In our mission to provide the best references and resources in science and research, we are also dedicated to delivering the real-life stories of individuals and families whose lives have been impacted by cannabis. We recently connected with Tracy Ryan, who is a passionate advocate, entrepreneur, and parent. Some of you may recognize Tracy and her daughter Sophie from the recently-released film documentary, Weed The People, which is now available on Netflix, Amazon, Youtube, and Vudu. The film follows several families with children whose lives are impacted by cannabis, including Tracy’s daughter Sophie, who was diagnosed with an Optic Pathway Glioma brain tumor at just 8 1/2 months old. The doctors said the tumor would cause Sophie to go blind in her left eye, and she would eventually lose sight in her right eye as well. Then, with the help of cannabis oil, the tumor shrunk, and her vision was saved. This ending may be a happy one, but as with most families who struggle through similar circumstances, it was not an easy road for the family to begin cannabis treatment. With that being said, we are honored to share the experience Tracy and her family went through to save Sophie, and create both CannaKids and SavingSophie.org to make a difference in the world.
GRAM In your own words can you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are now?
TRACY Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely been a lot of hard work. Blood, sweat, and tears. I really built CannaKids with next to no money. We’re lucky enough to be closing some funding now, but we really have done this, just out of true desire passion and grit with my daughter being diagnosed with a tumor when she was 8 1/2 months old. It was really difficult for me to learn that there was basically no research being done for pediatric cancer and that only two drugs had come to market in the last 30 years. Only 2.8 percent of all government funding even goes to pediatric cancer research so these children are using medicine that not only is extraordinarily toxic, in many situations, it causes future issues like secondary cancers that are more aggressive and more deadly, also organ damage, addictive behaviors to opioids because the pain is so severe, and so on. I just knew I wasn’t going to settle for that, and I didn’t know how I was going to help my daughter, but I knew I had to do something extreme since no one else really seemed to care about these children. From a research standpoint and with these type of tumors, because it’s 85 percent or 90 percent survival rate traditionally, it’s also an 85 percent recurrence rate, so six years later, she’s still on chemotherapy, and we’ve got patients that have been on chemo with this type of tumor for up to 13 years, but there’s zero research being done on this tumor because it’s considered survivable. So, there was really no hope for my daughter except to take the path that Western medicine had available to her in hopes that at some point this tumor is going to stop messing with her. And that’s really what started all this. And it’s been through a lot of networking, advocacy, public speaking, and throwing events while aligning ourselves with politicians, celebrities, research scientists, and medical professionals that’s really helped us carve out the path that we are now walking down. It’s a very exciting one, and it’s one I never anticipated I would be on, but I’m thrilled to be participating in because the research we’re now doing due to Sophie being so successful with her treatments and also me being so desperate to find her better options.
It’s led us down a path to where we now have 14 of our patients enrolled, or we’re studying the blood of patients who consume cannabis and looking at this from an immunotherapy standpoint, and my research scientist and I are going to be filing over 100 pages worth of patentable cancer findings here in just the next couple of weeks that we’ve been able to discover over the last year, which is extremely fast for research. So, we’re very excited about that, and we are placing an order for more synthetic cannabinoids that we can get into the lab. We don’t have to use this schedule one license since we’re still in the process of trying to piggyback onto another license that someone holds at the university where this research is being done, but what we’re finding (just with the synthetics right now) is already absolutely groundbreaking and we know it’s going to continue to lead us to some really profound findings that we do believe will help us come up with novel drugs for cancer patients and not just one cancer but many cancers that are non-toxic and that’s really the goal. So that’s kind of the long and the short of it. Just pure desire, a little bit of luck—if you will—and a whole lot of hard work.
GRAM That’s phenomenal. Thank you for focusing on the research. It’s definitely something that always gets brought up is that there isn’t enough even though there is so much, so the more, the better.
TRACY Sure absolutely. We just need more in pediatrics because there’s some real profound things we’re seeing currently, and it is extremely exciting. The main goal for my scientist and myself in life is truly to help people. That’s all she cares about. That’s all I care about. And after her witnessing some of the things she’s seen in our cancer patients, she is now more excited than ever that we’re doing is going to be able to help patients of all ages with all disease types in this field shortly. We think this research is going to be very quick.
GRAM If you don’t mind sharing, what have been some of your biggest struggles as a parent either emotionally, financially, etc. that you’ve had to endure during this process?
TRACY Well, the emotional struggle has been a pretty profound one. We were very blessed and lucky at the very beginning of our journey when Sophie was the sickest she’s ever been. And we were the poorest we’ve ever been. Stephen Amell from the TV show Green Arrow did a Facebook campaign for us, and it was the first one he ever did on social media for a cancer family. It was a Monday, and I didn’t know how it was going to pay my rent on Friday. Plus, we were over $90,000 in debt with all of the medical bills that had been piling up and putting money on credit cards just trying to survive and all the medicine that we were using for Sophie was just really bad and for middle income families which we were there really isn’t any help. We didn’t qualify for Medicaid and there were no financial services out there for people like us. You have to be really really broke and your tax returns had to be really pitiful in order to get support from most charities. We’ve been lucky to find a couple that really do cater to more middle income families. But Stephen, in two-weeks-time, raised us $95,000. And unfortunately, we didn’t keep much of that because we paid off all of our bills. It saved us from bankruptcy to allow us to really go down this path of CannaKids and Saving Sophie which has now become this really incredible movement that we’re a part of. But it’s been a real struggle, and I mean to this day we’re struggling, and as you know—as I mentioned a minute ago—we’re working on closing a really great round of funding, and we’re almost done. But between Sophie’s doctor’s appointments and hospital stays and now legalization has happened in the cannabis industry since 2018 which has been detrimental to so many brands because of the way the laws were structured including ours, to just the overall emotional roller coaster that we’ve been on for six solid years. I mean it’s not for the weak of heart. I will tell you that, and my husband and I both have had to do a lot of work on ourselves. It really affected our marriage in a very negative way, for about a good four and a half years, because when you have a sick kid you know you lose a lot of your friends. They don’t want to be around you because you’re no fun anymore. You’re the fun couple with the cute kid. Now you’re the sad couple who’s always in the hospital and really needing support and so most cancer parents lose a lot of their friends when this happens. You don’t have any money or you know you’re looking at a child that is just riddled with pain and vomiting and diarrhea and losing hair.
So, the first person that you take it out on is your spouse. And it really caused a lot of distance between us for a while, and it was sad because we were such a happy couple when we had Sophie. We’ve really had to do a lot of work on ourselves, and we have. It’s really been quite profound over the last year-year and a half how we’ve both evolved, and we’ve evolved together. And I’m happy to say that we’re happier today than we’ve ever been. But it has been a real struggle to get here. 85% of all families who have a sick child end in divorce and only 15% of us actually stay married. That tells you how high the divorce rate is for couples like us. So, it’s been exhausting. It’s been heartbreaking, but there have also been so many wonderful beautiful things that have come from such a terrible situation. And my family and I really truly believe that this was just why we’re here. We believe that we’re here to suffer a little bit more than the rest, but to also use that suffering for good, and to continue to evolve our understanding of this plant, Western medicine, research, and patient care, so that we can take our individual struggles and help millions of people around the world not have to go through what we’ve had to go through
“It’s not for the weak of heart.”
GRAM You mentioned part of the struggle was that you didn’t have anywhere to turn being in that situation. Are there any help or resources that you recommend for other parents?
TRACY The BumbleBee Foundation has been a really wonderful charity that’s local here in Los Angeles. They are a couple who lost their son to cancer, and they, too, were a middle income family, and they also saw there was just no help out there for parents who are used to making pretty good money. We were by no means rich, but we were by no means poor, and they have been so gracious and kind to us and wonderful. We’ve really been working very closely with them for a long time. Create A Smile is also another incredible charity that we’ve continued to work with and be friends with. They came in when Sophie was little and was having to be home schooled, and built out a whole little work center area for her, a little school zone in her bedroom so that she had somewhere to do her lessons with her teacher so she didn’t have to sit in the floor and do her work. They’ve been wonderful. Team Lilly Bumpus has also been gracious and kind over the years. Every holiday, they send care packages to the kiddos; Christmas, Easter, Halloween. We’re always getting these really great care packages stuffed full with gifts and Make A Wish has also been incredible. It’s then since Sophie was three where she had her make a wish, and man did they take good care of us. They were absolutely incredible. Phenomenal organization and I highly recommend anyone that has the means to donate to their cause, because they really do a lot for families like us who just need a break. We need to unwind and disconnect and we need to do so in a fashion that works for us and works for our kid because you know it can be a roller coaster as to whether or not she’s healthy or sick.
GRAM Can you tell us more about Sophie’s Make a Wish?
TRACY Yeah it was an awesome trip. We got to go to Florida and stay at this resort called Give Kids the World run by all volunteers, and it’s strictly for children who have severe and terminal diseases, and it’s literally like Willy Wonka wonderland. Even the little houses you stay in are just so adorable and colorful, and they bring all the Disney characters, and they’ve got these little carts that come around at night that are driven around the streets with hot chocolate chip cookies and milk, and they do tuck in with the characters, and they’ve got a theme park. It’s just so amazing and then they you know they gave us tickets to all the amusement parks, every single one of them, spending money on t-shirts, airfare, limo service. It was really wonderful, and it was really something at the time that we really needed, and it really helped us.
GRAM One of the other things you mentioned was the losing friends. What are some ways people could help a family going through similar circumstances?
TRACY You know, at the end of the day, me as a mom and as an individual, of course this is my opinion, about you know what my journey has been like. I don’t really need someone to feel sorry for me and do the woe is me and pat me on the back and say “There there; everything’s going to be okay.” Because at the end of the day reality is reality. Either it’s gonna be okay or it’s not going to be okay, and I don’t need someone to constantly remind me that you know everything’s gonna work out. I believe it’s gonna work out. But you just never know until you know although I’m 100% confident that Sophie is going to outlive all of us, as are her doctors. I need somebody just to be a friend. I need somebody that wants to just call and chat and get caught up on what’s going on in life. and how are we doing, do we want to go see a movie sometime or do we need somebody to come over and watch Sophie for a couple hours so we can go out and have a date and have couple time? My husband and I haven’t had a date in probably 9 or 10 months, maybe longer, and also oddly enough I really want, because of the type of person I am, I like it when people call me with their problems, and they need my help with figuring out how to navigate their lives, because then it helps me not feel so alone like I’m the only one in the world that has these horrible issues. And it also takes my mind off of what I’m doing and allows me to give back and be of service to other people which also (for someone like me) is very therapeutic. We just need people to be people. We’ve never needed somebody to bring us meals every night, give us money, or come over and let us cry on their shoulders. We have family members that can be there for us and can do that. We just don’t wanna be left alone. We don’t want to be abandoned. We want to feel like the people that have been in our lives for a long time actually care enough to continue to stay there whether or not we’re going to be able to go out on the weekends with them and go out and have a drink here and there because we just don’t. We don’t have time for that nor do we really have the desire, but a phone call is great. And it’s just, for whatever reason, people aren’t always as kind hearted as what you would expect them to be. It’s a pretty sad circumstance.
GRAM What would you tell other parents considering cannabis as an option for their children?
TRACY I always say if the world can jump into my head for five minutes and know what I know and see what I’ve seen no one would question whether or not this plant needs to be legalized. They just wouldn’t. They wouldn’t question it. I mean it’s absolutely and completely profound, what we have seen with the thousands and thousands and thousands of patients that we’ve worked with. We just had a little girl who has autism. Her mom sent as an email, the day before yesterday, and this is a little girl who was very autistic with very bad behavioral disorders in school and was just really struggling and having a hard time. We got her on our THC Full Spectrum Protocol and she has done so well that there were three students out of the whole school that were recognized for outstanding achievement and she won the most improved student award just a few days ago and got a certificate. And that’s on the regular whether it’s autism, ADD and ADHD patients, we help way more than we don’t. We’ve got a very high success rate with that condition. With cancer, I can tell you firsthand from a research standpoint, from doing hard cancer research with one of the world’s leading immunologist cancer scientists who has been in the field of cancer for 30 years, I can tell you firsthand that we now see the profound and positive impact that cannabis is having on the immune system. I intend on proving that every person on the face of this planet should be consuming CBD every day of their lives. We’re working to find out how important the role of THC is.
I personally believe there needs to be a little bit of THC in everything, but I want to find out what the role is of using high THC. I can also tell you firsthand that if you know how to dose you can keep from ever getting high. I take 45 milligrams of THC at night and I feel next to nothing, because I’ve slowly over the last year, built up a tolerance so I could be at a higher dose. It helps me with the inflammation and the arthritis that I’ve had in my body in the past, helps me with sleep, helps me with immune system stimulation, and just overall stress and anxiety, and also blocks my nightmares that I tend to have when I don’t have my cannabis. I have had x-rays recently and the arthritis that I used to have in my body is now gone, and my chiropractor cannot explain it because my spine twisted and has been more than likely since birth that I have. I’ve got a slight curvature in my spine not necessarily like severe scoliosis, but I should have a lot more issues than what I have right now.
There was a study recently that came out that showed that cannabis is literally reversing arthritis, and I’m living proof of that. I’ve seen it on my own scans and with these other children who have seizures. You take my kid off of cannabis, and she’ll have ten seizures in two days. You put her back on and she’ll have one or two a month. And we see that with children. I’m not gonna say every single child has that much success, but they traditionally have way more success with candidates than they do with the pharmaceutical therapeutics that are available to them today in the observational studies we’ve done and the anecdotal data tracking that we do.
That’s just a few of the types of diseases. We’ve treated hundreds of different kinds of diseases, and I’ve even seen reporting in the past that leads to the fact that cannabis can actually work for over 500 different ailments and diseases—from being an anti-inflammatory, to a sleep aid, to a painkiller, all the way to a cancer preventative, a cancer killer, and everything in between. So now, with the research we’re doing, we are starting to understand why that too is the case. Why is it that we have this one plant that’s helping with so many things? What is that mechanism of action? What is it that is taking place in the body that’s allowing the body’s immune system to auto correct itself and fix the diseases in them, and what’s broken within their body with just this one medicine? We are very close to being ready to file that patent ,and as soon as it is accepted and our data is protected, we’re going to be communicating those results quite vocally.
GRAM Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t covered or that you would like to bring attention to?
TRACY Sure. You know a lot of the things that we’re doing on the research side, we’re able to afford through philanthropic donations from individuals who really believe in this cause, who have disposable income that they want to put towards participating in this research to a tax deductible donation. We really need to continue raising more and more money that way. Right now, the next set of trials that we need to do that we believe are going to result in some of the most important findings the community has seen in the world of cancer, are going to cost us about $230,000. We are going to be doing an event the Friday before Thanksgiving on November 22nd. We also have the ability for people to go to SavingSophie.org and make direct donations there. We really want to ask the community to pitch in and help, whether it’s $5, $5000, or, $500,000. Every dollar helps us get one step closer to being able to really provide incredibly powerful medicine that isn’t going to brutalize these patients the way [traditional medicine] has in the past. So that’s really the one message we always tend to put out there, is that if you are willing to support us please do, because we really need the financial help to keep these trials moving and moving swiftly. The other thing that I’d like to say is that for patients out there who are looking for support, who are still on the fence about cannabis, and who just in general don’t know how to navigate this very complex medicine, where there’s a million different options and all different types of dosing possibilities. We have nurses that you can call, you can book a phone call with, and through that phone call we will first do a full medical intake; we’ll give you paperwork you can fill out on your iPhone or on your computer digitally, and our nurse will review that medical information.
After reviewing it she will customize the dosing protocols specifically for that patient, recommend products to take for that ailment, and then also how to titrate that medicine in a way that keeps them from becoming psychoactive because it’s really our goal here to get patients well, not high. And that’s a really amazing opportunity that we have available to patients that most brands don’t offer. And I can tell you firsthand, it is a very difficult medicine to navigate, because again there’s just so many different ways that you can take it, potencies, formulations, cannabinoid compounds, and so forth. We try to make it as easy as possible, while also really treating this like a medicine from a scientific standpoint based on years of research and anecdotal evidence.
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Cannabis Justice is Racial Justice
Last Prisoner Project
“Ever since Harry Anslinger implemented [cannabis prohibition] in the United States, it’s main purpose has been a method of racial control by white people over communities of color and that continues to this day. We will not have racial justice in this country without cannabis justice and vice versa,” says Steve DeAngelo, the Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry.
GRAM spoke with Steve, the founder of Last Prisoner Project. He shared with us the mission and programs that drives Last Prisoner Project, as well as the stories of two specific men they are working to help.
“Michael Thompson is in the 26th year of a 40-60 sentence for selling three lbs. of cannabis to an informant in 1994. After he was arrested, the cops went to Michael’s residence which he shared with his mother and his wife. And they went into a locked gun cabinet, they opened the cabinet and found some antique rifles that had belonged to Michael’s father. On those grounds, they said it was a gun crime, and because Michael had a couple of other minor offenses that had happened during this very intense street enforcement on the ground in the 1990’s in Flint, MI. Now he’s 68 years old; he has pre-existing medical conditions that make him more vulnerable to COVID, and COVID is present in the prison he’s incarcerated in. So we are desperately concerned that Michael is going to get COVID and potentially die, and his already outrageous sentence turns into a death sentence. There are two petitions on Governor Whitmer’s desk for his release right now. One is a compassionate release for COVID; one is a clemency request; those requests for release have been endorsed by the Flint Prosecutor’s Office which is the office that originally prosecuted Michael (that’s something that never ever happens), but Governor Whitmer continues to sit on Michael’s petition; each day exposing him to a possible death sentence,” Steve continues. “There’s dozens and dozens of other cannabis prisoners who are facing similarly long sentences on equally bogus charges.”
The reality of it is it’s not our constituents who are the criminals. The real criminals are the people who passed these laws and enforce these laws.
Steve says, “Our position is that nobody anywhere in the world ever deserved to be arrested for cannabis charges and that nobody ever deserved to be in prison on cannabis charges. We don’t care what the amount was; we really don’t care what the “complicating factors” were. The reality of it is it’s not our constituents who are the criminals. The real criminals are the people who passed these laws and enforce these laws.”
Corvain Cooper is serving a federal sentence of life without parole in Louisiana for a cannabis conviction because he had two minor charges on his record in the state of California that at one time qualified him for the three strikes law, but since he earned those convictions, the law has been revised, and the crimes that he was convicted for are no longer crimes that make you eligible for three strikes. “Yet, Corvain faces spending the rest of his life in prison when it’s really obvious that that is a grossly unjust thing,” says Steve.
Steve says, “Last Prisoner Project has a very single-minded mission, a very singular focus quite deliberately. There’s a lot of organizations who are working on cannabis reform in general, on legislation, who are working on equity and racial justice issues specifically. Our focus is even more narrow. We just want to make sure that every single cannabis prisoner on planet Earth comes home to their families and is given the resources they need to build the lives that were stolen from them. We are interested in further reform, we’re interested in legislative stuff, that’s not where we put our energy, we let other organizations focus there. We just want to get prisoners out.”
Within the first year of its inception, Last Prisoner Project figured out that there are about 40,000 people in prison for cannabis convictions in the United States. They still don’t know the world-wide total. “It’s many many times the 40,000,” says Steve. “Once we had our hands around the problem, the size of it, and where it was located, then we started thinking about the most effective ways that we could get the largest number of prisoners released in the shortest period of time with the funds that were available to us.”
Last Prisoner Project has a couple of programs that achieve that objective. Steve tells us, “One of them is our clemency program which works with governor’s offices in legal cannabis states to develop a set of standard parameters that would allow the governor, at the stroke of a pen, to release hundreds or even (depending on the state) thousands of cannabis prisoners.”
There are currently about 50 people in the United States serving sentences of life without parole for cannabis convictions. “For most of them, their cases are complicated and are challenging for governors to give clemency to. So we do know that–unfortunately, in some cases–we are going to have to raise the funds that are necessary to mount a new legal defense for people who have already (in some cases) been in prison for decades. It’s a very expensive proposition to do that; it’s a very time consuming proposition to do that; it’s an absolutely necessary thing to do.”
The second program within the Last Prisoner Project is the Prison to Prosperity Pipeline. “We want to make sure that when our constituents are released that they have a support network that is sufficient to make sure that their reentry is successful,” says Steve. That involves housing, training, and finding employment. Last Prisoner Project is already serving their constituents through this program and recently hired a full time staff member to administer the program.
82% of the arrests for the war on drugs were for cannabis possession.
“We have a few different ways that we work to fund those programs. Our ‘Roll it up for justice’ program asks cannabis retailers to ask cannabis consumers to make a donation at the end of their cannabis purchase, to at least round up to the next dollar from their cannabis purchase.” Steve states that the program spreads the burden out widely across the whole cannabis community and doesn’t call on anybody too much. “We encourage cannabis retailers to participate in the program, and we encourage cannabis consumers to patronize the dispensaries that do participate in that program. In a similar vein, we have our ‘Partners for Freedom’ program. This program allows cannabis companies other than retailers (growers, manufacturers, etc.) to make a commitment to be a sustaining partner for the Last Prisoner Project, and they earn the ability to put the Last Prisoner Project logo on all the packages of all of their products. The idea being that we want cannabis consumers to have ways that they can support the companies that are supporting the community.”
“We are in a unique time in this country right now. That’s put a fresh lens on law enforcement and what’s been going on with law enforcement over the course of the last two decades in the United States. And what many people don’t realize is that stop and frisk, cops on the ground in black and brown communities harassing people has been justified and driven by cannabis prohibition. 82% of the arrests for the war on drugs were for cannabis possession.”
Learn more about Steve DeAngelo and how he earned the moniker “The Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry” in an upcoming issue of GRAM. In the meantime follow @lastprisonerproject on social media and keep up with Steve on his new podcast: Radio Free Cannabis.
Seizing The Opportunity to Educate the World
How an inner-city kid from Chicago used art + cannabis to take Denver by storm in celebration of black love, black art, + black lives.
The Black Love Mural Festival may seem like a simple play on Black Lives Matter efforts, but it is much more than your typical mural walk. It is the evolution of years of effort on behalf of its curator, Robert Gray. Gray is more commonly known by his brand, Rob The Art Museum, a concept that came to him during some of his earliest visits to art museums in the midwest. Rob’s life journey has taken him across the country, all in the pursuit of living a life that allowed him to enjoy cannabis and give back to his local and global community.
Who is Rob The Art Museum?
Robert Gray, founder and curator of Rob The Art Museum, is originally from Chicago, Illinois. When he was in his early teens, he moved to Milwaukee. “I’m from Chicago, but I claim that I’m from Milwaukee, because that’s where a lot of my friends were when I grew up as a teenager,” Rob explains. It’s also where Rob was first introduced to contemporary and fine art, thanks to a newly built art museum, the same one that was featured in the Transformers movie series.
“Milwaukee is really where I got into art. That’s where a lot of it started. I would try to get away from the city, running around, doing shit I wasn’t supposed to, and it was when they first built the art museum…it was this big beautiful white art museum that looked like a boat right off the lake. So when they built it, I was like ‘this looks cool, let me go try it.’”
Not only did he notice the beauty of the art he was enjoying, but he also found respite in the lack of familiar faces. “Milwaukee was a small city…Like if you go to Walmart, you’re going to see someone from middle school, high school; you’re going to run into someone. So this was like the one place I never ran into someone who was from where I was from. So it was like a different scene. it was very peaceful… But I always wanted to smoke blunts and be in an art museum at the same time. And I never thought it would be possible.”
This idea would stick with him and eventually be the seed that grew into Rob The Art Museum. “It was always in the back of my head [and] that was kind of like where Rob The Art Museum started. I wanted people to have the same emotional reaction that I was having. I was having a spiritual reaction, a physical reaction, an emotional reaction when I was seeing these beautiful pieces of artwork, and it was like my first time really seeing any contemporary art…growing up in the city, we had art programs but it was like children’s art. Paint and paper. That was art, but I really never saw art like fine art growing up where I came from.”
The impression it left on him left him wanting to share those feelings with others. “So I was walking in an art museum and was like ‘Damn, I want to get this artwork out to my people who can’t afford–because it costs money to get into the art museum. If they can’t afford to get into the art museum, they definitely can’t afford anything on the walls. So how can I get this art out to the people? Rob The Art Museum. That’s kinda like where everything started. I was like ‘Oh, that’s funny. Like a double entendre with my name.’ But even then I did it like ‘I wish I could rob the art museum because I know that work is worth a lot. It doesn’t seem like they got top notch security either. I think a bank would be more difficult. Seemed like a good return on investment.’”
Chasing Promotions with No End In Sight
Rather than going through with this fantasy of robbing a museum, Rob ended up like many of us—in a job where he was simply chasing promotion after promotion. This led him from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Kansas City. As he neared the age of 30, Rob realized his love of cannabis and his distaste for the promotional path meant he needed to reevaluate his pursuits.
“My passions were weed and art, and I was in Kansas City, and it’s an 8 hour trip [to Colorado], and I’m over here buying weed in gas stations from people who looked like they smoked weed,” Rob explains. “I didn’t have any friends out there. But I was like he looks like he smokes weed, so I’m going to ask him, ‘bro you know where the weed at?’…One day I just packed up my bags and went to Colorado and just tried to figure everything out. That was three years ago.”
The Mile High Move
When he arrived in Colorado, Rob quickly joined the legal cannabis industry, becoming a budtender, but not before a life-changing car accident would further call into question his decision to move to the mile high state. “When I first moved out here, I was staying on the couch at my brother’s house just trying to figure everything out and one day after I got done smoking like a blunt, I just went to go get food. So I jumped in the car with my friend, she was driving, and we’re going up the way and a drunk driver came out of nowhere and hit us in a head on collision. I was really shooken up…So I ended up going to the ER, and it was a traumatizing experience because I didn’t have like anyone really out here with me. Me and my brother were going through some trials and tribulations…I didn’t have any other family out here. I was in the ER emergency room thinking I was about to lose my vision. And also thinking about being paralyzed because I just got into an accident. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore…
“So, long story short…I have a disability now where like my vision isn’t there in my right eye. It’s crazy that I’m involved in art and my vision is fucked up. And I was going to City, O’ City, which is one of the partners of this festival and the accident happened like right up the street [from Civic Park/City, O’ City]… It’s funny how this has all come full circle, and that’s how I started my trip off in Denver. I was about to go home. I was like ‘Fuck this shit man. I just got in the worst car accident of my life. I don’t have a job. Like, I’m not going to be able to get a job now being injured. I don’t have insurance.’ I was just going to give it all up and go back home and figure shit out.”
After the accident, Rob began smoking cannabis with a specific medical intent. “I was on prescriptions because I was in a bad car accident, all opioids,” he recalls. “Back home, I was smoking weed because, not because it was the cool thing to do but because I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for a medicinal purpose at that point. Maybe PTSD, but I was smoking weed just like every high school kid did. And this was the first time that I needed it to like actually relieve this pain, this unbearable pain. So it is great to be in a legal state and have legal access to it.”
Cannabis as a Career
As a budtender, Rob quickly learned the legal cannabis industry had its issues with race. He says it was a great experience as far as learning, but the work culture was toxic, comparing it to working as a cashier at a bad McDonald’s. “I got called the N Word by someone my first time working there. So it was like fuck, this shit’s shitty. There’s racism everywhere. But I just rode it out. I addressed it with corporate, and they handled it how I expected so that was nice. But budtending wasn’t for me.”
While corporate worked to fix internal issues, Rob found an opportunity selling concentrates for another company, Craft Concentrates. He recalls the experience being novel, giving he was selling weed on the phone legally, but it was a cold-calling effort and was hard to get accounts that weren’t already carrying the product, something he likens to selling cars. During his time with Craft, he was also doing humanitarian work on the side like park cleanups and feeding the homeless in places like Denver’s RiNO art district, which gave him a positive way to give back and an alternative focus to cold calls.
“My mom always told me that it’s important that you give back. And I feel like inside, if you’re taking from a community, you should give back to that community.” One day, Craft was going to move offices and throw away all of the food in the refrigerator. Rob asked if he could have it. Knowing he was a vegan, they questioned what he would do with all of the meats and dairy products, and he told them he planned to cook it and make meals for the homeless with it. After that, they started to take note of his efforts, making him Head of the Communications department, with the entire focus of giving back to the community.
While this new opportunity was progressive for the cannabis industry, differing views on what “giving back to the community” actually meant, would lead Rob to end that chapter and, as he describes it, “circle back to smoking blunts in the art museum.” His pop up art shows were beginning to take off.
Pop Up Art Shows
The Rob the Art Museum pop up art show is a cannabis-friendly, art event with vegan-friendly foods highlighted, non mainstream, undiscovered and underrepresented artists. It started a wave that would eventually take the efforts nationwide.
“Now that I had a decent job [with Craft] that could fund my crazy ideas that I had, I used that money to rent an AirBnB because I wanted to make a cannabis-friendly art museum, and I couldn’t do that with the Denver Art Museum. So I rented out an AirBnB. It was four stories, had six different bed rooms, and I curated each room to be like a different theme.” Rob recalls approaching as many artists as possible on their Instagrams, only hearing back from about one in ten. They had a bunch of vegan food, good legal cannabis to enjoy, and he invited as many people as possible to see all of the art that he’d hung throughout the house. “We lost money the first time, but it was fun. People came out, and it was fun. I was like ‘I’m going to keep doing it.’”
His friends could not believe he was going to do it again, taking all the time and money to coordinate the event. But Rob valued being top of mind regularly with the audience. “Consistency is key; I knew we had to keep doing it so that people would take it seriously,” reiterating that it wasn’t a “one off” event due to its somewhat random and unprecedented nature.
Eventually, Rob ended up throwing one of the larger afterparties at the Indo Expo 2019 in Denver, inviting cannabis influencers to an art, cannabis, and smoke-friendly affair with good vegan food and good vibes. The next month, he repeated the event for his birthday party, telling his friends to come out and smoke with him since the AirBnB owner was allowing him to use the property. By March, they were actually focusing on art curation as the focal point of the event and starting to make a few hundred bucks each time.
4/20, Private Events, & High Times
With April came the annual celebration plans for 4/20, and Rob’s intention to use the AirBnB came to a halt when he received a letter ordering him to cease and desist because the owner had listed the location’s address publicly. The event had to be private to allow consumption according to Colorado law, and Rob was forced to make very public statements that the event was cancelled. For those in the know, the event still went on, but in a much more private manner.
After this issue due to a technicality, Rob was invited to throw pop up events under his moniker around the country at High Times events. He traveled to Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a variety of large metro areas, setting up his museum and spreading the brand nationally. Denver may have taken a backseat, but as he became more introduced to the art scene and the people within, a chance encounter at a Denver Dispensary would be the seed that became the Black Love Mural Festival months later.
Black Love Mural Festival (BLMF)
After efforts with High Times came to a close, the transition to Rob upping his art efforts in the festival scene was an almost seamless transition. He met Annie, the owner of IRL Art, and they exchanged contact information when he learned she worked with Meow Wolf. They did big festival installations at Far Out Factory, Sonic Bloom, Arise, Gem and Jam, and similar events. Rob eventually secured a spot working with her in October 2019, and became CMO of IRL Art in February.
“Black Love Mural Festival started with being in festivals with [Annie],” Rob explains. “These are all her walls that we bought,” motioning to the black plywood board structures around civic park that were constructed in mere hours. Originally, the idea for the festival had stemmed from a park cleanup effort. One of Rob’s friends knew he was involved in park cleanups and asked for some help overseeing efforts to clean up after protests in Denver. During the cleanup, Rob invited a local artist to live paint a mural to help lighten the mood, and the idea to create walls that could be painted on while also protecting local landmarks came to fruition, initially dubbed “Protect The Park.”
“I didn’t know this was possible,” Rob explains of the mobile mural walls, “to take plywood and build into portable walls and have artists come out and do these big pieces, I didn’t know it was possible.” Originally, Rob had wanted to do a large scale art installation in small scale neighborhood parks to bring the beauty and influence of art into communities that wouldn’t otherwise see it. When the opportunity to take that approach and do it in the center of Denver happened, Rob couldn’t help but seize it.
After a quick pitch to local officials and the Mayor of Denver, Rob and his business partner hammered out a proposal and secured funds for the initial effort. “I want to make sure that black people aren’t blamed for what’s happening,” explains Rob of the motivation behind the festival. “Because, no matter who does the vandalism, no matter who does the looting, it’s going to fall back on the Black Lives Matter movement because that’s what everything is focused around… I want to put a black face to the good that we are doing.”
They pitched the idea as a dual-purpose initiative: for the city, they would protect the monuments using temporary structures to help minimize damage and vandalism. For the community, they would use the walls of these structures as blank canvases to showcase the love and art of Denver’s black community. Once approved, the structures had to be built. Rain and cleanups cut into setup time, leaving them less than 48 hours to have everything set up. Then, they set about recruiting artists, offering subsidies for supplies and starting a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $10,000 to pay all 30+ artists who have since become involved. As of the end of June, they have exceeded this goal.
Asked how it is going, Rob offers a simple “Awesome.” He comments on the fact that this is the first art event he has been to—and for many of the artists participating—that was all black artists, saying normally there is that one token black person, or maybe not even a single person of color, which prevents the artists from being themselves. He’s proud they have curated artists ranging in age from nine to sixty years old, and artists walked up off the street after seeing the news coverage, wanting to get involved in a positive art community that was bettering Denver.
As with everything that has taken him this far, Rob is seizing the opportunity to educate his peers and his community at large about the beauty of black culture as well as the ways humans can be better about treating one another equally.
Opportunities & Education
When asked how he has gotten to this point in his life, and what his advice is to others regarding treating one another better, his answers are the same: Education and Opportunities. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to learn, do so. Learn about other cultures. Learn about new thoughts. Learn about personal trials and tribulations. Seize opportunities to grow, to learn, and to advance yourself and society as a whole. If you have the opportunity to lift someone else up, do so.
Specifically, Rob speaks to the burden placed on people of color by those who are well-intentioned but lazy in their efforts. Wanting to learn more about the ways your black friends or co-workers may have encountered microaggressions or outright racism is healthy and helps acknowledge and change patterns of behavior, but there is a plethora of information available for you to get background information. Walking up to a black person and asking them to simply describe their plight is both burdensome and shows a lack of effort, contrary to the intentions of the question.
Similarly, if you look around and aren’t sure of how you can better the black community, or any community, consider the tools in front of you. Rob mentions the trade of a carpenter, and asks the head carpenter to look around at his team; do you see any black faces? No, maybe try to hire some? Not finding any qualified candidates of color? Maybe create the opportunity for an apprenticeship or an internship where a candidate who is otherwise high quality could learn the craft and help to make the industry more diverse.
Rob’s main point is: there is always an opportunity to help your fellow human and to learn more about one another, and we should seize every chance we can to lift one another up, regardless of color, creed, gender, or other generalizing characteristic.
even if they don’t exist.
The Black Love Mural Festival’s permit was extended through the end of July to allow for a longer display of the art and recognition of the black community. Rob is entertaining future ideas to not only bring the festival back annually, but hopefully to expand to other cities, and to preserve many of the pieces that were created in art galleries and museums, including those dedicated to preserving black art and history.
Educate yourself. Don’t just expect to be educated.
SEE IT LIVE IN DENVER, CO UNTIL JULY 30
Make sure to check out and follow all The talented artists participating in this fantastic event.
PJ and Crystal
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