As a young man growing up in New Jersey, Ari Cohen was determined to become a lawyer; his goal, to work for the FBI one day. It was a brush with the law, however, that would eventually bring those aspirations to a halt.

At the age of 21, Cohen was arrested in Kansas City, Missouri, with 40 pounds of marijuana in his possession, and was eventually convicted of felony marijuana possession with intent to distribute. After moving through Missouri’s court system, he spent a brief stint in jail and on probation. The felony still remains on his record today.

“It changed my trajectory,” Cohen says. “I’m going to be a chef versus going to be a lawyer or FBI agent. Those options weren’t there for me anymore.”

Besides altering his career path, the felony conviction heavily impacted Cohen’s family. “The grief and the shame that I caused my mother was probably the greatest loss over the whole thing,” he says. “The sense of failure that came with that.”

Now, nearly 27 years later, instead of causing his mother pain, Cohen’s involvement in the cannabis industry is making her proud: Ari and his wife Karina’s company, doobba, will be Denver’s first operating recreational marijuana delivery service after officially receiving its transporter license in mid-July. The duo partnered with local cannabis dispensary Strawberry Fields and plans to start delivering the dispensary’s products around the city later this week.

Ari (left) and Karina Cohen, co-owners of doobba, Denver’s first recreational marijuana transporter service. Photo by Sarah Banks

Colorado legalized recreational marijuana delivery in 2019 with the passage of HB 1234, joining states like California, Nevada, Oregon, and Massachusetts. And on April 20, Mayor Michael Hancock signed legislation to greenlight Denver’s first-ever marijuana delivery program. In an effort to address a lack of diversity and reduce barriers for entry into the local cannabis industry, the city is reserving these new delivery business opportunities for residents who have been negatively impacted by the war on drugs until July 2027. It’s all part of a new social equity program.

To qualify as a social equity applicant, the person must be a Colorado resident and have spent at least 15 years, between 1980 and 2010, living in an opportunity zone, have a prior marijuana offense (or an immediate relative with a prior offense), or make less than 50 percent of the state median income.

Ari’s past felony conviction meant that he qualified as a social equity applicant. After spending four years in Denver leading operations for one of the largest edible manufacturers in the country, Cohen and his wife Karina, who is the CEO of the doobba, were the first to apply for a delivery transporter license in Denver. Eric Escudero, spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, says the city wanted to prioritize social equity after determining that its residents who were most negatively affected by the prohibition of marijuana weren’t benefiting after its legalization.

A 2020 Cannabis Business, Employment and Opportunity Study found that 74.6 percent of owners of licensed cannabis businesses within the city and county are white, as well as 68 percent of employees. “There isn’t an equitable marketplace for marijuana in Denver,” Escudero says. “It’s time to deliver on the full promise of legalization.” Through this delivery program, the city is hoping to increase access to an industry that generated more than $700 million locally in marijuana sales in 2020.

Recreational marijuana delivery has already seen success in other municipalities around the state, such as Aurora, where deliveries have been rolling for more than four months. And while Denver is requiring its stores to partner with social equity delivery businesses, Aurora gives its stores the option of doing delivery on their own.

Denver applicants must also provide a social impact plan, which outlines how the delivery business intends to give back to underserved communities, as well as what the business can do to help others become successful. For example, one component of doobba’s social impact plan, outlined on its website, is to “mentor and help other social equity applicants get through the application process and offer general business advice.”

The experience in Aurora still offers Denverites a sneak peek of what marijuana delivery will look like in their city. Terrapin Care Station in Aurora was the state’s first cannabis dispensary to partner with a social equity transporter, High Demand Delivery. Sarah Woodson, co-owner of High Demand Delivery, calls Terrapin Care Station a “unicorn in the space” because of its commitment to “make a more diverse industry through business opportunities.” Terrapin Care Station has now been doing deliveries for more than a month.

To place an online delivery order with Terrapin Care Station, individuals are required to reserve their products online and provide an address of a private residence as well as their birthdate. Once an order has been placed, Deina Elliott, director of retail operations for Terrapin, says that it can take anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes for it to be delivered. Customers will receive an SMS message when their driver is on the way. Per state law, delivery vehicles aren’t allowed to carry any more than $10,000 worth of marijuana.

Faline VanLandschoot, Chief of Operations at Strawberry Fields, fulfills a marijuana delivery order. Photo by Sarah Banks

When the driver arrives at a private residence, the person who placed the order must be home for the delivery to happen. The driver will start by asking for the person’s ID to make sure the individual is 21 and will use a handheld device to verify the identity of the individual. That person then needs to sign the manifest, which is the required document needed to legally transport marijuana and it also allows the state to track sales. To complete the transaction, the driver will run the debit card of that person on another handheld device.

As Denver prepares for its first deliveries, more applications for store delivery permits and social equity transporter licenses have slowly started trickling in. Currently, Escudero says that Denver has approved five store delivery permits and three applications for social equity transporter licenses.There are seven more applications pending review for store delivery permits and nine for social equity transporter licenses.

As the program picks up steam, Ari can’t help but reflect on his journey up until this point—and marvel at how much his relationship with cannabis has changed. “It’s like full circle,” Cohen says. “What I was doing was causing my mom pain. But now that I’m in the cannabis industry, it has actually brought her a lot of pain relief. What was crazy was that I was making her proud by doing something that I had gotten in trouble for 20 years earlier.”

The significance of receiving Denver’s first delivery transporter license isn’t lost on him. “I have witnessed the power of the plant my whole life,” Cohen says. “I have seen the social good that this industry is capable of doing and has been doing. I am really honored and excited to have this opportunity.”