Colorado’s burgeoning marijuana industry is big business, yet so far it is maintaining a quaint mom-and-pop character.
Many of the state’s medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational stores are owned by family members who pooled their savings in order to open.
Others operate with a handful of partners who leaned on friends and business acquaintances to raise startup capital.
For an industry that some perceive as sordid and illicit, insiders say it’s the opposite: run largely by regular folks embracing a ground-floor opportunity or advocates passionate about marijuana’s medicinal benefits.
With reports of booming sales since recreational pot became legal Jan. 1, industry analysts wonder how long it will be before the sector becomes the target of big corporations and chain ownership.
“But now, it’s still predominantly family,” said Betty Aldworth, Denver-based deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Business partners Ean Seeb and Kayvan Khalatbari started a bare-bones version of the Denver Relief dispensary with $4,000 and a half pound of marijuana. They then borrowed heavily from relatives and friends — mostly in $5,000 and $10,000 increments — to finance the $600,000 build-out of their retail and plant-growing operations.
Like other entrepreneurs, they found that bank loans were unavailable because of marijuana’s illegal status under federal law. In addition, Colorado regulations forbid equity investment in cannabis enterprises from people who have not been state residents for at least two years.
Those financing hurdles make family investment not only a clan-building concept but a necessity in many cases.
Denver Relief’s lenders included Seeb’s parents and Khalatbari’s mother and uncle.
Borrowing from his parents was “definitely uncomfortable,” Seeb said — but not because of any social squeamishness about marijuana and its negative perception in some circles.
“I’m sure they were nervous as hell,” Seeb said of his parents. “They were worried about whether they would be repaid, and that their son was in a business that’s in conflict with federal law.”
Sisters Robin and Cheri Hackett pooled their entire savings, liquidated retirement accounts and offered 12 percent interest rates on loans from family and friends to finance their Northglenn-based BotanaCare Medical Cannabis Center.
The Hacketts have used loans instead of outside equity investments to maintain their exclusive ownership stake, with one exception. They offered 10 percent of the business to a friend who had cashed in his individual retirement account and refinanced his home mortgage to help the dispensary get started.
“Some (friends and family) have given more than they could afford, to be honest, but they believed in us,” Robin Hackett said.
Brooke Gehring, a former commercial banker, parlayed her knowledge and connections from running a marijuana consulting business to open a company that operates four Denver-area marijuana stores and two cultivation facilities that operate under the names Patients Choice and Bud Med.
She and two partners capitalized the business with a combination of personal savings, family loans and a $500,000 loan from an unnamed investor.
As with Seeb’s family loans, Gehring said her family’s backing was accompanied by concerns over federal illegality and safety issues stemming from the risks of operating businesses that generate large amounts of cash.
“There was some uncertainty,” she said of the family-backed loans. “But me consulting for a year really made them feel comfortable that I was approaching this knowledgeably and professionally.”
Gehring said she and her partners in Colorado 7 Investment LLC are focused for now solely on operating their existing business.
But the investment and expansion climates could change dramatically, she said, if banking laws are reformed to allow marijuana businesses access to accounts and loans, and if cannabis eventually is legalized under federal law.
Gehring said investment and ownership by big corporations is “pretty much a certainty” under those scenarios.
“We’re approached by millionaires every day who want a piece of the action,” said Robin Hackett of BotanaCare.
But she and her sister are unlikely to consider selling out.
“For us, the passion is providing medicine to people who need it,” she said. “Any money we make from recreational sales is going to go right back into the medical side of the business.”
Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/steveraabedp