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How John Lord went from NZ farmer to the biggest cannabis dealer in Colorado

John Lord once walked into a federal government building with $US2 million ($2.8 million) in cash in his backpack to pay his taxes for the cannabis he sells. 

Due to federal laws, he couldn't get a bank account to bank his drug profits. It's different now. His customers still have to pay cash, but he can now transfer money to the Internal Revenue Service come tax time.

Dairy farmer becomes (legal) cannabis dealer

John Lord was once a Waikato dairy farmer in New Zealand but now he is chief executive of Livwell, the largest marijuana dealer in Colorado, US.

Mr Lord is the chief executive of Livwell - the largest marijuana dealer in Colorado, one of a few US states that have legalised cannabis.

He sells in excess of $80 million worth of product annually. He won't talk profit margins.  

John Lord and his girlfriend, Ling Monk, pictured with rapper Snoop Dogg, who Lord has signed to sell a branded product ...
John Lord and his girlfriend, Ling Monk, pictured with rapper Snoop Dogg, who Lord has signed to sell a branded product called Leafs by Snoop. Photo: Supplied

Not too bad for a one-time New Zealand dairy farmer. He moved from the town of Te Aroha to the US back in 1998, first to manufacture and sell baby products. He sold that business in 2008. Cannabis is much more lucrative.

Mr Lord has a staff of 500, owns 20 retail stores and is acquiring more this month.

His business sells 35 strains of marijuana, topical cannabis creams (typically used for aches and pains) and oils.

"The business itself has grown. The company pays full health care, which is a big deal over in the States. We have a retirement plan for employees, paid leave and we try to train and hire from within so it gives our employees the chance of climbing the ladder.

The factory where John Lord grows his crops.
The factory where John Lord grows his crops. Photo: Supplied

"It's attracted a huge number of younger people. Not what you would first think. Over two-thirds of the company have a degree, mostly millennials and they are interested in marijuana as social change."

Grandfather is far from your typical drug dealer

He grew up on farms in Otorohanga, Kio Kio, Te Awamutu. He holidays annually at his parents' home on Paterangi Rd, near Te Awamutu. They go fishing in Kawhia.

John Lord is one of the biggest manufacturers of cannabis in the United States.
John Lord is one of the biggest manufacturers of cannabis in the United States. Photo: Supplied

He dresses like a grandad, carefully tucked shirt into tidy khaki pants. Maybe that's because he is a grandfather. He's in his 60s, has three adult children - one is a doctor in Australia - and has one grandchild.

Mr Lord is not what you think a typical drug dealer would look like. 

Colorado's biggest cannabis supplier from NZ

Former NZ dairy farmer John Lord owns and operates a legal cannabis business in Colorado called LivWell, which employs 500 staff in 20 outlets.

But like any good drug dealer, he knows his products inside out, not least because he uses it.

"It's not a product that had touched my life. I was ambivalent to it. I was aware of its existence. I just wasn't interested in trying the product then. 

"I was 54 when I first tried it. I use cannabis topically every day. I've got a busted up knuckle from rugby days."

He's not the only senior citizen who uses the products. Every week, a bus load from the local retirement village hobble into his stores to stock up. 

Teaming up with the gangs

When cannabis was legalised in Colorado, he opened up a shop and undercut the gangs. 

"What actually occurred is, once it was legalised in Colorado, the gangs moved to other states where it was illegal, to get more money for the product," Mr Lord said.

"The price in Colorado went to 25 per cent of the illegal price.

"That was the concept in the first place, was that legalising and legitimising it would drive out the black market and it did just that."

Not only have the gangs gone, Mr Lord said crime had dropped in Colorado. And alcohol consumption is down.  

"Just a couple of months ago, cannabis taxes exceeded alcohol taxes in the state by double. It's huge," he said. 

All this in contrast to the near mass hysteria politicians generated at first. They like the legislation now, but it explains the strange banking regulations that had him carting masses of cash into the IRS. 

"New Zealand and Australia controversially legalised prostitution and the world was going to come to an end and it simply did not and so society was mature enough to handle it. The same has happened with cannabis in Colorado and several other states and we just haven't had the social problems.

"Those who are using the product are usually those who were traditionally using the product prior to legalisation anyway. And those people are now using a safe product, at a safe retail store and a well-lit-up car park outside and a security guy standing there and not a dark alley somewhere. It's made for a safer situation for something that was existing anyway. 

"A lot of politicians came kicking and screaming. A lot were caught in a situation that none understood or wanted to understand. It's been about education to get them to this point of understanding."

The money and jobs created by the industry grouping Colorado Cannabis Industry has further calmed those fears. 

 "This business evolved over a recession and at the time, young people were coming out of university with big student loan fees and no jobs. As of a month ago, the Colorado Cannabis Industry was directly employing 25,500 people in legitimate, high-paying jobs. 

"It became a little difficult for politicians who were perhaps feeling out of their depth, once they understood there were a huge number of genuine jobs coming from this and people were not sitting around in a circle singing Kumbaya and were doing a great job, with prospects, with benefits, all of that sort of thing. 

"It's been interesting watching the evolution of the politicians in their regard to the industry." 

Local law enforcement is with the industry, too. 

"The local police have embraced the legalisation completely. If they go to break up a party, they usually put their backs to the giggly guys in the corner and watch the drunkards in the other corner. And I think you would find every policeman would tell you that.

"It's a polarising topic. Other people sell alcohol. Other people milk cows. I grow cannabis. You can turn around and rail on any industry. You can turn around to somebody brewing beer and say: your product causes all sorts of social problems. With cannabis, we are finding way less social problems compared to alcohol and the great Colorado social experiment is proving that."

Snoop gets on board

Mr Lord has just signed up rapper Snoop Dogg to put out a line of cannabis called Leafs by Snoop. The deal has been two years in the making. 

"Snoop Dogg's business managers approached us because we are the largest manufacturer in Colorado.

"Snoop came for a visit to the plant and he, too, was suitably impressed. It was a great meeting. He's actually a really intelligent guy. He's perhaps not quite what you would think from his music - well articulated and a good businessman.

Mr Lord said the biggest problem for the industry is federal taxation. The government takes a cut of 85 cents in every dollar. It's ludicrous, he says. 

"We cannot claim a lot of our costs from goods. Taxation is federally based, not state based, so at the moment there are several court cases out there trying to overturn the IRS ruling on taxation. A substantial amount of product goes off in taxes." 

Although cannabis was legalised in the early 2000s, regulations weren't developed until about eight years ago. 

"We are now one of the most regulated industries in the world ... We have to show seed to sale tracking of every gram produced. It's not an industry for the casual or the fainthearted.  

"The regulations are good. The public are assured of getting what they paid for and are assured of a safe product."

He hopes New Zealand considers legalising cannabis.

"If New Zealand did entertain legalisation of cannabis, it needs to come along with a good social education policy. That can be built into the taxes of the drugs, so it is not a burden on taxpayers. 

The one-time farmer said the road to where he is has been an interesting ride. 

"I can never say it's been boring."

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