It’s a frigid evening at a funky college bar in the Sunset District and Morris Kelly can be found on the back patio of the bar breaking down weed by hand – a rarity these days.
Kelly prepares a blunt, which he says begins to disappear with the rise of pre-rolled joints. “Passing a blunt is a dying Bay Area tradition,” Kelly says.
Kelly, 35, is the founder and CEO of social equity cannabis company SF Roots. Kelly got his start in the industry as a teenager selling weed in Golden Gate Park. After graduating from City College of San Francisco, Kelly joined Hewlett Packard in Cupertino as a data engineer tasked with moving IT infrastructure. It didn’t take him long to get tired of the tech scene, but luckily for Kelly, his marijuana expertise came through as a fallback career. This time, however, he wanted to do it by the book.
Buoyed by his knowledge of the plant and a desire to satisfy those who seek it, Kelly entered the California medical marijuana market under Proposition 215. Not long after he began selling edible baked goods to medical collectives, he found that he needed to improve his business model to better meet customer demand.
The obvious next step for Kelly was to streamline his supply chain by distributing his own product, and he began to dabble in the delivery space. After launching two short-lived delivery companies, Kelly’s third effort, Greencuredellivery, successfully distributed medical marijuana in the Bay Area for four years.
In 2014 Kelly launched SF Roots, a line of flower buds and now pre-rolls. The company prides itself on being faithful to the city that allowed it to thrive. “SF Roots is a way for me and my employees to fight for a place to be in the cannabis space and to be here in the city, despite gentrification,” Kelly tells SF Weekly. Four years after its founding, SF Roots switched to the recreational market under Proposition 64. Kelly says SF Roots had a fairly painless transition compared to other brands, thanks in part to the early adoption of rigorous lab testing, mandated by the state six months after legalization.
SF Roots is part of the city’s Equity Program – a structured initiative launched to level the playing field in the cannabis industry. For applicants who qualify by income, housing or cannabis-related arrests, the program is a government effort to make amends for the damaging war on drugs that tore communities apart.
“If you’re a black or brown business owner, these stock programs are a way to get you through the door, and their presence in the industry is activism,” said Nina Parks, president of the Original Equity Group. “We don’t know what will happen once legalization is national or international, which is why it is necessary in the early stages of the industry for companies like SF Roots to become a signature brand.”
Kelly and his team are relentless in getting the graffiti-inspired “SF Roots” logo on Bay Area pharmacy shelves. In October, cannabis delivery service Eaze launched an accelerator and partnership program to showcase social equity brands such as SF Roots, which became one of the first partners in Eaze’s program. Kelly hopes the partnership will allow his company to expand into Los Angeles and eventually other countries.
There are many people who want a slice of the ‘green rush’, but Kelly warns that anyone looking to make a quick buck won’t last long in the current regulatory and operational landscape.
As SF Roots scales with new and upcoming partnerships, Kelly emphasized the importance of preserving the art, activism and community that served as the foundation for the brand. “SF Roots was born from a native mindset and we are committed to building a brand that creates a more sustainable and inclusive city,” Kelly says. The robust team of 10 employees that make up SF Roots all have strong ties to the Bay Area, and Kelly plans to hire more local people as the business grows. “We’re a bunch of skilled workers from the city, we’re still in the city, and we’re the first generation to break the cycle of wealth inequality,” Kelly says.