A reformed San Francisco gangster fights a relatively minor battle with a big backstory: opening a legal cannabis dispensary in the Sunset District.
Ron Newt has fought bigger battles. This is small potatoes to him.
When Newt meets me at a café to discuss his application to open a cannabis dispensary on Taraval Street, he is initially calm and reserved. He has a meeting at City Hall with the Office of Cannabis, and he’s come prepared. Every candidate for District 4 Supervisor has come out in opposition to his business, but he’s not backing down. He seems reluctant to give the situation any more words than it deserves.
“I’m not worried. What can they do? It’s in the purple zone,” he says, referring to the Planning Department’s maps outlining commercial corridors where Medical Cannabis Dispensaries can operate. “It’s all legal.”
Ron Newt has had a storied past with the law, to say the least—as a well-known pimp, drug dealer, and music entrepreneur, he became the stuff of legend in the Bay Area. He recently sued the creators of Fox’s hit TV show Empire, along with the network, and claims that the actor Terrence Howard stole the story from him. A judge dismissed his suit in 2016, but he plans to appeal.
“They think it’s over, but it ain’t over,” he later says. “I’m ready.” When the new season of the show comes out, he is certain he’ll find more similarities to his life story, and he’ll have even more grounds to sue.
Compared to that, his proposed cannabis business at 2014 Taraval Street is much more straightforward. As a former convict, he was eligible for the Office of Cannabis’ Equity Program, which prioritizes permit applications for San Francisco residents rebuilding their lives after the War on Drugs. The program also waives the $5,000 permit application fee, along with an “incubator partnership” that could provide up to three years’ of rent assistance or technical consulting. Newt is one of the first business owners to apply for a permit from the Office of Cannabis under the program.
“I’ve turned my life around, and I’ve been legit for over twenty years,” he says. And furthermore, he’s skeptical that the resistance to medical cannabis in the Sunset is as widespread as politicians make it seem.
At a press conference in front of the proposed Happy Herbs location, Supervisorial candidate Gordon Mar told the San Francisco Examiner that although adult cannabis use was legalized by California voters in 2016, the Sunset would need more time for its use to be “normalized” in the community. This reluctance to accept changing norms is even more salient in Chinatown, where the Board of Supervisors recently passed a ban on cannabis dispensaries by an 8-3 vote.
Newt scoffs at this on multiple fronts.
“Marijuana is a medicine. It’s helpful for kids with epilepsy, people with cancer,” he says. “We just have to accept that it’s a medicine. The marijuana plant has been around since God turned on the light.” Cannabis has indeed been cultivated for thousands of years, but Newt further contends that he hears of it often being cultivated without permits in “the Avenues,” where legal operations remain scarce. In a follow-up investigation, the Beacon found a complaint filed with the Planning Department on September 17th, alleging an unpermitted growing operation at 30th Ave & Irving that seems to support his assertion.
Rather than building a tenuous bridge between the cannabis industry and the Chinese community in the Sunset, Newt contends that he is crossing a well-established bridge between the City’s Asian and Black communities.
“I’m beginning the process of meeting with local community groups. That’s my next step,” he says. When asked if he expects resistance from Chinese community groups, especially given the Chinatown ban, he shakes his head. “My landlord [on Taraval] is Chinese. They’re supportive. The mother of my children is Chinese. How many people are really opposed to it anyway—is it really the whole neighborhood that’s against it, or just five or six people and these politicians?”
The SF Examiner reported that fellow District 4 candidate Trevor McNeil agreed with Mar’s opposition to the proposed Happy Herbs storefront on Taraval, but McNeil further explained in an interview that the neighborhood outreach process was essential for any business seeking to establish itself in the Sunset.
“A lot of businesses in the Sunset are successful by being good neighbors. They become local institutions and I’m happy to support them. If businesses come in, they should try to be good neighbors,” McNeil said. “You cannot codify these things, and that’s not how the process is supposed to work.”
“Residents deserve to have a say in where dispensaries open in their neighborhood,” said Jessica Ho, another contender for the District 4 seat. “As we adjust to a new reality of cannabis being legalized, we need to take a common sense approach to where dispensaries open in our city. If the majority of neighbors oppose a dispensary in one location, or support it in another, Supervisors should echo those concerns.”
But just how exactly legal cannabis products will be “normalized” for everyone in the neighborhood, or how Sunset residents will “adjust” to it, remains a matter of open speculation.
McNeil also supports Mar’s proposal to expand the buffer zones prohibiting cannabis dispensaries from opening around schools and daycares, from the current 600-foot radius to something larger. When asked what that larger radius would be, McNeil said: “If a certain size of buffer zone proves effective, then I will support it. Data will show the way—and I’m going to base my policies on that, not whatever soundbite sounds good.” (At press time, Mar did not provide responses to our questions regarding these policies.)
Further, there’s the issue of geographic equity: most cannabis businesses have opened in San Francisco’s denser eastern side, forcing cannabis patients in more residential western neighborhoods to travel farther or rely on delivery services. According to the Office of Cannabis, over 70 individuals have applied for permits under their Equity Program, but Newt’s is the only one to have have a permit under consideration in the Sunset District.
Only one other dispensary, Barbary Coast Sunset, was permitted on Irving Street after the Board of Supervisors rejected numerous appeals. After receiving a permit from the Office of Cannabis, Newt must seek a Conditional Use Permit from the Planning Department, which neighbors have vowed to appeal.
“What’s the issue here?” Newt asks with muted indignation. “There are business owners from the Sunset who open up shop in the Bayview-Hunters Point, and we’re fine with it. We’re not going tell you that you can’t do business here, so why would someone say we can’t come and open a legal business in their part of town? To me, we’re all one color, one city.”
Marijuana criminalization in particular was strategically enforced by the Nixon administration starting in the 1970s, and former White House officials have since confessed that these policies were intended to disrupt activism in left-wing and African-American communities. Since Proposition 64 legalized adult recreational marijuana use in California, some industry observers have criticized the booming industry for disproportionately benefiting white entrepreneurs who were unaffected by these historic injustices. San Francisco’s Equity Program is designed to stymie that trend.
“The Equity Program was thoughtfully constructed. Supervisor Malia Cohen showed a lot of leadership in putting the program together,” McNeil said of the program. “Every district and every city in California is under the jurisdiction of state laws in which cannabis is legal.”
Newt is nearly a platonic ideal of the Equity Program’s goals. His life is a true rags-to-riches odyssey, a boom-and-bust tragedy of wealth and poverty, sex and violence, drugs and music. Though he’s lived a law-abiding civilian life for decades, he quite literally wears his story on his sleeve: namely, on a running jacket emblazoned with his name, as well as “The Real Empire” and “Smooth Criminal” printed in clear block letters—the latter in reference to the famous song written about him by his cousin Joe Jackson’s son, Michael.
Some signs suggest that Ron Newt was almost predestined for legend. For example, his father occasionally retained the legal services of a small-time defense attorney who later became California’s most powerful politician, Willie Brown. A cash millionaire by 16, Newt’s life was filled with unimaginable violence and opulence, but even amid a total of 165 arrests, he was always a family man at the end of the day. In one story he vividly relates in an interview with DJ Vlad, Newt claims he was forced to blast his pet lion with several machine guns after the beast almost killed his young daughter. After surviving a particularly grisly shootout, Newt decided to leave the world of crime and devote his riches to his sons’ budding music career. But that, too, was not meant to be.
In 1989, Newt broke out of prison, where he was serving time for weapon possession charges, after the establishment of a major record deal for the Newtrons, an R&B band consisting of his three sons. A year later, with the Newtrons’ debut receiving a tepid response, he was arrested again in the lobby of MCA Records after a confrontation turned violent. In 1991, while Ron served out his sentence, one of his sons, Ronnie Jr., was shot and killed in San Bernardino after an attempted armed robbery.
After gaining his freedom, Newt was offered $200,000 by the National Enquirer tabloid to fabricate a story about Michael Jackson molesting his sons as teenagers. Newt claims a contract was drafted, and he feigned interest until the last second—at which time, he wrote “No good, sucker” on the signature line.
He offers to show me the contract sometime.
Newt lights up when telling these stories. Narrating his life, though in part intended as penance for his sins, is clearly meant to entertain as much as caution. He’s told it in multiple mediums, first in the hyperbole-laden memoir Bigger than Big, and now after the dismissed lawsuit against Fox, in a self-made documentary The Real Empire.
“The most important thing is to find investors,” he explains. His son Robert Newt, now based in Burbank, is an investor in Happy Herbs. In his estimation, however, the Equity Program could do more to promote prosperity for previously incarcerated cannabis entrepreneurs, and the Equity Incubator is a step in the right direction.
“Some of these places are charging $15-20,000 in rent a month, because they’re cannabis businesses.” So once the city’s assistance runs out, he adds, “if you don’t know people, you’re not going to make it. I think the city could work with new business owners to help with that.”
Soon, Happy Herbs will have a hearing scheduled for its Conditional Use Permit. Newt hopes to drum up support from the neighborhood by then. Jimmy La, a Sunset resident who volunteers with the neighborhood organization Westside = Best Side, believes he will find it.
“There are many cannabis patients who go unrecognized by City Hall, and by Supervisors who only listen to their loudest local constituents,” La said. “We believe it is time they listen to all of us, and respect the will of California voters.”
Amid all this drama, it should not escape notice that the most interesting twists and turns in this Taraval saga are the most underwhelming ones. To wit: Ron Newt no longer smokes marijuana. He hasn’t touched it in years.
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