Kevin Ford is a big believer in the power of the cannabis plant. After his home state of Maryland legalized medical cannabis, he pursued work with a plant-touching operator, sure that his experience in the legacy market would open opportunities. Despite his experience and drive, the opportunity didn’t exist; furthermore, he realized that the process of even becoming a patient in Maryland was opaque, at best.
Kevin knew that if he was experiencing these roadblocks, surely others were as well, so he founded Uplift Maryland to assist Maryland patients through these complicated processes. But, while he had founded Uplift with the hopes of helping others navigate through Maryland’s medical cannabis process, it soon developed into an education-focused community prioritizing diversity and inclusion, and the company has since rebranded to Uplift National.
This Q&A interview covers Uplift’s recent rebranding, its extended operations, and how Uplift is working to build bridges in the cannabis space and assist even more entrepreneurs who are interested in the cannabis industry. Kevin also talks about how his prior government experience helps him identify areas where the Black community and other disenfranchised communities have been systematically blocked from opportunities, adjustments to the COVID pandemic, and more!
Ganjapreneur: What was your perception of cannabis while growing up in a family of medical professionals? Has that perception changed?
Kevin Ford: I was first introduced to cannabis by one of my best friends in 8th grade. At that point, I quickly began to realize that the plant was all around me. Somewhere around the beginning of high school, my mom found some weed that I thought I was hiding under the sink. She angrily approached me and taught me a lesson about drugs. In the midst of it all, I saw it as just a plant. This is the perception I grew into and continue to cultivate. At the time, I didn’t realize that my mom’s perception was based on her reality, as a young trauma surgeon, seeing the worst of DC’s drug violence in the 80s and 90s. Throughout the years, we’ve differed on our opinions of cannabis, even after it became medically legal here in Maryland.
Shortly after starting Uplift, I began to win my parents’ approval. Once my father learned that legislation had been passed to protect medical professionals issuing medical cannabis certifications, my dad registered to be a provider. He was amazed by his patients’ new outlook on life after using cannabis, which transformed his perception of cannabis as medicine. My mother was more intrigued by the educational opportunities cannabis provides. In 2018, a day before Thanksgiving, Uplift was awarded a grant from the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to develop and implement an education and business development training for minorities and women interested in applying for grower and processor licenses in 2019. Excited to tell my family about my accomplishment, it was there at the dinner table where I’d finally won over both of my parents’ support for my ambitions in the cannabis industry.
When did you found Uplift Maryland? What inspired you to start the business?
Based on my past experience with cannabis in the legacy market, I knew this was the industry for me. I’ve always wanted to be a plant touching operator, and still do, but opportunity was absent. I had also just become a medical patient and realized how hard the registration and certification process was to navigate; this is what led me to start Uplift Maryland, which was born in August 2018. We originally started as a one-stop shop for all things medical cannabis in Maryland, but quickly grew into so much more than we intended. Our educational success was not what I initially set out to accomplish, but it has given me a true mission: to increase diversity and inclusion within the cannabis industry. The first step is fighting to End the Stigma through education and training. Uplift has assisted aspiring ganjapreneurs in starting their businesses, and has offered detailed training to patients and budtenders to broaden their overall cannabis knowledge. My previous employment with the Prince George’s County Government ignited my passion for supplier diversity and development. This passion has been the driving force behind developing Uplift as a prominent advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in the cannabis industry.
How did your prior work experience working in county government fold into how you’ve founded and grown Uplift?
My prior work experience cultivated a true passion for minority business development. Although my interest in the industry was to be an operator, the lack of Black representation in Maryland’s industry fueled my interest in sharing the resources that I was able to accumulate prior to, and during, my professional career. The only cannabis opportunity available with the commission, at the time, was the Education and Business Development program grant. It was during that process that I came up with the idea for Uplift. I figured while this was not the route I wanted to take, it could still meet my goal of helping minorities into the cannabis industry.
What are some specific ways that the education programs have worked towards your mission to ‘End the Stigma’ and increase diversity in the industry?
The stigma exists, in part, because of decades of misinformation and propaganda pushed upon us, in addition to the post-traumatic stress that stemmed from abusive enforcement of unjust marijuana laws. The changing tide of legality mixed with proper information regarding therapeutic use and economic development will be the starting point for the Black community to change the overarching perception of cannabis. At Uplift, our core goal is to evolve the relationship between Black people and cannabis. We do this in three ways: providing education that reframes the narrative, creating training programs that prepare our community for success in the cannabis Industry, and engaging in social action that is aimed at making the industry more equitable and accessible for the people who have been historically excluded.
Who can benefit from Uplift training? What sources are used to create these trainings?
Our goal is to ensure that people of all knowledge levels can find something to gain from Uplift’s services. As we transition to educating and training nationwide, and with the COVID environment at full force, we’ve switched our education platform from in-person to online. Uplift National is our new membership platform that combines a variety of training and educational content. We will utilize self-paced courses, webinars, news, and resources to ensure that our community is fully equipped for the future of the cannabis industry. For example, if someone is unfamiliar with the process behind becoming a medical marijuana patient in their state, we help to simplify that process. We also support current patients with yearly recertification and navigating through any questions or concerns they may have. We also offer consultations for individuals looking to start a business in the cannabis industry.
What kind of support do you provide to patients, caregivers, and providers as they sign up for the Maryland cannabis patient program?
We provide them all with assistance in registering for the state’s medical program based on their classification. Additionally, we have programming geared to each person depending on where they are in their journey. For example, if someone is interested in becoming a medical patient or caregiver, we can get them registered with the state, provide a list of doctors in their area, and they can also join our community series where we hold conversation on basic topics like the different types of consumption methods. While we haven’t done much provider education in the past, we look forward to teaming up with medical organizations, such as the National Medical Association, to ensure that medical professionals are equipped with the information they need to properly steer their patients in the right direction.
Has Uplift expanded from Maryland since your founding?
We are currently transitioning from Uplift Maryland to Uplift National, which is our national platform. As more states legalize medical and recreational use, we aim to serve as a resource that helps to support Black people with entering the cannabis industry. Uplift National is a champion for equity, inclusion, and diversity in the cannabis market. Education is the cornerstone of our work. Our new membership community will launch after the rebrand is complete. It will allow members from all over the country to interact and learn together, by offering a library of regularly updated educational content.
How could state legislators better serve the communities impacted by prohibition in both the adult-use and medical cannabis markets?
The major issue is opportunity. Limited market states, like Maryland, have license caps. These caps tend to fuel an environment of greed and corruption. It continues to keep Black people, and other oppressed communities, away from the opportunities while the wealthy continue to build. Passing legislation that utilizes cannabis and hemp to close a portion of the wealth gap would be in the best interest of the community. Considering the harm failed legislation and public safety “professionals” have caused, it’s Uplift’s belief that it’s the government’s, as well as corporate cannabis companies’, responsibility to provide opportunities and resources for vulnerable communities that were most harmed by previous failed policies.
What can people learn from the most recent Community Series? Has the series had to adapt during COVID-19?
Our Community Series was originally intended to be a series of in-person educational sessions through Maryland in conjunction with our sponsor Select. However, due to COVID, we were unable to carry out our original plans. We then shifted our focus to creating monthly educational content that showcases presentations and expert-led conversations about each monthly topic. For example, Session 3 of our community series was focused on Advocacy and Lobbying. The goal of this session was to provide viewers with a basic understanding of the various ways to get involved with cannabis policy in Maryland, while differentiating advocating vs lobbying.
Do you think that the recent cannabis laws voted in during the last election will influence federal legalization efforts?
I don’t believe that New Jersey’s legalization of adult use marijuana was the catalyst to federal legalization, but it absolutely created a ripple effect down the East Coast. Every surrounding state, down to Virginia, has legislation pre-filed for legalization. 2021 could prove to be an even more exciting year for cannabis. This is why our focus at Uplift has been focused on training our community for the future and ending the stigma with education.
Thank you, Kevin, for answering our questions! Learn more about Kevin Ford and Uplift National at UpliftNational.org.