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Hidden Gems: Meet Pearl Ayon of Sage & Fire

Today we’d like to introduce you to Pearl Ayon.  

Hi Pearl, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
Alex and I have been working in the commercial cannabis industry since 2009 here in San Diego. Prior to that we were growers vending to the numerous dispensaries operating in the region, and in 2009 we opened our first retail dispensary delivery and storefront called I and I Rootz. It was a very chaotic time for the industry back then, CA voters had legalized medical marijuana, providing us a legal defense to cultivate and distribute in a medical collective environment. However, the regulations weren’t yet designed and there was a lot of conflict between cannabis operators and law enforcement and governing authorities. We called it the wild west because we were pioneering new grounds for the industry. Fighting for our right to operate our dispensaries, it was very sketchy but we had a lot of momentum as the cannabis community because there were so many growers and stores that the City couldn’t keep up in their efforts to shut them down. In 2012, the city moved to create a law about cannabis businesses. Their first attempt at regulating all the stores amounted to essentially a defacto ban on cannabis dispensary storefronts. Upon realizing what was happening, we helped cofound a trade association, along with several other dispensary operators, to create a unified voice and perspective that could attempt to work with the City as they crafted their ordinance. It was called the Patient Care Association of CA. The collaboration with the city didn’t go as we had hoped. The ordinance the city passed was too restrictive, threatening to shut down 100s of storefronts, costing hundreds to thousands of good-paying jobs for local San Diegans. This was back in 2011 or so. And the City just didn’t understand the industry enough to feel comfortable regulating it. But our livelihoods and the lives of so many other people were at stake, so we organized a campaign to collect signatures to rescind the ordinance in hopes of creating something more equitable for our industry, while also balancing the concerns of the community. It was a great success, we collected over 40k signatures and the Council went back to the drawing board. But before we could have that first conversation to design a better regulatory ordinance, the Federal government launched a crackdown in the area and devasted the industry. They began threatening landlords with asset forfeiture if they rented to dispensaries, then every week the federal government raided numerous dispensaries, and over a period of 2 months or so nearly all 200 dispensaries in the city were either raided or closed out of fear. We held out for as long as we could until the DEA came into our store and told us we had 48 hours to shut down before we would be raided. From the wild west, it went back to the dark ages, prohibition. Tens of thousands of San Diego’s lost safe access to medical cannabis. Many businesses disappeared and never returned. We converted our business into a small-scale delivery service. The trade association we cofounded dwindled in membership from over 60 dispensaries to just a handful. But with that small group and other industry stakeholders, we continued in our efforts to work with the city. Around 2014 the City redrafted the ordinance with a hard limit on the number of dispensaries they would allow in the City (36). We were fortunate enough to be so involved that we were able to secure a qualifying site immediately and apply. We were awarded the 3rd license in the City’s history and opened Southwest Patient Group in 2015 in the lovely community of San Ysidro. The community itself was very concerned about our operation. So much so that there were even protests about us opening. San Ysidro is a community of color, and it had experienced some very real traumas under the policies of the War on Drugs. And the idea of a dispensary in their community created a lot of pushback amongst many residents there. We completely understood their concerns, in fact, we shared the very same concerns. So, we made ourselves available to the community, hosted a town hall, and explained our business, our goals, and the measures we would take to protect and respect the neighborhood through a highly regulated operation. We eventually won them over, but at one point there was even a protest march prior to our opening. In the end, we created a lot of synergy with the community. We really feel like we reduced crime in the area because of all our security requirements, we brought a lot of new people into the area looking for cannabis, so we stimulated the local economy by introducing our customers to the businesses and services around us, and we provided so many jobs to people in the region. It was very satisfying, but the hardship didn’t end there, as a licensed and regulated dispensary we abided by a tremendous set of operational requirements and rules. So, our costs to operate were unbelievable. And the challenge ended up being that there was still a massive black market around us. The City of Chula Vista had tons of unlicensed dispensaries that weren’t charging taxes, weren’t testing products and weren’t paying for all the operational costs associated with a permitted storefront. So, they had tremendous competitive advantages at that time. But we survived, we focused on delivering great customer service with an emphasis on education. Our storefront was enormous, 7400 sqft, the largest in the City of San Diego. We learned so much through Southwest Patient Group. We had the most amazing and dedicated staff. In 2020 we applied for a 2nd license in the City of La Mesa and were awarded that license as well. Around that time, we began negotiating with Urbn Leaf to purchase our two storefronts. That finalized at the beginning of 2021. So, our two stores are now Urbn Leaf stores. It seemed like the right move at the time, and we definitely appreciated the break because we had been running dispensaries under the most stressful of conditions for over a decade. But the break didn’t last long. I had an opportunity to compete for a license in the gorgeous community of Lone Pine, out in the Eastern Sierras. I let Alex know what I was doing and he fully supported it. I partnered with a new amazing individual on that project and we finally opened that store just two months ago in May. Alex moved into consulting and has been a great support on my new venture, helping me get Sage & Fire up and running. I’ve got my niece working as the general manager, she has nearly 6 years of experience in the industry. I also recently submitted an application in National City to operate a retail storefront there with a consumption lounge. If I’m awarded that license, it would be the first lounge in the County. I should be hearing back this week. I feel very fortunate to be working in this industry, it’s extraordinarily nourishing. I believe in cannabis for all its medical value, for its benefits environmentally, and for the positive effects, I feel it has on our culture. And as a woman of color, in an industry dominated by white men, I’ve been an underdog. Fortunately, I’ve managed to surround myself with good people, my husband Alex has been the fire that encouraged me forward. He calls me the wise Sage that has guided our journey through this wild industry. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. We’re very hopeful about our future, and I’m really hopeful about being awarded the first consumption lounge license in the County. That is basically the holy grail that our industry has strived for, creating safe spaces for people to consume cannabis. While cannabis is now legal, it isn’t legal to consume in public, there are still conflicts with renters with landlords regarding cannabis use, tourists can’t smoke in hotels or Airbnbs, and so there are very few safe spaces residents and tourists can consume in San Diego. I’m ready to pour my heart into this lounge if it works out, in hopes of providing an educational, social, and healing environment that the community will love and appreciate.

As you know, we’re big fans of Sage & Fire. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
Sage & Fire is the result of over a decade of experience in the cannabis industry. KINDNESS, EMPATHY, AND PURPOSE ARE CORNERSTONES OF THE SAGE & FIRE ETHOS. As original pioneers in California’s industry we’ve committed to maintaining the integrity and spirit of the cannabis movement. It’s about the people, the planet, and the pleasure to serve world-class California cannabis to our customers. To provide the world’s best cannabis we scoured the Trinity Mountains, rode skunk trains through Mendocino forests, and slept under the world’s tallest trees in Humboldt County. Our network consists of the best geneticists, indoor growers, and champion extract artists the world has ever known. We’ve broken bread with the world’s best canna chefs, but our favorite part of it all is bringing it back to you. We’ll never sacrifice on quality because our customers deserve the best!

What makes you happy?
Empowering people makes me feel happy. Everyone deals with mental health issues, and I am definitely not an exception. I have learned a lot about mental health throughout my life and have healed tremendously in my journey, but I’m still learning every day. So, when opportunities present themselves where I’m able to share my experiences and tools with others like me who seek healing, I am more than happy to help. I love bringing awareness into people’s lives whether it be through cannabis, therapy, music, love, meditation, and/or education. I believe awareness, consistency, patience, and the ability to identify problems within us, empower everyone. Empowering begins with healing from the inside out. And to be a part of that process is truly fulfilling to me.

Also, my husband Alex, our dog Mouse, our 4 cats, 9 chickens, turtle, fish, and plants make my heart extremely happy. They are all my therapy.

Contact Info:

Image Credits

Southwest Patient Group
Alex Ayon

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