One of the best parts of being in the cannabiz is getting to meet the unsung folks working behind the scenes to right the wrongs of the “War on Drugs.” They may not get all the flashy headlines. But their impact is what makes the weed world go round.
Chirali Patel is one of those folks. And her work will make you ask, what am I really doing for humanity? Attorney, advocate, and founder of Blaze Responsibly™ + Blaze Law Firm, Chirali’s CV is like a list of how to make the world better. She’s started her own law firm and advocacy group. She’s worked with the ACLU to get the vote out in the Garden State’s legalization campaign. Took on Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. And she’s given hundreds of victims from the “War on Drugs” a second chance at life.
We caught up with Chirali to talk community, get the backstory behind Blaze Responsibly™, and hear some of the ups and downs of being at the forefront of social equity.
Most of your work + advocacy is based in NJ. What was it like for you growing up there?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. My parents were the first generation here, and we lived with my dad's three sisters and my grandparents.
Back then, Jersey City was not as diverse as it is right now. They used to have a lot of hate crimes towards Brown women, particularly Indian women who wore the red dot to signify they were married. My mom would get harassed walking home. There was a brick thrown into the house when I was a baby. It wasn't a safe environment to raise a family, and so they made a move when I was five to Iselin, NJ.
Now it’s become the Little India of New Jersey, but when we went there, it was mixed, not that many people in the Black and Brown community. When I grew up, I saw the whole change from it being this normal little town—Pizza Hut became an Indian sweet shop, Krauszer's became Patel's Cash and Carry. Literally, one by one, I'm seeing my little childhood places become places which now I love and adore.
It was definitely a difficult upbringing in a traditional Indian household. I was always following the rules, and liked to get good grades. I was brought up that education was everything—the sacrifices my parents made was for me to get educated. Eventually, I went to Rutgers undergrad in Newark. That's where I first was introduced to the plant.
I was so naive as a freshman because in high school I knew nothing about cannabis, except for what D.A.R.E. had taught, which was “this is your brain on drugs” and it's like an egg cracking.
So we're on college campus, and for the first time ever, I hit the joint. I got super paranoid because on campus there are blue lights for security. Now I'm thinking, “The cops know, everybody knows.” It was such an anxiety-inducing experience. I was like, I don't think I can ever do this again.
Life went on, and then sophomore year my friends were starting to consume. I was like, you know what, let me try again. I realized, wait, it's not that bad if you start low and you don't really have to smoke the whole blunt. You could just take two hits and be okay. That was it. That was the start of falling in love with the plant and realizing that this is way better than alcohol because what I'm doing is getting severe munchies, sleeping, and cracking up. This sounds great.
“Back then, cannabis wasn't even medically legal. It wasn't even on my radar. I’d joke about it with my friend Haris, who's no longer here. He'd always be like, ‘you're gonna be part of legalization and you're gonna be able to do it.’ We'd be high and laughing about it. Because we hoped that one day, it would just be accessible for everybody.”
How did you go from falling in love with the plant to litigating on behalf of it?
I ended up going to law school—to Cardozo in New York. It was super competitive. I realized I didn't want to be that person. I didn't want to be cutthroat. And I ended up in the last place I thought I would end up after graduating, which was in government.
In Hoboken, I was a prosecutor, so I saw how low-level drug offenses were a repeat cycle. Somebody would come in for a possession charge and, a year later, it had escalated to other charges. Because once you're in the system, it's really hard to get out, especially when you can't afford to pay for bail or your fines.
I would see people who would come in with lawyers and money walking away, not going to jail, with the same exact charges as a person of color who had a public defender.
The one day that stuck with me the most was when somebody came to me and said, “Hey, I can't afford the fine. Can you just order three days in jail for me? And I'll take the credit.” Because you got a $50 credit per day in jail back then. I was like, “No, I'm not gonna send you to jail. Can you afford $10 a month? That's the minimum payment plan, and the judge will approve it.” What people don't realize is that the prosecutors have such discretion and the judges, nine out of 10 times, don't disagree with what you put out there.
“Something as simple as a payment plan can literally change somebody's life.”
And then you left the government, right?
It was too emotional for me being in the courtroom because I knew I couldn't help everybody. It just wasn't possible. That wasn't where my soul was being nourished anyways. I continued in public service in Bergen County as County Counsel, but in 2016, when Colorado had legalized full adult use, I knew I needed to make a trip out there to start market research and see what types of opportunities there are because New Jersey was moving really slowly.
I got to Colorado, and I didn't know anybody except one person who was thinking about getting into the industry. We met this essentially stranger out there, and we went to tour operations.
One of the operators was vertically integrated, and I started asking questions like, what kind of methods do you use and all these different things. He was like, “Do you want a job? You're asking a lot.” I was like, actually, yeah. I negotiated a six-figure salary for myself. This is when I was making government money, not six figures, and I was so excited.
I thought, I'm going to use this as motivation. If I can do this out there, not knowing anything, being curious and asking questions, then I'll find a way to do it back home. That's kind of what really sparked my journey, and I was like I gotta find a way to get involved with people the grassroots way.
Did you find a way?
I connected with the ACLU in New Jersey. They were championing the rights of so many things and then slowly getting into cannabis. New Jersey was, two or three years ago, arresting Black and Brown people four times more than white counterparts despite everybody using the same. So they were already voicing those issues back then.
I just kept reaching out and would not give up with the ACLU. It turned out that the executive director, Amol Sinha, actually went to Cardozo so I had a connection. I was like, we went to the same law school, make sure you don't forget about me when legalization happens. I want to be involved. I just kept pestering him and pestering him, politely of course.
2018 rolled around. That year, in August, I lost my friend Haris to an accidental overdose. A couple months later, I lost my aunt to cancer. She was 50. That whole experience, really that year, everything changed for me because I lost somebody the same age as me, which I never expected, especially the way he left, and a family member I shared a bond with.
That year after my aunt passed in November, when I came back to NJ, I thought, I gotta figure this out, I gotta. I knew I had to figure out how to get people access and how to help educate people. So I started working on a business plan for a company that didn't even exist.
So that’s how Blaze Responsibly™ was born?
As I was writing my business plan, I wrote down the words “blaze responsibly.” I was like, oh, shit! I showed it to my boyfriend at the time. He was like, “Blaze responsibly. It's kind of like drink responsibly, right? Yeah, you need to trademark that.” I was like, you're right.
I didn’t know what Blaze Responsibly™ was yet, but knew it was going to be something.
Then the state announced additional rounds for licenses for medical companies. One of these groups that wanted to apply was looking for a woman of color to add on to their license that's a New Jersey resident, and my friend made the introduction. I was like, I will be tokenized for this opportunity. Because for me, it's a free learning experience.
It was one of the craziest experiences because no legal or illegal business is regulated the way cannabis is.
Throughout that process, I was able to get the company banking in the state. So now I have a great relationship with this bank, and I also helped get them local support from the township approval. It took that whole experience for me to feel like I could put myself out there. Because prior to that, I was just doing everything lowkey, or incognito. I was just fooling around trying to figure things out. Then once that application went in, I realized I had to share this information with people.
The groups that were applying were not reflective of me or the people that have been harmed by the ”War on Drugs.” And so I thought, I have to find a way to get this to the community so they can be more educated and they can make better decisions for themselves. That's kind of when Blaze Responsibly™ was really born.
What inspired the type of content did you start putting out?
With legalization, there were so many unknowns. People didn't know where they could blaze responsibly. Can I consume in my car? Does the ignition have to be on? What are my rights as an employee? Or what if I'm pregnant, and I test positive for cannabis, are they going to take my child away from me? I sat there and I wrote down all the FAQs I would want to know, then took information from the regulations and started putting out posts about those specific topics.
I realized that's what people really want, and they don't even know because it's never explained to you. Like, hey, we just legalized, but what does that mean for us? What are the real time implications? It was just constantly giving the community free education, and I think that's what helped build the credibility and the trust for the community because there's so much misinformation out there. That's why I felt like I needed to get Blaze Responsibly™ out there.
What would you say is the biggest obstacle for you or your mission right now?
I think having a bigger platform to be able to help continue the education. I was in a room with 12 different operators, again being the only person of color or women of color, sitting there listening to their plans, to their trajectory, and how they're strategizing post federal legalization. The smaller players have no shot without proper planning and a vision.
I want to be on a megaphone, telling people instead of focusing on putting flags down, saying I did this and I did that, everybody needs to realize like you're up against a fucking monster. And sorry to curse but it's like, these guys are so prepared. And Big Pharma. They want to acquire these companies.
The “Walmart of weed” isn't far away, and people think it's so far away.
And biggest opportunity?
To really help educate people on how to prepare themselves better, and how to be strategic and how to create a brand that's going to be sustainable.
You also do a lot to help people clear their records. How did that start?
When I decided to start my own law firm, I decided on day one I'm going to build in social equity to give back. Like, okay, how can I help the community at large, not just people that want to get into the business, but anybody in general, and expungement clinics were at the top of the list.
Even though we legalized [in NJ] and the court said they were going to automatically expunge anybody that had low-level possession offenses, for example, or like paraphernalia, a lot of those records did not get automatically expunged.
Like say, I thought my record was automatically expunged for possession. I applied for a job. My record comes back, and I get denied because I still have a possession charge. To me, that means we're not doing our jobs right here. We're not serving people the way we need to, and an arrest, whether it's for cannabis or shoplifting when you're 18, like people make mistakes. That record shouldn't hold you from having a better life. And it does, the record is essentially a shackle.
Have to ask, who’s in your dream rotation?
Wow, that's hard. I don't even think I've ever thought about it. Oh, Rihanna. Definitely number one. Um, oh, my god. Did they have to be alive?
You can bend the rules on living or not.
Bob Marley. And, I guess, my husband.
Last thing. Looking ahead, what’s something you’re most excited about for the coming year?
I'm excited to go full circle back to Rutgers Newark. I'm going to be teaching and I was part of developing the first cannabis business and law certificate at Rutgers Law School. Like, I literally started smoking weed on that campus.
To be able to go back and teach about cannabis, it's just unbelievable because people definitely thought I was a pothead, like not gonna succeed, like not going to do anything with my life. To go back to that same institution and be like, yes you can—consuming cannabis doesn't mean anything at all. It has no impact on you as a person, you can keep moving forward.