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¡Wepa!: A Latino hemp farmer aims to enter Connecticut’s cannabis market

As Luis Vega walks through his manufacturing site in North Haven, he points out how he plans to expand his hemp business. Here they process hemp-based products like soaps, tinctures and hand lotions.

“We’re building this all out to be like classrooms so that we could do education for cannabis,” Vega said.

It’s been nearly a year since Connecticut became the 18th state to legalize cannabis. Now the seasoned farmer must obtain a license through the state to enter the industry.

Breaking cultural barriers in the hemp industry 

Vega remembers smoking his first joint in New York City, where his family migrated from Puerto Rico early in his youth.

“My grandfather and my family back in Puerto Rico, were all farmers, fishermen,” Vega said. “They were tradesmen living off the land that our family had been on for many generations.”

However, Vega took a different route — he went on to finish his studies in hospitality management at the University of New Haven and later landed a position in corporate America. But he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease early in his life, and the condition worsened, forcing him out of his job.

“As I got sick, I ended up back into that farming atmosphere,” he said.

Vega traveled the country for four years visiting farms that were growing mass-scale hemp. When the University of Connecticut began offering an education pilot program on cannabis, Vega also joined.

He became an experienced farmer, cashed in his retirement fund, and with the help of a business accelerator program, Vega became the first Latino hemp farmer in the state.

He named it “Wepa! Farms,” an ode to his Puerto Rican roots.

Luis Vega at Wepa Farms
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Hemp plants in the grow room of Wepa! Farms in North Haven, Conn. CEO and founder Luis Vega is the state’s first Latino hemp farmer.

“Being of Puerto Rican descent, [Wepa!] was something that was heard in my household and all over that place, and it was just that feeling of euphoria that stuck, and once I got into this business it kinda moved forward,” Vega said.

However, Vega says the road wasn’t easy. During his travels, he barely came across other farmers from the same background, and he was also met with discrimination.

At business meetings, farmers would often ask for Vega’s boss instead.

“So I have faced little bits of literally everything from the ‘Oh, you’re just some Spanish kid,’ to ‘you know-nothings,’” Vega said. “So I’ve taken those experiences and made it a driving force for myself, one of those motivational things.”

Vega’s passion granted him several seats at the table, including the state’s agriculture diversity equity and inclusion working group, Connecticut’s Hemp Industry Association, and the National Hemp Authority.

And now with 10 years of hemp farming under his belt, he hopes to share his knowledge with cannabis consumers across Connecticut. First, he needs a provisional cultivator license from the state as a social equity applicant.

The wait for social equity 

Since the legalization of cannabis, the state established a Social Equity Council to promote a fair and equitable cannabis industry.

“The social equity aspect is, to the extent possible, [to] create a level playing field for communities that have been impacted by the war on drugs,” said Andrea Comer, deputy commissioner at the Department of Consumer Protection and chair of the Social Equity Council.

Luis Vega at Wepa! Farms
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Freshly packed hemp pre-rolls in the Wepa! Farms production room in North Haven, Conn.

Currently, there are 14 different cannabis licenses expected to be issued by the Department of Consumer Protection, ranging from retail and transportation to micro-cultivation, where growers produce a smaller number of cannabis plants. Half of all licenses will be reserved for social equity applicants.

The council voted on identifying a disproportionately impacted area by using census tract data that determine areas with high arrest rates, while also taking into account poverty and employment in the region.

To qualify as a social equity applicant, an individual must prove they were a resident of such an area for at least five years in the past decade, or for at least nine years before the age of 18. They must also prove their income is no more than triple the state’s median income.

However, Comer says accessing financial capital to enter the industry is still a major barrier for residents from disproportionately impacted communities, due to cannabis federal regulations.

“So you can’t walk into Chase or Bank of America and get a loan. So those who are interested in getting into the industry have to be thinking about, ‘Well, how am I going to come up with this capital?’” Comer said.

A vision for cultivation in Bridgeport 

Luis Vega at Wepa Farms
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Hemp plants in the grow room of Wepa! Farms in North Haven, Conn. CEO and founder Luis Vega is the state’s first Latino hemp farmer.

To enter Connecticut’s new adult-use cannabis industry as a large-scale cultivator, Luis Vega would also need to come up with a $3 million fee as required by the law if granted a provisional license.

He hopes to be granted a cultivator license that allows for 15,000 square feet for growth located in a disproportionately impacted area, also required by the law.

“We’re looking to go a little bit big because we do have the financing from our corporate partner,” Vega said.

In the launch of his business venture with Wepa! Farms, Vega was backed by Merida Capital. The private equity firm has been helping entrepreneurs to enter the hemp and cannabis industry in New York and Massachusetts. Now, after three years of partnership, Vega hopes this helps him break into the adult-use cannabis space.

“I’m super excited for what the forward momentum is. Ideally, we’d be able to provide upwards of 100 jobs for the local community,” he said.

Vega is targeting Bridgeport, an area disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs – but it’s also a place Vega often visited to celebrate his Puerto Rican heritage.

The state’s Social Equity Council hired outside help that is still going through applications like Vega’s and anticipates letting cultivators know if they are approved for a license by midsummer. If chosen, Vega and his corporate partner would enter a 14-month process to get their business up and running in the city.

“We hope to bring adult-use cannabis to Connecticut, that’s fair, equitable, run by somebody who’s been in the game for a minute,” Vega said.

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.