Ean Seeb: Balancing Business and Philanthropy in the Cannabis Space

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Ean Seeb is co-founder and partner at Denver Relief Consulting and has been navigating Colorado’s medical and adult-use cannabis industries since the beginning.

In this episode of the Ganjapreneur.com podcast, our host TG Branfalt sits down with Ean for a chat about Colorado’s early days, his two-time role as chairman for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), how he has balanced smart business practices with an instinct for philanthropy, and some of the other cannabis-themed projects that he has recently gotten involved in — including the recent buyout of High Times and his strategic involvement in cannabis brands throughout several different states.

Listen to the interview below, or keep scrolling down to read through a full transcript of this Ganjapreneur.com podcast episode!

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Read the transcript:

TG Branfalt: Hey there. I’m your host, TG Branfalt and you are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast where we try to bring you actionable information and normalize cannabis through the stories of ganjapreneurs, activists and industry stakeholders. Today I’m joined by Ean Seeb. He is the co-founder and partner of Denver Relief Consulting and he’s got, you’ve sort of got your fingers all over this industry, man. Before we get into that, tell me about yourself. How is it that you got started in this space?

Ean Seeb: Well first of all, thank you very much for having me on your show. I’m excited to spend a few minutes with you today, Tim.

TG Branfalt: I’m delighted to have you, really.

Ean Seeb: Oh, thank you. I feel the same way. How did I get started? The short story is I was helping, I learned of a doctor who was writing patient recommendations to people who had legitimate reasons to have medical marijuana in Colorado so long as they had medical records. I got my medical cannabis license in early 2008. Late 2007, early 2008. As a result of that, I recognized that people didn’t know how to go about doing that. I started from there, and it took off.

TG Branfalt: I had read a bit that you were in real estate before starting businesses in the cannabis space. What’s interesting to me is you’re probably the fifth or sixth person that’s appeared on this show that actually has that background. Can you tell me how those two industries sort of work together and why there is a lot of people who were in real estate that end up migrating to the cannabis space?

Ean Seeb: Sure. Certainly from my own experience, I had several different jobs. Out of college I was doing some IT stuff, but I really came to the understanding that I work best for myself and that having a boss was not the way that I wanted to live the rest of my life, so that’s why I chose to get into real estate. I was involved in the foreclosure market. At the time Colorado was leading the nation in 2006, ’07, ’08 in foreclosures. We were a little bit ahead of the curve. As that started to peter out, is when I got my medical cannabis license.

As far as the crossover, I think that as I was just suggesting, so many people like to work for themselves. Real estate affords people the opportunity to do that and real estate, as with any other industry, is cyclical so when you’re in kind of the low end of it where there’s not as much on the market and not as much opportunity, I think it’s natural that people who have an entrepreneurial spirit are going to start looking around for other things.

Although I was still doing okay in real estate, the reason why I actually left real estate is because cannabis starting take up so much of my time because it was getting so successful that I didn’t have the opportunity to do both, but I really feel that the entrepreneurial crossover allows for people to naturally move from real estate into cannabis.

TG Branfalt: Describe now your experience in the early stages of Colorado’s market and eventual migration to adult use.

Ean Seeb: Sure. In the early stages it was crazy, TG. We started off as a delivery service, so the way that we started was we put in $4,000. I threw in $2,000, Kayvan threw in $2,000, and our other business partner threw in $2,000 worth of cannabis at the time when it was $4,000 a pound. We bought some car magnets from Vistaprint and bought some business cards and put a tiny ad in Westword, the Village Voice Media on the back page, the outside cover, that said, “Denver Relief…We Deliver.” We started this delivery service.

In the early days, it really was kind of the wild west. We followed all laws that were on the books, which was that we were only selling to patients and we only sold what we were allowed to sell. We only carried what we were legitimately authorized to carry through Amendment 20 of the Colorado Constitution, which is the original amendment to our Constitution that allowed for medical marijuana.

There weren’t a lot of rules. We had a couple negative things happen in the beginning, or some challenges. My original business partner, who we got rid of early on, didn’t follow our business protocol and he got carjacked making a delivery the first time to a stranger. Everything ended up okay. They ended up with some cannabis and some money. The car was found, nobody got hurt. Nobody that we were aware of.

Then we had a run-in with the Denver Vice squad and their Drug Task Force network, and that was because we were making a delivery and it was in a Burger King and Starbucks parking lot because the first time we’re meeting somebody we like to do it in a public space for obvious safety reasons, and there was a security guard, it happens to be near the University of Colorado downtown, and there was a security guard guarding the lot to make sure students didn’t park in the lot and go to class, and he saw this interaction going and he actually called the police. I showed up, the police showed up, and in the end they asked us if we wanted to press charges against the guy who called the cops because he pulled my delivery driver out of his car without being authorized to do so. In fact, we weren’t violating or breaking any laws. Yeah, it was pretty crazy. It was pretty crazy.

We’ve had some crazy stories. I did get followed by a crime syndicate early on. It was, we believe, a mob syndicate here in Denver. It had to do with us stealing their phone number very early on. Our phone number of our dispensary, before we sold it, was 303-420-MEDS and when we got the phone number originally the phone company called us back and said, “We messed up. You can’t have that number,” and that it belonged to somebody else. It’s another long story, but we ported it over to a cell phone and then we got followed and we had a conversation with some people and luckily I’m still here today to tell the tale.

TG Branfalt: You described sort of this early-going wild west. When the market moved over to adult use, what’d you do then?

Ean Seeb: We waited. Well first there was the whole regulations of medical use. This was prior to medical regulations being enacted that actually allowed for the sale and distribution through dispensaries. We had to set up the regulatory regime for that first in Colorado, and that took a few years to get going and then we had the election in 2012 and it authorized adult use cannabis to be sold beginning January 1, 2014.

What did we do? We waited. We were not the first to do it this time. We took a little bit more of a wait and see approach, rather than being the first ones to open. There was a lot of uncertainty as to whether the feds would come in immediately and shut people down, whether or not they would be a target, whether or not it would be good for medical cannabis dispensaries. Certainly I was in favor of it. Many people in the industry were actually opposed to it because they thought that it was going to welcome the federal government coming in and shutting our medical regime down.

TG Branfalt: You’ve been involved since the early days. The rules keep changing. The rules continue to change. There’s some new laws taking effect within Colorado that were signed by the governor. Can you tell me about these rules and what’s your reaction to them and the industry reaction?

Ean Seeb: Well there’s rule-making that’s going on right now. There’s work groups meeting. I think there’s five different work groups that are meeting and there’s several different changes that are being proposed, but with every step of the way, there’s going to be some pushback from the industry that sees in general that some of the regulations are very expensive and onerous. In some capacity, the industry wants to see the rules change in a positive way and that there’s perhaps less regulation for things that we realize that there has been overregulation on.

The governor’s always signing different, not always, but has been a pretty good supporter over the past couple years, but it seems like they’ve had to make lots of changes and perhaps what you may be referring to is that the governor had to call a special session of our State Legislature back into session because there was a small drafting error and the error actually prohibited the state from being able to move tax money over to schools and rec centers and youth prevention programs and it was done in error, so the governors called everybody back in to fix that. I’m sure that we’ll see some other things that are slipped in as well.

TG Branfalt: You also for a time served as the chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association. What’s the importance of these organizations, especially in Colorado, which has a far more mature market than most other states right now?

Ean Seeb: Yeah. National Cannabis Industry Association, for your listeners who don’t know, it’s the largest trade association in the country for cannabis operators. In fact, it’s the only national trade association that was created specifically for operators and we work on Capitol Hill. There’s over 1400 members and we lobby the legislative branch to try and change the laws so that we can be treated like any other business.

The industry is of tantamount importance. We’ve been told by legislators time and time again that they have supported what it is that we’re doing and cosponsored and gotten behind bills as a result of their constituents coming in and talking to them about cannabis and the fact that it’s not as dangerous as people thought, that youth use is not going up and in many cases going down, and their state seat to regulate it, it’s probably better for the legislators in those states that they back their people and the will of the voters. In most cases that’s how medical cannabis exists in 30+ states. There’s a few where it’s passed through the Legislature, but by and large it’s always been a vote of the people.

TG Branfalt: I want to talk to you a bit more about the Denver Relief Consulting and the charity work that you’ve done throughout your time in this industry, but before we get into that, we got to take a short break. This is Ganjapreneur.com Podcast. I’m TG Branfalt.

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TG Branfalt: Hey, welcome back to the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast. I’m your host, TG Branfalt, here with Ean Seeb, co-founder and partner of Denver Relief Consulting. The NCIA, the National Cannabis Industry Association, I just want to take a quick step back. What are some of the things that you guys have lobbied for or against or are lobbying for or against now?

Ean Seeb: Sure. It’s a great question. Quite simply, we want to be treated like any other business. There’s a lot of challenges with working with a product that is scheduled and is federally illegal. As a result, we don’t have access to traditional banking services, especially merchant services and lines of credit. It’s virtually unheard of in the industry.

We have very difficult time paying our taxes in that we’re penalized with a punitive tax called 280-E that was created in 1982 as a result of a cocaine trafficker who was deducting all his business expenses. We’re not allowed to make regular business deductions, so banking and taxes are the two main things that NCIA has been fighting and will continue to fight for until we’re treated like any other business in America.

TG Branfalt: It’s totally nonsensical that you guys are operating with a state legal industry, and you’re subjected to this federal penalty that was for drug dealers. Just a totally bizarre, I mean, there’s no other industry that has those sorts of handcuffs at all.

Ean Seeb: No. There is no other industry that has those sorts of handcuffs. You’re absolutely right. It’s crippling to some businesses. We can’t deduct our labor. We can’t deduct our marketing expenses. The only thing that we’re able to deduct is the cost of goods to produce the cannabis that we sell. That’s it.

TG Branfalt: I’ve spoken to many people from Denver and from Oregon and that whole thing and people think well, they’re in the cannabis industry, they’re just rolling in money. The reality that I’ve been told is that the taxes and the fact that you can’t use these deductions takes away from your bottom line and actually … People think oh you know, they’re just rolling in money, but it’s sort of counterintuitive when you think of all the other, the 280-E and the fact that you can’t deduct these things.

Ean Seeb: Yeah, it’s pretty punitive and it makes it very hard to conduct business. It is a misconception that people involved in cannabis are just rolling in money when in fact most of it’s going to the feds.

TG Branfalt: I want to switch gears a bit. I want to talk to you about your charity work. A lot of this you’ve done with the Denver Relief Consulting. You fought for civil rights issues as a cannabis industry operator. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve done that, before I talk to you about Ekar Farm?

Ean Seeb: Yeah. We’ve always felt that being involved in our community was an important thing. That’s not something that came about as a result of being in the cannabis industry. Just the way I was brought up, I was brought up to try and make the world a better place and I think both Kayvan and Nick, the three of us come from very different backgrounds, but all three of us want to see the world in a better condition than when we got here.

We started incorporating charitable work into what we do in early 2010 shortly after we opened the retail store, and it’s continued and we now actually have an organization that as of a couple weeks ago is now a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4) that is focused on doing community service-based activities with and for the cannabis industry.

TG Branfalt: Preparing for this interview I spent a lot of time reading up about the Ekar Farm Project and it made me really excited because it’s a really beautiful sort of pursuit. Could you tell our listeners more about that project and what you do there?

Ean Seeb: Yeah. Ekar Farm is a community farm here in Denver, Colorado. The land has been gifted to the farm by the Denver Academy of Torah, actually, which is a religious school here in Denver. It’s a couple acre farm that cultivates fruits and vegetables, and then they do a number of things with them.

One, they donate it to a couple food pantries. The Jewish Family Service food pantry, the Weinberg food pantry, which is available to all. They work with Denver Urban Gardens. They work with a restaurant called SAME Café. SAME Café is a café on Colfax, one of our main streets here in Denver, and SAME stands for So All May Eat, and it’s a restaurant where you pay what you can afford to pay to eat there.

Our Green Team has been going there for, we’re working on the farm for, this is our seventh season in a row working on the farm. We do everything from helping them weed the garden to planting seeds early on to harvesting fruits and vegetables later on in the year. It’s a very small organization. They have only really two full-time staff members and are largely dependent upon volunteers to help them get through. The majority of their volunteers, while very helpful, are school-aged children and so having 40, 50, 60 able-bodied adults come out once a month for a weekend night and work a couple hours in the garden is the same thing as them working two, three and sometimes even getting a month’s worth of work done in an evening, given the small staff that they have on hand.

It’s been a pet project of ours for the past several years. It’s also been a point of charitable contributions for us. We now have the ability to pick and choose some of our clients and in some of the days where people were boasting of their wealth, we dared them to put their money where their mouth is and were able to secure some large contributions for Ekar Farm as a result of some of our clients who went on to win licenses, recognizing the same values that we do, that community service is important.

TG Branfalt: Was the farm sort of something that you saw as kind of a perfect fit considering you’re in an industry that grows things?

Ean Seeb: Yeah, it really did. It was a natural fit when we first started working with them. We’re cultivating cannabis, they’re cultivating fruits and vegetables. There’s a lot that goes into, a lot of it is very similar, albeit they’re outside in an open space and we’re in secured buildings, but certainly growing plants and vegetables, there’s a lot that we have in common.

It allowed us also to help, we help them construct some hoop houses and we’ve been able to, in small scale, been able to get used equipment and supplies over to them as well.

TG Branfalt: That’s really, really incredible man. I just want to commend you on the project, because I think farming’s really essential for any community, really, and so the fact that this farm provides for the SAME Café and for food banks, I really applaud and commend your work on this.

Ean Seeb: Well thank you. I applaud and commend them for doing it for so many years and I applaud and commend our volunteers. It was just my idea to work with them, but it’s not my man hours that go into it. It’s the industry and it’s the volunteers and it’s the people that believe in what we’re doing that allow organizations like the Green Team to thrive.

TG Branfalt: I got to talk to you about another couple projects that you’re working on or have worked on. Before we do that, we got to take our last break. This is the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast. I’m TG Branfalt.

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TG Branfalt: Hey, welcome back to the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast. I’m your host, TG Branfalt, here with Ean Seeb, co-founder and partner of Denver Relief Consulting. You are one of the investors behind the recent High Times buy. I’ve been reading High Times probably since I was old enough to read and buy it. 13 years old, I was probably reading my first High Times Magazine. It’s not even an exaggeration. How does it feel to be part owner of one of the most noticeable counterculture publications in history, man?

Ean Seeb: It’s kind of crazy. I’m in the same boat as you, man. I started reading High Times or saw it for the first time when I was in high school. I think one of my friend’s parents had one that we saw and it was back when everything was very, very much underground. It was the brand, right? It was the only cannabis brand that really existed back when I was growing up. Yeah, it’s kind of crazy to be part of the ownership team there. It’s been a fun experience so far. The people that I’ve gotten to work with over there, Adam Levin, Matt Stang, Kevin Giles, Danny Danko, they’re fascinating people and I consider myself fortunate to be a part of that project.

TG Branfalt: How did you end up getting involved in that purchase? How’d you find out about it? How’d that go down?

Ean Seeb: I found out about it through Arcview. Arcview is, to my knowledge, the largest investor forum that is out there for people who are looking to get involved in cannabis or looking to present an idea and High Times was going to be doing a pitch for the Arcview investor members and for whatever reason they ended up not doing it and I reached out to the gentleman who was putting it on, and that was Adam, and I didn’t realize it at the time but come to find out Adam and I had actually met several years prior, this is pretty funny, in a hotel room that Sheldon Adelson gave me to throw a party in Vegas.

TG Branfalt: That’s bizarre.

Ean Seeb: Yeah. It was pretty crazy. Yeah. Adam and I met in one of Sheldon Adelson’s personal hotel rooms. Sheldon Adelson being the notorious anti-cannabis casino magnate, and the rest is history. Now we’re in business together.

TG Branfalt: Hold on. What’s the story with Sheldon Adelson?

Ean Seeb: I was there, I happened to be in Vegas. I do a lot of work in the Jewish community here in Denver. One of my friends who also spends his time equally between Denver and LA does a lot of work with the Republican party and he was there in Vegas doing something with Young Jewish Republicans. I was in Vegas doing something with young Jews who support charity and philanthropic work, and the two of us came together and we threw a party and with his connections, he was able to get Mr. Adelson to donate one of his own personal rooms to host the party for us.

TG Branfalt: You have some strange bedfellows, my man.

Ean Seeb: It was crazy. This was even before the last election. This was when he was working to push Obama out of office and was unsuccessful in doing so. This was many years ago. I take that back. It was in early 2012, so yeah, I guess it was before the election. Before the 2012 presidential election.

TG Branfalt: What’s next for you, man? You have all these projects going on, the philanthropy work, the Denver Relief Consulting. What’s next for you?

Ean Seeb: What’s next for me is that we sold Denver Relief last year and we’ve been working with a lot of our ancillary and non-ancillary partners around the country. We have a dispensary in Las Vegas called Silver Sage Wellness. We are partners in Cresco Labs, which is in almost every dispensary in Illinois. We’re also going to be opening in Puerto Rico. My heart goes out to everybody in Puerto Rico, by the way, with everything going on there.

We are one of four companies that won both cultivation and dispensary licenses in Pennsylvania, so we’ll be opening three dispensaries under the Cresco Yeltrah brand out in Pennsylvania. We have a whole host of ancillary companies that we work with. You mentioned High Times. Also have Vapor Slide, which is the first dual-use vaporizer that you can hit dry or invert and put into a bong. Work with Manna Molecular Science, which is doing some disruptive and groundbreaking technology things as it relates to transdermal technology and using 3D printing technology.

Continue to work with Dymapak, which is formerly Stick Sac. We’ve been working with them for years. They were the very first company to have a child-resistant package for the cannabis industry. Still on the board of Mass Roots, and I’m doing a lot of work with a new organization called the National, it’s fairly new, it’s a couple years old, called the National Association of Cannabis Businesses, which is, unlike NCIA, which works at the legislative branch, this organization is a self-regulatory agency that’s working at the executive branch, so working with the former Chief of Staff of the DEA, the former head of Homeland Security, one of Vice President Biden’s former senior advisors, and working with this organization to help create some national standards and bring some self-regulation to the industry. Definitely staying busy, Tim.

TG Branfalt: Yeah, I guess so. When do you sleep?

Ean Seeb: When my wife lets me.

TG Branfalt: Finally man, you obviously know a little bit of everything and a little bit more of everything else. What’s your advice …

Ean Seeb: And a whole lot of nothing. I feel like I don’t know very much when it comes to the cannabis industry, believe it or not.

TG Branfalt: What’s your advice for entrepreneurs working in this space, my man?

Ean Seeb: I have several pieces of advice. Get involved. Make sure that you’re active in your community and you have a good reason for getting involved. Listen. There’s a whole lot of knowledgeable people out there. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the true business people from the people that are looking to just pass the buck, but by and large I’ve learned a whole lot from listening to other people. Three, be involved in the community in a grand scale. It’s very rare in one’s lifetime that you have the opportunity to create a new industry, and all eyes are on us. Being attentive to the communities that are allowing you to be in this business and helping them improve and get over their challenges is a huge opportunity for any entrepreneur who’s looking to get into this industry.

TG Branfalt: Well Ean, I really want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be on the show. Thanks to Ezra Soiferman for getting us together. He’s a great guy. Shout out to you, Ez.

Ean Seeb: Yes, thanks Ezra. Over at Tweed, up north.

TG Branfalt: Yeah, yeah. I’m hoping that he travels through Burlington again here shortly. Again man, thanks for taking the time. I think that I might have to reach out to and have you on the show again because there’s just not enough time in 35 minutes to discuss everything that you do and really sort of pick your brain. You might be hearing from me in the near future.

Ean Seeb: I would be happy to. You have a great show, great podcast. You’ve had many wonderful guests, people that I look up to on your show and I’d be happy to chat with you any time, Tim.

TG Branfalt: I appreciate it, man. Definitely keep us in the loop on everything that you’ve got going on.

Ean Seeb: Thank you so much for your time today. Thanks for having me.

TG Branfalt: You can find more episodes of the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast in the podcast section of Ganjapreneur.com and at the Apple iTunes store. At the Ganjapreneur.com website, you will find the latest cannabis news and cannabis jobs updated daily, along with transcripts of this podcast. You can also download the Ganjapreneur.com app in iTunes and Google Play. I’ve been your host, TG Branfalt.