call the police. Ettel told Leafly that she faked calling building security about unpermitted sales as part of a longer-running noise dispute. Police did not come, she texted.

The incident occurred near AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants had a home game scheduled on Friday evening. The girl was selling water to passing fans for $2 a bottle.

The girl’s mother captured Ettel calling on her phone. In the video, when Ettel realizes she’s being filmed, she ducks behind a concrete wall. The mother says: “You can hide all you want. The whole world gonna see you, boo.”

Ettel responds by saying “Yeah. Illegally selling water without a permit? Yeah.”

Ettel: ‘No Racial Component’

Sebastian Murdock of the Huffington Post reached Ettel on Saturday. Ettel said she was only pretending to call the police on the girl, who lived nearby. “This has no racial component to it,” she told Murdock.

“They were screaming about what they were selling,” Ettel added. “It was literally nonstop. It was every two seconds, ‘Come and buy my water.’ It was continuous and it wasn’t a soft voice, it was screaming.”

Ettel told the HuffPo that her actions were “stupid.”

“I completely regret that I handled that so poorly,” she told Murdock. “It was completely stress-related, and I should have never confronted her. That was a mistake, a complete mistake.”

Calling the Cops While White

Indeed, the incident comes amid heightened focus on calling the police over seemingly innocuous behavior by people of color.

On April 12, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after the barista called the police because the men, who were waiting for a colleague to join them for a business meeting, hadn’t purchased anything yet. In early May, a white Yale student called campus police on a black Yale graduate student for napping during an all-night study session in a dorm common room. That same week, a white woman on a tour of Colorado State University called the police on two Native American students who were on the same tour, because she said they made her “nervous.” Around the same time, a white neighbor in Rialto, California, called the police when she saw three black women exiting a nearby house that the women had rented as an Airbnb. The neighbor said she called the cops because the women didn’t wave at her:

Just across the bay in Oakland, the video of a white woman calling the police on a black man for enjoying a barbecue in a park near Oakland’s Lake Merritt went viral last month and sparked further outrage.

Strikes a Nerve in the Cannabis World

In the cannabis world, the act of a white entrepreneur calling the police on a black entrepreneur for selling a product without a permit strikes a particularly sensitive nerve.

Today, as the legal adult-use cannabis industry takes hold in California, the industry remains predominantly white-owned and white-run, even though people of color suffered far greater harm during prohibition and the war on drugs. People of color who want to get into the business face greater hurdles in terms of access to capital, and are more likely to be held back by past cannabis arrests due to well-documented racial disparities in arrest rates.

So the optics of a successful white cannabis entrepreneur, operating her company with a state permit, calling the cops on a black person for operating without a permit, are not good. The fact that the black person happens to be a child, selling water at what is essentially a lemonade stand, turned Ettel’s “complete mistake” into an act whose symbolism has deep and troubling roots in both American history and the recent history of cannabis in California.

Story Update:

Update, 6/24/2018, 5pm PDT: Fallout from the viral video continues to impact other companies in the cannabis industry.

Women Grow has issued a letter stating that Alison Ettel has not been a member of the organization since 2016, “and she is not welcome to participate in our events.”

New West Summit, a high-profile yearly cannabis tech conference, included Ettel as a panelist at last year’s conference. “We have gotten about 100 emails about this, which shows how much people care about doing the right thing and treating people with dignity and respect,” New West Summit founder Jim McAlpine wrote in an email to Leafly. McAlpine added that his organization “will not be working with [Ettel] or TreatWell in any capacity” until “she takes full accountability, issues a true and sincere apology, and some time passes.”

Leafly has removed TreatWell’s brand page from its Products & Brands listings, which is a free service provided to companies in the legal cannabis industry.

The Berkeley Patients Group has announced it will no longer carry TreatWell products, and issued this tweet:

Further Update

Update, 6/26/2018, 11am PDT: 

Ettel went on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday to present her side of the story:

“I tried to be polite but I was stern. And I said, ‘Please, I’m trying to work. You’re screaming. You’re yelling, and people have open windows. It’s a hot day. Can you please keep it down?'”

Erin Austin, the mother of the 8-year-old girl, responded that Ettel did not attempt to solve the issue with a civil conversation. “She never asked us to be quiet,” Austin told NBC News. “She came out and directly demanded to see a permit to sell water from an 8-year-old.”

Meanwhile, Snoop Dogg entered the fray with this tweet on Tuesday:

Story Update:

Update, 6/27/18, 11am, PST: Ettel has reportedly resigned as CEO of TreatWell and other managers will take the helm.

The TreatWell product boycott has also spread to include the world’s largest cannabis retailer, Harborside, as well as other Bay Area stores. They include: the Harvest stores Harvest Off Mission on Harvest On Geary, the new Hi Fidelity retailer in Berkeley, Calif., and leading Sebastopol, Calif. dispensary Solful. The makers of the film Lady Buds have also dropped Ettel.

The mother of the daughter in question received four free tickets to Disneyland and has started a $70,000 fundraising campaign called The Water Stand Project to benefit minority youth.

The Today Show said Monday that Ettel had become a “social media villain”, receiving death threats, physical harassment and worldwide condemnation by the likes of rapper Killer Mike and Snoop Dogg, as well as parody by a Saturday Night Live cast member.

Bruce Barcott and David Downs's Bio Image
Bruce Barcott and David Downs

Bruce Barcott is Leafly's deputy editor and the author of 'Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.' David Downs is Leafly's California bureau chief and the author of 'Beyond Buds' and 'The Medical Marijuana Guidebook.'

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