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Updated: November 7, 2022

Ex-cons turn to advocacy, cannabis and entrepreneurship following incarceration

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Business partners James Jeter (left) and Kennard Ray stand outside Hartford Correctional Center.
HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Business partners James Jeter (left) and Kennard Ray stand outside Hartford Correctional Center.

Depending on the day, you might find Hartford resident Kennard Ray wearing one of several hats.

Ray is founder and co-director of the Full Citizens Coalition, an organization committed to civic engagement and restoring voting rights to ex-felons and convicts.

He’s also CEO of Earth Strong Naturals LLC, a Hartford-based tobacco leaf company, and he’s one of several cannabis entrepreneurs who recently won approval to grow marijuana for the state’s recreational market.

Oh, and he’s working on a documentary series about violence and the opioid epidemic in Hartford.

“Entrepreneurialism is kind of the spirit of our citizenship,” Ray said. “The idea of being able to explore beyond what you already know is entrepreneurial, and a lot of people get stuck doing what they already know.”

Ray’s past path wasn’t always an easy one. The 41-year-old grew up on Mahl Avenue in Hartford’s North End and was first arrested at 16 years old on drug charges. After spending about 5 1/2 years in jail across a few drug and gun-related convictions, Ray was released from prison for the final time in 2007 and began a career of political consulting, advocacy and entrepreneurship.

Now, 15 years since his release from prison, Ray is set to become a major player in the state’s new recreational marijuana industry, and one of the faces of Connecticut’s social equity program, which aims to open up the market to those with past criminal histories, or who come from areas hit hard by the war on drugs.

Ray, through an equity joint venture with his business partners at Connecticut-based marijuana dispensary company Fine Fettle, has been issued a provisional license to open one of the state’s first recreational marijuana grow facilities. He’s also a principal of the six new dispensaries Fine Fettle hopes to open in 2023.

“This cannabis story doesn’t happen without all the other strides that got me to this point,” said Ray.

‘Jail to Yale’

In 1998 at Cheshire Correctional Institution, Ray met James Jeter, who would go on to be co-director of the Full Citizens Coalition. Jeter was serving a 30-year sentence for murder, while Ray was locked up for selling narcotics and criminal firearm possession.

Ray visited Cheshire Correctional in 2014 as a free man to speak to a group of students in Wesleyan University’s prison education program about what he’d been doing since his release.

Jeter was in that audience, and the session led Jeter to “envision” what the other side of incarceration looks like, he said.

“I go down there and see Kennard walking in a suit, for me it was very anchoring to see the transition,” Jeter said.

When Jeter got out of prison in 2016 after serving more than 19 years, the two reconnected and decided to advocate for ex-felons like themselves that, at the time, didn’t have the right to vote until their parole was completed. Soon after, they started Full Citizens Coalition, an organization committed to fighting disenfranchisement.

“James was really hungry,” Ray said of his friend and business partner.

Kennard Ray rolls a joint in front of some upcoming shipments of Five Star Fronto packages.

Ray said the organization was crucial to last year’s passage of a state law that returned the right to vote to more than 4,000 people with past convictions.

“Making sustainable change is different,” said Ray, who in 2013 was named deputy chief of staff to then Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, a position he never served in after news of his past arrests became public. “When you understand that you’re fighting systems, you need a systemic change.”

(Ray in 2018 also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state House of Representatives as a member of the Working Families Party, where he previously worked as a political and legislative director.)

Speaking out after leaving incarceration opened some other doors for Jeter. He’s now also the program director of the Civic Allyship Initiative at Dwight Hall, Yale University’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service.

The duo said correctional officers commonly remind prisoners that they’re in “jail not Yale,” so Jeter’s presence at the school has made their experience feel full-circle.

Jeter said he wants Full Citizens Coalition to have a presence on college campuses and other institutions to help with civic engagement and voting rights efforts in typically underserved communities.

Going into business

Advocacy wasn’t where the two stopped. In 2019 they launched the Five Star Fronto brand under Ray’s Earth Strong Naturals company and began selling whole fronto leaf tobacco to convenience stores and gas stations in the area.

The company has products in more than 500 stores across Connecticut and surrounding states, according to Ray, packaging and preparing products in a rented space on Park Street in Hartford.

The business sources its products from a nationwide network of tobacco farmers located as close as Connecticut and as far away as Kentucky.

“We were just on a road trip knocking on doors in Virginia,” Jeter said of looking for new suppliers.

Connecticut law doesn’t allow tobacco products to be sold in marijuana dispensaries, so Five Star Fronto and Ray’s planned cannabis businesses won’t intersect. That doesn’t mean, however, that Five Star Fronto can’t make hemp wraps or rolling papers in the future.

Ray said the next step for the company is to create a strong sales team that can help put more product on store shelves. They currently have three employees.

“Our goal is to find every avenue to expand our brand and build,” Ray said. “With a strong sales team, we’re unstoppable.”

Growing opportunity

In July, Ray’s business — FFD 149 LLC — was one of 16 companies selected to move forward with the licensing process to start a disproportionately impacted area cultivator operation.

The license type is for people who live or lived in a U.S. census tract in Connecticut where at least 10% of residents have drug-related convictions, or that have an unemployment rate greater than 10%. It will allow Ray to open a large-scale marijuana grow operation of more than 15,000 square feet. No hiring has been done for the business, but Ray said Jeter will have an official or unofficial role in the operation.

He’s partnering with Fine Fettle, which currently operates three medical marijuana dispensaries in Connecticut, for the grow operation as well as the company’s six new dispensaries as part of Connecticut’s equity joint venture licensing program.

One of the new dispensaries, in Manchester, hopes to debut early next year as the state’s market opens. Fine Fettle Chief Operating Officer Ben Zachs said the company is finalizing location plans for its other dispensaries, and has already identified a spot for the cultivation facility.

He said between local zoning regulations and lending challenges, finding business locations has been a challenge.

“Finding real estate in Connecticut for any cannabis business is unbelievably difficult,” Zachs said. “It’s really hard right now, but we’re super excited about our cultivation location and Manchester (dispensary). We’ve got a bunch of places we’re negotiating on and finalizing (letters of intent) for future locations.”

Zachs has said the company’s intention has always been to work with equity joint venture partners they’ve known for decades, and Ray fits that standard. He said Ray has been a family friend going back to when Zachs was in middle and high school.

Under the state’s equity joint venture program, an existing medical cannabis company can partner with qualified social equity applicants to open new businesses without going through the lottery process. The social equity applicant must own at least 50% of the venture and have daily managerial responsibilities.

“We think that being a local company doing cannabis that the structure of these equity joint ventures was built for us,” Zachs said. “We can have an impact with people we really know and trust.”

Ray’s connections across the state, business acumen and work ethic make him a good partner for their new network of dispensaries, Zachs said. Ray even helped Fine Fettle in an advisory capacity when the company entered the state’s medical cannabis market, he said.

The respect goes both ways. Ray said it was important for him to work with people he knows outside of business, and Fine Fettle’s experience in Connecticut will help the new grow facility and dispensary network be successful.

“We’re wavemakers — we’re making waves that did not exist before. And we’re doing it for as many people as we can,” Ray said. “What we do requires not only talent, but hussle, focus and the willingness to work hard everyday at what you do.”

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