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.
Ophelia Chong is a lifelong advocate for Asian Americans, LGBTQ+ communities, and cannabis culture. She is a respected name in the arts, and more recently, in cannabis.
Since joining the cannabis industry in 2015, Ophelia founded Stockpot, a stock image provider creating a more representative face for cannabis. She also started Asian Americans for Cannabis Education (AACE), which connects and empowers Asian communities to educate the public on cannabis issues, news, and policy affecting Asians worldwide.
In a short span of time, Ophelia is already a known industry advocate and advisor. She works directly with brands to consult and offer her expert opinion, and has made a lasting impact in helping to de-stigmatize cannabis in the eyes of Asian Americans.
Before cannabis, you were pursuing a career in photography and film. Why did you suddenly pivot into cannabis?
My whole life I’ve been an advocate for the causes that were closest to my heart, going all the way back to when I was just out of college. Back then, I was married to David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly.
David was at the forefront of Asian American art and advocacy. He supported the LGBTQ+ community at a time when few others would speak up. M. Butterfly was ahead of its time in the sense that it portrayed a transexual main character. It also brought Asian culture to Broadway and the national stage. From that young age, I was thrust into this idea of building a better world by supporting and championing the groups that weren't being equally represented.
For the years following, I was an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community as I worked with many fringe directors in the independent film and photography industry. From the mid to late nineties, we were seeing the hardships and injustices done to LGBTQ+ individuals and also witnessing a rise of groups fighting back, such as The Trevor Project. This fight between good and evil became part of my daily life while I worked in the creative arts and I found myself ferociously advocating for these disparaged groups.
But as the years went on, the value of photography diminished in the eyes of the public. iPhones became available and apps like Instagram started taking off. This time was really the advent of the destruction of photography. I decided to shift my efforts in advocation to photographers who were struggling to receive fair payment for their work.
I didn't start advocating when I entered cannabis, I started decades ago. I just brought my previous experiences forward.
After all those years of working to help the downtrodden, my entrance into cannabis in 2015 was a full-circle moment where I was able to incorporate everything I learned about the LGBTQ+, Asian American, and independent arts. I stepped into an opportunity to make the cannabis industry inclusive and representative of these groups that I held so close to my heart.
What inspired you to found Stockpot Images and Asian Americans for Cannabis Education?
When I walked into a room related in any way to cannabis (dispensaries, cannabis businesses, conferences, etc.) I would glance around and notice no one looked like me. There were very few Asian Americans in cannabis when I started out and I was confused about the reason for this. Many people don’t know this, but cannabis has been a part of Asian culture for over 10,000 years.
I did some research on why Asian Americans weren’t getting involved in cannabis and found that the misinformation and propaganda around cannabis in China in the 1970s was overwhelming. China adopted the same sort of Schedule I designation and harsh stigma around cannabis that the U.S. instituted. The plant that so many Asian people used for thousands of years was suddenly seen as a deadly drug. For decades, Asian American people were fed lies about the dangers of cannabis and this fear has now kept many people away from a very lucrative and exciting industry.
Stockpot is my way of equalizing the cannabis industry. I’m giving cannabis brands stock photos that depict women, Asian Americans, LGBTQ+ members, basically anything that we aren’t seeing proportionately in the industry right now.
If we're seeing diverse faces in cannabis marketing and packaging, we're going to feel more comfortable as a community to embrace it.
I created AACE to talk to my own people and help reverse the stigma that Asian Americans had around marijuana. It wasn’t easy at the start. After my early interviews in 2015, I would get calls from the interviewees asking me to take the article down because they were scared their parents, families, and employers would see it.
Fast forward to this past Saturday. I was a judge at the Cannabis Cup for tinctures and I saw Asian Americans winning awards left and right! As the industry picks up, we’re seeing more diversity and a stampede of Asian Americans that really know their weed.
After begging Asian Americans to do interviews with me back in 2015, I now have a stack of Q&As to write — and I think this is really just the start.
Through your experience with cannabis brands across North America, what is your understanding of the state of small business in cannabis?
In many ways, cannabis is emulating the rapid revolution of industries like tech, where a few major players are quickly absorbing all of the small business disruptors around them.
There are amazing creators in cannabis who don’t have a lot of money, but they’re building up a grassroots groundswell where consumers want their products. MSOs look at these businesses and just buy them out.
But the reality is that most of these smaller craft businesses would actually like to be bought out. Then they can take that money and create a new company that will take off more easily with more funding. I'm not saying these people’s hearts aren’t in their business, that's not the case. But business owners in cannabis want to move away from the stress of having a small business. It’s very difficult to compete with these billion-dollar companies when you’re just starting out.
Now if we look at dispensaries specifically, I think what's going to happen is many will become similar to corner liquor stores if the industry doesn't evolve.
Competing with the buying power and infrastructure of an MSO is currently too daunting of a task for many retailers in cannabis.
A good example is what happened with Walmart, they’re able to offer tremendous discounts because they can purchase higher volumes of products at lower price points. This ruined so many small businesses because they simply couldn't compete with those prices. Now I don't think this is going to happen for certain in cannabis, it's just a trend I'm noticing in many markets.
What needs to change for the cannabis industry to be built in a more equitable fashion that supports small businesses?
First, we need to look at what's wrong in order to understand how to fix it.
Most dispensary owners are starting to struggle as competition heats up and many owners are realizing that this industry isn’t as easy as it may seem.
With 280E, retailers can’t write off anything (aside from COGS) which leaves them paying disproportionately high taxes compared to any other industry. If you applied these same harsh policies to a bodega or gas station, most of them would close down.
The majority of state and federal policies are really hurting the smaller operators in cannabis. The balance of power is shifting over to MSOs because their infrastructure allows them to more easily turn a profit.
What’s going to fix this imbalance is policy reform. There need to be tax breaks for small businesses. Social Equity Programs have to approach the problem holistically and lend a hand to disparaged groups and small businesses.
There’s really no silver bullet to equalize the cannabis industry, but I can see without a doubt that we’re moving in the wrong direction in a lot of the more mature markets. Hopefully, the industry can rally around the concept of fair and equitable cannabis and advocate for change. I know I’m going to be.
Be an advocate first, then figure out how you’re going to make money in cannabis.
Learn and live the cannabis lifestyle. If you want the trust of members in this industry, you must consume and understand cannabis.
Be proud about working in cannabis, you’re changing the world!
Support local cannabis brands and businesses. They’re the backbone of this industry.
Speaking with Ophelia was an honor. Keep an eye on her next moves in the cannabis industry by following Ophelia on Linkedin.