What do you get when you mix a keen eye for detail, unique problem solving skills and passion? Why you get, Ophelia Chong, founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education and StockPot Images.
“Oh God, you're such a stoner.’’
While initially apprehensive, Ophelia first entered the world of cannabis in service of her sister. “My sister was trying to use it for her condition,” she explains. “So, she had to travel from another country and do it here. We were basically bumbling our way through.” Why the apprehension? After years of sobriety, she was more than a little concerned to enter a dispensary. “Because I've been sober for 17 years, going to a dispensary was something I wasn't planning on doing. Because of the addiction issue,” she says. However, I got my medical card in 2014. I went in not knowing anything and got her something.”
Interestingly enough, it was Ophelia’s own personal prejudices that led her to ultimately launch the unlikeliest of cannabis businesses, a stock photography company called StockPot Images. “I was looking at her and I thought, ‘Oh God, you're such a stoner,’’’ she laughs. “But then I realized, ‘No, no, no. That's your sister.’” She further explains, “I wanted to see how other people viewed her. So I went to a stock agency typed in the word ‘stoner’.” She wasn’t pleased with what she saw.
Ophelia was shocked to learn what one “very major billion dollar stock agency” considered stoner representation. She recalls, “When I typed in ‘stoner’ what came up was an image of a black man. If you know stock photos, you know you gotta put in keywords because then they'll bring in the image. So, the keywords that they had for this African American man were ‘stoner’, ‘addict’, ‘criminal’, ‘drug dealer’, all that stuff. ‘Oh my goodness,’ I thought, ‘This is 2014.’”
“It became a ritual.”
The rest, as you might say, was history. She took a leap into cannabis and never looked back. As she explains, she invested from the start, “I did a lot of research. I grew 23 plants my first year. I learned everything about that plant. Cause I had to keyword it. Everything from what the flower looked like, every stage of flower, every type of growing. I had to keyword it. So I had to know all this.” Slowly, her mission became her way of life, “I learned about the medicinal properties about relaxation. I was having a hard time sleeping. It became a ritual. That is something I've done every night since I started in the industry in 2015. I have that moment with the flower. And it's this quiet looking up at night, seeing the clouds, maybe the moon sort of fly over and it becomes this moment of silence. But also appreciation for everything that this thing in my hand that I'm inhaling has done.”
As her connection to the plant deepened, so did her mission to take on the challenge of bringing more diversity and representation to this rather unusual corner of the industry. When asked why representation is particularly important within the industry, she states quite frankly that we all need to be able to see “a familiar face.” She explains with a chuckle, “Because we walk into these rooms with these cannabis people and we're looking and all you and I are seeing are marshmallows bouncing around the room. And then, once you see something out there like, oh, it's a raisin! You run out and you go, ‘Ooh, you're another raisin! How are you? What are you doing here? It becomes this moment of exploration between two people in a room who don't know each other, but we're bonded by color. Because we notice that we're in a room and no one looks like us unless they're serving.”
“Once you see it on your LinkedIn, you know it's okay.”
Unfortunately for cannthusiasts of some ethnic minority groups, the representation struggle is often two-fold. For Ophelia, it’s much the same. How she is seen within the Asian community as a cannabis user is just as important as how she’s seen within the cannabis community as an Asian person. She goes on to explain, “That is also why I started Asian Americans for Cannabis Education. I realized that there was a lot of misinformation within my own community. It was very interesting how my cultural history of over 10,000 years was co-opted in the last 50 to become this anti plant medicine for a culture that's based on plant medicine.” In a rather ironic full circle moment, Ophelia found herself on the defensive regarding her own cannabis use. She recalls being on the receiving end of some rather bold assumptions, “That's what I was up against with other Asians who said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you can't. Oh, that's bad. You're gonna be a stoner. You're gonna be a drug addict. You'll never support your family.’”
While the fight has been tense, exhausting and even a little awkward at times, Ophelia is pleased with the progress that’s being made, “Through the years, I found more and more and more and more [Asian] people coming into it. And now it's a matter of fact, I see it on their LinkedIn.” She quips, “Once you see it on your LinkedIn, you know it's okay. We're all accepted.”
Ultimately, acceptance is really the end goal Ophelia wants herself and cannabis in general. She longs for a future in which cannabis is declassified as Schedule 1, treated “like Pabst Blue Ribbon basically” and proves to be a reputable, stable investment. She excitedly explains, “I look forward to it because the barriers for people of color to get in will be lower. It will not be as expensive. It will not have so many restrictions. It will be an easier path because it'll be as easy as opening a liquor store. You won’t have to go through vaults, security cameras, security guards. Hopefully, by then, you won't have to go through those gymnastics. Like you don't have to, when you buy a six pack.”
Honestly, I think that’s a future we can all be hyped about.
Photography: Jessica Miller
Agent: Dara Siegel
Hair & Makeup: Shideh Kafei
Wardrobe: Ashley Guerzon
Props Stylist: Shelby Kay
Production: Shabnam Azadeh