From Tech to Cannabis
It’s a frigid evening at a funky college bar in the Sunset District and Morris Kelly can be found in the bar’s back patio breaking down weed by hand — a rarity these days.
Kelly is preparing a blunt, which he says are starting to disappear with the emergence of pre-rolled joints. “Passing around a blunt is a tradition in the Bay Area that’s dying out,” says Kelly.
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 studying at City College of San Francisco, Kelly joined Hewlett Packard in Cupertino as a data technician tasked with moving IT infrastructure. It wasn’t long before he tired of the tech scene, but luckily for Kelly, his marijuana expertise came through as a fallback career. This time around, though, he wanted to do things by the book.
Empowered by his knowledge of the plant and a desire to cater to those who seek it, Kelly joined California’s medical marijuana market under Proposition 215. Not long after he began selling edible baked goods to medical collectives, he noticed a need 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 dabbling in the delivery space. After launching two short-lived delivery companies, Kelly’s third attempt, Greencuredelivery, successfully distributed medical marijuana throughout the Bay Area for four years.
In 2014, Kelly launched SF Roots, a line of flower bud and now, pre-rolls. The company prides itself on being true to the city that allowed it to flourish. “SF Roots to me and my employees is a means of fighting for a place to be in the cannabis space and be here in the city despite gentrification,” Kelly tells SF Weekly. Four years after its inception, SF Roots transitioned under Proposition 64 to the recreational market. Kelly says SF Roots had a fairly painless transition compared to other brands, thanks in part to the early adoption of rigorous lab testing, which became state-mandated six months into legalization.
SF Roots is a part of the city’s Equity Program — a structured initiative launched to help level the playing field in the cannabis industry. For applicants who qualify through their income, housing, or cannabis-related arrests, the program is an attempt by the government to make amends for the detrimental war on drugs that tore communities apart.
“If you’re a black or brown business owner, these equity programs are a way to get you through the door and their very presence in the industry is activism,” says Nina Parks, president of the Original Equity Group. “We don’t know what’s going to happen once legalization is national or international, that’s why it is imperative in the beginning stages of the industry for companies like SF Roots to become a hallmark brand.”
Kelly and his team are relentless in getting the graffiti-inspired ‘SF Roots’ logo on dispensary shelves around the Bay Area. In October, the cannabis delivery service Eaze launched an accelerator program and a partnership program to highlight social equity brands like SF Roots, which became one of the first partners in Eaze’s program. Kelly hopes the partnership will allow his company to expand to Los Angeles, and, eventually, other countries.
There’s a lot of people who want a piece 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 forthcoming partnerships, Kelly emphasized the importance of preserving the art, activism, and community that served as the foundation for the brand. “SF Roots was born out of a native mindset, and we’re devoted to building a brand that creates a more sustainable and inclusive city,” says Kelly. 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 locals as the company grows. “We’re a ragtag 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,” says Kelly.