Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2019

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Nevada’s first black master grower is keen to drive the local marijuana scene

Zion Gardens

Christopher DeVargas

Aaron McCrary, master grower and co-owner of Zion Gardens marijuana cultivation facility in North Las Vegas, says he is dedicated to hiring people who are “traditionally excluded.”

Before moving to Las Vegas, marijuana cultivator Aaron McCrary seemed to be living the dream in his home state of Washington. After studying business at the University of Washington, McCrary found his niche working in the state’s marijuana industry — first on the underground market and then in an official capacity when the plant became legal there for medical use in 1998.

“I’m familiar with every role, from the bottom to the top, with cannabis. From the street corner now to the boardroom,” McCrary said. “It gives me a unique perspective, because I understand it on a micro level and now I’m addressing it on a macro level.”

As co-owner and operator of Zion Gardens cultivation facility in North Las Vegas, McCrary is breaking ground as Nevada’s first black master grower.

He uses about a quarter of his 6,000-square-foot warehouse for growing, but plans to quadruple that setup and expand to another building by January. “Everyone wants to be the biggest and the best, but our idea is to grow conservatively with the marketplace,” he said.

McCrary sat down with the Sun to discuss his role in the emerging industry, from encouraging minority leadership to dispelling the plant’s negative stigma.

Click to enlarge photo

Aaron McCrary examines a plant.

What does it mean to you to be the first black lead grower in Nevada?

It’s a unique accomplishment. As growers, we have a responsibility to be solid operators, and nobody more so than myself.

What brought you here?

I feel like I was blessed with a gift to convey information and to be a leader. And I think I was wasting my gift in Washington as a profiteer — putting profit over product. Coming here to this emerging market gave me an opportunity to re-create myself and move from a commercial marketplace to actively take a role in the development of not only the way my social group and ethnic group is perceived in the market, but in general for the industry.

Why do you think there are so few black growers and other minorities involved in the local industry?

The discrimination isn’t as significant as you might think for a lot of the people within the commercial cannabis community. The hurdles for minorities are all of the impediments to get there. ... Discrimination doesn’t just come from the top down, from the profiteer down, from the Caucasian ethnic group toward the minority ethnic group. A lot of the discrimination or barriers to entry came from my own ethnic racial group. “Well, you’re not climbing out of the abyss with us; why are you special?” And this mindset of, “If you’re going to go here, I want to extract my pound of flesh on your way there.”

What do you think makes it especially difficult for minorities to enter the industry?

The background-check restrictions that only exempt certain crimes, and the fact that you need to show $250,000 in capital to apply for a license. That prices a lot of people out.

Click to enlarge photo

Aaron McCrary inspects one of his various strains of marijuana under a digital microscope.

How do you plan to blaze the trail for others?

First of all, to make the most of my gift. As someone that has traditionally faced barriers to entry, if I have a misstep then my misstep is magnified, because I am an isolated case.

I am pursuing talented employees who are traditionally excluded, regardless of what that exclusion is: woman, Hispanic, if you’re disabled in some way. It doesn’t matter who it is, I just want to provide opportunities to other people like myself, who otherwise wouldn’t have had it, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, whatever. But it’s not a discriminatory measure. It doesn’t mean that if I ran across a fabulously talented Caucasian gentleman that I wouldn’t bring him on. If you fit in the corporate culture and our personalities match, let’s give it a shot.

What do you mean when you call Zion Gardens an “artisan” cultivation facility?

My approach is that the development and cultivation of cannabis is a spiritual process and that the plant ultimately sacrifices its life for me, the grower, or for the end consumer. In its end phase of life, it produces everything and pushes all of its essence out for me to then cut it, dry it and consume it. When the end consumer consumes it, it completes that spiritual process.

I feel like what we do is unique. We didn’t purchase the technology for our facility; we built it and designed it. The entire building is built on a design of a prototype I created. We also hand-water our plants for now. And soon, phase two is coming, where we’ll expand the building.

You mentioned you’re passionate about the location. Why?

There are going to be a lot of people within this community who buy product in this industry. This is a very, very significant part of the community here, and it’s important to us to not only be a great civic partner to North Las Vegas, but to represent minority cannabis cultivators at the highest level.

We have the opportunity with this community to dispel a lot of notions. If we put a cultivation facility here, and there’s a lot of violence associated with it, nobody is going to want to do business here. But if the community embraces us and protects us and acts in symbiosis with us like we have with them, not only will more cultivators come to the land that is available in North Las Vegas, but also the taxes that we pay will go to educational programs that benefit this area.

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