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Meet three ganjapreneurs in the brave new world of weed

On January 1, 2014, Colorado will become the first state to sell recreational marijuana. As revealed in the following profiles of three local ganjapreneurs, pot is big business -- and the (green) rush is on.

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Kayvan Khalatbari, Pot Pioneer

I've always been drawn to creative people who are a little offbeat in their thinking but very intelligent," says Kayvan Khalatbari, who, at barely thirty, has become the entrepreneur behind a small chain of pizza restaurants, a nationally recognized MMJ consulting firm and one of Denver's longest-running dispensaries, Denver Relief. All of this has made Khalatbari a key player in a very lucrative industry — but instead of using his profits to create a Walmart of marijuana, he's pouring money into Denver nonprofits, providing scholarships for local students, funding the Colorado Youth Symphony (he's on the board of directors) and becoming a major benefactor of the local comedy scene.

"I've always felt an obligation to give back," Khalatbari explains from his Denver Relief office, after exhaling a monstrous plume of hash-dab smoke. "I've found that being a good person pays back exponentially. I'm surrounded by a plethora of awesome people who would do the same for me that I've done for them if the need arose."

"We said from the beginning that our mission was to help people, not make a million dollars," adds Ean Seeb, Khalatbari's business partner. When the two founded Denver Relief in 2009 with only $4,000 and a half-pound of cannabis, they found they had "a unique opportunity to talk to people about being active in the community," says Seeb. "It was a new industry, so we applied what we knew about community service and social justice to that industry."

These days, catching Khalatbari in Denver can be difficult, since his Denver Relief Consulting firm is in high demand around the country, requiring him to fly from one state to another, helping would-be MMJ dispensaries with paperwork (applications are often thousands of pages long) and advising politicians on the unique challenges presented by the push to legalize marijuana. The night before sharing a dab of hash with us, he was dining with the governor of Illinois, a state that recently implemented a stringent set of MMJ policies.

The consulting firm aims to "give regulators in Florida or North Carolina or Texas access to information about what's coming down the pipe when legalization happens four years or two years from now so they're not scrambling to try and take in that information when the bill is already passed," Khalatbari explains. "In Massachusetts, they took everything from Colorado and Washington before those rules were even finalized, and there are things that don't jibe. So they want people like us to keep these regulators in tune. It's going to happen eventually, and they need the education."

And Khalatbari is prepared with his lesson plan. Not only does selling marijuana provide funds for helping the community, but ensuring access to the plant itself is a monumental service to humanity, he says. Pointing to an array of creams, edibles, waxes, pills, vaporizers and oral sprays spread across his desk, Khalatbari discusses the science behind isolating the different cannabinoids in marijuana for different purposes, explaining that the intoxicating THC can be reduced or removed from a product, leaving what's left to treat chronic pain, anxiety or seizures.

At the same time, he notes, THC can be heightened or altered for varying kinds of highs. "The psychoactive properties of marijuana are only activated if you heat it up," he says, lifting his shirt sleeve to reveal what looks like a nicotine patch. "So we're working with people to create transdermal patches that can bring the non-intoxicating elements — that help with chronic pain — through the skin. I have a herniated disc in my back, and I can apply this patch right there and I'm not going to get high."

Grabbing a small capsule filled with isolated CBD cannabinoids, Khalatbari notes, "These don't get you high at all; it's very lucid. I take these before I do any kind of public speaking, because I get nervous as hell. I sweat, I fumble, I lose my train of thought. But if I take one of these CBD pills, it's like I'm talking to one person when I'm speaking to hundreds."

Khalatbari has been using marijuana to overcome social anxiety for more than half his life. Growing up a first-generation Iranian immigrant in predominantly white Lincoln, Nebraska, with a working mother and a father he rarely saw, he was "a very angry kid," he says. "I was babysitting my brother since I was ten, could never go anywhere. And I was essentially the black kid because of my name: Kayvan Soorena Tyler Khalatbari-Limaki. I was frustrated that I wasn't like other kids."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar
Josiah Hesse