This week for our Power Players interview series we spoke to Dennis Hunter, co-founder of CannaCraft, parent company of several prominent California brands. Hunter taught himself the business on the illegal market, and subsequently spent six and a half years in federal prison.
This Spring, CannaCraft introduced Farmer and the Felon, a brand in partnership with The Last Prisoner Project. That group, started by Steve DeAngelo, aims to free and support individuals incarcerated for cannabis offenses. You can see several of their stories here. Hunter discussed the California market, his transition from illegal to licensed operator and whether social justice can pay.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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A Grassroots Company
WeedWeek: Tell us a little bit about CannaCraft’s business?
Dennis Hunter: We’re a vertically integrated business doing cultivation, manufacturing and distribution. I’ve been cultivating for almost 30 years now, and my co-founder has been cultivating for quite some time as well.
Early on, I had some experience creating brands in the hydroponic space. CannaCraft has been just a grassroots company that we grew and learned what we needed to learn as the company kept growing. Now we have over 200 employees and some of the top brands in California.
WW: How is the California market treating you?
DH: It’s good. There’s definitely challenges. The market seems to change every three months. So there’s no shortage of obstacles and changes of strategy and things like that. But overall, we’ve been a pretty agile company.
One of the things we’ve noticed, a real difference between us and some of the larger companies: They have a harder time pivoting and adjusting to the changes. But we’ve been so used to it for so long that I think we do a pretty good job. We’re still a scrappy company as well, trying to get everything we can get done on a much smaller budget.
Social Justice: Good for business?
WW: CannaCraft recently launched Farmer and the Felon. A lot of cannabis companies talk about social justice, but this is one of the few brands explicitly tying itself to it. Do you think there’s a business there?
DH: I think what the brand really does is tell our story. It tells the history of what the cannabis industry went through over the last couple of decades.
We really see [the brand] as, one, being a differentiation between us who have been in the industry for 30 years and a company that sees this as a way to make a quick buck. Two, we think the history is entertaining and interesting. It’s also really important for people to know the part that’s not so pretty, that so many lives have been affected by the prohibition of cannabis.
People went to jail and families have really suffered for a plant that is virtually harmless. We’ve turned farmers into felons and had a lot of false information pushed out about cannabis.
It’s turned normal, hardworking individuals into criminals in the eyes of the government. I grew up thinking cops and law enforcement were the enemy. Really they’re here to keep us safe and help keep society following the rules. But here you have this thing where they’re directed to treat this huge portion of the population as criminals.
The big flip
WW: You were incarcerated for cannabis. What’s it like now in this new climate?
DH: It’s odd. It’s still hard for me to not have a little bit of PTSD from running and hiding from law enforcement. It’s much different to step out there and be completely transparent and not feel like somehow there’s going to be some negative effect for it.
We still see it in banking. If I go in and say, my primary job is running a cannabis company. There’s not too many banks that want to bank me, even personally. So you’re still holding back and hiding a little bit of what you do just to function as a normal citizen.
I’m sitting in a garden right now that has about 35,000 plants. Wow, isn’t this strange that you don’t have that fear of a sheriff rolling up? I still see a strange truck pull up and still my heart starts to beat a little bit. I’m like, wait, what am I doing? This is legal, we got a license. So I still have to tell myself that what we’re doing isn’t going to have negative repercussions.
WW: Some of the proceeds from Farmer and the Felon benefit, the Last Prisoner Project, which was started by Steve DeAngelo. . It’s one thing to be able to sell cannabis and benefit a charity that helps incarcerated prisoners. DeAngelo has also talked about cannabis becoming a new kind of industry, one that repairs that damage, and is more equitable than other industries are in how it treats the environment and workers and stuff like that. Does that seem realistic to you?
DH: I think so. We’ve got an opportunity over the next few years to sculpt how this industry operates. I feel like Steve and CannaCraft, we’re trying to establish all the good that we can do with an industry.
In my 20s and 30s, so many of the people out protesting for the Eel River and the redwood forest and things like that, were able to do that because they were cultivating cannabis.
With legalization, it may cost some of those people’s ability to make a living and still be out there guarding of our environment. It may really fall back on the industry itself looking for ways to contribute and make a stand for what we believe is right. Farmer and the Felon is an experiment to one, use a brand to educate people; and two, be a way for them to contribute. Everybody who purchases Farmer and the Felon cannabis can feel that they’re contributing to [rectifying] an injustice.
WW: Do you feel like your peers at other cannabis companies care about this?
DH: A lot of cultivators have hit us up and were even willing to discount some of their cannabis to us to go into the Farmer and the Felon brand. They love that we’re doing something like this and they want to be part of it. Retailers also want to be part of it.
I’ve heard of another brand, that’s doing something very similar or they’re talking about doing it very similar. The real sign of success is when you enact change and can get others to basically see the value in it and want to do the same.
We’re really happy about that and hope that it catches on. There’s so many special, really compassionate people in the cannabis industry. It’s just really great that we can do some really good things like this and show the world what the cannabis industry is really made out of. There’s been so much stigma. By doing something like this, we’re really hoping that it shows people that we care about a lot of different issues. It’s not all about money.