You can’t tell the story of CannaCraft without Dennis Hunter. For as long as he can remember, the co-founder of one of California’s largest cannabis companies has been a proponent of cannabis, growing up watching family and friends use it for medicinal and recreational purposes and eventually growing it himself as a teenager. Today, he’s the entrepreneur behind several leading cannabis brands and products—but that progress certainly didn’t come over night.
Born and raised in Mendocino County in California’s Emerald Triangle, Hunter grew up being influenced by the area’s underground culture and the prominence of pot cultivation. Ever the envelope pusher, Hunter’s teenage hobby of growing eventually transformed into something monumental, and soon he was cultivating cannabis in a giant indoor facility. Unfortunately, laws in California didn’t allow for the type of large-scale cultivation Hunter had undertaken, and eventually the grow would be raided, going down as the largest indoor bust in the state’s history at the time.
“It was pretty scary,” reflects Hunter today. “I was looking at a ton of time, and I thought it was best to go on the run for a while.” All he could hope for was that cannabis would eventually be made legal so that he wouldn’t have to spend his life as a fugitive on the run.
Eventually, he was caught by officials and would serve a total of six and a half years in federal prison. Once he was released, the terms of his probation obviously prohibited him from continuing to grow, so instead, he started his own hydroponics company and began selling equipment to farmers.
“I knew what they needed and thought this was a good avenue, but then I got off probation and thought, you know what, I’m going to this again and I’m going to do it right,” says Hunter.
Along with his business partner Ned Fussell, Hunter founded CannaCraft in Sonoma County in 2014, and the two worked hard to follow every rule and regulation that the state of California had put in place.
“We thought, ‘we’ve already done it wrong, let’s do it right this time and not make those some mistakes’,” he says.
Soon CannaCraft was among the biggest cannabis companies in the state, with dozens of products across several successful brands, including AbsolutExtracts, CannaCraft’s strain-specific line of cannabis oils; Care By Design, a line of high quality CBD products; and Satori, an award-winning line of infused artisanal chocolates. CannaCraft has also partnered with Lagunitas Brewing Company to brew an alcohol-free, IPA-style cannabis “beer”, making headlines in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
When state politicians were looking for a facility to tour as they prepared to write new cannabis laws, Hunter’s attention to detail would pay off.
He and his staff opened CannaCraft’s doors to 56 regulators, including state representatives, senators, assembly members, and their staff, who took notes as the team showcased standard operating procedures and detailed their meticulous production techniques.
Two weeks later, things would take a drastic turn. A disgruntled employee would tell local police about Hunter’s past as a fugitive, conveniently leaving out details about how his probation had ended, and the inroads the company had been making with state officials and city councillors.
Hunter may have been transparent with regulators, but the police failed to do their due diligence, and soon they were banging down the doors of CannaCraft. A total of 100 agents raided the facility, kicking down every door and taking not just computers and paperwork, but products and extraction equipment. Then they threw Hunter in jail.
“I was trying to explain to them, ‘you guys don’t understand, we’re doing this right, this is legal’,” Hunter recalls now. Instead of hearing him out, they set his bail at $5 million.
Lucky for Hunter, the local industry had recognized his drive to be compliant, and community members rallied around him at the courthouse, urging for his release.
“It was the first time I’d seen a raid like this turn around,” Hunter remembers. “Everybody just came and said, ‘that’s enough, if you want to regulate this and you want to actually make this legal, you cannot go after people who are trying to do it right.”
It took a day and a half before Hunter was released from prison with no charges filed, but the police investigation into CannaCraft would continue. Upon his release, Hunter and a group of lobbyists went to Sacramento and visited senators and assembly members and asked for clarification around the laws that detailed manufacturing, which police had insisted was illegal.
Before the district attorney could charge Hunter or anyone associated with the investigation, a bill that he and the lobbyists helped craft was passed and signed, and the case against CannaCraft was thrown out.
“The D.A. said he’s never had a case where he was in the middle of investigating it, and the person goes and changes the law,” Hunter says.
Though scary at the time, today the co-founder looks back with excitement.
“It kind of leaves that legacy,” he says. “Everybody is pumped to be back here in the same facility three or four months later, doing the exact same thing.”