My Cannabis Career is a series of interviews featuring people in the cannabis industry. These stories illuminate diverse cannabis career paths, share learnings from strategic actions taken along the way, and provide insights into a green future.
Mesai Coker is new to the cannabis industry — but he’s no stranger to marijuana or the harsh reality of the plant’s long-time illegality in New York.
After facing decades of discrimination as a black man and cannabis consumer in New York, Mesai jumped at the opportunity to enter the state’s legal weed industry. Unfortunately, he quickly realized that the process was too expensive.
Instead of giving up on his dream, Mesai found a more affordable option. He decided to move to Oklahoma to open his dispensary. Mesai spent over a year learning about Oklahoma’s cannabis market, understanding the state’s laws, and physically building his dream dispensary — which is called Hybrid Cannabis.
Mesai is now planning his soft opening, fulfilling a life-long dream of owning his own legal cannabis business.
Read on to hear about Mesai’s struggles with the New York Police Department and the subsequent life-changing decisions he made to be able to open his own dispensary.
What was life like in New York before cannabis was legal?
To put it lightly, I’ve been through a lot in New York as a life-long weed smoker. You may think of New York City as relatively progressive, but it was actually the opposite. Growing up dealing with the NYPD wasn’t easy, it was a horrible experience.
Over my lifetime in NYC, I’ve been stopped and frisked over 20 times. Cops constantly used cannabis to initiate illegal police contact and illegal police searches on me (and many people I know).
The phrase “I smell marijuana” became the NYPD's go-to for people like me. When you heard those words, you knew the experience was not going to be pleasant. Police used cannabis as a scapegoat in order to profile, harass, and arrest black people like myself in New York.
Was there any specific interaction with police that most impacted your life?
One standout memory came during my early 30s. I was in my own neighborhood in the Bronx. I walked up to a neighbor’s door to see if they were home – they were not. Then I turned to leave and found myself apprehended by two undercover police officers.
I asked why I was being stopped and the police told me I had walked in and out of the building too fast, arousing suspicion. Within 30 minutes, they arrested me for trespassing. They said they figured I had a record and would run it back at the precinct.
After spending a night in jail, losing a potential job offer, and having multiple documents taken from me by the arresting officers, I filed a lawsuit against the NYPD. Following the legal battle, I received a small settlement for being falsely arrested. But this didn’t put a dent in the damage this encounter did to my life.
Thinking back to this time, I’m certain that the police profiled me because I smelled like weed.
Because of the ignorance of the police, I was left with PTSD, a greater fear of the police, and even faced discrimination because of the arrest, even though it was later expunged. This is an experience that was entirely avoidable. For those who faced discrimination in the past, you'll understand how frustrated I was.
What made you want to open a dispensary?
I’d like to preface this answer by saying that I always thought I needed to change my cannabis habits for the world, but I now realize that the world needed to change for me (and my fellow weed smokers).
I’ve used cannabis for most of my life. It started as recreational but has now become more therapeutic. It helps me sleep and it reduces anxiety. I’m incredibly passionate about weed and I would say I’m equally passionate about entrepreneurship.
During the pandemic, I had an epiphany that set me on my cannabis course. I was driving Uber at the time (as well as renting out Uber vehicles in New York City) when the money suddenly stopped. I realized that Uber, or any other attempt at entrepreneurship wasn’t going to make me happy unless it was in an industry I loved. I knew that if I could do anything, my dream would be to own a dispensary.
After researching, I found out it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a cannabis business in New York.
For an average person like me, these upfront costs weren't realistic.
I still held on to my dream, but this was a major setback. Luckily, a friend from California let me know that he was moving to Oklahoma to open a dispensary. He asked if I wanted to join.
He said Oklahoma was the new California for legal weed – the state was less restrictive and had greater opportunity for businesses compared to the mature, slowing market in California.
I figured if he was moving his family across the country for this opportunity, then I had to join.
Did you experience any obstacles opening your Oklahoma dispensary?
Oklahoma’s cannabis market is a night and day comparison to New York’s. The application is only $2,500!
After finding a boutique dispensary that had been converted from an old house, we made the decision to go forward with renovations to get it up to code and operational.
At this point, I realized it was still going to be expensive to get the dispensary operational. In cannabis, there are a lot of codes and new laws that come out on a monthly basis that you have to keep up with.
But what really set me back at the start was the sheer knowledge needed to build a dispensary business from scratch. The only way to learn how to open a dispensary (including the unique local rules and regulations) is to actually go through the process, which means making mistakes. Let’s just say we made a few along the way.
Luckily, we had some mentors early on that gave us the blueprint of what needed to be done. We learned a lot in those first months. I also hired a General Manager who was experienced in Oklahoma’s cannabis market. She has been instrumental in our success.
Another hurdle working in the legal (but federal illegal) cannabis industry is security and safety when handling large quantities of cash and product.
I had to purchase a gun in Oklahoma in order to protect myself and my dispensary staff.
The reality is that the federal government has put us in a position where we have to protect ourselves. They don’t make this process easy.
But our team worked diligently through each obstacle. We hired contractors. We contacted the city. We did a full remodel. The costs started adding up, but we were able to steamroll ahead.
After about a year of work, we just passed our final inspection and are planning Hybrid Cannabis’ soft opening in the coming weeks!
Don’t let the past discourage you from building a better future. Let it inspire you.
If you’re planning to open a dispensary, don’t expect the process to be easy, and make sure you have some money saved up.
If you’re new to a cannabis market, hire someone who has experience in the area – they’ll save you time and money in the long run.
We appreciate Mesai’s inspirational experience in cannabis. We wish Mesai great success in his cannabis endeavors and know he’s bound to achieve every goal he sets out to complete.