“We Laid the Foundation and Paid the Heftiest Prices” – Steven Duran, Colorado Kush Company & Cookies Pueblo
From a young age growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, Steven Duran was “knee-deep into weed”. By the age of 12, cannabis had become a regular part of Steven’s lifestyle, friend circle, and eventually would make him the go-to guy in his neighborhood. “It was around everything we did,” he says.
“I was always talking and rambunctious,” said Steven of his younger years, when he was identified as an at-risk juvenile by his teachers and school. “If you smelled like weed, you were basically the devil,” he says. “I was told I’d never amount to anything and that I’d be stupid,” he recalls, “It’s funny how something like that can deter your whole life and you take on that stance of what they’re telling you about yourself.”
Becoming a Fulfilling Prophecy
What was really going on in Steven’s life was that he was lacking guidance and support at home. A child of a single mother who was always working, Steven was always left up to his own devices. “I literally got kicked out of every school,” he says, “I never embraced the school setting.”
When he was able to take some classes, his school days were short. By 12pm every day, he’d secured his friend’s orders, and would wait diligently for the “weed guy”. His house became the place where he would run his teenage cannabis empire. “We’d smoke my mom’s house out,” he says while laughing at the memories.
Before he became a teenager, he was placed in foster care and just a few years into his teenage years, he began collecting criminal charges, for which cannabis was always attached as a secondary charge. “By default, you fall into this stuff,” Steven recalls of his painful past, “when people tell you you’re dumb, there is no one there to advocate for you and protect you.”
Difficult Choices at Young Age
Before he turned 16, Steven was faced with a big choice once he’d been on the wrong side of the law too many times. As part of the Youth Offender System (YOS), he was given the option to go to prison for three years, or drug rehab; a state-sanctioned program for drug use, which Steven was lumped into because of his cannabis charges.
For two years, because of his use of cannabis and by court order, Steven lived in a residential rehab program with alcoholics and kids who were using meth and other street drugs. He was released early from the program, but on one condition: that he was released into the custody of his biological father who had been completely absent in his life.
The arrangement with his father didn’t last long, as it was an abusive environment that Steven quickly recognized he needed to get out of. He moved back to his hometown of Pueblo, and was able to move in with a friend’s family for a year.
When he was 19, his life changed forever, for the very best.
Forced to Grow Up Quickly
“That was my growing up point,” says Steven of when he first heard he would be expecting a baby with his then-partner, “That really changed my heart. I am now responsible for someone else other than myself.”
Having a child on the way made Steven want to get on a secure path where he could provide for his family. He got a job within a local school district as a janitor that had a decent wage and benefits, where he stayed for many years. “I settled in and that became my life path,” he says, recalling everything he’d been told from those teachers that said he’d never amount to anything, “This is good enough for someone like me,” he recalls saying to himself.
He eventually moved to an even better paying job within a power plant, only to find that he was often surrounded by racist jokes and attitudes, “It was miserable, but I had a family to provide for,” he says. And so, Steven, like many, settled into the grind of working-class America. That is, until medical cannabis was legalized in Colorado, which would send Steven back into cannabis, but this time, in a manner where he couldn’t get jailed and thrown into rehab for it.
A New Path Towards Cannabis Begins
“I’m going to quit this place and go into weed,” Steven said one day to the woman who would later become his wife. He says she looked at him like he was delusional, but she was supportive nonetheless. After investing $500 into a course put on in Denver by California’s Greenway University, Steven was ready to chart his course into cannabis.
The best advice he got came after all the hustle and bustle of the Greenway University course had died down when one of the cannabis experts told him to enter the market as a caregiver, and serve patients under him. “That was the first guidance I had ever gotten in my life,” says Steven of that critical advice that set his path. From there, Steven invested what was left of the pension he withdrew after Uncle Sam’s cut and found a fully-gated house where he could grow medical cannabis and serve his caregivers. Getting a taste of providing cannabis legally left Steven wanting more, seeing himself being the owner and operator of his own dispensary one day.
“Drive was never an issue for me,” he explains. He went on to take a job at a dispensary to learn the ins and outs of the business. After becoming Head Cultivator, he knew he couldn’t move up any further in someone else’s business, so it was time to build his own. “That was the crossing point,” he says.
Setting out determined to find the perfect property, Steven experienced hang-up after hang-up from potential landlords. Just as he was about to give up, he made one last call. “Looks like you called the right guy,” the voice on the other end said, finding out that the landlord had already started the process with another cannabis dispensary that had pulled out. He leased the property, but he was far from opening day. “We were the test dummies,” Steven says of the City of Pueblo as they were figuring out the licensing in the early days of medical cannabis. The process took 2.5 years, holding a lease on his building the whole time, and he was finally able to open up 719 Dispensary (now named Colorado Kush Company), the first medical cannabis dispensary in the city of Pueblo, Colorado, where he could freely and legally provide medical cannabis, and not be criminalized for it anymore.
“You’re the Guy Doing All The Work”
While he took immense pride in being a medical cannabis provider, he saw the imminent changes for recreational cannabis in Colorado as an opportunity to build. “For legacy operators, medical is what got us started. When you look about pivoting away from medical it’s tough especially if you come from it,” he explains about moving from medical to recreational cannabis, “The real tough part in business is that the numbers in medical don’t make much sense. I’m trying to build generational wealth.” And so, recreational cannabis seemed to be the way to go for Steven to do just that.
In 2017, Pueblo opened up a competitive application process for eight recreational cannabis stores in the city. What he didn’t realize was that those companies he was going up against had funding that could support the hiring of expert application writers.
“When you don’t have the resources or the funding, you’re the guy doing all the work,” Steven says. He credits his wife for working extremely hard to write an application that had them scoring in the top three, securing them a license. “Cannabis social equity wasn’t a ‘thing’ at that time,” he explains of the factors that got him his license, again crediting his wife’s support and hard work for the winning application.
Steven secured a location for his recreational cannabis store a bit easier this time around as Pueblo had opened up more buffer zones. He got connected with the team at Cookies, one of the most recognizable cannabis retailers in North America and signed a deal to open under the Cookies brand. Cookies Pueblo officially opened in 2021.
“Hell Yeah! This is What it Should Be!”
When Steven began his career in the industry, he did not have the benefits of cannabis social equity programs that sought to undo the damage to BIPOC communities due to the War on Drugs. So focused on building his own business, the whole concept almost passed him by, “My head had been at the grindstone, looking down,” he says, “Once I realized what cannabis social equity was, I said, ‘Hell yeah! That’s what it should be!’ Ultimately, we laid the foundation for the industry and paid the heftiest prices. There should be a lot more of us and people like us that are represented at the higher levels. So much of what they’re offering now would have helped us in our beginning stages.”
“Social equity does appear to be a lot of smoke and mirrors because it’s so new,” he says of his observations, “How do we bang down these doors? How do we hold these guys responsible like they say they want to be? I feel like social equity is a movement, a time in history where we have to take a stance or it’s going to be another overlooked ‘march’, if you will.”
Steven believes the next few years are crucial to see if cannabis social equity programs actually help BIPOC entrepreneurs, “If cannabis social equity is a thing, then I’m going to hold [them] accountable just like [they] held me accountable for all these years.”
Advice for Emerging BIPOC Cannabis Entrepreneurs
When asked what advice he has for emerging entrepreneurs, he says, “Prior to entering the industry, look for your resources,” he says, which includes any social equity programs. “You can’t come into this industry lazy. If you’re not willing to do 110% every single day, you’re not going to get anywhere,” he explains, “These giants with the funding have ten of you doing what you’re doing. You’ll want to know what you’re getting into. This is not for the faint of heart.”
Reflecting on his journey, Steven hopes he can reach even just one kid to ensure that they know that people can be wrong about them, just as all those teachers were wrong about him and discouraged him all those years ago. “Telling me that I was going to be a loser was what made me successful. Had I listened to them, I would be King Janitor by now, but all the teachers still would be looking down on me!”
BIPOCANN supports BIPOC cannabis entrepreneurs in various stages of entering and navigating the market, both in plant-touching and ancillary services. Stories like Steven’s inspire us to ensure that entrepreneurs have the support, visibility, mentorship, and resources to be successful within this often complicated and competitive landscape. Learn more about BIPOCANN and the benefits of becoming a member here.