After a long journey, the local Black-owned brand Kota Canna dispensary is set to open in Plainfield in Union County.
Kota Canna CEO Shawn “First” Thorne recently received a resolution to operate in his hometown of Plainfield. They are a Goldilocks cannabis company many want to see open. All the boxes are checked as a small, local, minority-owned, legacy company.
“I’m from the city of Plainfield. I got caught there first,” Thorne noted. “It’s a true turn-around story. They gave me my opportunity.”
He also has a New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJCRC) conditional license, financing, and space.
The Kota Canna Company was named after his daughter Dakota.
“Her and cannabis have been the most important driving force in my life. Cannabis has provided me what is needed to provide,” he explained. “She’s my driving force. “Kota Canna is culture meets corporate.”
Thorne noted only a legitimate cannabis company could truly be passed down.
Legacy to Legal Operator
Thorne previously was a legacy operator with the brand 420 Somewhere.
“I’ve been in the legacy all my life,” he explained. “Cannabis is the only job I love. If it’s something you love, it’s not work. This is my first legal business. I’ve owned and operated my legacy businesses for the past 19 years.”
Thorne is passionate about cannabis. He served 33 months in prison for cannabis.
“The 420 Somewhere is me not letting go of my legacy because that’s what got me established,” Thorne said.
Besides cannabis, he explained his background in managing clothing stores. He always enjoyed meeting people. Thus, seeking to open a dispensary made sense.
“That’s what I always loved about cannabis, the community. I’ve been with doctors, lawyers. They’ve definitely supported me,” Thorne said. “We’re doing a really good job at breaking the stigma of cannabis.”
He explained that going from a legacy operator to legal, he went to many professional cannabis events that were suit-and-tie affairs with few legacy operators.
“They’re sprinkled in. We’re not there, but we’re there,” Thorne said.
Cannabis Real Estate Problems
Like many other cannabis applicants, he had problems with cannabis real estate and landlords. Thorne explained a landlord he tried to persuade conned him and got a resolution to operate a dispensary in Plainfield using the space Thorne wanted.
“I didn’t have the verbiage they wanted to hear. They treated me like a drug dealer,” he noted.
Landlords thought he would sell bootleg weed under the counter.
“A lot of landlords wanted me to see my financials. I didn’t even know what an executive summary was,” Thorne admitted.
“That shows me how unprepared you are,” a consultant told him.
So he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
“I wrote my own business plan. I come up with my own compliances, my own community impact plan,” he said. “Then I hired a consultant to be compliant. It is really expensive when you really don’t know.”
Thorne noted many consulted wanted between $30,000 and $70,000. Some quoted him $1.5 million to open up a dispensary. Landlords wanted to see financials, resolutions, how much money would be invested into the building, and where he was in the state process.
“They wanted to know who was backing me,” he noted. “It took me 8 months to even get me an LOI.”
Thorne has paid partial rent for a Letter of Intent (LOI) since last year. It will get him a space when the time comes.
Getting By with a Little Help from a Friend
Thankfully he secured funds for start-up costs, a serious issue for cannabis companies that the State wants to address.
“A really close friend believed in me,” Thorne explained.
Luckily, he didn’t even have to make a pitch deck to get his friend of nine years to invest.
“I’ll fund the whole damn thing if they’re trying to play you. I’m dead serious,” his friend told him.
Playing Versus Multi-State Operators
Plainfield is a minority-majority city eager for cannabis to serve as an economic development engine. But who gets to develop the city is the question.
Thorne felt he was on the back burner, losing his chance to White-owned Multi-State Operators (MSOs) with few ties to New Jersey and indifferent to social issues.
“The MSOs came in. At the time, I was not a strong enough candidate. There was too many guys like me who didn’t have a clue what was going on,” Thorne said. “It was a struggle.”
So, he turned to Plan B.
“We had our eye set on Rahway. But it was hard to find a space in Rahway,” Thorne said.
So returned to focusing on Plainfield and called the city zoning office every other week asking for updates.
Playing Plainfield Politics
Thorne got his resolution in February from Plainfield. He had been going to council meetings consistently.
Thorne is also very community-minded. At Plainfield’s annual National Night Out against crime, he gave out $3,000 worth of ice cream. To familiarize the community with Kota Canna, he also handed out pamphlets.
Thorne also regularly sought to speak with Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp, the economic development officer, and the cannabis zoning officer to persuade them to support him. Then he spoke to Mapp at a community event and followed up persistently.
“He kept it as neutral as possible. He just pointed me in the direction,” Thorne noted.
However, he hit a snag.
“The mayor isn’t granting any more resolutions until he sees who is approved,” he was told at one point.
Thorne explained the only way he could get approval was through an amendment where micro businesses don’t count towards the town license cap. Thankfully, he secured a town microbusiness license resolution.
Plainfield gave him a micro license approval versus his standard conditional license from the NJCRC.
“I went from heavily, heavily disappointed…. to one of those things where your time is going to be your time,” Thorne explained. “It speaks volumes.”
“Hopefully, by this time next year, we’ll be open and running,” he said.
Kota Canna is projected to open in November.
“We’ve come a long road, and we’re still only halfway there,” Thorne noted. “We’re on the CRC’s timeline.”