Sonoma Co. cannabis entrepreneur Dennis Hunter bounces back from prison to become model CEO
Dennis Hunter discovered his remarkable entrepreneurial prowess in a land of illegal pot. His talent led him to flourishing success then prison. Released, he soared again then was arrested. Now he's back, bigger than ever.
More than a dozen years after his release, Hunter reigns as business leader of Santa Rosa's fast-greening CannaCom Valley, where legal cannabis commerce thrives under state and local law. Hunter's CannaCraft and related CBD Guild companies sell extracted medicinal products in 500 dispensaries statewide.
His businesses, already with revenue of nearly $50 million and 140 local employees, comprise the most potent cannabis enterprise in the North Bay. The business stands to more than triple when the city of Santa Rosa approves applications on a five-building Giffen Avenue site, which will house 70,000 square feet of indoor cultivation.
As a youngster in Willits, some 20 miles north of Ukiah on Highway 101, Hunter taught himself cannabis agriculture. When his hidden outdoor pot plots needed irrigation, he taught himself plumbing. When his indoor plants needed grow lights, he taught himself electricity. When he sought to extract and refine cannabinoids to provide medicine for various maladies, he taught himself about machinery.
Initially he embarked on outdoor cultivation, “hiking in the woods, building a spring box to gather water, made tanks out of chain wire between trees and plastic liners, doing irrigation.” On indoor cultivation, he “learned about wiring, how to wire plugs and whole panels, plumbing and carpentry. I took to each one, figured out how to master it,” he said.
He “had to have all these skill sets,” he said. “Willits was an established cannabis culture. My friend's parents grew. I saw really large cultivation at a young age. I was mesmerized. I found remote timber property” where he could grow plants secretly, by himself, 20 or 30 plants at each site, “drip systems, timers, automated so I didn't have to go there very often.”
He sold cannabis wholesale to dealers, discovering before he finished high school that he could make plenty of money.
His own parents didn't grow, but they were entrepreneurs in trucking, storage and fixing up houses.
“My dad and mom threw projects at me at a young age. I didn't have a lot of things I couldn't do. I tore things apart to see how they worked, put them back together.”
BUST LEADS TO PRISON
But countervailing forces sabotaged his entrepreneurial trajectory.
In 1970 about two years before Hunter's birth, the Controlled Substances Act became federal law, listing marijuana as an illegal Schedule I drug. That same year, the Bank Secrecy Act passed, requiring banks to assist federal authorities by reporting cash transactions that might indicate money laundering, including drugs.
Hunter said his business was “fine” for years, “everybody” around him was into cannabis.
“Then one day, really not fine,” he said.
In 1998, Hunter got busted. Federal agents arrested him at his Humboldt County headquarters for indoor cultivation in two buildings. He also had outdoor cultivation.
Convicted on pot-related charges about four years later in 2002, he served 6.5 years in federal prison.
Hunter, then 25, went to medium-security prison, serving part of the time in Nevada and Oregon. While incarcerated, he took UC Berkeley Extension courses in real estate and appraisal.
Under current California law, after Prop. 64's passage last November, he would not have broken any laws, he said.
“It was lost time,” he said.
Now, he is highly motivated to make up that lost time in business.
“I look forward,” he said. “A lot of things in life build character. I don't look back too much. The industry has come full circle.”
POLICE RAID SANTA ROSA OFFICE
Hunter's personal and business roller coaster did not end after his release from prison. On June 15, 2016, nearly 100 police officers swarmed CannaCraft headquarters on Circadian Way and arrested him. Officers seized nearly $680,000 in cash during the raid, which occurred as the business prepared currency-filled envelopes for employees on payday, according to Hunter. Authorities also confiscated some $2 million worth of equipment used to manufacture medicinal gels and concentrates from raw weed, he said.
“They still have that as well,” he said, noting that assets were seized under county jurisdiction. “There's dialog going on with the District Attorney's Office” about how to get the assets returned.
“It was a shock,” he said. He assumed the police viewed him as an “ex-felon doing a hash lab. They tried to push it off as this clandestine hash lab.”