For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May, we called up Ophelia Chong, the founder of StockPot Images and the co-founder of Asian-Americans for Cannabis Education. We talked about her goals of changing public perception of marijuana use and encouraging more diversity in the cannabis industry, how Asian-Americans can get involved in this space, and what initially inspired her to start advocating for this plant.
Chong has been recognized for her work in the cannabis industry by High Times, Forbes, and Green Entrepreneur. Currently, she is an advisor to psychedelic science magazine Doubleblind, an art director in the MFA writing program at CalArts, and a marketing professor. She previously worked as a professional photographer at her independent stock photo agency, StockPot Images, which specialized in cannabis and psilocybin.
People’s: What inspired you and Monica [Lo] to start [Asian Americans for Cannabis Education (AACE)]?
OPHELIA: What inspired us to do it is that whenever I went to a cannabis conference or a cannabis group, I was the only person of color in the room… And what I did notice, too, is that there are very few Asians at these things. I already knew it was a cultural issue with Asians in cannabis, because of our heritage, right? We’re totally, you know, “Gotta get a job, you know, gotta do this, gotta do that!” So you shouldn’t really be doing drugs.
Oh, yeah. No time for messing around, right?
Yeah, yeah! It’s like, “Get your doctorate degree! You know, you gotta be a lawyer [or] accountant!” And, so, if [Asian parents] saw drugs, they thought, oh my God, “My child is going to be an addict, and when they get older they can’t look after me!”, because in our culture, we look after our parents.
So if they thought you were a quote-unquote “drug-addled addict”, you wouldn’t be able to look after them. That was their perception, because of everything that they’ve heard in the public space. You know, propaganda, D.A.R.E. and all that, their church group… So, I started AACE, along with Monica, to try and educate people.
Yeah! The African market got busy, so she left, and then I just started out by myself for the last five-plus years.
I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to seek out other people who are higher up in the food chain, because it’s impressive to say, ‘This is the CEO of [the company], this is the SVP, or, this is the founder!” to show that Harvard, Yale, Stanford, [or] Berkeley-[educated] Asian-Americans can succeed in cannabis. I have one [example], Connie Lee, who started the first cannabis business forum at Yale about five years ago. So, it’s like, “Wow! She went to Yale and she’s still okay!”
It’s to show that Ivy League graduates go into cannabis, because they’re not stupid, because they know the benefits of the plant, plus they also know that they can build a whole business around it.
So how does how does AACE accomplish that? How does AACE encourage Asian-Americans to enter the cannabis industry?
Ah, good question! Well, I did a lot of lobbying. I did a lot of work with the city of San Francisco. I worked with a large chain of dispensaries called Apothecarium.
I went up there to work with a lobbyist to try to speak to the local community who was fighting against the license in the Sunset District, which is heavily Asian. I went up there to help them do that however [I could], and so I met with groups. In the city of El Monte, I worked with Mayor Quintero to put on a full-day event with Asian-American doctors to speak about the benefits of cannabis. El Monte also wanted to bring in cannabis licenses for growing, because they needed it for their budget, right? Everything was falling down a bit, so that’s what I did.
I’m just a one-man dance, and that’s how I do it! And also, every time I meet another CEO or founder, I always ask them, “Can I interview you?” Everyone always says yes; everyone is always very happy to help, because they feel that it’s their job to help teach people about what cannabis is, right? The benefits rather than the horror stories.
Definitely, yeah. So what has a AACE been able to accomplish so far? What are you most proud of?
Well, let’s see. We’re in the public’s eyes. People see what we’re trying to do, and it’s a way for people like me who are in the industry to see that there’s more of us. I would say it has helped educate fellow Asian-Americans, but also fills up a place so that other Asian-Americans think “They’re doing it, and I want to do it. If they can do it, then I can!”
It’s giving sort of a permission to go into cannabis. It’s so that they can say, “Look, Mom and Dad! This woman went to Yale, and look how well she’s doing, because she is advocating for the plant using her degree.” So, for a lot of people it’s a way of saying, “Look, they did it, and I can do it too. We’re not what you think we are”. It’s shining a light on cannabis in the true way, in truth.
It absolutely is. Where you see things heading in the cannabis industry as far as intersection with the Asian American community?
Ah, well, Asian-Americans are just growing faster and faster. Like, say, Socrates Rosenfeld, who has amazing pedigree. He’s Indonesian, Jewish, and a whole smattering of other things. He also was a captain in the Navy; he was head of a whole helicopter squadron in Afghanistan. Now he’s the founder of iHeartJane, which just got 27 million last year in funding.
[In regards to Asian-Americans entering the cannabis industry,] what I see is that cannabis is like white bread. This is how I see it… you use it as a springboard. If you are an amazing accountant, you start a firm that specializes in cannabis. If you’re a doctor who wants to find alternative ways of healing your patients, you become an expert at it, like Dr. [Tim] Shu, [founder of VetCBD], who was also interviewed on AACE. He’s a veterinarian who went to A&M and developed CBD and THC products.
When people ask me “How do I get into cannabis?” whether they’re Asian or not, I say “Well, what do you do that you are the best at?”
If it’s, “Well, I’m a really great designer”, [then] study the laws around [cannabis] and then become that person who is great at designing cannabis, ’cause you’re already great at designing everything else. You just have to be able to study. Same with accounting, or [being] a doctor or a lawyer. [Entering the cannabis field] doesn’t necessarily mean you have to learn new skills, it’s just, you know, reading a few more books and reaching out a few more people.
Just applying the skills you have to this field, right?
Yeah! whatever you’re great at, just add cannabis. I like to say it’s our math equation:
YOU + CANNABIS = NEW CAREER.
Ophelia, what originally got you interested in the cannabis industry?
My sister, who has an autoimmune disease… came from a foreign country that didn’t allow cannabis use. So, she came here to try and see if it would help her. This was really early—about five, six years ago, and I had no dealings with cannabis at all.
…I realized that everyone was stereotyped. I looked at my sister and thought, “They’re gonna think that she is a stoner or a drug addict. I’ve been in the photography and film business for about 30 years, so I looked around and I thought, “Let’s see how stock agencies portray my sister.”
I went to Getty and a couple of other large [stock photo websites] and I typed in “stoner”. What came up was pictures of African-American men… the keywords that they had listed for these African-American men with cannabis was “illegal”, “addict”, “drug addict”, “drug dealer”, “criminal”, all those words.
And that that was 2015! Now we’re in the day of George Floyd, and Getty is still doing this!
I needed to change it, so I created StockPot Images and provided only real images of cannabis—pregnant women, seniors, black, white, yellow, brown, LGBTQ, drag queens, doctors, everything! Photos of them using cannabis. Plus, I had to get a model release that each one of them had to sign saying “I acknowledge that I’m holding a Schedule I drug.”
Wow, that’s bold. I like it.
it wasn’t, as far as I thought, but it was a big step.
One of my subjects was a 75 year-old African-American man named Terrence in his most beautiful Sunday outfit, with his hat, holding a joint [and] smoking outside. If you can imagine a 70 year-old black man smoking a joint outside, what would happen to him? He was courageous and wanted to push the story forward. He allowed his photograph to be taken for stock photography.
I have the largest collection of strains in the world—fresh flower and dried. Like, over 3,000 strains, and I also feature hemp and psilocybin.
I closed down in December 2019, two months before COVID… but I still have my hand in cannabis by doing a lot of consulting.
What unique things [are] Asian-Americans able to bring to the table when it comes to the cannabis industry?
[You have to look at] the amazing women that I have interviewed, from Mimi Lam of Superette, one of the most well designed chains of dispensaries up in Ontario, Canada; to Connie Lee; to Maha Haq, who is part Pakistani and going for her PhD in cannabinoids and studies of it.
My hope is that more Asian-Americans can enter this using the skills that they have, but knowing now that they have the support of other women, especially other Asian-Americans. Women in the cannabis industry are supportive of all the ones coming in, right? So we’re not exclusive, we’re inclusive.
The same is true for Asian-American men, too, but I like to also highlight a lot of women because we don’t like to crow about our stuff. The men will say, “I’m the CEO!” but women [will say], “Well, I do this [thing].” It’s like, you do more than that!
That is my hope—that more Asian-American women will go into this as healers, as researchers, as founders of companies, store owners, everywhere. That’s my hope.
Thanks, Ophelia… It was so nice to meet you. I had so much fun chatting!
Well, me too! Thank you so much for asking me to talk about myself.