When Gahjii Lewis was young, he never thought he would end up working at the Research & Development department of Stiiizy, one of the largest cannabis brands in the nation.
"My goal was to be a professional soccer player, not a scientist," he said.
Lewis, now 28, played competitive soccer for most of his life until he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and underwent surgery in his early 20s.
He used to consume cannabis recreationally, but after the surgery, cannabis became a source of pain-relief as well. His perception of cannabis and its therapeutic use became much more real.
"When I used to take pain meds following the surgery, I felt disoriented. I suffered from irritable issues and other side effects, but taking cannabis as medicine really helped me so much. I was able to concentrate in class and eat. I've been growing any kind of plant since I was 14. So, I think I grew my first cannabis plant when I was around 18," he said.
Lewis moved from Maryland (where he was born and bred) to North Carolina to attend the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where he studied Marine Biology and later, Environmental Science.
There, Lewis practiced polyculture cultivation, made some community gardens for local communities, installed rain gardens to reduce floods and erosion around the city, and helped as an associate researcher to start some reef renewal programs seeding oysters into the ocean floor so that reefs could come back into the coast and filter water properly.
But Lewis's passion for cannabis popped up in his life when he got some research grants to study cannabis cultivation and cannabis biology during his senior year of college.
"I linked up with a doctorate named Dr. Mike Long, an atmospheric chemist. His research focused on hemp and cannabis biomass, and I attended a class about researching plastic pollution in the ocean. We were able to manipulate hemp biomass (which is biodegradable) to replace plastic-based nylon ropes and sealants in the ocean," he said.
After a hurricane in North Carolina destroyed a research facility where Lewis worked, he relocated to California in 2020 in part to widen his knowledge about cannabis.
He began working Hempton Farms, where he could apply all his knowledge about hemp and cannabis acquired in college.
After working with some other companies in California, where he widened his expertise in the cannabis industry, Lewis joined Stiiizy in February of 2022.
At Stiiizy's Research and Development department, Lewis works on preserving the genetics of cultivation by manipulating the DNA of cannabis cultivars and researching tissue culture techniques. Developments through this research allow cannabis growers to create new plants from existing ones without going through the process of nurturing cuttings.
As an analyst, Lewis calculates different environmental parameters that support plant life across Stiiizy's cultivation facilities both in-house and remotely.
Since the company has several different cultivation facilities across the state, Lewis makes adjustments to provide correct levels of humidity, light intensity, and feed times based on unique environmental factors.
Furthermore, he works on renewable technology development by researching the creation of sustainable materials out of plant material to reduce the company's carbon footprint.
"I've made several different plastic precursors pesticides, polymers, and fuels out of plant material focused on cannabis," he said.
When asked about what kind of skills people need to enter the field he works in the cannabis industry, Lewis told NYSCC that he would encourage some level of cultivation practice, though not necessarily of cannabis, and added that a degree is not necessary.
"You have to understand the ability to manipulate natural systems. An academic degree helps, but there [are] a lot of pathways out [there that] have made a lot of these things easier. I would encourage some level of study, but you can also work at a farm and never go to school and learn all of this stuff," he said.
Lewis views cannabis as a phenomenal bioremediation plant that not only purifies the air but also rejuvenates soil through biogeochemical cycling. He appreciates that it has many capacities for industrial use.
"One of my favorite things is thinking about how I can make different plastic products out of cannabis and how I can achieve these goals," he said.
On his journey in the cannabis industry, Lewis told NYSCC that he experienced hierarchical behavior in the sector at individual and company levels. He noted that there is still a glass ceiling for minorities within the industry.
He reported having experienced racism against him as a black individual when he worked with some companies. He recounted an instance when he went through a job interview process along with a white friend who had less relevant skills for that job position. Lewis' friend was called instead of him.
"I really struggled to get solid positions in the cannabis industry that aren't fraught with a level of glass ceiling consistent with people in my ethnicity. In one of the first places I worked up in Northern California, people were very openly racist. They would say racist things to me, very derogatory things directly to me and about people like me and me, but also about other cultures, which was just as hurtful. It was honestly really weird that they were consistently bigoted toward everybody possible on a daily basis. And then when I felt uncomfortable and decided to leave, they made physical, they literally made physical threats in my direction by like brandishing guns or not allowing me to leave, forgetting that I needed a ride somewhere, or restricting water access. It was a very hard and arduous journey," he said.
When asked why people still go to purchase cannabis from the legacy market, Lewis thinks that taxes play a significant role in this issue.
He highlighted, however, that some people still trust legacy farmers and don't want anything different.
"I know that I grow my own flower, and I understand that a lot of people also don't understand how to cultivate plants, whether it's tomatoes, tobacco, or cannabis. So, going to your black market because you don't know how to grow or don't have the time to grow is understandable as well," he said.
He added that some people look for specific chemical profiles of cannabis and that the cultivation at the commercial scale of cannabis can't offer such a quality sometimes.
Living in California changed Lewis's perception of cannabis legalization.
As cannabis is still illegal in North Carolina, he suffered from paranoia to make sure to change clothes and chewing gums and use eye drops, spray, and extra deodorant after smoking.
"Especially after I got my research grants, we had to notify the campus police that we had potentially illegal materials, even though it was industrial hemp with a THC level below 0.3%, which is the only legal cannabis in North Carolina. But even though we had to essentially give a press release to the campus police, I used to go home and have medicinal cannabis in my room and thought about what if they came by and knocked on the door. I had to worry about my own weed in conjunction with the one used for research. Moving to California has changed my life because I can grow what I want in my backyard and not worry about anything. It's surreal and strange to try to convey the level of surrealness to people who are born here and who had lived here because it's almost like they're used to it, like even before, even before legalization, California's cannabis culture," he said.