Twenty-nine year-old Aaron Riley is CEO of CannaSafe, the first ISO accredited cannabis laboratory in the world. This means the lab has complied within the International Organization for Standardization, dealing with testing and methodology.
The company is set to be honored as one of the fastest growing businesses in America by Inc 5000, with a bottom line of 20 million in revenue in 2019.
But, his journey into the cannabis space began by meeting supply and demand of cannabis in college, with his skillful hustle landing him in the court system in record time.
Riley attended Furman College in Greenville South Carolina on an athletics scholarship, playing football as a Defensive End, but by the end of his sophomore year he was knee-deep in cannabis and court dates.
“It was my own fault,” he thoughtfully responded. “My operation grew too big, too fast. My initial investment of $1,000 grew to $75,000 in just four months.”
As an entrepreneur in the illicit market, Riley was the organizer, with his friends helping out.
When a student was caught smoking a bong in a dorm room, he ratted out one of Riley’s friends to save himself. Soon after, Riley dropped his friend off for a $20 sale, unknowingly to an undercover agent.
According to Riley, the way the agents questioned and propositioned the friend, unprompted, was stated as clear entrapment.
A full SWAT operation ensued back at Riley’s apartment, with a dozen officers in bulletproof vests and assault rifles busting out of the back of a van. They put a gun to Riley’s head and took him down.
Blue-eyed and Privileged
This writer was working in-house at a newspaper in Humboldt County, when the mug shot circulated. His blond, blue-eyed, youthful face, bloodied, was seen as another casualty in the misunderstood world of weed within the failed War on Drugs. Seriously, who in college did not smoke weed? It was a highly relatable story.
Findings included between five and six thousand dollars in cash, and an undisclosed amount of cannabis, leading to a laundry list of Federal charges.
Aaron spent just two days in jail, but his legal ordeal dragged on for nearly two years. In the end, he was accepted into another college on another football scholarship in Jacksonville, Florida, earning a Bachelor’s degree and an MBA in the process.
But, the experience of being persecuted for meeting supply and demand of a plant that’s now becoming legal around the world stayed with him.
If he was a person of color and not a footballer with a scholarship, would he have gotten off as he did with just two days in jail; or would he have landed in prison with the mandatory sentence of five years? The plot thickens, as the five other people arrested in the sting were people of color, though all college football players. Was there privilege involved? We can only guess.
Because of the seeming inequity of his ordeal, CannaSafe participates in Los Angeles’ Social Equity Program, helping promote equitable ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry, in order to address the long-term, adverse impacts of the failed War on Drugs.
“We sponsor expungement clinics and organizations such as Social Equity LA and The Social Impact Center,” he said. “I’m painfully aware that People of Color are four times more likely to be arrested and sentenced for cannabis than a blue-eyed guy like me. And that’s why being involved in these equity programs is important to me on a personal level.”
Criminal or Cannabis Patient?
The irony of all of this is, while playing college football, Riley suffered many injuries, including a broken tibia and a dislocated elbow, still causing him chronic pain today, helped by cannabis.
“I get sick on opiates,” he shared. “I just don’t like pharma. When I had my wisdom teeth removed I only took Vicodin the first day. I was playing football in college when I [started using] cannabis for pain. I’d say, sixty-five percent of the players medicated with cannabis in college. My friends and I were providing relief.”
Riley said he uses cannabis topically often, on his neck, elbows, and knees – his hot spots from injuries; and enjoys products from Papa & Barkley and Mary’s Medicinals.
“Smoking depends,” he said. “I don’t smoke much for pain, it’s more for relaxing and to disconnect. I actually wish I could smoke more, but with my 75 to 80 hour work week, it’s become a weekend thing right now.”
Being a bona fide patient was a mind-bender for Riley, as due to the arrest and subsequent court proceedings he was judged harshly.
“Everyone gave me a hard time,” he said. “My parents, friends, and teachers – everyone treated me like a criminal. I was kicked off the football team at Furman. But, we all know now that cannabis is medicinal. But, you can go through the court system and still succeed legitimately in the industry.”
From Illegal to Legit
After his legal woes the only work he could get was in construction, so he opened his own used car lot in Florida. He knew he wanted to get back into cannabis, but he wanted his foray back to be legal this time.
He used proceeds from the car lot to invest in CannaSafe, which he acquired in 2018. Maxing out his own credit cards and putting all the cash he had into the business, that first year they lost a great deal of money.
“I slept on an air mattress – it was an all-in endeavor,” he explained. “The regulations weren’t even finalized in California yet. And then we were ten percent uncollectible – people weren’t paying, but we were able to climb out of the hole.”
And climb out of the hole they did, generating $20 million by the end of 2019. To date they’ve tested more than one billion dollars’ worth of product.
“The 2020 forecast looks even rosier,” he added. “CannaSafe currently has a staff of 150 and is opening five new locations in the second quarter. I’m personally projecting a fifty percent growth by the end of next year.”
Mainstream mentions include a feature in the LA Weekly, a Los Angeles weekly publication; a segment on the television show, The Doctors; and write-ups on its success in many more publications.
Keeping the Cannabis Safe
CannaSafe’s President is Antonio Frazier. The two have been friends since his days at Furman University, and played football on the team together before Riley’s bust.
Frazier holds a Bachelor of Science from Furman University, and a BS in Materials Engineering from Clemson University, also in South Carolina. He began his career as a Nuclear Quality Engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, then moved to aerospace engineering in a testing laboratory for SKF USA in Baltimore.
Frazier brings his extensive and serious skill set to the table, ensuring upright standards are adhered to in the cannabis industry. He said he’d be doing this type of work anyway, and the fact it’s cannabis is a bonus.
To give an idea of the work being done, Riley uses multiple award-winning, sun-grown, Northern California-based Papa & Barkley, located in Humboldt’s county seat of Eureka, as an example.
“We are happy to work with Papa & Barkley, as they’ve challenged other companies in the industry to assess their own supply chains,” he explained. “They self-regulate and triple-test to provide clean cannabis products. This ensures safety and efficacy.”
The cannabis industry is heavily monitored, and multiple testing on many levels is mandatory within legal states in the U.S. The five key principles for clean cannabis are:
- Organic and regenerative farming practices
- Solventless process
- Whole plant infusion
- Clean ingredients
- Triple-tested by third party
Triple testing is costly and the bane for many in the space, but it’s a much needed process, ensuring clean material and products all throughout the supply chain – and that’s the ultimate goal, to provide clean meds for health and well-being.
After all is said and done, Riley said he feels lucky, plain and simple.
“I’ve been fortunate to have these opportunities put in front of me,” he surmised. “I was an entrepreneur in college, selling weed, yes, but it taught me viable entrepreneurial skills. You can take what you’ve learned from the illicit market and make it work in the legal market. I’m living proof.”