Having a side hustle is a nice way to earn a couple extra bucks, especially when you’re a broke college kid trying to afford rent and cheap food. Unfortunately, when that side hustle includes selling weed illegally, well, that’s when it can lead to some serious consequences.
That’s what happened to Aaron Riley in 2011, who went from earning cash as a drug dealer to seeing his whole life spiral out of control.
At the time, Riley, a former college football player for Furman University, ended up losing his athletic scholarship after being busted for his extracurricular activity. After jumping into the illegal marijuana industry back then, he admits now that the operation exploded too much, too quickly, with the sophomore college student making about $75,000 in four months after his initial $1,000 investment.
After a friend of his ratted him out to the cops to save himself from punishment, Aaron Riley found himself surrounded by a full SWAT operation armed with assault rifles, ultimately being arrested for his little side hustle business. Forced to spend time in jail after being slapped with eight or nine felony charges, Riley struggled to put his life back together, but persevered to reach a level he may not have expected over a decade ago.
That’s because, in 2014, Riley re-entered the cannabis industry — this time, legally — and his decision has led to a President title with a leading cannabis, CBD and hemp testing lab called CannaSafe, which is recognized as one of the top in the world. It’s with CannaSafe where Aaron’s really leaving his mark on marijuana, helping improve the quality of products for a new generation of users.
Aaron Riley’s life has come full circle. From side hustle to inmate to C-suite, his story is an inspiration to any hopeful entrepreneur, so take a look below to hear more about his wild ride.
Shut Up & Hustle: How Ironic Does It Feel To Be In The Legal Cannabis Industry Given Your Past Experiences In It?
Aaron Riley: “I wouldn’t say it does, I feel like I should be here, and did back then as well. People who were here before and dealt with getting arrested, have every right to have a chance to participate in the legal industry now.”
Shut Up & Hustle: Tell Us What It Was Like To Be In Jail, And Some Of The Lessons You Learned.
Aaron Riley: “Getting arrested was worse than going to jail. About 12 cops jumped out of this van, all with their guns drawn. I had about six assault rifles and pistols pointed at me, which froze me like a deer in headlights. Then I was dragged out of the car and slammed on the ground head first. They gave me a black eye and a cut that bled down my face, which ended with a trip to the hospital before jail.
“Jail wasn’t as bad as that. We sat in a holding cell until they searched my car and apartment, and I had only been arrested for having a joint on me. After they found all the cannabis, hash and money, they increased the amount of charges I was facing to several felonies. The food was terrible. You do get your phone call as portrayed in movies. Biggest lesson learned? Don’t go to jail.”
Shut Up & Hustle: Was There A Lowest Point Through All Of This, And, If So, How Did You Pull Yourself Out From That Place?
Aaron Riley: “The lowest point was probably having to call my mom from jail, because I knew she was going to be so disappointed in me. The hole I had to dig out of was huge, and no one believed in, nor trusted, me. There was very little willingness to help with anything. That taught me to be tough and persistent, two attributes that are required to be successful. I got a job doing construction, stayed in school, did tons of community service, and, eventually, I was able to get another football scholarship and get back on the right path.”
Shut Up & Hustle: It’s Got To Be Important To You To See How Far The Industry Has Come Then, Right?
Aaron Riley: “Yes, it’s amazing how fast and how slow it’s going. The industry is going 1000 miles per hour, but there are some pretty ironic things that haven’t been done yet. The illicit market is still going very strong, and, in fact, much stronger than the legal market. The enforcement efforts have been weak, to say the least. The product offering is vastly different than five years ago. That’s been exciting to see, which is why it’s a much better time to be a consumer of cannabis than ever before.”
Shut Up & Hustle: What About Your Past Helped Shape Your Future?
Aaron Riley: “Everything I’ve been through shaped me into who I am and what I’ve been able to accomplish. I like to read a lot about other entrepreneurs and businesses, and there are a lot of similarities between my journey and these other successes.
“Failure has been the biggest lesson. Optics may be that I’m doing well, but it wasn’t always this way. I’ve had more misses than successes. Starting early and having bad things happen have been the biggest contributing factor.”
Shut Up & Hustle: If You Could Go Back And Change Anything About Your Past, Would You?
Aaron Riley: “No, because I wouldn’t be here if I did. There are certainly things I wouldn’t do again, but I wouldn’t know that if I had not dealt with those failures before.”
Shut Up & Hustle: Describe What CannaSafe Is, And Why It’s Helping Shape The Cannabis Industry.
Aaron Riley: “CannaSafe is the leading cannabis and hemp testing laboratory in the world. We help the cannabis industry by helping businesses create, and make, safe products for the market. The consumers also benefit from this. We tested over $1 billion worth of retail products sold in California in 2019. That’s huge for the industry on the business side, and, even better, for all the consumers that were able to buy safe and tested products.”
Shut Up & Hustle: Why Is The Social Equity Program (SEP) Initiative So Important To You And CannaSafe?
Aaron Riley: “SEP is huge because I’ve been there. I’ve been arrested, beat up and discriminated against for cannabis. Now people are given the opportunity to profit from it. I feel strongly that others who have been in my shoes should have the same opportunities, especially when you look at the disproportionate amount of minorities that have been affected by the war on drugs. Everyone in cannabis should feel obligated to help those people and include them in the industry.
“Antonio Frazier, who heads up our advocacy at CannaSafe, is a huge proponent of social equity initiatives as well. He has a big role in the community, and really drives all the initiatives that CannaSafe believes in.”
Shut Up & Hustle: What’s The Most Important Lesson You Could Tell An Aspiring Cannabis Entrepreneur?
Aaron Riley: “Start now if you haven’t, and don’t ever give up. Time is the great equalizer, it’s the only thing that you can’t get more of. Remember, we all get the same 24 hours each day.”
Shut Up & Hustle: Lastly, Where Do You See The Biggest Opportunity In The Cannabis Industry In The Future?
Aaron Riley: “The biggest opportunity changes every quarter and it differs by state. Right now in California, there’s an opportunity in delivery. Same with distribution. There are also lower costs of entry in both cultivation and retail, and nobody has run away with either of those segments. The other big opportunity is to create great products the world hasn’t seen. We are in the infancy of cannabis, so there will be many entrepreneurial success stories in 10 years when we look back.”
To think that Aaron Riley’s college side hustle took him all the way through this wild marijuana journey is insane, but he’s come out on top after enduring the brunt of the difficult times. To find out more about CannaSafe and the process with which they test cannabis, CBD and hemp, head on over to their website.
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