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Half Baked: How A Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went Up In Smoke

Rebecca Raffle came to Indianapolis from Los Angeles with dreams of building a cannabis empire. She introduced herself as a West Coast #girlboss, SEO ninja, LGBTQ Family, and avid baker. But she was altogether something different.

Outwardly, the bakery on the busiest street in Fountain Square looked like a bakery. The scene inside, though, told a different story. There were no glass cases brimming with flaky pastries. No gooey brownies or fussy cakes or confetti-capped cookies. No warm sugar smells. Instead, customers who met the “closed” sign on the door could cup their hands and peer past the threshold to see little more than two folding tables and a poster-sized reproduction of a magazine article featuring a woman with a big smile. But, like the bakery, the woman in the image was not exactly what or who she appeared to be.

Rebecca Raffle, a Los Angeles transplant, had posed for the photo some months earlier. The picture of her had originally appeared in this publication with a story about her new venture, Elevate Bakery & Barkery. In the article, readers learned that Elevate was one of the first of its kind in the country—a shop that featured artisanal baked goods spiked with hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) grown on her own farm. The story went on to explain that as a biotech specialist, “Raffle spent a year and a half working with local chemists to develop a proprietary blend of tasteless CBD powder that can be incorporated into any recipe.”

Before the story was published, a number of discrepancies turned up during the fact-checking process. But Raffle herself explained them away, and the story appeared in the November 2020 issue of Indianapolis Monthly with little fanfare. After copies appeared on newsstands, Raffle joined the magazine’s Monthly/Weekly podcast as a guest, where she once again praised the virtues of Elevate and shared her story, which got better the more she told it.

Elevate’s mission was personal to Raffle. She was both proprietor and patient. Years earlier, she had been diagnosed with lymphoma and found that CBD alleviated the side effects of chemotherapy. On her social media channels, she told friends and followers that she suffered from a host of other maladies as well: ADHD, dyslexia, a degenerative blood disorder, “really progressive” lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and an unnamed condition that caused the bones in her legs and feet to break, forcing her to wear high-tops. Elevate wasn’t just a bakery, she said; it was part medical science lab, a marvel that delivered the healing power of the supplement via confectionery bliss. The spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down—and made the pain go away for her target customers. She preached relief for busy moms, peace of mind for the anxious, and comfort for people who couldn’t afford their meds. “I have three old women, Barbara, Karen and Nancy. And I just drop them off CBD cookies, and they leave me cash or like an $8 check,” she says.

The bakery was just a small part of something much more ambitious. Raffle told others she was building an enterprise—a farm, dispensaries, tech firm—by and for a community with whom she shared an affinity. Jewish mothers. Gay women. Hemp enthusiasts. When Raffle moved here from the West Coast and left behind her consulting business, she started recruiting a team of women she met in Facebook groups, who in turn recruited their friends. Working with Raffle would have seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity. On paper, at least.

Raffle was raised in Calabasas, an enclave west of California’s San Fernando Valley favored by Drake, Justin Bieber, and the Kardashians. And like Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney, the 36-year-old entrepreneur gave the impression that she had found wild success at a very young age. Here’s how one of her online business profiles explains it: When she was just 8 years old, Raffle was tested by the world’s oldest and largest IQ society, Mensa International. In high school, she won a national scholarship competition for an essay on Ayn Rand and the themes of entrepreneurship and leadership in Rand’s novels. As an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, she founded an “early Uber” called FSR Transportation and then left in 2007 for $1.3 million. She went on to work for a recycling startup called ECO2 Plastics in the Bay Area (and on a LinkedIn profile that has since been deleted, claimed to be its CFO). She left in 2010 for “an undisclosed amount.” After picking up a “post baccalaureate degree” in life sciences business and biotechnology from the University of California, Berkeley, she founded Raffle Consulting Group, which produced digital technology development and marketing campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, including Disney, NBCUniversal, Universal Pictures, and a variety of large cannabis clients.

In 2018, Raffle moved to Indiana with her wife, an ENT doctor, and her biggest idea to date: to revolutionize cannabis delivery. It was a killer concept for a killer app that she said she was in the process of developing, Grow Cart. Former business associates and employees say that Raffle told them she had vast experience in the cannabis industry and that Grow Cart was a blockbuster in the making with a valuation of over $1 billion, as startups like Facebook and Airbnb once had. In industry parlance, that made Grow Cart a “unicorn.”

And in a way, Raffle was, too. She was part of her own fairy tale. For example, that post-grad degree from Berkeley? The prestigious West Coast school told us that she attended a summer course there, but “we don’t have a record of that name matched with earning a degree.”

The embellishment didn’t begin or end with her education. But that wouldn’t begin to become clear until April 2021, when a tiny crack appeared in the facade, in an Instagram post from a local food-truck purveyor who claimed Raffle had done him wrong. The post went modestly viral, and a rush of commenters began to shed light on what initially played out like some kind of basic social media drama.

But the truth was bigger, messier.

 

RAFFLE HAD A solid pitch: make “cannabis delivery as easy as pizza delivery.”

Since a decade ago, when the first stylish black car liberated San Francisco’s passengers from the inconvenience of having to find a designated driver for the night, apps like Uber have dominated the startup space. Find the right unmet customer-service need, pair it with an easy-to-use interface, and you could, like Uber founder Travis Kalanick, go from the startup salt mines to being one of the tech world’s most recognizable billionaires overnight.

Raffle found her unmet need. Just as ride-hailing and delivery apps have created their own enormously lucrative sector of the economy over the past decade, so did the slow but steady legalization of marijuana across America. Grow Cart, as Raffle conceived it, would get customers their goodies by licensing a delivery app to dispensaries. But the company wouldn’t just provide the technology to take online orders; it would supply the labor as well, in the form of part-time “local moms,” as Raffle frequently characterized them, who were passionate about hooking people up with buzzed goods to brighten their day.

But Raffle’s ambitions went far beyond just delivery. In material presented to investors, she described the company as “a vertically integrated cannabis retail, delivery (B2C) and distribution (B2B) corporation.” Beyond merely helping the dispensaries, Grow Cart would become the dispensary. It would be the supplier, too: In the fall of 2019, she got the idea to incorporate a company in Michigan that she called Elevate Farms, with the intent of starting her own commercial growing operation—about as “vertically integrated” as a company can get.

Stormi Hunt was sold.

Hunt first became aware of Raffle when she was reading posts in a Facebook group called Queering Indy and noticed that a new girl in town was cooking up the opportunity of a lifetime. Hunt, who had recently started her own business as a virtual assistant, wanted in—or at least hoped to add Raffle to her growing list of clients. “I knew who my ideal customer was, and I thought that was Rebecca,” she says. “Because my ideal customers were women, queers, minorities, and alternative health and wellness.” But when they met in 2019, Raffle had a better idea for Hunt: join Grow Cart as the company’s director of operations. The offer came fast—too fast—and Hunt became skeptical: “She made a lot of big promises and a lot of large declarations.” To her, Raffle’s description of the company sounded more like multilevel marketing. “I was like, ‘Oh God, is she going to give me a box of CBD Avon and I’m going to have to go door to door?’”

“It’s difficult to find someone honest in this business.”
Chris Clabaugh

After thinking it over for a few weeks, Hunt joined the team. But instead of CBD Avon, Raffle gave her reading material, “books on how to be more likable,” Hunt says. “Chatting with people briefly, figuring out something about their identity, and then mirroring it so that they would find her more likable—Rebecca called those her business superpowers.” Hunt understood finding common ground with prospective customers and partners was a normal part of doing business, but now fears the smarmy approach was something more. She said Raffle liked her Midwestern demeanor—“I’m hyper-friendly, super-outgoing, very sociable—I can talk to anyone”—and sent her to Michigan on a mission to find partners.

Michigan legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2018, and already a bumper crop of dispensaries and growing operations had popped up across the nation’s 10th-largest state. Of course, it shares a lengthy border with Indiana—the company’s home base, full of would-be cannabis consumers eager to jump the state line and procure what they can’t at home.

While finding a location for the dispensary was hard, drawing interest from investors wasn’t. Thanks to Raffle’s slick pitch deck, fundraising was booming. So, they decided to make the money work for them. In Hunt’s telling, the new plan would be to find an already-existing dispensary and either buy it out or have Raffle become a majority partner.

In time, they found the perfect guy.

“In this industry, you take people with a grain of salt,” says Chris Clabaugh, a self-described “independent consultant” in the cannabis world. “It’s difficult to find someone honest in this business.” But when Raffle approached him in the winter of 2019 with her spiel, she seemed, in his estimation, honest enough. Clabaugh was then the owner and proprietor of The Happiest Camper, a dispensary in Reading, Michigan, a sleepy town about 10 miles north of the Indiana state line. Her pitch was just what he needed after a messy split with The Happiest Camper’s original cofounders. She told him she’d already sold the Grow Cart app for millions of dollars, and they planned a partnership where they would open a string of dispensaries under the auspices of Elevate Farms along the state border.

Raffle collected at least $300,000 in investment money. In return, its investors were promised a can’t-miss opportunity—a founding stake in a company with a “minimum of $1,752,177 in income in Year 1” from its Reading location, and “the most passionate and experienced team for cannabis retail and delivery sales in the Midwest.”

That’s where the company found itself in January 2020, when Grow Cart addressed the planning commission in Coldwater, Michigan, near Reading, as the newest member of the Branch County business community. Dean Walrack, the city’s planning and zoning administrator, recalled the pitch as earnest, if a bit canned. “They were looking to hire local,” Walrack says. “They kept using the term ‘local moms,’ and that’s what kind of sticks out.”

But months passed, and Walrack never heard from Raffle. And after a certain point, neither did Clabaugh.

 

BEFORE RAFFLE WAS an aspiring Hoosier CBD mogul, she was many other things to many other people. But first and foremost, she was a Californian.

One of her grandmothers was an influential Jewish activist and philanthropist in the San Fernando Valley. Raffle’s father, David Raffle, is a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist who founded the Raffle Brain Institute (now based in Carmel), which offers state-of-the-art neuropsychological and psychological assessments. Rebecca Raffle was now following in their footsteps, in a family informed across generations by California’s blue-sky aspirational spirit.

Raffle’s first major foray into sole entrepreneurship was in launching her consulting group. Its Instagram biography called it a global digital marketing agency specializing in services like luxury brand development and SEO, otherwise known as search engine optimization, the art of manipulating algorithms in order to draw traffic to a website.

It was the very thing Vanessa Holden was looking for.

In 2013, Holden was a student at Pasadena City College, hoping to break into the lucrative marketing industry. She went on Yelp, found contact information for marketing firms in Los Angeles, and blanketed them with cover letters explaining that she was desperate for experience in the industry. She got one offer back: Raffle’s.

Three days a week for three months, Holden took the bus to Raffle’s downtown loft—despite the fact that Raffle had advertised to the contrary, there wasn’t an actual office in L.A., or one at all in San Francisco or Hong Kong—to learn how to become an SEO master. She cranked out social media content and blog posts for Raffle Consulting’s clients, at that point mostly plastic surgeons seeking to grow their digital footprint. When the three months were up, Holden joined the team full time as Raffle’s executive assistant. But the more involved Holden became with the company, the more she started to notice corner-cutting that didn’t live up to the hype endemic to a self-promotional business, in a self-promotional industry, in the most self-promotional city in America. “It seemed like a lot of her [website] designs, she kind of copied from other designs,” Holden says. “Some clients ended up calling us on it.”

“I am literally stopping at your house (with gold in my underwear) on the way to the airport.”
Rebecca Raffle

Equally as slippery was how the team dealt with the raw numbers themselves, allegedly: Holden says Raffle filled reports for clients with random data instead of sourcing it from their websites’ analytics, and tried to obscure the skimping with sometimes nonsensical jargon. (Raffle denies this.) Holden says that in order to impress one potential customer, Raffle recruited actors to come in and play Raffle Consulting employees in exchange for professional headshots. (Raffle says she hired the actors for a promotional video.) And things got downright weird when Raffle started introducing Holden as a graduate of USC—just as Raffle had fudged her own credentials.

Eventually, Holden saw enough. When she told Raffle that she was going off on her own, she said Raffle begged her to stay. When that didn’t work, Holden says Raffle threatened to blackball her from the industry. (Raffle denies this, too. “Never, ever.”) Holden didn’t think anyone would believe her over someone as apparently as accomplished as Raffle—“My last job was at McDonald’s”—and so she left in 2015 for Las Vegas to start her own company, TurnerRound Logistics.

Raffle, too, would decamp from California within just a few years. She and her wife had a child together, and in 2018 they moved back to her wife’s native Indiana to raise the child closer to family. Raffle’s parents came in tow, as well, with her father setting up his psychological practice on the north side, just off Keystone Parkway.

Whatever struggles Raffle’s consulting operation might have endured, self-inflicted or not, they didn’t dampen her entrepreneurial spirit. Indiana might not be California, but it has its own fledgling startup and venture capital scene.

Plus, even if marijuana wasn’t quite legal in Indiana yet, signs were promising. The federal 2018 Farm Bill legalized, albeit with a series of arduous restrictions, the cultivation of hemp and hemp-based products across the United States, provided their THC content not exceed 0.3 percent. That same year, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill that enabled Hoosiers to buy, sell, and possess CBD products below the same level of THC content. Hemp farms and CBD shops have flourished across the state over the past three years, with roughly 80 commercial growers and handlers licensed by the state as of press time.

Starting Grow Cart, then, wasn’t just an ambitious swing at the market north of the border, but somewhat of a bet on the future.

The problem was, the wheels were already starting to fall off of the Cart.

 

IN JANUARY 2020, as Donald Trump’s attorneys wrapped up their opening arguments at his first impeachment trial, Raffle texted Stormi Hunt with an ominous directive to prepare to uproot Grow Cart before it had even begun to gain traction. “We need to schedule a contingency plan for if Trump gets impeached,” wrote Raffle. Her reasoning was simple: She feared a Mike Pence presidency would make the United States an uninhabitable place for members of the LGBTQ community. “Pence is a sick fuck,” she texted.

“Plan B,” as Raffle outlined it, was to install an acting CEO of Grow Cart, reroute her and Hunt’s salaries to new accounts, and run the organization overseas. She discussed leaving home in Indianapolis with her wife and child, perhaps to a country with lax immigration laws “like New Zealand,” and set up shop elsewhere. “We just need to start getting things ready to prepare,” Raffle wrote, “because I am literally stopping at your house (with gold in my underwear) on the way to the airport.”

Hunt, who also has a wife, began a response with a heart emoji, then continued: “love you girl. Thank you for making us family and always having our back. You are the realest.” But, after the initial excitement died down, Hunt found the episode quite odd—even frustrating.

Though Hunt had moved to Indianapolis to work for a tech company, she found that Raffle was constantly changing the business’s objectives and mission, sometimes radically.

When the Pence presidency didn’t materialize, for example, Raffle moved her attention to what Hunt termed “Plan G,” running the bakery. “The pace and direction of everything changed so rapidly,” Hunt says. “One day we were a tech company. Then we were opening dispensaries. Then a bakery and an event center, and all of a sudden we didn’t have money for opening dispensaries.” Hunt says Raffle’s new concept was to create CBD confections with an eye toward landing shelf space in a big-box store. But the goal was unrealistic given that she was in the midst of a dispute with a pair of artisan bakers that she had hired, Stacy and Jessi Franco of 42 Bakery.

Toward the end of 2019, Raffle’s relationship with the Francos had begun to sour over an ownership dispute. After spending their savings and time to fast-track opening a commercial bakery space in Irvington, the Francos broke away from Raffle on recommendation from their attorney, after he reviewed a partnership agreement. “We sent the papers to our attorney, and within an hour he called back and was like, ‘Please tell me you didn’t sign anything,’” says Stacy Franco. “He told us we would have signed everything away, that Rebecca would own 42 Bakery, our name, our recipes—everything.”

Raffle disagrees with Franco’s version of events and says she parted ways with the couple because “they didn’t know how to run a bakery.”

Meanwhile, running Elevate’s commercial kitchen and retail operation became somewhat of an all-hands-on-deck endeavor, drawing resources away from the tech and dispensary components of Grow Cart. But eventually, former employees began to question the existence of those very resources.

Before the country was in the grips of a pandemic, Raffle hired an executive assistant, Kelsey Collins. Collins says one of her first projects was to enter the names of dispensaries in states where recreational and medicinal marijuana was legal into Grow Cart’s customer relationship management system. Collins says Raffle directed her to catalog the entries to show that those dispensaries were actual Grow Cart customers instead of prospective buyers of the company’s app. “She was sending this information to investors to make it appear as though this company is much farther along than it is, and that people have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the app.”

“It was possibly one of the biggest train wrecks I’ve ever seen.”
Kiki Dennison

Raffle says that Collins’s description “isn’t accurate at all.” She says she directed Collins to enter companies into the system that had expressed an interest in Grow Cart’s technology, nothing more. Moreover, Raffle claims there’s a coordinated effort to disparage her, and is considering filing a defamation suit against some of her former employees, all of whom she required to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Collins, who says she was reassigned when she brought her concerns to Raffle and was eventually furloughed, entered hundreds of dispensaries into the system. But, it appeared to her, only one had paid to use the app—Chris Clabaugh from The Happiest Camper in Michigan.

Over time, though, Clabaugh says he became disillusioned with Raffle, deeming her “pushy and sketchy to the point where I didn’t want to go forward with her.” They lost touch and, according to Clabaugh, their last contact was when Raffle stiffed him on shipping fees for a piece of equipment mistakenly sent to his dispensary on her behalf.

But by then, Raffle had bigger problems. Namely, that there wasn’t actually a working app at all.

Sometime after coming up with the concept for Grow Cart in 2019, Raffle struck up a friendship with an entrepreneur based in Columbus, Ohio, who, like her, had a background in tech and transportation. “Looks like we are going to get the 2.5M for the farm as easy as [the dispensary in] Coldwater,” Raffle texted Hunt in November 2019. “Just spoke with an investor with $, rich friends and $6M in transport/delivery app technology. Things are falling into place.” Raffle closed the text with a “praise hands” emoji.

She was talking about Ryan McManus, the founder of SHARE Mobility, a firm that helped “companies and cities launch shared transportation programs.” Grow Cart employees say that Raffle consulted with McManus on a regular basis, particularly on her proposed cannabis delivery app. One former employee described the relationship as cagey; neither quite trusted the other, and both looked to have ulterior motives. From that former employee’s perspective, McManus seemed to want a toehold in the cannabis industry while Raffle was maneuvering to see the algorithm that powered the SHARE Mobility software. But there was a surprise when members of SHARE Mobility put on a software demonstration for the Grow Cart team. “They couldn’t get it to work,” the former Grow Cart employee says. “It was embarrassing. Then, once they did, it was nothing special. Basically, it was Waze,” the driving directions app.

Still, the courtship went on for several months. Eventually, Raffle even drew up a contract for McManus’s wife, Hoa, to become a wholesaler for a venture in development called Elevate Columbus. While the business never got off the ground, according to company documents, at some point McManus became a Grow Cart board member, along with one of his employees, Aaron Shocket. But, when we contacted McManus via email, he said neither he nor Shocket was a board member. “I do not want to be included in the article since I have nothing good to say,” McManus wrote. “I am not, nor have I ever been a board member.” He did acknowledge that he had been an “early advisor” to Grow Cart but parted ways, cryptically adding that there exists “a thin line between lying and vision.” McManus quickly followed up that email with another. “If you have not already, I would greatly appreciate [it] if you did not contact Aaron Shocket. He met [Raffle] once and should’ve never been on a[n investor] deck. He works for me now and I don’t want issues.”

That wasn’t the only inaccuracy on investor materials. One flowchart showed a man named John Weingardt as Grow Cart’s chief financial officer. Yet when we emailed Weingardt, a city councilor in Fishers, he, too, said he was unaware his name was being used. Instead, he had once done some personal accounting work for Raffle. “I am her outside CPA and not her CFO so don’t know too much about it,” Weingardt wrote in an email. “Not involved at all and not the CFO. That is not accurate.”

On March 3, 2020, Raffle emailed a cheery update to investors. The store in Coldwater, Michigan, was up and running, she told them, and a profit-and-loss statement was forthcoming. But little in the email was true—for one, Raffle had abandoned the deal with Clabaugh in Coldwater. Eight days later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Stay-at-home orders followed, travel was restricted, and borders closed.

No one—not even Rebecca Raffle with figurative gold concealed in her underwear—was leaving the country for a very long time.

 

TOWARD THE END of March 2020, a small group of Grow Cart/Elevate employees started a text thread that quickly went from bitch session to rebellion. Layoffs were coming, but some staffers had already converted from full-time employment to contract work.

Regardless of their job status, they had lost confidence in Raffle and planned for ways to make the company a success in spite of its founder. “To be completely forthright,” wrote one, “no one sees this layoff as a break and no one wants to work for RR.”

The people on the text chain appeared keenly aware that a pandemic could be a boon for a delivery company, especially with shelter-in-place orders looming. But they were pinning their hopes for the future of Grow Cart on a set of faulty premises.

There was no delivery app in the offing. Grow Cart’s seed-to-sale operation, Elevate Farms, had never been much more than a marketing gimmick—Raffle eventually told us that she was “sharecropping” on the land of a licensed Indiana grower who has since left the hemp business. There wasn’t even an actual farm in Michigan. What remained was a CBD bakery that generated a small amount of money—certainly not enough to support a half dozen or so employees in the short term. And even that was in jeopardy.

Kiki Dennison was employed at Elevate for just a short period—January 27 to April 1—but it was long on drama. “It was possibly one of the biggest train wrecks I’ve ever seen,” says Dennison, who worked on creating a brand identity for Elevate after doing some pro bono work on Grow Cart the previous fall for Stormi Hunt (a friend since childhood). “The day-to-day office structure involved a small team of women who were subject to Rebecca coming into the office with large amounts of marijuana on her at all times. She would openly smoke marijuana in the office in front of us and often invite people to join her. No one ever did when I was in the office, and all of us kind of collectively viewed it as a very unprofessional work environment. So yeah, I started trying to work from home as much as possible because I wanted to separate myself from her and that.” Multiple former employees confirmed this account, saying Raffle often flaunted plastic gallon bags that appeared to be filled with cannabis. One complained that she could smell the Irvington kitchen from across the street.

“… I kept getting a lot of red flags and gaslighting. Like, she would say one thing and then tell me I was crazy.”
Former girlfriend

Once, Dennison overheard Raffle and another employee discussing a “hot hemp” problem. The product—which was later rebranded as “tea” when the state outlawed smokable hemp—was testing well above the federal limit for THC, making it marijuana. But Dennison and other former employees say that state lab results were falsified to show an acceptable level of THC. Several people familiar with Raffle’s operation say this wasn’t an isolated event; the grower delivered “hot hemp” in 20-gallon totes. Some say another man would bring Raffle product in a black duffel bag.

Dennison says she confronted her employer, but to no avail. “I said that we had an obligation to our customers,” says Dennison. “I asked, ‘What about customers who were being drug tested?’” One employee told us a story about an Elevate customer who failed a court-mandated drug test for a custody hearing. Dennison says that Raffle explained to her that a discrepancy in THC testing was normal—“I was told there was a range of error”—and that the company was within its rights to modify the results in Photoshop.

Raffle says everything that she sold was perfectly legal, no one ever came to her with concerns, and that it would have been impossible for anyone to purchase hot hemp or marijuana at any of her establishments. “That is a complete fabrication,” she says. “I’ve never altered any lab documents. I wouldn’t even really know how to do that. And quite frankly, I’m not going to jail for hemp—it’s not worth it to me.”

One member of the Grow Cart team is facing that very prospect, however. In August 2020, Brittany Dufinetz, Grow Cart’s second-biggest shareholder and one of the corporation’s directors, was charged with possession of marijuana and dealing in marijuana weighing between 30 grams and 10 pounds, a felony. Then, in December 2020, Dufinetz was arrested again in Hamilton County for a separate offense and charged with possession of a controlled substance; possession of marijuana; dealing in a Schedule I controlled substance with weight at least 28 grams; and dealing in marijuana weighing between 30 grams and 10 pounds. The last two charges are felonies.

Dufinetz did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story. Both of her jury trials begin next month.

It does appear, however, that customers could acquire something stronger than CBD at Elevate­—whether they meant to or not. Raffle provided us with jars of Elevate “tea” on two separate occasions, which we eventually took to a state-certified lab in Indiana for testing. But when the lab learned of our intentions, an employee there told us that the lab didn’t want to take part in anything that might cast the industry in a negative light. However, a similar facility in Cincinnati accepted and analyzed the samples, both of which tested twice the legal limit for THC.

At the very least, it seems Elevate’s products were marketed to customers with a wink and a nod. On an Instagram post to promote CBD gummy bears, someone with access to the Elevate account wrote: “NOTE: if any of my products do not ‘hit’ like you need them to, or you need them stronger, please DM me and let me know. I take knowing every Client’s personal dosage and needs very seriously.”

In April, Kelsey Collins, who was eventually furloughed after raising concerns about the company’s business practices, made a startling discovery: The state halted her unemployment benefits because she says Raffle provided faulty records. Collins made an appeal to the state and eventually obtained a default judgment. Collins and others also had trouble filing taxes because they never received W-2s from Grow Cart or Elevate Farms. Raffle’s companies had allegedly been collecting payroll taxes but apparently someone failed to remit the money to the state.

Raffle says a local company is to blame for the payroll and tax issues. “I won’t say who,” she told us. “My lawyer says if I do, I’ll get sued.”

To get some clarity, we spoke to an expert who explained that payroll companies won’t remit payroll taxes to the state or federal government if a client doesn’t have enough funds in its account. Instead, payroll companies will alert clients when an account becomes delinquent. Eventually, if an issue isn’t resolved, bad accounts are closed or locked. Regardless, it’s an employer’s legal obligation to withhold and remit employee wages to the proper tax authorities.

Whatever happened to employee withholdings at Grow Cart and Elevate Farms, the episode has served as an ongoing reminder to former associates of how quickly events spiraled out of control.

Hunt, who was ultimately fired by Raffle, says that, in the beginning, Grow Cart “was very much centered around creating a sense of community. We worked together. We loved each other. There was bonding, we shared stories, and we worked so hard—there were late hours. Now, of course, there’s a trauma bond just from all the craziness that we went through, and the sense that our community was absolutely exploited in the worst possible way.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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EVEN AS RAFFLE’S professional affairs were going to tatters, her trailblazing bake shop selling terpene-infused brownies, iced lemon cookies, gummy bears, and other mood-altering confections showed no outward signs of distress. Customers could still order via the website and through Market Wagon, and Raffle was still baking up batches of sweets, presumably in a professional-grade kitchen at 6127 E. Washington St. in Irvington. You could buy a single vegan chocolate crinkle cookie for $8, a dozen chocolate chip cookies for $72, or an entire Elevate subscription gift box for $99 a month—a sampler of heat-sealed goodies lined up in tidy rows, with a message printed on the lid of the package: “Oh, high there. We promise local / organic / freshly baked.”

Raffle was able to keep her swelling financial problems away from the public eye. But the levee broke on April 20, 2021. That’s the day food-truck owner AJ Feeney-Ruiz, a one-time collaborator with Raffle who had also sub-leased space in the Irvington kitchen, dropped a bombshell in the form of a 970-word post on his Books Bourbon & Bacon social media accounts. “This is long, so please stick with me if you would like to know what has been going down the last couple of months with @elevatecbdbakery and its owner @rebeccaraffle,” Feeney-Ruiz began.

He recounted a frustrating series of events that occurred between February and April of 2021. His main gripe was that the refrigerator he rented in the Elevate kitchen kept losing power. The second time the thing went on the fritz, it sat tepid for 36 hours, ruining all of BB&B’s temperature-sensitive ingredients. Concerned about the refrigeration, as well as the general food-safety standards inside the Elevate kitchen, he informed Raffle that he wanted to break his lease due to breach of contract, and that he expected to be compensated for the damaged supplies and given his unpaid share of sales from a March CBD doughnut collab that attracted a block-long line of customers. He wanted $2,000. That’s it. “However as of this posting, I have yet to be fully compensated,” wrote Feeney-Ruiz, who said Raffle would alternate between assuring him that his money was on the way, then ghosting him for weeks, and finally telling him that she would sue him if he retaliated—that she was “from L.A.” and would “never give up.”

“Because of how my brain is built, my mom and dad always taught me—and because I’m from L.A., you know—to just fake it till you make it.”
Rebecca Raffle

The nasty post dropped, probably not by accident, on the most sacred of holidays for pot smokers, 4/20. Feeney-Ruiz’s dig at Raffle, the equivalent of leaving a lump of coal in your kid’s Christmas stocking, was met with both a string of comments in support of him and a pile-on of complaints from former associates who used the platform to share similar horror stories.

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

If you wanted to argue that Indianapolis Monthly played a significant role in getting Raffle’s duplicitous story out there, you would not be wrong. In fact, our coverage became a bit of an echo chamber. We included Grow Cart in our 2019 Best of Indy feature, ran her recipe for CBD snickerdoodles on our website, and taste-tested her baked goods for a cover story on takeout food. Raffle did the Monthly/Weekly podcast with one of the authors of this article, host Derek Robertson. And while we uncomfortably ride out this meta string of disclosures, another writer who worked on this story, Julia Spalding, met Raffle through a mutual friend in March and invited her to a tiny, casual dinner party. Raffle brought the brownies.

It’s hard not to like a person so laidback and handy with a stand mixer, with easy access to both “secret family recipes handed down through generations” and local cannabis. Fun and disarming while asserting that her inventory was medicine and not food, Raffle’s branding was uniquely palatable. But here’s the thing about branding: It can be very misleading.

Raffle stopped baking out of the Irvington commissary in early spring and abandoned the Fountain Square storefront soon after. Caught up in the middle of a messy divorce and the implosion of Grow Cart, Raffle was only able to fill her cookie and dog-treat orders by baking out of her home kitchen. Over the summer, she and a new girlfriend tried to launch another small venture, a CBD coffeehouse that would employ and empower LGBTQ youth. But when that relationship fell apart, so did the business plan. “We were actually building the deck and writing out budgets,” says the ex-girlfriend. “But I kept getting a lot of red flags and gaslighting. Like, she would say one thing and then tell me I was crazy.” She says she took $5,000 out of her own savings to help Raffle renew the lease in Irvington and then put her house on the market to finance her share of the CBD coffeehouse. She asked that we not use her name in this story, because “I don’t want to have anything to do with Becca’s stuff.”

A lot of people shared that sentiment. So many, apparently, that on May 14, Raffle issued the first in a series of vague and rambling public apologies. The first was a meme featuring a Shiba Inu puppy (posted to her business’s Facebook page) framed with the words I’M SORRY on top and PLEASE FORGIVE ME at the bottom. In June, Raffle bared her soul in a video posted on her Instagram and Facebook pages, an explanation for why she had been avoiding social media. With a quick preamble of, “I’ll be as concise as possible on marriage and business and health stuff,” she shared an update on her then-pending divorce. (“My spouse lives down the street with her 25-year-old girlfriend. That’s awesome.”) She went on to note that she lost two of her “business babies” to COVID, leaving her with just the CBD bakery, for which she was still filling orders. (“Single mom now, so I need your help,” she chirped.) And then Raffle shared some personal information regarding her health. The list of maladies included white blood cells attacking her organ systems, broken bones, oral chemotherapy, and genetic tests pointing to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, “and a couple other things.”

In July, Raffle returned to Facebook and Instagram with another spin-controlled treatise. This one, titled “5 Things About Me,” informed her followers that:

1) She wears the same outfit every single day.

2) She came out recently as queer, pansexual, and polyamorous.

3) She took science classes at UC Berkeley and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of San Francisco.

4) Nine years ago, she was diagnosed with MALT lymphoma, which began her relationship with the medicinal powers of CBD.

5) At the age of 8, she was diagnosed with ADD, autism spectrum disorder, and dyslexia, which, she suggests, explains why she’s “not great at picking up on social cues” and has trouble “reading boundaries.” As a result, Raffle says, “People call me weird or other mean names.”

It was all very illuminating—if only in the style of that other, long-forgotten social media platform, MySpace. But we had a few more things we wanted to know about Raffle.

 

WHEN RAFFLE STEPPED into our offices a few days before our deadline, she brought this long, weird story full circle.

From watching her social media posts, we were under the impression that she might have difficulty making her way to our fifth-floor conference room because of broken bones in her feet. With that in mind, we assumed she would be on crutches and arranged to use a vacant room easily accessible from the lobby of the Emmis Communications building. The ground-floor room—windowed from floor to ceiling with an up-close view of the public on Monument Circle—had been used for many things over the years. Most recently, it was a television studio, one where passersby outside could press their faces on the thick glass and watch the action within. Before that, a radio studio. Now, a print magazine would use the space to ask questions for a story about a woman who used her own set of platforms—Facebook posts, Instagram videos, LinkedIn, PowerPoint decks, and so on—to tell a story.

But the room was also a bit of a storage closet. Among the parts of mixing boards and piles of speaker cords, someone had set up a folding table and chairs in the center of the room. Raffle walked in—without crutches, thankfully—and took her seat to bring us back to the very beginning of this story, to another sparsely furnished room with a folding table in the middle of it, the bakery. Only this time, the woman with the big smile was there in the flesh.

Graciously, Raffle spoke for nearly two hours, and began with somewhat of a confession.

“Because of how my brain is built, my mom and dad always taught me—and because I’m from L.A., you know—to just fake it till you make it,” she said. “So, because I have a notoriously bad short-term memory and dyslexia, that’s what I was taught. When I got here, I [realized] that didn’t work here. I came off as insincere and kind of awkward. So, I’m trying not to do that anymore, if that makes sense.”

At press time, Raffle’s businesses were facing six active tax warrants (down from 19 when we started) and at least one investor was considering filing a civil suit against her in Michigan. Yet, she said, her biggest mistake was not understanding her audience.

When she came to Indiana, she was a stranger in a strange land, Raffle said—one who didn’t know its language or customs. In fact, she said that after the last year or so of her life, she looked back on some of her past missteps and decided, in essence, that she needed to be a better storyteller. “I took a Midwest leadership and management course from a friend,” she said. “And that really, really helped me. It was amazing. It was everything.”

Through the course, she says she learned to talk to people from the Midwest about values and make connections by asking the right questions. “In L.A., you ask three questions, right? What’s your job? Where do you live? Who are your people?” But in the Midwest? “I was told to stick to specific facts and specific things,” Raffle recalled. “Keep it surface level.” Ask about what college or university someone attended. Sports teams they rooted for. Beer they liked. Talk about family, but don’t mention that “you’re Jewish or Italian or Catholic.”

Plus, she explained, there was a gap in work ethics between Californians and Hoosiers. “I come from Los Angeles, where you work 60 hours a week,” she said. “That’s your base—and that’s nothing.” She has a sister in L.A. who works for Netflix and puts in 90 hours per week. Here, she explained, people want a life. People want to put in 40 hours a week then go off with their families. And that’s why she originally moved to Indiana, she said. But somewhere along the way, she forgot that. Then she hired the wrong people, drove them too hard, and they turned against her.

Raffle said she probably could have overcome working with her team of Midwesterners, but COVID made that hard. Twice during the pandemic, Michigan law-enforcement authorities turned her away from the border when they saw her Indiana license plates, making her a victim, too. Her businesses—her babies—died, and all she could do was watch.

But now Raffle said she is trying to put that behind her by doing the responsible thing, working with her CPA to clean up the mess. She proposed that we call him. Which we did.

Before that, though, Raffle asked that we consider other factors. Namely, she was a woman working in a male-dominated cannabis field. Had she been a man, perhaps none of this would have been a big deal.

When the interview was over, Raffle talked about future plans and sounded busy doing work for private clients and hosting interesting pop-ups. We shook, she departed, and all of us returned to work finalizing the story with a few last-minute emails, one to the Michigan State Police and the other to certified public accountant John Weingardt, the guy who couldn’t figure out why he was listed as Grow Cart’s CFO and the one who Raffle told us was settling her accounts and making investors whole. The state police returned our message within an hour. There was never a policy to turn motorists away, nor were they aware of any agencies that did. Soon, Weingardt followed up, too: Raffle hadn’t “engaged nor paid” him to clean up her books or to create a plan to make things right with her investors.

So there’s that.

Anyway, it all sounded like a pretty good story.

 

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