Asian Americans Blazing A New Path

Al Ochosa, director of insurance, risk and safety compliance at Curaleaf Photo: Asian Americans For Cannabis Education

Cannabis has been used in traditional Asian medicines for millennia, yet the weed business is still raising eyebrows within some families

Cannabis has been widely used in traditional Asian medicines for more than a millennium but before its now widespread legalization in the United States it was seen among many Asian-American communities as a frowned upon illicit drug.

However, a new generation of Asian American business people have emerged as trailblazers in the rapidly growing legal marijuana sector in the US, entering the industry with hopes of pushing for further legalization while expanding it to include traditionally marginalized communities.

At the same time, many are seeking to challenge social misconceptions about the plant within their own communities and beyond.

The history of cannabis is one rooted extensively in prohibition. Since Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively banned the sale and use of cannabis across the country, the plant has been illegal under federal law. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, although Black and white people use marijuana at roughly equal rates, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.

Nevertheless, the sector has significantly expanded over the years, with public support for legalization increasingly on the rise. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 19 states, along with Washington DC and Guam, in turn leading to a giant boom in legitimate businesses.

As a result, Al Ochosa, director of insurance, risk and safety compliance at Curaleaf, one of the nation’s leading medical and wellness cannabis operators, seeks to not only destigmatize the plant but also to support the participation of people of color in the rapidly emerging industry.

Ochosa,51, is the oldest of four siblings and was born in the Philippines to a devout Catholic mother and a US Navy father. “The upbringing, although very loving and supportive, was definitely fairly strict, especially when it came to, you know, ‘illegal activity’,” he said.

“I was definitely a child of the 1980s. I still have my DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] sticker at my parent’s home,” he added with a laugh. In 2015, after 20 years of being a commercial insurance professional, Ochosa pivoted to the cannabis industry after a college friend introduced him to the co-founders of Curaleaf.

“I was a corporate professional back then but, in the background, I had always been an advocate of the plant and what it could do for folks,” Ochosa said. “It was over Christmas where I basically took my dad aside … ripped the Band-Aid off and pulled out my cannabis stash and told him about what I was looking to do in the industry.”

The conversation with Ochosa’s mother was a little more difficult. “She expected me to graduate with a 4.0 from high school, expected me to get a degree from a four-year college … I even took piano lessons and played the violin,” Ochosa said. “I tried to be that model Asian child … but you know, cannabis has been a part of who I am for several years now.”

At Curaleaf, Ochosa is part of the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion leadership team, where he focuses on social equity and sustainability, as well as food insecurity, health and wellness, and cannabis education. “You gotta fight disinformation with facts and just education,” he said.

In addition, Ochosa co-leads Curaleaf in Color, a resource group aimed at creating a safe space for employees of color while amplifying their experiences in the industry. Earlier this year, for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, Ochosa hosted a panel on the experiences of Asian American cannabis leaders which highlighted their destigmatizing efforts, as well as the challenges they faced when they entered the industry.

During his research, Ochosa discovered that there was very sparse cannabis educational content portrayed through an Asian American lens. “I was actually kind of surprised at how whitewashed [the industry] was back at the beginning and even today, just because there are so many people in the communities that have been traditionally impacted by the war on drugs,” Ochosa said.

Yoko Miyashita also seeks to undo the damage of the war on drugs. As CEO of Leafly, a widely used online platform focused on cannabis use and education, Miyashita strives to destigmatize the plant through education and social equity.

From an early age, Miyashita, who was born in Japan, saw the struggles that her immigrant parents faced, including feelings of otherness in some of the many states where she lived. Miyashita pursued a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies at Berkeley and then a law degree from the University of Washington. She then established a successful career in corporate and digital media.

In 2019, Miyashita became a general counsel and later CEO of Leafly, which is based in Seattle. “For me, it was watching this industry emerge in one of the first recreational states … that experience of walking into a dispensary and just sort of seeing an industry in the making and really feeling that sense of opportunity to create an industry out of prohibition,” Miyashita said.

As one of the world’s leading resources for cannabis information, Leafly has more than 125 million visitors annually, who learn about strain consumptions, growing methods, history and more.

“You need to surface the data and science of the plant, but you also need to surface this unique history of prohibition that this industry comes out of. When you look at that, you see that that unique history begets a unique obligation in terms of how we give back to and repair the communities that have been so disproportionately harmed by prohibition.”

At Leafly, Miyashita helped launch Seeds of Change, a comprehensive report that aggregates state data and measures their efforts in integrating communities of color within cannabis legalisation campaigns.

Miyashita has worked with cannabis organizations from various states, advocating for legalization and for increased funding for communities of color, which have been especially marginalized because of federal prohibition.

“Black and brown business owners already receive very little financing that’s available out there – it’s even less in the cannabis space. So what are you left with? Personal savings, family and friends to start a business. And if you have systemic issues, you don’t have generational wealth to back you up, so the deck can be stacked against you,” Miyashita said.

“It takes a certain level of intentionality across the industry to say, ‘Hey, who are the businesses that aren’t getting the attention they deserve … and let’s make sure that those of us that have a spotlight shine that light there,” she added.

As Miyashita advocates for socially driven cannabis consumerism, Los Angeles-based Geraldine Mae Cueva seeks to destigmatize the plant through its products, particularly by working with smaller retail businesses.

A self-declared ‘chillanthropist,’ Cueva is a Filipino-American who grew up in New Jersey and the founder of Art & Times of Chill, a consulting platform that functions as a showroom for purpose-driven, plant-forward products.

Cueva, whose eclectic background includes experiences in nursing, fashion and e-commerce, works with various cannabis companies to help them understand the modern-day cannabis user while connecting brands to drive conscious commerce.

As a second-generation Asian American, Cueva takes deep pride in connecting with the elders in her community. “My family’s mindset and their perceptions are always in my mind, and I deeply respect the sacrifices they’ve made for me, so it’s part of my identity,” she said.

Cueva’s parents, who were initially wary of their daughter’s entry into the industry, have over time become some of her biggest supporters. “They were helping me create my first trade show experience. My mom was like my intern, making sure I was fed while I was talking to people for three days straight … My dad knows how to grow hemp and cannabis. He’s such a green thumb.”

Cueva is constantly looking for ways to expand cannabis accessibility. “I really try to make sure that we are not only marketing to millennials and people with disposable income, but also to people that are 50 and up,” she said. “I feel very strongly that you have to learn from the people before you.”

In addition to running her own consulting company, Cueva is the co-founder of Sesh-ins, an online smoke space that emerged last year during the peak of the pandemic and social movements across the US. Past discussion topics include accountable and intersectional allyship, white saviorism and the industry’s challenges surrounding inclusion, diversity and equity.

“When I was a younger girl, it was much harder for me to find someone that looked like me and I hope that young Filipino girls can see that anything’s possible. You could still do what your parents want for you,” Cueva said. “But if you don’t love what you are doing and what you want, it’s not going to serve you.” Above her on her bedroom wall hung a print of a New York Post headline: “$20K Hermès Birkin Bags Smell Like Marijuana,” it read.