Q&A with East Bay Therapeutics Founder Nasser Azimi: Emeryville’s First Cannabis Dispensary
East Bay Therapeutics soft-opened our city’s first cannabis dispensary last month across from The Broken Rack Pool Hall on Peladeau Street. EBT beat out a large pool of applicants to nab one of Emeryville’s coveted dispensary permits that were issued last year.
The founder of EBT is serial entrepreneur Nasser Azimi. Azimi is not just a businessman looking to capitalize on California’s cannabis industry explosion, he’s a visionary with over 25 years of experience in technology platforms.
Azimi provides us his perspectives not only on the cannabis industry, but his vision of the future of the technology that could be an important tax revenue base for our city.
Q&A with East Bay Therapeutics Founder Nasser Azimi
EE: Tell us a little about your background. Where you grew up, what your educational background is and a little about your career path that led you to the Cannabis industry.
NA: I immigrated from Iran to San Francisco when I was fifteen with $40 left in my pocket after paying for the plane ticket! I finished high school in San Francisco while working full-time and went to college at Sacramento State where I studied business and technology.
Out of college, I worked as a programmer for the Sacramento Bee and simultaneously for the State of California. I eventually began working on larger scale projects and was appointed by former California Governor Pete Wilson as Director of Technology for Child Welfare Automation.
Many of the systems I helped to develop were successful and are still in place and this gave me credibility in the Government Technology arena. The next California Governor Grey Davis appointed me as the Deputy State CIO (Chief Information Officer) where I had large budgets for a variety of technology initiatives across the state.
I eventually left Sacramento and worked for the County of San Francisco helping automate their school system software.
After this, I went into the private sector where I built a consulting firm, sold that off. I then built a software company where I developed and sold software solutions to some large entities across the U.S.. About three years ago, I pivoted my software business toward drone technology with a focus on traffic management, security, surveillance, first respondent and passenger drones.
EE: You’ve been operating a Medicinal Cannabis business called Ohana Gardens in South Sacramento since 2015. What has this taught you about entering the East Bay recreational and therapeutic market?
NA: Prior to Proposition 64 being passed in 2016, my son Dar approached me about the potential of the cannabis industry. He was experimenting with growing it. Because of the legal grey area, I didn’t want him to go sideways on it so I got involved.
We created Ohana (Hawaiian for “family”) and we began cultivating and distributing cannabis using technology and data science to optimize our results. Water, lighting … everything is automated.
We then helped advocate for legalization efforts by hiring former Sacramento City Councilmember and trial attorney Rob Fong who is also a partner. We pursued permits in San Diego, Long Beach and eventually here in the East Bay. We’re finalists for permits in other municipalities as well.
EE: What do you think made your proposal stand out among the large pool of applicants for an Emeryville dispensary permit?
NA: We spent a good year understanding Emeryville’s dynamics and logistics. I think they were ultimately impressed by our technological approach. I think they were also impressed by our ideas for our dispensary to feel more like an Apple Store and less like a hash den. A comfortable, well-lit lounge with tablets you can use to research and shop. An education room and other dedicated spaces where our vendors can explain the therapeutic benefits of their products.
We’re also pioneering an incubator model. The regulatory hurdles seem insurmountable to some in the underground economy and we want to offer to bring them into our infrastructure and legitimize.
We don’t call it an “equity program”, it’s not an entitlement program which is what some cities are calling it. We want to offer those that have suffered from the war on drugs who display some tenacity towards the opportunity to join us and we’ll help transform them into entrepreneurs.
EE: Does Emeryville’s central location and smaller size give it a competitive advantage over other cities?
NA: When I found out Emeryville was going to pursue dispensaries. I dropped all the other Bay Area pursuits to go after Emeryville. Emeryville’s smaller governement makes it more nimble.
The connection to major freeways, hotels and shopping centers makes it a great location regionally.
“When I found out Emeryville was going to pursue dispensaries. I dropped all the other Bay Area pursuits to go after Emeryville.”
EE: Use of technology including drones is one way that you seem to want to distinguish your business. Can you help us visualize how technology will revolutionize your business and industry in the next decade?
NA: In addition to our currently operational dispensary and plans for onsite consumption, our facility has a 20,000 square foot warehouse we plan to use for recreational drone racing as well as a test facility for other drone technologies.
We’re FAA qualified and even researching bringing a passenger drone in Emeryville (see video below) which we think is going to revolutionize personal air travel.
We eventually see the opportunities for drones to deliver medicine into communities that have transportation challenges. There are, rightfully so, safety and privacy issues that we need to contend with first.
EE: You seem pretty satisfied with our City’s responsiveness and collaboration. Is there anyone specifically that has helped your business get off the ground?
NA: The city as a whole was very helpful. From Council to Planning Commission to staff. [Economic Development and Housing Manager] Chad Smalley was very sincere, very fair. [Senior Planner] Miroo Desai was also very helpful and proactive.
Some jurisdictions look for problems, Emeryville was different in that it looked for solutions.
EE: The City seems to be aggressively seeking cannabis as a revenue stream for city services to replace retail tax revenue which is forecasted to decline in the coming years. While no business would encourage taxes on them, you obviously knew it was coming. Measure S proposes a 6% gross receipts tax on yours and other cannabis permitted businesses. Would you go as far to endorse this measure?
NA: Some cities are looking at much higher taxes. 10% … 15% … there’s no surer way to crush the entrepreneurial spirit than overtax someone out of the gate. Emeryville’s approach is more measured, more responsible.
“There’s no surer way to crush the entrepreneurial spirit than overtax someone out of the gate. Emeryville’s approach is more measured, more responsible.”
I don’t mind being taxed in the context that they involved us in the decision. They didn’t cut us out. I think we’re all on the same page.
We want to work collaboratively with the city to help capture the cannabis tax revenue for Emeryville that we estimate can grow to as much as 6-7 million annually.
EE: You’ve also been active in helping establish a needed small business community in Emeryville post-Chamber of Commerce including hosting the last quarterly Biz Nexus meeting. Talk to us about the importance of having a small business network in our community.
NA: I see a lot of opportunity to collaborate with neighboring businesses and help build up Emeryville’s community of entrepreneurs. We hosted the first business mixer that was well attended and had the opportunity to meet some great people.
EE: You’ve also suggested public-private partnership opportunities to improve public safety around your business including discouraging auto-burglaries and improving visibility. Also, there is still quite a bit of your business that is administered in cash because of Federal Laws. which can invite criminal opportunities. How will you address this to help keep our community safe?
NA: Our commitment to Public Safety was also a criterion for us being selected. We take it very seriously. We don’t want to be a burden on the Emeryville Police Department. We’re here to be an extension of the public safety they bring to the community. We have surveillance and are hiring three security guards and a parking attendant who will help patrol the neighborhood.
We use corporate vehicles with augmented security and GPS … all the technology that are of importance to regulatory agencies. We don’t keep cash on site. Armored cars truck it out daily.
We’re also looking at improving the safety of the Powell Street bridge which we understand is a problem area. We want to look at ways of funding improving lighting, public art and the possibility of a stationary police drone that can help monitor that area.
EE: Cannabis is being positioned as almost a ‘miracle drug’ including as an alternative pain relief to opioids that have plagued our communities. What else can you tell people who may be reluctant to use cannabis about its therapeutic benefits?
NA: CBD (Cannabidiol) has no psychoactive properties. I’m reluctant to call it a ‘miracle drug’ but there are many benefits and it can be used to effectively manage pain including joint-pain as we age. I’ve heard many personal stories of people who were on expensive pharmaceuticals transition to CBD with success.
THC is what gets us high and can be used to manage stress. Studies continue to show it has no proven biological impact unlike alcohol which can of course damage one’s liver. There’s also no hangover unless you ingest too much.
EE: Any final thoughts to the Emeryville community on the future of your business and industry?
When we used to go to city council meetings to apply for permits etcetera, the older crowd used to be very skeptical and express opposition. Now we see the same crowd saying “Yes on CBD!” To witness this transformation has been amazing.
[UPDATE:] East Bay Therapeutics has changed their name to Ohana Cannabis Co.