Meet Jonathan Jones, the Black rolling-papers entrepreneur who is carving space in Chicago's budding cannabis market through hemp | Photos by Camari Sire

With recreational cannabis on its way on Jan. 1, many budding weed magnates — big or small — have been positioning themselves to rake in the big bucks that’s sure to accompany the $3.5 million tax revenue for Chicago. For some Black and Brown cannabis business owners, physical therapists and medical marijuana patients, that means fighting for social equity in what’s projected to be a white male-controlled industry. 

Like most Black cities in the United States such as New York and Los Angeles, Chicago has been involved in a heated push for the need for more Black marijuana dispensary owners, to the point where many Black aldermen attempted to delay the sale of recreational sales until July, but to no avail. 

Meanwhile, other POC entrepreneurs are taking a possibly more lucrative route to winning in Chicago’s new cannabis game. 

Enter Johnathan Jones, founder of cannabis lifestyle brand and hemp-based rolling paper company, We TreeHuggers. At 30 years old, Jones is already three years into the cannabis accessory and hemp game and says he is the youngest Black-American owner of a rolling paper brand in the country. Since adding his rolling paper line to the We TreeHuggers brand in 2017, he’s so far grossed $25,000 in sales, locally.

“With [cannabis] being legalized, you’re going to see a lot of new companies trying to come into the marketplace,” Jones said. “I wanted to make sure that people knew that I’ve been here.”

Jones founded We TreeHuggers in 2016 after initially playing with the idea to create a comic strip while selling cannabis-branded T-shirts. His idea was birthed on the heels of Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential election against Hillary Clinton, and was inspired after several states — California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine, Florida, North Dakota, Arkansas and Montana — made landmark legislative changes to their recreation and/or medical marijuana laws.

“A lot of people were mad about [the election outcome],” Jones said. “[These states] changed their laws to be pro cannabis and that was very interesting to me. It made me realize that it’s only a matter of time until the whole country is legalized.”

A few of the cannabis accessories, and hemp rolling papers, sold at We TreeHuggers

After Gov. J.B. Prizker signed HB 1438, legalizing the adult sale and use of cannabis, into law in June 2019, Jones, like many other young Black and Brown residents, looked into owning a dispensary. Unfortunately, the non-refundable $5,000 license application fee, among other costs and requirements, weeded him out quickly.

That’s when he looked to one of the oldest, yet misunderstood parts of the cannabis plant — hemp — which is used to create an exceedingly wide range of products, including paper, food, cosmetics, body products, clothes, construction materials, fuel and CBD oil, often used for pain treatment. In 2018, it generated revenue upwards of $1.1 billion and is projected to double to $2.6 billion by 2022, as reported by CNBC. And a report from Hemp Industry Daily shows that the industry has especially been growing in areas like Colorado, Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, Vermont, California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, among many others.

Thanks to a revision to the 2018 Farm Bill, which included a provision that made hemp no longer a federally illegal plant, Jones expanded We TreeHuggers from a clothing, comic and accessories brand to a hemp-based rolling papers company in the same vein as RAW, Bob Marley and Hempire. But Jones’s brand boasts a slower burn with an equally clean taste. 

As a smoker, Jones prefers hemp-based papers over the tobacco-filled blunts and cigars, which are emptied and used as wrappers for cannabis. He didn’t like the possibility of inhaling any tobacco residue into his lungs.

“I had to find an alternative because I don’t want to die. It’s just like smoking a cigarette,” Jones said about blunt and cigar wraps. “I started to use papers long before I thought about having a company. When I decided to bring out an accessory line, that was the first thing I wanted to do, have a dope paper.”

WeTreehuggers rolling papers comes in many sizes, including the original king-size papers, which are 100mm in length and 55mm wide, and its smaller 1 1/4th-size counterpart that’s 76mm long and 60mm wide. This year, the brand released its new king-size cones, mini cones and filter tips. Jones is also working on producing hemp-based clothing, in addition to grinders, to add to his merchandise.

Still, Jones’s biggest challenge — again — is up-front costs. While raising his son, Jones painstakingly saved $8,500 through his $13-an-hour job, along with working a series of other sales-based jobs, such as selling government phones and energy-saving programs. 

“The biggest obstacle was definitely having money, but after that, I had to find a manufacturer that had a quality product that could [be] produced consistently with margins that were feasible for business,” Jones said. “After that, you must figure out how to get it in stores, because that’s one of the challenges I’m dealing with right now.”

A look at some of the clothing and fanny packs coming out of We TreeHuggers

We TreeHugger’s rolling papers are currently sold in about 15 smoke shops across the Chicagoland area and can be purchased online However, Jones is working to sell his papers in hundreds, if not thousands, of stores.

“True distribution requires a lot of selling manpower in-house or a having a distribution partner. So right now, we’re trying to figure out a balance between partnering with a distributor and having a strong local selling base,” said Jones.

With race and access to wealth being a common disparity in the cannabis and hemp industries, Jones is focused on building a strong niche community within an already overcrowded Chicago market.

“We’re at the point where we’re asking for acceptance in someone else’s community that’s already being built, but we’re focused on building our own community of cannabis enthusiasts. That’s our mission, that’s our goal, it’s to build the healthiest, most fun, most lit community that the world has ever seen,” said Jones.