Live in the moment. Don’t let the past overrun your present. The only constant in life is change, but we have the ability to choose to choose again and again, and that is a beautiful thing.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachael Szmajda.
Rachael Szmajda grew up in Maryland before moving to Chicago, ultimately graduating from Columbia College in 2006. She relocated to California to grow cannabis in the legal market, quickly becoming a vendor of cannabis products to cannabis clubs in the Bay Area by 2007. Later that year, Rachael landed her first in-house position at a cannabis retailer as the Purchasing Assistant for Harborside Health Center in Oakland, where she personally saw and reviewed 500+ vendors per month. After 13 years, numerous awards and mainstream media appearances, four cannabis clubs, countless harvests, hundreds of sold pounds, and thousands of purchased pounds later, Rachael is a veteran of the industry. She currently serves as Chief Purchasing Officer at one of the most respected dispensary brands in the United States: Elemental Wellness Center in San Jose, CA.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Growing up in Maryland, we had access to a fair amount of cannabis for the times. It always came in pressed bricks that required carding out the seeds on a baking sheet, and we always assumed was shipped up from Mexico. In 1999, I bought my first half pound in the parking lot of my parent’s neighborhood pool, and started my life-long endeavor of bringing quality cannabis to the people. At that time, I didn’t realize how much better it would get, but I quickly learned there was much more out there then brick weed and closet grown hydro. In 2003, I saw my first legitimate indoor grown cannabis. It was Skunk #1, it came to Chicago from Indiana, and my cannabis life and perspective was altered forever. The next year, we started up our own little indoor grow and everything developed pretty quickly from there. One room quickly turned into a floor of a duplex, and that duplex quickly expanded into another two locations.
After graduating from Columbia College with my Bachelor of Fine Arts in the fall of 2006, I moved to California and started up my first legal California home grow in Fairfax, CA quickly upon arriving. I was a vendor to Bay Area cannabis clubs by 2007. Later that year, I started as the Purchasing Assistant at Harborside Health Center in Oakland. Let me tell you, there is no better way to learn cannabis products then personally seeing 500+ vendors a month and reviewing their cannabis goods all day every day. My cannabis knowledge and life developed as quickly as the industry did.
At this point, I’ve done quite a bit. I’ve have worked with Ed Rosenthal and had my cannabis photography published in his Marijuana Growers Handbooks. I’ve been quoted and photographed in various cannabis magazines, smoked a joint with Jack Herer, kicked it with Tommy Chong, I’ve won two High Times Cannabis Cups by picking the right entry from an amazing selection of growers, I’ve been on Weed Wars on the Discovery Channel turning a friend’s cannabis away because of spider mite excrement, I’ve been on the BBC explaining trichome color as a determination of maturity, I’ve been on National Geographic negotiating a pound with a patient provider. Hell, I’ve even been on German TV buying a pound.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
There are many, but the one that stands out takes me back to July of 2010. The City of Oakland decided they wanted to license four large cultivation facilities, which would effectively put hundreds of patient providers completely out of business. At that time, no one was licensed, and the city was not giving the growers the opportunity to be licensed or regulated in any way. They were talking about introducing big corporate businesses into a world that existed without them. This caused a massive uproar. People were being forced underground, unable to fight for themselves and their rights due to a fear of being found, robbed, or raided by the government that had no problem capitalizing off of the tax revenue that these people had created.
So, we called a meeting with all of our 500+ patient providers. We made handouts. We promised the ability to maintain anonymity. We promised working together to create the change and justice that we all deserved and needed to see. It was difficult. The most common concern was being followed back to your grow, or for your car to be identified and then followed and robbed when leaving a cannabis club you were doing business with. This was a common occurrence back then, and something people dealt with regularly.
Many of our patient providers did not come because they did not want to be exposed to the risk that potentially outing themselves could cause them, and the ones that did come tended to isolate themselves from each other, in an attempt to not to be identified. They wanted to be legal, and the system was giving them no way to do that. I have always been an activist, protesting and standing up for what I believed was right since I was a teenager, but this experience really lit the fire in me to stand up for what I believed in and speak on behalf of all of these people who weren’t in a position to speak for themselves.
So, when the Oakland City Council held it’s meeting to discuss and potentially approve the plan to open four large scale cannabis production facilities, I stood loud and proud in front of them and fought for the rights of the hundreds of small and medium sized boutique home-growing patient providers to be allowed to continue to provide treatment to the people in the industry that they had created.
We fought to license, tax, and regulate small growers over corporatizing the industry that we built. We fought to keep them from giving it away to big business which would successfully have put thousands of people across California out of the industry they had built with their own time, blood, sweat, tears, and efforts. Many of these people had even grown legally according to the state, and faced raids from the federal government, effectively putting them behind bars and seizing everything they had for something that they were doing legitimately. Where was the righteousness in what was happening? Where was the oversite and accountability? As we engaged with the City Council trying to help them understand and make the right decision, the vendors hid out in the balconies, shouting words of support, but forced into silence due to the fear of identification and retaliation. It all seemed so wrong and so backwards.
In the end, the plan was approved, and Oakland decided to move forward with their plans to license four large-scale cannabis production factories. In December of that year, they actually ended up suspending those plans after receiving a lot of criticism and warnings from federal authorities who said that the city ordinance would not keep the federal government from criminally prosecuting those locally licensed facilities. So, Oakland decided to license four new cannabis clubs instead. One of which I got to be a part of bringing into creation!
Looking back on it now, it’s strange how this was just a sign of everything that was inevitably yet to come, but it was a really great experience to be able to be a part of that process and a part of that fight. I guess it just goes to show that the only constant in life is change, and while it is imperative to fight for what you believe in, actively seek the change you want to see, and stand up for those who need your help; ultimately we all have to continue to adapt to every “right-now’s” reality in every given moment.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Once upon a time, I was considering a 300-gram bag of granulated cold water hash for purchase from a vendor and had it sitting open on the counter in front of me. There were other things on the table as well, so I turned my attention to another item while mulling over the cold water. While my attention was elsewhere, the entire bag tipped over and dumped itself out onto the carpeted floor of my office. We salvaged what we could, and I paid him for the difference lost, but there is likely hash still embedded in that carpet to this day. That experience definitely taught me to be very cautious and considerate of products, especially when they are not yet owned by the company that I work for. In my mind, I had already decided I wasn’t going to purchase the hash, but dropping it on the floor changed that ability to negotiate.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I met Mickey Martin shortly after his edible company Tainted Inc. was raided in September of 2007. Immediately I knew that he was someone I would look up to. Mickey dedicated his life to cannabis activism, and it was amazing. An entire book could be written on Mickey Martin’s accomplishments.
He founded Parents 4 Pot to keeping everyone accountable for their actions, and Mickey would call out anyone who operated on false or impure pretenses. From demanding installment from clubs who refused to pay their patient providers, to leading the charge of the protests when they wouldn’t comply. From calling people out for trying to capitalize of someone else’s efforts, to making sure that the entire community knew when someone was denying accountability that they were the reason a cannabusiness went under. From standing up for women’s roles in our industry, to demanding they get the respect they deserve instead of the objectification many tried to keep serving up on platters. Literally.
Never one to hold his tongue, Mickey Martin really set a precedence for me to do and say what’s right when it comes to the things we want, need and deserve in our lives. If you want it, go get it. If you don’t like it, speak up. If you can do it better, or make it better, do it; and do it with integrity.
Mickey Martin’s death in 2015 was the biggest loss to the cannabis community and industry as a whole. Everyone misses Mickey. As much as I and other people he influenced will always do our best to play our parts, the industry could never be the same without him.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
The use of pharmaceuticals is just out of control. Massive drug corporations are being back-end funded and protected by the governmental bodies that are supposed to regulate them and protect us. Doctors who are supposed to care about our health are pushing remedy into our communities to get bonuses from their ties with those same drug corporations. The cost of filling a prescription these days can often break the bank of someone’s reality. It’s outrageous. It doesn’t seem to be about our health and wellbeing anymore, it seems that the ones who are supposed to care about us are only seeking to profit from personal gains.
Due to the limited competition in the pharmaceutical industry, these companies can price their remedy wherever they want to, and people just have to pay it, because they can’t find it any cheaper anywhere else. Those issues, coupled with the current state of health insurance in the US, make me feel really good about helping to secure and provide quality cannabis products to the recreational masses. It all comes from a plant, the processing can be very limited or non-existent depending on your product category of choice, and there are no detrimental side effects or risks of overdose. The level at which cannabis has been able to replace pharmaceuticals for so many people makes my heart swell with happiness.
In my opinion, all cannabis being consumed has medicinal benefits to the user, whether they consciously realize it or not. It may help someone with sleep, anxiety, appetite, pain, or just the simple ability to relax. These are basic everyday things that most people struggle with at some level, and cannabis helps immensely. The benefits are limitless, and they are not restricted to health alone.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- I’m honestly not sure what could I say to help support other people’s journey towards well-being, probably because I feel like I’m not well-equipped enough to even answer that question for myself. Wellbeing is a constant daily struggle that takes a lot of hard work, time, and dedication. Despite being fairly active, I personally have a tendency towards laziness at home. Maybe someone has a “lifestyle tweak” for me?
- Tell people how you really feel. Dishonestly only breeds confusion and contempt, and people deserve to use the truth when making decisions in their lives. Especially when it comes to cannabis. As a buyer, many would be tempted to tell everyone what a great job they’ve done, so as to not hurt people feelings and egos. Initially, it may be hard to say no, and they may not take it well, but ultimately, it’s what they want/need to hear, and you’ll feel better for doing it. The most important thing to remember is to be impeccable with your words when doing it. If you’re able to give someone constructive feedback that they can take away and use to do better somehow, that will generally overpower any wound to the ego. I have personally seen many growers and brands completely transform themselves and their reach and relation to the members, by taking honest tips from buyers providing honest and straightforward feedback.
- Live in the moment. Don’t let the past overrun your present. The only constant in life is change, but we have the ability to choose to choose again and again, and that is a beautiful thing.
- Don’t work all the time. If work and play overlap too much, when you lose or fail at one, you’ll feel like you lost and failed in everything, and that isn’t fair to yourself. Be sure to do things that you love that don’t involve cannabis, or whatever your job may be. Take vacations. Travel. Read books. Relax. Turn off your phone. Turn off your computer. Log off. Over the years I have developed a lot of solid friendships in the industry, and the ones who know me best know not to try to sell me weed on the weekends.
- Get outside as much as humanly possible. As an ’80s kid, it’s so sad to me how little time I spend outside, and so much sadder to see how little the kids these days get outside at all. I know 2020 sucks, but please keep going outside. Please keep breathing the fresh air. Please get off of your phones and go hug a tree. Who knows how much longer this will all be possible.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The number one thing that I feel could universally change human and animal lives, permanently and positively across the world, would be for us to much more greatly utilize the endless possibilities of the hemp plant. As Jack Herer said best, “I don’t know if hemp is going to save the world but it’s the only thing that can.” If utilized to the full extent of its power, biodegradable hemp plastics could completely replace petroleum plastics, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
I went to college to study fashion design, and using hemp fibers in the US was a big point for me. I designed and created my senior collection with all hemp fabrics, and the fact that I had to order the material from Canada was disheartening. That was 2006, and now that we have the Farm Bill, which passed in 2018 and allows farmers in the US to legally produce industrial hemp. I’m really hoping things start to change on that front. We’re just in the beginning and the road is long.
In 2019, after a huge jump to hemp because of the craze that swept the nation, a July survey from Whitney Economics found that 65% of hemp farmers in the US failed to find a crop buyer. I bet there would be a lot of buyers if the broader uses of hemp were truly entertained.
Hemp can be used to make the obvious paper, rope, clothing, and products, but also the lesser obvious. Diapers, biofuel, sunscreen, makeup, nail polish, surfboards, flour, beer, milk, paint, ink, mulch, shoes, soap, hot dogs, protein powder, straws, utensils, plastics, carpet, fiberboard, hempcrete building material, car bodies, insulation, animal bedding, super capacitators, and batteries can all be made utilizing hemp over their lesser environmentally non-favorable counterparts. And guess what — it’s biodegradable.
But we don’t use hemp for these things, because that would put big business plastics, and gas, and all these other industries out of business. The US won’t stand for that with how intertwined our big businesses are. They all protect each other from anything that may affect their bottom lines, or worse yet, put them completely out of business. Hence, no hemp toilet paper this year… as much as we all could have used it!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Sell as much cannabis as you can before January 1st, 2018, because you will make drastically less money in the cannabis industry from that point forward. I guess I was a bit jaded in my prime and felt there was no pressure to go as hard as I could have. Don’t get me wrong, I went really hard, but now I wish I had worked even harder while the opportunity was there. Now all of the money in the industry goes to licensing, permits, and taxes. No one is building a nest egg around here anymore, except our local and state governments.
- Everything comes and goes. Everything. As secure as you may feel where you are, don’t count on it being there forever. Because things change, people change, life changes, and there isn’t anything you can do about it but to keep moving forward.
- Don’t let anyone try to change you, and never compromise on your morals. Ever. Stick up for what you believe in, and hold on to what makes you, you. Unwaveringly, unapologetically you, especially when it’s difficult.
- Buying cannabis from cannabis providers should never be about relationships and instead it should always be about quality and price. Making a business negotiation over how much you like someone or what someone has done for you in the past will never play in your favor, and that pound will always sit on your shelf for months, haunting you.
- Don’t let anyone intimidate you. You could imagine some of the things I’ve heard turning down hundreds of pounds of cannabis that patient providers were desperately trying to sell in order to pay their rent, support their families, afford the surgery their pet needed. It’s a hard thing to do, but never negotiate based on emotions.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Of these topics, without a doubt, sustainability is the one I hold nearest to my heart. If we can’t sustain the planet we’re living on, that literally gives us life, what are we doing? This isn’t about us, and the concept is simple. It’s about our planet, and our planet’s future, and our planet’s future ability to maintain life. The life of our children, and the life of all living things as we know them. This mass and unconscious destruction of our planet is just uncalled for. We can do better.
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