Beth Schwartz
Aug 01 2020 . 15 min read

The Accidental Lobbyist

The Accidental Lobbyist

Cannabis advocate A’Esha Goins taps activism to chart course of freedom, equity and opportunity

Cannabis advocate A’Esha Goins taps activism to chart course of freedom, equity and opportunity

A’Esha Goins did not set out to become a government affairs lobbyist. Much less one representing the cannabis industry. “I didn’t decide, it just happened,” Goins explains, adding “now I don’t want to do anything else. I love it. I love the relationships I have been able to build. I love knowing that laws will be changed for my children and my aunties. I love knowing I can make things happen and that things aren’t happening to me.”

At 45 and relatively new to lobbying, she was a sophomore lobbyist at the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session, becoming the voice of her community was something Goins hadn’t envisioned for herself. “When I went against Frank, I made a promise to my community that I would ensure that we were going to be able to get into this industry. That was my promise and I wasn’t going to go back on my promise,” she explains.

The Promise

A little background on that life altering promise. Goins decided to support “Yes on 2,” Nevada’s Marijuana Legalization ballot question which passed in 2016, while her former employer Frank Hawkins of Nevada Wellness Center took the opposite position. “That’s when everything changed for me. We held workshops where he and I were on the opposite sides of the conversation. It was not a good thing. He was against it because he wanted to hold the vote back so that they could change the legislation. He was unhappy with the wording of the ballot question which I hate to admit he was right, but he was right. He said the way the licensing was set up, it wouldn’t offer an opportunity for minorities to get into the industry and he was right,” she concludes. “But for me what mattered at the time was the criminalization of my community. He was under the impression if we held it back it would open opportunities. However, that also offers more opportunities for people to go to jail because according to the ACLU, black and brown people are 3.2 times more often stopped and put in jail for cannabis than our counterparts. So, if in Nevada I held it back that means if there are 1,000 arrests than 700 of them are going to be black and brown people so I made a choice. So we were at odds.”

Once “Yes on 2” passed it led Goins to fulfill the promise she made to her community. “It was because of that that I realized I had a voice and my community was listening to that voice. That’s when things started changing for me,” explains Goins. “So, in 2017 I went up and talked to Tick [former Nevada State Senator Richard “Tick” Segerblom] and I explained the importance of having an opportunity for African Americans to be on the license. We argued and argued because the bill was already in motion, but he went ahead and added the language that you would get extra points for having minorities on your application.”  

It was with that negotiation that Goins’ career as a lobbyist was born. But not without heartache and headache. “It’s hard out here because I am a representative. I am not just A’Esha Goins. It would probably be easier if I was just representing me and not black people. So, I have to be really careful with my voice,” she explains. “Someone DMed me that they liked that I was unapologetic. But I am not. I wake up every single day with the conscious mindset of who I am, what responsibility that is, who I am accountable to and what things I have to accomplish that day to remain in that space. It’s not easy. I am not unapologetic. I just choose to do and say the things that are in the best interest of where I need to go for my community, but I am definitely not unapologetic.”

“I never even touched the plant”

For someone so devoted to cannabis, one of the most startling things Goins reveals during our interview is that she didn’t know anything about the plant before she got in the industry. “To be honest I wasn’t raised with cannabis in my life. I came into cannabis because I fell in love with the business portion of it. I didn’t fall in love with the plant till after. I never even touched cannabis until 2013,” says Goins.

“In 2012 my mentor [Hawkins] came in and said we are going to get in the cannabis industry. I laughed at him, I thought he was crazy as hell. We started collecting information and reading, reading and reading and legislation came out and we started putting together an application based on the statutes and legislation,” Goins recalls. “Products started coming across our table because we didn’t know much about it and I started testing it. The first experience I had I laughed so hard I laughed at myself laughing. I’m Bi-Polar Type B and I was on antidepressants and other drugs and I saw this as opportunity not to take those drugs anymore. We were finding research that cannabis could be used for anxiety and depression and I wanted to try this as a treatment to see if it would work. I even asked my pastor who gave me the go-ahead. I realized that the difference between cannabis and the medicine the doctor was giving me was I only had to take cannabis when I needed it, but the medicine my doctor gave me I had to take all the time. So I started falling in love with cannabis because of that.”

Freedom, Equity & Opportunity

Goins has developed three core tenets she considers when pursuing cannabis legislation: freedom, equity and opportunity. “All the bills that I write have to do with my freedom or my community’s freedom, having equity within the cannabis industry and to produce opportunity,” explains Goins, who is currently working on a bill for minors that falls under the freedom category. “If a minor is in possession, that’s a misdemeanor. They neglected to change legislation for minors, so I have a bill right now that I’m working on with one of the legislators to change the language of possession for juveniles,” she explains. “Their first offense will be a fine, and rehab hours. The point of that is to make sure they are not in the system. Right now, if you get picked up it is a misdemeanor, you are in the system. At that point, every time you get picked up it’s just added on.”

Her equity bill for the 2021 Legislative Session deals with social use venues for cannabis users. “In the last session, Senator Harris and I were able to put some language in the omnibus bill, AB 533, Section 64, Num 1. And, basically, we ask the governor to start a small business program and I would like to put the social use venues within that and add some equitable conversation to that, so that’s my equity.”

For her core value of opportunity, Goins is pursuing new licenses for minorities in the cannabis industry. “As it relates to opportunities, I am holding the CCB [newly formed Cannabis Compliance Board] accountable to the small business program. Those are my cores and I stay really close to my cores because I really can’t handle much more for 2021.”

Establishing a community of Cannabis Equity and Inclusion

In November 2019 Goins established Cannabis Equity and Inclusion Community [CEIC], which is focused on civic engagement and policies that will open opportunities for communities and people that were disenfranchised by the war on drugs. Under the umbrella of CEIC, Goins launched the nonprofit Nevada Cannabis Community Reinvestment [NCCR] fund, which will raise funds to invest directly into communities of color that have been directly affected by discriminatory cannabis policies, over policing and sentencing disparity by offering assistance to job seekers and entrepreneurs in need of technical support, regulatory compliance assistance, and reducing barriers to licensure and employment in the regulated industry. 

When filing marijuana license applications Nevada cannabis operators are required to provide information about their community reinvestment endeavors. “They all have this community outreach that is part of the application. My goal is to hold the licensees accountable to that and ask them to invest in the fund so I can distribute the funds to organizations and the communities who are doing the work,” explains Goins, who is raising the money but has a board who will decide how funds are distributed. “I wanted to do something for those people effected by the war on drugs that no other organization has done and offer scholarships for therapy. And not just for the person effected but also their families because I don’t think any of us think about how much has been taken out of their lives when they are put in prison. I want to scholarship a few hours of therapy to help that person process through what they have encountered.”

As Goins has been beating the bushes to raise money for the NCCRFund, she has ironically encountered racism. “There’s still some push back but I kind of expected it. Ultimately, I am just this black girl out here raising money. And although I would consider myself credible, and the people who know me would consider me credible, the people who are wanting to give me money, although they may consider me credible in some things, they don’t consider me credible to raising money,” she tells me.

Goins shares a recent encounter about one of the people she approached to donate to the Fund. “The donor asked me if there was going to be a time when I was not just going to focus on people of color or disenfranchised people. She went on to say she realized it was a trend right now but she wanted to know if there would be a time when we will do something else,” she says with a mix of incredulity and defeat.

With all the opportunities for racial awareness [or lack of] available right now, it’s a bit breathtaking for Goins to hear such overt tone deafness on the topic. “We have been watching men in our community get killed by the police for decades, but it took for us all to be sitting at home with nowhere to go when George Floyd lost his life. It took 8 minutes and 46 seconds for America to realize this is literally a problem,” Goins explains as her voice, filled with anger, cascades higher and higher. “It is an unfortunate case that George Floyd had to be the casualty of this war and Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arberry and I could go on and on and on and that’s the problem but had the world not been sitting down and available for 8 minutes and 46 seconds I would still not be having this conversation.”

Black Lives Matter

I was curious as to what kind of opportunities the Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement had presented Goins over the last few months.Legislation-wise it was huge, but in the cannabis industry nothing. Nothing has changed. That’s the reason I started pushing the NCCRFund because I was very dismayed. During the beginning of the BLM movement nobody said anything, dispensaries were quiet on the subject. Quiet,” she emphasizes by drawing out the word. “Then a week before PRIDE [celebration of the LBGTQ community] I get an email from a dispensary announcing how excited they were for PRIDE.”

Goins was incredulous at the cannabis industry’s lack of reaction. “It’s not my intent ever to expose my industry because in some ways that minimizes me. I don’t want to feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but for me as a black woman the horse is not dead. The war on drugs really did happen, families were torn apart for decades and you are profiting off that shit. You have to acknowledge that you are profiting off a business that uses a product that you are selling as a tool to incite racism.”

Goins points out at that Nevada’s cannabis industry “at the very least could have taken their employees aside and had a conversation about race sensitivity. Or they should have contacted some of the organizations doing the work and asked how they could help. But this is me saying: If you look across the cannabis landscape which one of these dispensaries, cultivations or production companies have given one red penny to any of the movement?” she questions. “Here’s the thing that really pisses me off. How do they not know this is a great opportunity to get exposure? To me it is a direct representation of how they feel. It may not be the case but your inability to respond and react says how you are responding and reacting.

“Now am I an apologizer for the industry?” questions Goins. “Yes, I am because I really do believe they want to do good work. They are trying to manage the best way they can. I know that most of them went into extreme debt to be a part of this industry. I realize and recognize all of that. I really do, but I cannot apologize for you when you know where this industry came from.”

Are 15,000 pardons enough?

I assumed when Gov. Sisolak unconditionally pardoned more than 15,000 people with misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions in June Goins would be pleased. “No, I wasn’t, not really. They are not automatic pardons,” she explains. “Two things, there was already a legislative bill that passed that said if you had cannabis offenses you could write to the prosecuting attorney to get those offenses taken off. So that was already a legislative bill.

“The other thing is in Nevada they seal records they do not expunge records. And if you are one of those 15,000 people that they are estimating, they [Board of Pardons] have to actually see if you qualify for that pardon. It’s small offense but they don’t define what a small offense is. You have to write to the Board of Pardons and it’s up to them whether you qualify for the pardon or not. But it’s always been up to them which doesn’t make a lot of sense; how is this any different from before? I’m still waiting for someone to explain it to me. So now there are 15,000 people who have been pardoned who don’t even know they have been pardoned. So that makes more work for my team,” she says with a sigh of defeat.

Challenging the Barriers to Entry

Again, and again barriers to entry are cited as presenting the biggest challenge for people of color to get into the cannabis industry. Naturally, Goins is invested in changing that. “One of the barriers is financing, one of the barriers is understanding the licensing process, one of the barriers is investors. All of that combined,” says Goins.

As far as financial barriers, Goins has some ideas. “This is a pipe dream, but I really want them to lower their licensing prices because that’s a huge barrier for entry,” she says. In Nevada if you are seeking a dispensary license the fees are $5,000 for the initial application fee (non-refundable if denied), $30,000 initial licensure fee, and $5,000 annual license renewal fee. Additionally, to obtain a marijuana dispensary license in Nevada, the state requires all dispensary applicants to prove that they have control of $250,000 in liquid assets for the business entity.

As another barrier Goins cites black culture as innately programmed to distrust the system. “I think black people, as a culture, are not comfortable with subjecting themselves to the system. In this industry specifically, you are telling them, ‘Hey I want to be part of the system. Check me out. Dig into my history.’ Culturally that is very fearful for us. We are afraid of that. I know I have nothing in my background but a background check, much less an FBI background check?” she questions with an incredulous chuckle.

To make headway toward dismantling some of the barriers to entry, Goins has been making the necessary legislative steps. In Assembly Bill 533, which passed during the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session, licensees are required to list who is on their licenses. “That allows us to identify who the disproportionate minorities are which allows me to request a social equity program,” Goins details of the beginnings of a plan she will be presenting to CCB.

Leaving a Legacy

As Goins prepares for her third legislative session in January, she ticks off the things she wants to accomplish. “I have already scratched a few things off my list such as I did the State of Blacks in Cannabis event earlier this year. Also, the bill for minors, that was on my list. But the big achievement will be the first time I fund out from the Cannabis Community Reinvestment Fund. The first time I am able to give someone money from that fund, that will be the greatest accomplishment. I will be like you made it kid,” concludes Goins

Legislation aside, Goins is thoughtful about her later in life career change to lobbyist. “At the end of the day it’s all about legacy. If I was to die right now, I would want people to say she lived, and she worked for her people. That’s what keeps me going. That’s why I don’t get tired. I get frustrated and I get angry but that just fuels my passion to keep moving forward. That’s why I built a team. That’s why I started CEIC. It’s work that will change the world and I gotta believe that.”