Perceptions of the Cannabis Industry in Denver: One of the founders of Denver Relief talks about what led the city to cap marijuana businesses.
by Matthew Van Deventer
Kayvan Khalatbari is the owner and founder of Denver Relief, one of the city’s oldest dispensaries, which expanded into Denver Relief Consulting, and which works with fledgling dispensaries across the country. He is also the owner and founder of Sexy Pizza and Sexpot Comedy.
He is known for chasing, then Mayor, John Hickenlooper around in a chicken suit, pressing him on marijuana reform. In 2014, he made an unsuccessful run at an at-large city council seat. Khalatbari has been a marijuana advocate for over a decade, and along with Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) campaigned for its legalization. After an April 11 City Council hearing on a bill that will significantly restrict Denver’s marijuana market in an effort to curb over-saturation, Khalatbari took to Facebook to call the industry out on its lack of community outreach, which he says is the inspiration behind the bill. He sat down with The Hemp Connoisseur to talk about what the industry did wrong, who’s doing good, and what Denver Relief Consulting is doing to make it right.
THC: I saw your post on Facebook about the council bill. I wanted to hear more about what you thought about it. They want to put a cap on locations and curb the saturation.
Kayvan: The saturation was created way back when. This is seven years ago, when Denver Relief started or shortly thereafter when these medical regulations came into place. We were required to find our location, get the lease in place with the verbiage that says they understand the kind of business we’re in—just finding landlords back then was not easy. So you found these places get pushed to these less desirable neighborhoods, to these industrial neighborhoods, where we’re having these “issues” right now. So we’re there because essentially the real estate market and the city pushed us into these places a long time ago, and now we’re having to deal with the repercussions.
My comments on Facebook were primarily related to, as this industry gets larger and more corporate and consolidates as we see these big brands pop up like LivWell and Tru Cannabis and Strainwise … and some of these places that have 15-20 stores, there just doesn’t seem to be that focus on advocacy on a community level; things that Denver Relief has done with the Green Team to reach out to the community for seven years now. What are our deficiencies in our mile radius around us and what can we do to create a benefit there? Even if we’re not solving that problem, just to have your neighbors see you out there doing something positive—is it going to solve the problem that we’re dealing with? Is it going to change council’s minds and everybody in the neighborhood’s
mind? No. But you are going to have some people on your side if you do that. You are going to garner favor over time and we’ve shown that with the Green Team.
Just the fact that the cannabis industry today doesn’t do any of that kind of outreach I think is a little sad. It’s gotten far too corporate. This is an industry that grew from the efforts of advocates. There were people that—such as myself, Mason Tvert, Steve Fox, Brian Vicente, Evan Ackerfield, Jordan Dietrich, there’s so many advocates that did this for no money for so long to put us in a position to be here and it really occurred through having transparent discussions with politicians, with our community members, and with other members of the industry. And as this industry’s gotten more corporatized, we’ve seen these discussions go behind closed doors. And they have happen through lobbyists … it creates a very cold perception of the industry and it’s misinterpreted by the community.
I’m not saying they’re bad players, that they’re ill-intentioned. They may be the most well-intending people in the industry, but they’re certainly not showing their communities that they are. And when, I think it was Councilman Lopez, got up and said “all you industry people got up here and spoke, not one of you mentioned community integration plan or environmental plan or anything like that”. And it’s my understanding that there were other people in the audience that wanted to speak, but because there were so many people they did a lottery. And it just so happened supposedly, that none of the people that wanted to speak to community/environment issues had the opportunity to speak. So that was an issue. But still, the fact that—I don’t know how many people got up to speak, I think it was ten on the behalf of the industry — nobody fucking spoke of these issues. And when the concerns that you’re hearing are from the community, complaining to city council members who are bringing this to our doorstep, when no one even references that, I think that’s really sad.”
What were they speaking about?
Money. This is going to ruin my business. This is going to make me move my business and cost me millions of dollars. Do you think the neighbors or city council gives a shit about that? I know that not everybody in this industry is making gobs of money. [Denver Relief is] a small shop and we’re not. We’re a mom and pop getting pushed by these low prices from consolidated businesses. But I’ll tell you what, there are people making gobs of money in this industry and the fact they’re not participating in this kind of perception shift and this kind of community outreach work, it’s appalling. They’re creating their own disservice if you ask me, or at least contributing to it. So the inaction of not reaching out to the community has created this stalemate to deal with. All they care about is money. And even if they don’t, that’s the perception that they’ve created is that all they care about is money. And you’re not going to get any favors from city council or your neighbors if that’s your only concern visibly to them.
So you would like to see these larger companies reaching out to the communities asking, what can we do for you in your neighborhood?
I’ve seen LivWell sponsor a highway — congradufuckinglations, you cut a check. Why not take that money and actually incorporate it into Elyria-Swansea neighborhood or Cole or Wittier or Five Points, and help them get fresh fruit or produce or help contribute to the homeless situation positively or do something that these neighborhoods actually need instead of just cutting a check and putting up a sign and saying, ‘we did our part.’ That’s the corporate mentality the cannabis industry was not built on, and I was hoping that this industry could have retained its soul a little bit longer, but it seems to be having a very difficult time understanding that because of the people at the top of theses businesses nowadays, especially LivWell, are giant corporate establishments that
have never participated in cannabis. They don’t get what it means to be an advocate, and they don’t get what people have done for the last two decades in Colorado to put us in the position to be here to give them the opportunity to make their gobs of money. That’s what gets me feisty and aggressive on this issue. It’s the fact that they’re essentially taking their opportunity on the backs of folks like myself and other advocates that have worked really hard the last decade plus in Colorado.
This proposal that they’re running through council, do you think that it will help curb over-saturation? Do you think that’s something needed right now?
I don’t think over-saturation itself is an issue, and I don’t think that they would even be discussing it. Again, I don’t think our neighbors would be complaining about it if they understood these cannabis businesses to be [run by] good people. These businesses don’t have a face anymore; these people don’t get out there and—take breweries for instance. We sit in the mayor’s office meetings that the industry gets invited to once a month to discuss odor control and things like that. On the odor control plan they’re having any industry that has complaints about odor, so like food processing for pet food and some other industrial practices, and cannabis is on that list as well. Breweries stink as much as anything else, honesty … The smell of hops fermenting is grosser than cannabis in my opinion. That wasn’t on this list. I wrote the mayor’s office, replied and asked why aren’t breweries on that list, can we add that? And all I heard back was,that’s a great suggestion, however, no one is complaining about it so it’s not an issue.”
To me it’s more noxious. One, breweries do have a better perception in the communities because they do do outreach, they fund these walks, or non-profit organizations, they do do fundraisers in their place, they bring in comedy shows and live music and engage their communities. Therefore they don’t have that issue. And I think that’s a perfect example of it. [Alcohol is] a vice that actually kills people, that actually puts a large detriment on our society, and they don’t have any issues because they engage their community. Granted they’re more established, more tenured, people have had more time to get used to the fact that they’re there. But, they don’t have issues because they engage and because they approach it differently than lobbying behind closed doors and making it a secret game of protectionism, which is what the cannabis industry is doing right now. That’s my main issue with some of these big places. The Marijuana Industry Group is a perfect example of this. They’re the Wal-Mart representation of this industry and all they care about is lobbying and protecting their businesses. They could give two shits about the furtherance of the industry here, to make a fair game for businesses of all sizes—they don’t care. They’re there to protect their interests and to keep making more money and expanding their interests and that’s a problem.
Do you see this changing anytime soon?
Nope, I don’t. I see more consolidation happening. I see these brands getting bigger. But that’s something I’m excited about with Denver Relief Consulting. Emmett [Reistroffer] in our office here recently took over the head policy consultant title. We are creating a plan right now, outside of these groups and these issues, for their neighborhoods that they operate in that’s going to hopefully bring together stakeholders in those neighborhoods, that’s going to bring together City Council and that’s going to bring together industry that wants to participate with us.
We’re going to sit down and ask, ‘what are your deficiencies and what can the cannabis industry do to improve them?’ Let’s do audits on these facilities with regard to security and odor mitigation. Do they have to act on this? No, I can’t make the cannabis industry do anything. But I can make recommendations. With our Green Team we can do tree planting and neighborhood gentrification, we can help redistribute fresh produce, fruit and vegetables to these neighborhoods and help engage these no-cost grocery programs, which we’re already doing with Growhaus and Denver Food Rescue. We can help develop college scholarship programs for under-served youth in those areas. We can do food, coat, clothing, hygiene product collection drives that we’re already doing in our neighborhood; we can take those there. And whether we get the industry’s buy in or not on that, Denver Relief Consulting is going to push that agenda and make those things happen.
We’ve sent a letter to Council member Lopez yesterday just stating that we were just as appalled as he was to not hear anybody say that the cannabis industry cares about these issues and told him that a longer plan or proposal was forthcoming that we were going to send to the entire council in an effort to engage [council and community leaders] proactively, productively. I want to talk to the loudest, most pessimistic person on cannabis in those neighborhoods and find out truly what they’re concerned about. And I want to work on behalf of the cannabis industry—again, whether they want to participate or not—in finding resolve in those issues and if that comes from cannabis money, if it comes from cannabis companies organizing volunteers or other resources, we’re
going to do that.
You want to go forward with this outreach with or without the support of the cannabis industry. Will that cause tension, head-butting or issues within the industry and with your business?
I hope so. If they’re upset with me for being a good steward of this industry, of our communities, then fuck them is honestly how I feel about it. There are people in this industry like myself, not just in Colorado but on a national level—Amanda Reiman with Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is a perfect example of this in Berkley. She initially was the community outreach director for Berkley Patients Group. Berkley Patients Group is the oldest dispensary in the world and, the basis for Denver Relief. We created our foundation on their model. They’ve been threatened to be kicked out by the feds, by the state, by landlords, by everybody. Their community came to their side and said, “No, we want them here. They’re good for our community, they provide jobs, they create a safe neighborhood, they donate to our schools, they do all this stuff.” The community fought for them. That’s not happening here because our industry doesn’t do it and that’s unfortunate.
So Amanda Reiman is leading this project that I’m very excited about, highlighting businesses in the cannabis industry that are doing good. Now, maybe that is just cutting a check, but it’s not cutting a check for a fucking highway and putting a sign up. It’s, let’s pay for air-conditioning for the school and let’s actually do something that creates a value for the people that live in these neighborhoods. And she’s going to start highlighting these companies. If it’s shaming, great. They’re going to shame other business into wanting to do good, because now we’re looking at it, not
just doing the right thing and dealing with the safety of our businesses, but creating a marketing opportunity in that. And if you’re a cannabis business that’s perceived as doing better, of doing well, of having good intentions, of having a personality and a face, that’s a great marketing opportunity for what is turning into a faceless industry.
You said Denver Relief runs the Green Team. Is that a big part of its community outreach?
Yup! Seven years we’ve been doing it. [At] Ekar Farm, we had as many as 70 or 80 volunteers at certain events. Ekar Farm is one of the largest urban farms in America. They’re down on Alameda and Monaco. We’ve been doing events down there for five years. We go down there and do planting; we’ve helped build hoop houses for them, weeding, harvesting. I think they donated like 15,000 pounds of organic vegetables last year to local food pantries. We do our free bicycle/wheelchair repair clinics out in the courtyard every month in the spring, summer and fall months. We’ve been doing that for six years. We do the perpetual food, coat, clothing drives downstairs, we’ve helped coordinate volunteers for needle exchanges with the Harm Reduction Action Center, we’re doing trash clean-up that’s being put on by Harm Reduction Action Center that’s being done up and down Colfax.
We’re trained in naloxone administration, which is to kill an opiate overdose essentially. It stops the receptors from taking in those opiates and allows people that are overdosing to live. Melissa, who sits at our front desk, her boyfriend actually saved someone just a few months ago using that. We’ve been doing these things for so long and that was one of the first priorities as a cannabis business, it’s in our first meeting agenda, that we want to change the perception of cannabis. We want to create a benefit for our community because we knew that people did not view cannabis positively and that is was viewed as just another drug, and we’ve always been under the mindset that it’s not. It is a medicine, but it’s also a safer recreational drug than what a lot of people choose to use. And we just want to show folks—as much as I hate the word—that we’re normal, that our business tactics are normal, that we’re good people. And we’re actually probably doing more than most businesses, cannabis or non, in the city, with just reaching out and developing these grassroots efforts.
Who are those other players like yourself or Reiman that are positive players in the cannabis industry here?
Vicente Sederberg, is a law firm, does pretty well. They’re about as connected within our regulatory department on the state and local levels as anybody; they’re very engaged in the community. Brian Vicente was one of the guys that got me into cannabis a decade plus ago with Sensible Colorado. They’re in it for the right reasons. But they manage to balance being great at business, and furthering big business, with being advocates and understanding what got us here in the first place and not just thinking about cannabis policy but drug policy at large. They push very hard for that. They’ve done that with Harm Reduction Action Center especially. They host endless amounts of fundraisers for policy and advocacy groups and homeless organizations. They’re true advocates. So they’re not operators in the industry, but they work with plenty of operators. Walking Raven collaborates on all of our Green Team stuff; they’ve done that for several years. These are the people that have participated with us in the past: Cannabis Camera and Kim Sidwell; Craft 710, a concentrate company; Gia’s Garden; Green Dot Labs, another concentrate company; Incredibles; MassRoots; TerpX; The Farm and Walking Raven and The Hemp Connoisseur Magazine, have all been sponsors of the Green Team in the past and pushed these efforts out there. MMC Depot on the packaging side. But not a lot of cannabis industry participants, very few people. The Clinic, although members of that Marijuana Industry Group, do well at raising funds for MS as well, which should be applauded.
On the topic of the Green Team, this has probably been the most disgusting thing I’ve been a part of in this industry. The Green Team started six years ago…, seven years ago at the 4/20 rally. We went down there and organized volunteers. We all had our Green Team shirts on with compostable trash bags to pick up trash all day because Civic Center Park when that 4/20 rally is over, it’s a fucking mess. And how does that look for the cannabis industry? So we would go and participate in that but we haven’t for the past couple of years, because I think it was Frosted Leaf, they wouldn’t let us coordinate volunteers and let us pick up trash unless it said “Frosted Relief Green Team”. That’s how fucking corporate this has gotten. That’s the kind of gross thing that’s happening in the cannabis industry right now, people just care more about themselves than doing the right thing and continuing this industry as something different and unique—that’s just sad.
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