“I Realized the War on Drugs was a War on Us.”
He was known as “Money Mike” on the streets, the cool guy with the weed, the girls, the money, and the hustle, but at night, he was the boy who would always be found with a book in his hand.
When you hear Michael Diaz-Rivera’s story as a Black man growing up in Colorado, you begin to recognize that his story is not unlike many other BIPOC individuals in the cannabis industry. Once criminalized for cannabis, Diaz-Rivera is now a license holder in the industry as a result of the Social Equity programs that support those who have been impacted by the War on Drugs to enter the industry.
From a Bookworm to Money Mike
Born and raised in a single-parent home in Colorado Springs, CO, Michael Diaz-Rivera was designated “the man of the house” at an early age. The oldest of three children, Michael took an active role in raising his two siblings while his mother worked.
He achieved good grades in school and found comfort in literature and reading while dealing with the pressures at home, yet he soon found he needed to be someone different on the streets. As many kids have done before him, Michael fell into street life, “Money Mike” becoming his persona for protection. His mother soon grew tired of Money Mike, and kicked him out of the family home, citing that he was becoming a poor role model for his siblings.
“At 16, I was couch surfing, and I turned to selling weed to survive,” recalls Michael. Money Mike thrived under his new moniker until the day an encounter with the police put a stop to everything. On what seemed like a normal night riding around with friends, Michael was stopped by the police, guns drawn, where they conducted a search of the car. Because he’d been selling cannabis, the police found his stash, separated by different strains. “I got a felony for distribution at age 19,” Michael recounts.
Dropping the Money Mike Moniker
“I’ll never forget that night in jail,” recalls Michael, “I had always had goals and dreams, and now I felt as though I had burned all the bridges I’d been building. I had to call my Mom, and she bonded me out.”
After doing a bit of jail time, Michael was given the opportunity to participate in work release, where he’d work outside the correctional institute while serving his sentence. He had the chance to work in a family center where he developed a passion for kids and working with youth.
This was when things began to change for Michael. It was time to put Money Mike aside. Given the option by his Parole Officer to go to work or go to school, Michael realized it was time to go back to his passion for learning. Back to that kid who would spend his night times consumed in a book through his quest for knowledge.
Michael attended Pikes Peak College, where he got his Associate’s Degree in Psychology, later moving to the Metro State University of Denver to continue his psychology education.
Witnessing the Impact of the War on Drugs
At the time he was studying, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had been victimized and murdered by race-based violence, and Michael saw the impacts of this kind of violence become clearer.
“It was in college that my love of activism woke up,” said Michael. His passion for liberation for BIPOC individuals who had been impacted by the War on Drugs fueled his involvement in various activism groups, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He began to learn that more people, like him, were carrying felonies for cannabis; a disproportionate amount of which were Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. “I realized the War on Drugs was a War on Us,” he says.
Michael continued his passion for working with kids and youth, recognizing the need for more minority male educators within the public school systems. He became determined to be the role model that he had failed to be for his siblings in the “Money Mike” days.
Through an alternative teachers’ licensing program and gaining experience in mentorship roles through community work, Michael received his teaching diploma. Leaning on his passion for reading and writing, he went on to teach these subjects, among others, to youth for seven years.
When Colorado put the call out for social equity applicants within the growing industry in the state, Michael recognized that perhaps it was time to close the loop of his story with cannabis, creating something positive from the hardships he’d faced because of his felony.
Entering the Cannabis Industry as a Social Equity Applicant
Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division enacted its social equity programs in January 2021. This program was launched to acknowledge the effects of decades of criminal enforcement of cannabis laws that disproportionately targeted communities of color.
An exclusive feature of this program are rules that maintain that only Social Equity Applicants may be licensed to conduct cannabis deliveries until 2024. Through this program, licensure application fees are waived for Social Equity Applicants. These applicants also have exclusive access to a number of licenses until 2027.
Michael was successful as a social equity applicant in securing a license to deliver cannabis in Denver and Aurora through his company Better Days Delivery.
“The programs have been helpful, but could be better,” says Michael, “If we’re talking about social equity, the amount of money I’ve had to spend [to get a Delivery License] has made me realize that this is not social equity at all.” Michael states that the expenses required to start up his delivery service have been enormous, calling into question just how well these programs financially support its applicants.
“I would like to see more grants and funding for the communities who were impacted or incarcerated because of the War on Drugs,” says Michael. He also hopes to see the timeline for social equity programs to be extended. “We know that these big corporations are just waiting for the social equity timeline to stop, and are just waiting us out,” he observes, “The deadline should be extended because the licensure process is so tough,” stating that since the beginning of the social equity program, many people aren’t getting very far in the process.
Mostly Michael hopes to see the social equity programs carried out with integrity, staying focused on what they are meant to do: “Social equity is a buzz word and people are trying to take advantage of it.”
Hopes for the Future
Michael says connecting to BIPOCANN has opened doors that he’d never been able to open himself. “Ernest has helped me connect with dispensary owners and stakeholders within the industry that are putting me in a position to win,” he says of his experience working with BIPOCANN.
He is hoping to establish Better Days Delivery as a national brand, if not international, someday. His dream is to have an integrated business where he can run operations from seed to stock.
Better Days Delivery is currently looking for a dispensary partner in the Denver and Aurora areas through which he can serve his community with quality cannabis. Working with a dispensary with a social equity mission is important to Michael, placing community engagement as a value he plans to weave through his company’s growth.
Michael welcomes dispensary partners from the BIPOCANN network in his area to connect with him to discuss a potential partnership.