Eleven years after receiving an unforgiving marijuana citation, things have come full circle for Daniel Morgan as he opens Denver’s first social equity dispensary, Social Cannabis, at 5068 N. Federal Boulevard across from Regis University.
“It has been such a long, hard process to get here, but it feels like a dream come true. It doesn’t even feel real.”
Denver’s marijuana social equity program received its first application from Daniel, a University of Denver alumni, who left for Wyoming his senior year and came back with a career-altering marijuana citation. Morgan has not set foot in Wyoming since. The citation during his final year of study in business, came with lasting impacts that stretched far beyond his sentence of a year-long term of probation and a steep fine.
“It was terrifying. At the time of the citation, cannabis was a lot more frowned upon. Since it was essentially during the tail end of my senior year, it was a time when I was applying for a lot of jobs, and companies started asking me for background checks. I would get all the way to that point, but then I would never hear back.”
For years, the cannabis industry has been criticized for barring those who have been harmed by the war on drugs. People served extended sentences in prison for petty marijuana charges while others made millions from Colorado’s lucrative industry. As a result, consequences of marijuana convictions fell harder on marginalized communities and people of color. According to a report by the ACLU, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. This while, marijuana use is roughly consistent across all ethnicities and 75% of dispensaries in Denver are owned by white men.
In April of 2021, a social equity marijuana bill was signed into law which could lead to the most expansive change in the history of Denver’s marijuana industry. Its comprehensive social equity program aims to break the barriers to entry for those who have been negatively impacted by marijuana laws. The program also makes the application process more accessible to all by waiving or reducing initial licensing fees, which can cost several thousand dollars.
Denver aims to more accurately reflect its demographics in the cannabis industry by removing the city’s marijuana retail license cap exclusively for social equity applicants who meet one of the following criteria: Individuals may qualify if they have lived in an Opportunity Zone or Disproportionately Impacted Area for at least fifteen years between 1980 and 2010. Individuals may also qualify if their annual household income does not exceed 50% of Colorado’s median income, or if they, a spouse, parent, guardian or child has been convicted of a marijuana offense in the past and have not had a previous retail license revoked.
According to Dr. Tristan Watkins, program manager for Colorado’s Cannabis office, the social equity program is also vitalizing Denver’s marijuana delivery industry by exclusively taking social equity applicants until 2027. This bill applies to individuals who wish to open their own delivery business or partner with existing dispensaries.
Because of the time consuming application process, only nineteen out of Denver’s 206 dispensaries are licensed to have delivery services provided by the social equity program. However Dr. Watkins believes the business is headed in a great direction. “Although it’s not popular yet, it is happening, and licenses are being rewarded.”
Michael Diaz Rivera is one of those social equity licensees with his marijuana delivery company, Better Days Delivery. He was busted for possession and accused of distribution. Because of the conviction her served a couple months in jail. The new laws have given him opportunities to succeed in the marijuana industry. “By focusing on the communities most impacted we can begin the healing needed to transform. In my situation, in particular outside of my family community, I am grateful for the people who pick me up after my mistakes and hold me accountable. Now that I am in the position that I am in, I feel as if it is my duty to pay it forward.”
Discouraged as he felt by his bust, Morgan found the silver lining to all of this when he started getting involved in the cannabis industry, budtending for minimum wage at a local dispensary right off of DU’s campus. Morgan found a home in the industry, and quickly grew fascinated with the cultivation side of retail cannabis.
“After I moved on from budtending, I was washing pots, transplanting, cleaning–really taking on all growing responsibilities.” Morgan continued to climb the industry’s ever-growing ladder as an executive with Starbuds.
“I was extremely focused on cultivation early on,” says Morgan, “but when the company I had been working for transitioned and sold a lot of its cultivation, I started getting into the business side of the industry. I started doing a lot of consulting work and helping open up stores all around the United States.”
Everything changed for Morgan when Denver’s social equity marijuana bills were signed into law, offering priority licenses to those who had been convicted of marijuana charges in the past. Morgan no longer had to forfeit his dream of owning his own marijuana business, but the application was just the first step of a very challenging journey.
“It was a very, very long process. It started with applying to the program, then applying to the state, then applying to Denver to have it approved for processing. After that, I had to attend a hearing in Denver where I met a lot of nearby residents and company owners.”
Dan says, “There was zero opposition at the hearing, and many of the business owners believed that opening up Social Cannabis would benefit their companies as well.” After the hearing, Morgan had to pass several different extensive inspections in order to arrive at the grand opening of Social Cannabis.
Morgan is partnering with over twenty cannabis vendors participating in the Social Responsibility Give Back Program, a plan designed to increase the vitality of Denver’s diverse areas by partnering with local businesses. One of the participating organizations is Ananeo, a program that provides housing, coaching, and mental health resources for those re-entering everyday life after prison. Morgan is truly passionate about giving back to the social equity program and helping others that want the same things he does.
“Going through this process and facing all of the difficulties and hurdles I have been through, I realize that even though I finally got through it and am opening up my own business, it is still extremely difficult for other people to get here.”
That is why Morgan is committed to creating a mentorship program that will help guide other social equity applicants through the process of opening their own businesses in the marijuana industry. As the first social equity dispensary owner in Denver, Morgan says, “I want to make it easier for other people. Although it’s my business, it’s not just about me. I want Social Cannabis to help other people and enable them to succeed.”
He recently spoke with city of Denver officials who were very receptive to his idea, and he hopes to launch the mentorship program within the next month or two. Morgan is proud to open up the first social equity cannabis store in Denver and hopes donations generated from the sale of select brands at Social Cannabis will help expand opportunities for others who have faced debilitating challenges.
“I ultimately want to maximize the potential of the social equity program and give back to the communities that deserve it.”
A handful of other dispensary applications have been submitted for processing through the social equity program, but so far Morgan owns the only social equity dispensary in Denver.
“Without the social equity program, none of this would have been possible for me. Social Cannabis is essentially my proudest accomplishment.”