Keeping Pace With the Green Rush
As medical marijuana becomes a commodity, Oakland sets a new pace for high-end professional services. Meet your new permit consultants—on weed.
Zeta Ceti and Sarah Cross Ceti of Green Rush Consulting
Photo by Ariel Nava
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The afternoon scene at Lake Merritt—a warm, pastel-hued mixture of gold sunshine, blue water, and green grass—seems purpose-built for daydreamers. About 100 people have gathered to smoke it all in, laughing, flying kites, sharing potluck dishes, and lazing about in purple wicker chairs. The only thing that seems anomalous is the astringent aroma of high-potency Sour Diesel. A few passersby can’t repress their confusion as they struggle to understand the juxtaposition of a white-collar after-work picnic and dank bud smoke.
“We’ve shocked people,” said Sarah Cross Ceti, co-founder of the First Friday Social Club, and COO of Oakland’s Green Rush Consulting. “They ask us, ‘Who are you?,’ and we just say, ‘Oh, we’re a community group. You want to join us?’”
Those who do so learn something about a $5.4 billion U.S. industry churning out revenue while getting cleaner, more organic, more pesticide-free, and more carbon-neutral.
Opening up a legal pot shop in 2016 is no simple feat—it can require hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront fees, leases, and labor to craft the lengthy applications and beat out other applicants. Crucial bonus points are awarded for the most environmentally sound, socially conscious companies. Historic regulations in dozens of states have begun to weed black market profiteers from licensed, inspected professional medical cannabis providers.
Hired to help those companies cut through the thickets of red tape are Oaklanders like Cross, and her husband, Zeta Ceti, who is Green Rush’s CEO.
The two Lake Merritt area residents run a 10-person canna-business professional services company in a former doctor’s office in Fruitvale. Fueled by a mix of passions for medical access, social justice, and quality herb, Cross and Ceti have won their clients licenses to deal in eight states. Green Rush and its kind are adding jobs this spring to serve an explosively growing industry ravenous for white-collar talent.
Exactly how Ceti and Cross got here is an unlikely, tumultuous startup story that’s quintessentially Oakland.
Cross is a St. Louis native and journalism degree holder who moved to the Bay Area in 2007 for a photojournalism fellowship at Mother Jones magazine.
Four days into her “dream job,” Fruitvale car thieves robbed her blind, stealing everything out of her locked car. It was such a rookie move. There went thousands of dollars of photo equipment, and a priceless hard drive of work.
“It launched me down another path,” she said. “I wasn’t able to afford to live in San Francisco like I was planning on.”
So Cross arranged a work-trade deal at a North Beach hostel. A lifelong toker, Cross “had no idea how to sell pot. … I’ve never really even bought it.”
Yet all around her were Northern California’s “best” growers selling to the European backpacker set. She was handed wholesale bud on consignment and sold it as pre-rolled joints. The hostel had a house band, and Cross started dating the drummer, Zeta, who had major industry connections of his own. “I got turned on to the real industry,” she said.
Zeta admits to 20 years of pot cultivation experience, he says, with one rough landing into corporate marijuana. In 2009, he began working for Oaklander Dhar Mann, founder of headline-grabbing pot company WeGrow. Mann was later indicted and pleaded no contest to public funds fraud, receiving five years probation.
“That company was managed for the wrong reasons by the wrong person,” Ceti says.
After winning licenses across the country for Mann’s consulting spinoff of WeGrow, “I got fed up with it,” he said.
He took his new skills, built a website, and used search engine optimization to gain traction as a consultant. Zeta is among a new generation of weed industry consultants helping growers clean up their operations. Pesticides and energy waste is rampant in the industry, he said. “These people had some serious problems.”
“We just started snowballing — building the company completely organically,” he said.
Dating Zeta, Cross knew her boyfriend’s grows were well-designed and clean. She is the descendant of 100 years of Missouri farmers. Her father is an engineer.
Green Rush officially opened in Oakland in February 2013, taking over a set of doctor’s office suites. “Every single office had a sink in it,” she said.
In 2013, Zeta’s company won six permits in Connecticut in the span of 2?/? weeks. She watched as Zeta needed more and more help with the firm. Then Cross lost her mom to a 20-year-battle with a rare cancer. Medical cannabis tinctures and oils helped her mom treat pain, stay off addictive, heroin-like painkiller Oxycodone, and remain lucid during her final days.
“I knew I was an advocate, but it wasn’t until I had personal experience with someone as close as my mother.”
Two days after her mom died in St. Louis, Michael Brown was shot dead by police, helping ignite the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Protestors burned a car in front of City Hall, next to the church where Cross’ mother’s funeral was held. Police initially pointed to Brown’s pot use in defending the murder. It all gelled for her.
“I kind of felt struck by lightning: Between the social justice, and health, and human rights issues, I knew that I was here for a reason,” she said. “So I put my camera down and I stepped into Green Rush full time.”
In 2014, the state of Illinois took applications to open its first set of dispensaries in what promised to be the toughest medical cannabis program in the country.
Green Rush grew to 30 contractors—researchers, writers, lawyers and analysts—and won its client the permit for the first licensed dispensary in Illinois.