Business Smarts and an Activist Heart: Meet Kayvan Khalatbari
Name and Title: Kayvan S.T. Khalatbari, Co-Founder Denver Relief Consulting
My mission is to create positive social change through collaborations between civics, entrepreneurship, art, philanthropy and drug and social policy, while empowering others to do the same. My work covers being a business owner in several spaces, producing progressive art events, engaging civic leaders in policy reform on many issues and integrating all of these ideas and pursuits into my surrounding communities—knowing that the easiest path to change is to have buy-in from all stakeholders…or at least a candid dialogue with them. In everything I do my intentions are transparent, brutally honest and meant to be considerate of all who are affected by the changes we help create. I like to balance activism and capitalism. I suppose you could say I'm a “captivist.”
How did you find your way into cannabis industry/advocacy?
I have been consuming cannabis daily since I was 15. With graduating high school at 16, living on my own since 16, graduating college at 19 and having my successes as an entrepreneur, I realized very quickly that cannabis wasn't the harmful substance it was purported to be.
When I moved from Lincoln, NE to Denver, CO, a week after my 21st birthday, I was looking for a volunteer organization to get involved with in hopes I could integrate smoothly into the city and make some friends. My brother Hassan lived with me at the time and we had scoured all the usual suspects—Habitat for Humanity, Rescue Mission, etc.,—but we wanted to do something a little bit outside the box. When continuing our search online my brother found an organization called S.A.F.E.R (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation), which had just passed initiatives at Colorado and Colorado State Universities that made the penalty for students possessing cannabis on campus the same as alcohol. Even though cannabis was still very illegal in Colorado, it was understood that alcohol was indeed the larger problem, fueling domestic altercations, rape culture and violence. While mostly symbolic it proved a very effective talking point in cannabis policy reform.
I started getting involved with S.A.F.E.R. in 2005 during the Initiative 100 campaign in Denver, which used the same messaging to make Denver the first major city in America to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of cannabis for adults. That was my first taste of activism and advocacy and ultimately set the foundation for everything that was to come. I worked on several more city and state cannabis initiatives, including Amendment 64, which made Colorado the first state to legalize adult use cannabis.
My relationships at S.A.F.E.R are what led to me opening my pizzerias (Sexy Pizza) in Denver, my comedy production company (Sexpot Comedy), my arts magazine (Birdy) and Denver Relief, which opened in 2009 and was the oldest continuously operated cannabis business when we sold it to Willie Nelson's group in 2016. We've carried the same tone of advocacy into my main efforts these days, which revolve around Denver Relief Consulting (DRC), spreading that gospel now to more than 15 states, DC, Puerto Rico and Canada.
Why is the intersection/overlap of cannabis business and cannabis advocacy important?
Cannabis business owners today should not forget that they are now provided this incredible opportunity to participate in this profitable, legal and regulated environment because of the tireless dedication of activists and advocates over the past few decades to reform these failed policies and help undo the failed drug war. Those efforts were not in the pursuit of business, but because those advocates understood that treating cannabis as a criminal issue is morally wrong. The fact that almost 800,000 people in this country spend time incarcerated for simple cannabis possession every year is morally wrong. It’s not a best practice to acknowledge this and help undo this broken system, it’s our obligation.
"Cannabis business owners today should not forget that they are now provided this incredible opportunity to participate in this profitable, legal and regulated environment because of the tireless dedication of activists and advocates over the past few decades to reform these failed policies and help undo the failed drug war."
Are there any companies that you think set the bar for how cannabis businesses should support/engage with the advocacy community?
Denver Relief Consulting (DRC) no doubt, biases aside. I’ve seen companies that started with the same intentions as us fail over the years, or start prioritizing money over doing good, but we’ve never wavered and found new ways to be advocates while also making money.
There are others, such as Berkeley Patients Group, which we actually based our DRC model from; there isn’t a cannabis company in the world that has put more effort into integrating into their community while the federal and state governments tried to crack down on them. Their local municipality and neighbors went to bat for them as they engaged in this fight to exist for the past two decades, and they keep winning. Our partners Cresco Labs in Illinois were the first cannabis company to sponsor a national sporting event with the Chicago Marathon, they hired a James Beard Award-winning chef to create an edibles line and have a medical advisory board that includes prominent people from Rush Medical Center, Northwestern University and the team physicians for the Chicago Bulls and White Sox. Outside of operations, Vicente Sederberg is unmatched as a law and policy firm pushing for this change in not only cannabis, but also drug policy reform and perception improvement. More and more coming online every day because they understand it’s good for business too!
You recently shepherded the "Yes on 300" campaign to victory making social use of cannabis legal in Denver. Can you tell us about the community input provisions you included in the legislation and why that was such an important part of garnering support for the measure?
The cannabis industry in Denver has been dealing with some issues related to a high concentration of businesses in just a few neighborhoods, which led city council to create license caps on the number of them that can exist in certain neighborhoods. Now this doesn’t mean the cannabis industry was guilty of anything, because the city pushed us into these property locations years ago, but it did highlight the need for us to engage the communities in which we operate. To get ahead of any potential issues with creating even more cannabis businesses, we wanted to make sure that prospective operators were speaking with the stakeholders in their neighborhoods, understanding and addressing their concerns, and ultimately creating a plan for operating that becomes a complement to our neighborhood and mitigate the potential for friction. This is also the first time in the world that a municipality has regulated the social use of cannabis, so we know we need to step into this cautiously, let best practices develop and share that information with the masses before we start pushing the pedal to the floor on implementation. We have 192 neighborhood organizations in Denver that cover certain areas, some overlapping in coverage. What our initiative requires is that a prospective permit holder garners formal support to operate their intended business within the boundaries of that organization prior to applying for permit with the city. All businesses should be good neighbors, not just those in the cannabis industry.
DC is currently grappling with a broad "gray area" in our cannabis laws. What advice would you offer community members hoping to support social use legislation in Washington, DC?
Collaborate and mobilize with a consistent message that is understood by all. There are groups out there already pushing for this change in DC, but they could use your help. Reach out to them. Maybe it’s a financial contribution, or some of your time working a phone bank, collecting signatures or attending city council meetings. Start a support letter for local businesses and organizations that want to see this happen. Create a coalition that can’t be ignored, politely harass civic leaders and keep pushing for change…it will happen if the message is consistent and persistent. Educate every chance you get and welcome everyone to the table, even those who oppose you.
"Create a coalition that can’t be ignored, politely harass civic leaders and keep pushing for change…it will happen if the message is consistent and persistent. Educate every chance you get and welcome everyone to the table, even those who oppose you."
As well as your interest in cannabis industry and advocacy, you're also known for your impactful work on pressing social justice issues. Just recently, you led protests against Denver's Urban Camping Ban. Can you tell us about your progress on that initiative and how folks can support your work?
This is a great example of just jumping into a topic and seeing what can happen when you collaborate, empower and organize. I went from being outside this issue nine months ago to meeting directly with every member of city council, our police chief and our mayor, demanding a repeal of the urban camping ban and an allowance to construct a city-sanctioned circ-house village in downtown Denver. These two things were seemingly impossible a few months ago; until we started that coalition (mentioned above). Now with formal support from a few dozen faith organizations, several dozen non-profits, well over 100 businesses, service providers and the homeless themselves, we have a collective voice that can’t be ignored anymore and it’s paying dividends.
It didn’t hurt that a little video I recorded at the end of November of police confiscating blankets from the homeless on a freezing night has been viewed over a million times and gotten the attention of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other national and international media. It has now become evidence in a class-action lawsuit by the homeless community against the city of Denver, which will be a big battle this year in the courts. Stay tuned, but I think we’re going to see some big changes in Denver on this topic, and I hope that spreads across the country because this issue is only becoming more pronounced and the next four years won’t do that any favors. Keep those cameras rolling!
Many people in cannabis industry and advocacy are concerned that the new administration coming in may pose challenges to further progress on cannabis legalization. Some are even concerned that business owners and enthusiasts may be subject to federal penalties under a potentially anti-cannabis Attorney General. How are folks feeling in Denver? Do you have any suggestions for business owners or entrepreneurs who have concerns?
I mean this when I say it: I don’t think the Trump administration will roll back the cannabis industry in any way. They have far too much noise on other topics that will take precedent; we have cabinet members quitting already and they aren’t even on the job yet. This administration is going to be pounded by everyone on every issue and messing with state’s rights on an issue that most Americans fully support just isn’t in the cards in my opinion. What it will do is highlight the need to operate only in states that have a regulatory framework in place. California would be in a world of trouble if they didn’t put medical regulations in place this year.
"I mean this when I say it: I don’t think the Trump administration will roll back the cannabis industry in any way. "
All that said, I don’t see the cannabis industry expanding a great deal or moving from Schedule 1 during the next four years either. While that’s a kick in the shorts to the many folks that will still be getting arrested, it will continue to restrict business opportunities to smaller entrepreneurs over large traditional corporations because those big companies are very wary of the federal illegality.
We know you're always busy! What's on deck for 2017?
So many fun projects!
- We just signed a contract with Southern University in Louisiana to help make them the first university in the world to grow and sell cannabis for commercial purposes. It is a historically black university as well, which has the opportunity to make a dramatic statement on turning around the failed drug war with how we’re approaching this, which is with a focus on academic integration, underserved inclusion and community investment. Such a historic endeavor!
- We are also working with a few Native American tribes on implementing cannabis on their property, which would be a huge benefit to these communities who in a large way currently rely on gaming and alcohol for their sustenance.
- Merit-based application processes in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arkansas…maybe Florida gets going early as well. Much more from our companies MassRoots, Manna Molecular and VaporSlide, and for our operating partners Silver Sage Wellness in Las Vegas and Cresco Labs in Illinois and Puerto Rico.
- We’re also implementing Initiative 300 in Denver, which is an endeavor itself and pushing for social use legislation in the Colorado session this year. We finally hired a lobbyist all our own! And she works for the common good too. ☺
- Some artist investments have diversified what I do, including some non-monetary help assisting the DIY artist community in Denver get back on their feet after the city cracked down on them following the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. DIY spaces all across the country are being shuttered…I hope everyone will look into this and do what they can in their areas as well. It’s important that these safe havens for our creatives remain intact and supportive of their diverse communities.
- Lastly, I’m an Executive Producer on Super Troopers 2, which comes out this year. My DRC partner Nick Hice and I are working on this together.
What did you think of the first National Cannabis Festival and what do you hope to at the next festival coming up on April 22?
For a first time event I was thrilled with how well it was done! Really, what an accomplishment! I liked that it mixed social activism and advocacy, entrepreneurship, art and culture…that’s kind of my favorite mix of things. ☺ I recently learned of some of the artists and programming at the upcoming 2017 festival and am very happy to see the progress being made. This is really becoming a great event for folks to find opportunity in this new world of cannabis, while understanding what it took to get here and all the work that still needs to be done.
How can folks learn more about your work?
I’d encourage them to visit www.denverreliefconsulting.com to learn more about our company and to read my bio where I have a lot more information about my history. Also, Facebook @kayvan.khalatbari, Twitter @LaughingSheikh and Instagram @kkhalatbari.