Some Denver charities still won’t accept donations from cannabis companies, even during a global pandemic

Some Denver charities still won’t accept donations from cannabis companies, even during a global pandemic

"Your name is Kaia Cannabis and we just can't take your money."

VicesMay 26, 2020

Cannabis was recreationally legalized in Colorado six years ago and today, weed has become an inexorable part of this state’s economy and lifestyle. It’s created huge streams of income and sources of employment and it’s proven to be one of the most philanthropic industries in the entire state.

Of course, on top of all that, Cannabis is a medicine with the potential to treat a litany of different health issues: from epilepsy, to chronic pain, anxiety, sleeplessness, nausea, loss of appetite, and many others.

It’s a money-maker, it’s a medicine, it’s non-addictive and it feels real nice when you use it. But still, even today, pot’s got a stigma that it just can’t shake. Even in a state like Colorado, where THC has been normalized to a large degree, when cannabis companies like Seed & Smith try to donate their resources to charitable organizations, some charities refuse to accept their money.

And not simply because they won’t, but because they actually can’t.

“We've run into the same problem many times,” says Brooks Lustig, the CEO of Seed & Smith and owner of Kaia Cannabis. “People will say, ‘We really appreciate the effort. But you guys' his name is Kaia Cannabis and we just we can't take the money.’”

That’s a tough spot to be in. Because Lustig wants to help however he can — he and his team at Seed & smith feel an obligation to, particularly right now in these strange and dangerous times. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make things harder for people everywhere, Lustig thinks that companies that have the ability to lend a helping can, should.

But because they are a cannabis company, several of the local Denver charities they tried donating to refused to accept their money. So they had to come up with some clever work-arounds.

“There's a lot of charity groups that won't accept charity donations from cannabis companies because it's not a part of their charter to be able to do so,” says Keegan Peterson, the founder and CEO of WURK, a payroll, HR, scheduling and time-keeping services for Cannabis businesses.

WURK is the largest money-mover in the US for the largely cash-based cannabis industry, operating in 33 states nation-wide. So, Peterson has seen a lot of cannabis donations turned down by charities who would surely benefit from them. And not just because they’re too righteous to take “dirty cannabis money,” either.

“The whole concept of accepting cannabis derived funds is still challenging for a lot of businesses in the US,” says Peterson.

He explains that because many of these businesses get their grant money from the federal government, if they took money from a company like Seed & Smith, they would compromise their federal funding.

Which, Lustig says, is much more valuable than any donation his cannabis company could come up with.

“It's a shame,” says Lustig. “You know, these aren't mega-donations or anything. It's a small percentage of sales, but it's what we can afford to do.”

Essentially, the Feds are holding these charitable organizations’ funding over their heads like an uptight parent, threatening to cut a kid’s allowance if they get too caught up with that ganja crowd.

Luckily, crafty businesses and determined philanthropists like Lustig, have found ways around that absurd hurdle. They took the money that they were going to put into the larger Denver charities (who refused it) and decided to reroute that capitol into more hyper-local charities and charitable causes — organizations that aren’t funded by the Feds and who are more than happy to accept donations form a cannabis company like Seed & Smith.

“We kind of shifted our thinking and went with much smaller charities,” says Lustig, of the three recent donations Seed & Smith managed to make. Not only will their money go even further with these smaller local organizations, he explains, but it will also have a much more localized impact.

The first charity they gave to was Conscious Alliance, a Boulder-based live music food drive charity. Conscious Alliance offers free artisanal concert posters at many Red Rocks shows for anyone who brings cans of food to donate. And in the wake of COVID-19 they’re working with restaurant owners who have been shut down, to reopen their kitchens and help provide for local food banks and soup kitchens.

“Conscious alliance is as much of a personal friend as an organization can be,” says Lustig, who normally goes to two to three shows per week. He tells me his walls at home are covered in those Red Rocks concert posters he’s gotten from donating food to Conscious Alliance.

Then there’s Metro Caring, an organization dedicated to meeting Denver’s food needs and addressing poverty: the root cause of hunger. They run the Metro Denver Food Bank’s Fresh Foods Mart, where shoppers can select from a variety of nutritious foods based on their dietary needs.

Seed & Smith reached out to Metro Caring through one of their employees and found that they were struggling to even pay for hand sanitizer for their drive through food bank centers and food processing centers.

“We donated to them so that they could keep their distribution centers running,” says Lustig.

Seed & Smith’s donation to Metro Caring is directly helping to keep their operation running and thereby, directly helping to keep Denver fed.

“Then the third charity is about as local as it gets,” says Lustig.

Seed & Smith is directly across from the Montbello neighborhood in Denver, he explains. Lustig says that they’ve been involved with local organizations in the area for some time, one of which is called Montbello Walks. They aim to get their senior residents of the community out and about, exercising and living that active Colorado lifestyle.  

“Obviously when COVID hit, they're not pushing seniors out and about right now,” says Lustig. “But they kind of shifted gears to help get them food.”

Seed and Smith’s donation to Montbello Walks is ensuring that their neighborhood’s seniors are well-taken care of and getting meals every day.  In fact, Lustig connected Montbello Walks with his friends at Conscious Alliance and the two are now working together to do even more good throughout the Denver area.

“It's a really neat thing to make those connections,” he says.

Seed & Smith donated $5,000 to each of these organizations: $15,000 in total.

“We just felt we're obligated to do our part,” Lustig says, earnestly. “It's really cool to talk with these people and just actually try to help out.”

So, while the federal government has made it challenging for anyone in the cannabis industry to donate money to charitable organizations, there are ways around that. And, in the case of Seed & Smith, the impact that their dollars are making, is a hyper-local one — one that is going to have a very meaningful impact.