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Berner, right, and Shawn Richard, inside Berner’s on Haight, their San Francisco cannabis store that opens Dec. 21.

The creator of Cookies, the popular cannabis and lifestyles brand, helps businesses founded by victims of America’s War on Drugs, including the first legal pot store in San Francisco’s counterculture epicenter. 

By Ed Murrieta

SAN FRANCISCO — As a Mexican-American kid from one of the city’s working-class neighborhoods, Gilbert Milam Jr., aka Berner, the creator of the popular cannabis and lifestyles brand Cookies, wanted a career in music. 

He got a day-job as a doorman at an influential medicinal cannabis dispensary, eventually managing the joint and buying and marketing all the product in the store. 

His rapping and beat-making also took off. 

Cookies, the potent plant strains Berner popularized in song and on stage, blazed a trail, becoming a multi-million-dollar vertically integrated brand that spans high-end cannabis products, cannabis retail stores from Los Angeles to Seattle, designer streetwear (aka $100 hoodies), premium paraphernalia, and Berner’s latest cannabis kingpin move: partnering with businesses founded by victims of America’s War on Drugs.

I propose a feature-length profile of Berner, pegged to the opening of Berner’s on Haight, the cannabis store he’s funded in partnership with an equity applicant — the cannabis world’s bureaucratic buzzwords for helping people affected by the War on Drugs cut through the red tape of a newly legal green rush. 

While equity applicants have ample experience with cannabis from the illicit market, most lack money to launch or sustain businesses in the heavily regulated, capital-intensive legal market.

That’s where Berner, 36, and Cookies, founded in 2012, come in, and that’s where my story begins: at the Dec. 21 opening of Berner’s on Haight, the first legal cannabis store in the San Francisco neighborhood where, among other trippy highlights, pothead Merry Prankster Ken Kesey and members of the Grateful Dead were famously busted in the 1960s. 

Berner and Cookies partnered with Shawn Richard, the store’s licensee who grew up in the fabled neighborhood, sold drugs on Haight Street, and did prison time. Funding and operational assistance from Berner and Cookies enabled Richard and his partners to open for business, something they otherwise could not easily afford to do, equity license or not. 

“You can’t do it alone,” Richard, who owns 40 percent of the Cole Ashbury Group, the business entity that owns the store’s permit, told me for a story I reported for the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. “Equity partners have to have some type of big funding. Cookies has the funding to help us open up this store and they understand the equity plan. And Berner is a hometown homeboy.”

Berner’s on Haight indeed sparks hometown pride for the kid from one of the city’s working-class neighborhoods.

“I knew a lot of people were being taken advantage of so it felt good to bring a real fair deal to the table for Shawn,” Berner told me earlier this fall while standing inside the store as construction was under way. “The fact that we’re opening up our first store in San Francisco on Haight Street with Frisco natives is the biggest compliment to our brand, straight up. You see the smile on my face? I can’t stop smiling. It’s life-goal stuff. When we opened the Cookies clothing store on Haight Street that was a big life goal. Now that we’re here with cannabis, where the herb started, it’s beautiful.”

The opening of Berner’s on Haight (which San Francisco’s cannabis office won’t allow to be called Cookies out of concern the name appeals to children) follows the Dec. 6 opening in Oakland of a fifth Cookies-branded cannabis store, and coincides with Berner’s fourth annual Christmas concert in San Francisco on Dec. 21, follows a national tour, two new albums and a documentary about Berner’s music, clothing and cannabis.

For my story, I’ll follow Berner at the openings of both San Francisco and Oakland stores and interview him on his Cookies tour bus and backstage at his Christmas concert. Other angles to be explored: Berner as the most powerful and successful Latino in the cannabis industry; Berner’s beefs with industry rivals and technology gatekeepers; and what Berner’s social media posts  about his obsessive work ethic, stashes of pot and cash, and missing his 10-year-old daughter when he’s on the road reveal about a rapping weed mogul who balances work, family and fame.