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How two North Texans built one of the biggest, baddest cannabis brands in the world

Chris Driessen, president of Organa Brands U.S. (left), and Chris McElvany, president of Organa Labs grew up in North Texas and became Colorado “ski bums” before building Organa Brands into one of the biggest cannabis brands in the world from the company’s headquarters in Denver.
Chris Driessen, president of Organa Brands U.S. (left), and Chris McElvany, president of Organa Labs grew up in North Texas and became Colorado “ski bums” before building Organa Brands into one of the biggest cannabis brands in the world from the company’s headquarters in Denver. Courtesy

One North Texan was a prototypical party boy who’s now singing the gospel of pot to lawmakers, the press and — most importantly — to prospective clients.

The other brings a critical component to a multimillion-dollar operation: the science of cannabis oil extraction.

These two make up half of the C-suites at Denver-based Organa Brands, which went through 10 tons of marijuana on its way to $118 million in revenue last year, selling 68 products ranging from vaporizer pens to edible gummies to cannabis-infused energy drinks, all based on the liquid gold.

Arlington native Chris Driessen, who just celebrated his 40th birthday with a long weekend in the mountains, is the company’s sales guru, and carries the official title of president of U.S. operations. Chris McElvany, from Granbury, is one of three co-founders of Organa Brands and is the president of Organa Labs.

There are probably still some Texas voters who were probably misled like me growing up, where they really think cannabis is awful. The “Reefer Madness” crowd,” McElvany, 41, said. “But we’d like nothing more than to get our products into Texas when the time is right. Texas, I think, is going to swing open sooner than most people think.”

Chris-McElvany headshot
Chris McElvany, president, Organa Labs Organa Brands Courtesy

Both McElvany and Driessen would consider the opening of a Texas recreational pot market a monumental get, for obvious reasons: the size of the state, which would immediately make the market comparable to California’s, and the pioneering mindset that permeates Texas business culture in seemingly every field except marijuana.

By July of 2018, eight states plus Washington, D.C., will be ahead of Texas in generating tax revenue from what Driessen calls “the next great American industry.”

Organa operates in 11 states, selling recreational use products in California, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon, and making medicinal sales in seven of the 29 states with medical use regulations. Plus, there’s Jamaica.

Organa’s blockbuster product, the O.Pen and the accompanying cartridges of cannabis oil that come in different strains, flavors and potencies, position the company as kind of “the Kleenex of the cannabis oil world,” Driessen said.

Even vaporizer pens not made by their company, O.PenVape, are commonly called O.Pens. In 2014, comedian/actress Sarah Silverman made waves by showing her O.PenVape product to a national television audience on the red carpet, calling it, “my liquid pot,” before carrying home an Emmy Award.

A 500 milligram cartridge of the company’s purest oil retails for about $100, according to Pepe Breton, who owns five dispensaries under the name Euflora in the Denver and Aurora areas.

“I had a meeting with the O.PenVape guys in 2014, and at the time, we were on a pretty strict budget, being a new store,” Breton said. “Chris Driessen looked at our location and said, ‘Wow, you guys are going to kill it.’ I was looking to put in about a $25,000 order, but he was sure I’d need about 10 times that.

“They made us a deal where the other $225,000 worth of product they dropped off would be on consignment that first time around, and he never batted an eye about doing it. Two months later, we had sold all that product, and it’s been a close relationship ever since.”

Organa Brands refined the 10 tons of pot it went through last year into 1.2 million grams of oil, distributed through a network of 1,200 dispensaries like Breton’s.

High times

Why does Driessen describe pot as ‘the next great American industry”?

Chris-Driessen headshot
Chris Driessen, president, Organa Brands, United States Organa Brands Courtesy

Because, for years, people way outside the traditional “pothead” mold have secretly enjoyed the drug. Driessen recalls a record-scratch moment at a recent family gathering at his wife’s parents’ house in Weatherford.

While younger relatives went on and on about how cool his company sounded, Driessen could tell the conversation was making his mother-in-law uncomfortable.

“At the time, we were featured in both High Times and Time magazines,” Driessen said. “And to bring her around, all I wanted to do was to tell her to flip to page 43 and 44 of that Time magazine on her end table, but out of nowhere, her uncle from rural Western Pennsylvania, very conservative, devout Christian, chimes in.”

 ‘Chris, I think it’s great, what you’re doing,” Uncle Doug said to the room full of family members, not all of whom agreed with the sentiment. “Me and my golf buddies have been sharing a joint every Tuesday morning for the last umpteen years, and I think it’s awesome.”

Different tokes

Driessen’s was a roundabout entry into the cannabis market. His father, Klaus, a retired superintendent of schools, busted him with the first nickel bag he ever bought, as a high-schooler attending Arlington Martin, where his mother taught science.

He was dismissed from Texas Tech University “for partying too hard” before rebounding for a degree in public relations from the University of North Texas. He made a small fortune selling copiers before landing at Organa in 2012.

Meanwhile, McElvany took a more direct route into the cannabis industry after what he described as a somewhat “sheltered” upbringing in Granbury. He smoked pot for the first time in college at Tarleton State University.

McElvany was a biomedical science major until he took a deep dive into cannabis culture after realizing cannabis wasn’t “as evil or as bad as I had been led to believe,” he said. He changed not only his major, to agricultural economics so he could study cannabis, but the “whole focus of my life at that point.”

He transferred to Texas A&M University in 1994 and became an insurance underwriter in Colorado after he graduated. He met Driessen in Colorado, “just a couple of ski bums after college,” as Driessen puts it. But even then, before McElvany was able to make his passion for pot his business, he was preparing to be the brains behind Organa Labs and Organa brands.

cannabis oil
Cannabis oils is extracted using super-critical carbon dioxide at Organa Labs, which McElvany runs. Organa Brands Courtesy

“I had already begun doing my own experiments when e-cigs popped up around 2007,” McElvany said. “A friend of mine was trying to quit smoking. The first time I saw her using an e-cig, I took it out of her hand and ripped it apart, and figured out a way to put hash oil in it.”

Organa Brands is a “house of brands,” the scientific underpinnings of which are tied together at McElvany’s Organa Labs. Bakked makes and sells cannabis oil concentrates used for “dabbing,” Organa Brands Alternatives is a line of cannabis-infused wellness products; and then there’s District Edibles and The Magic Buzz, which purveys cannabis-infused functional drinks akin to 5-Hour Energy shots.

Organa buys marijuana by the ton in both Colorado and California. But in other states, where regulations demand that cannabis companies be vertically integrated, they grow their own.

Different folks

McElvany had a lot to do with Driessen coming on board in 2012. Driessen was leading a regional sales team for Konica Minolta when the statewide referendum passed legalizing marijuana in Colorado.

“It passed screamingly, with flying colors, as it would in Texas right now if my home state allowed voter-introduced ballot initiatives,” Driessen said. “And all of a sudden all the reasons my dad or my wife thought we shouldn’t do this for a living turned into, ‘Well, huh, maybe.’ 

Referendums, which are tacked onto election ballots if they get enough signatures from voters in their state, have been the avenue for the legalization of recreational marijuana in all eight states that have the right to smoke freely. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., allow for medicinal use under differing guidelines.

McElvany had cashed out the 401(k) he earned as an insurance underwriter three years earlier to buy Bakked, which was then a mom-and-daughter edibles company. He repurposed the brand around his vision of vape-pens and cartridges, but shortly after was approached by Jeremy Heidl and Ralph Morgan, who were talking about combining their efforts to form what would become O.PenVape.

cartridges
These little cartridges, each filled with 500mg of highly potent cannabis oil, are liquid gold for O.PenVape and Organa Brands. Organa Brands Courtesy

“I showed Jeremy the cartridge I had made,” McElvany said. “He organized a meeting with Ralph, who I knew as one of my competitors at the time. We all sat down and decided that it made more sense for us to align our forces, not compete, merge our companies, and that’s how O.PenVape was conceived.”

Since then, Organa Brands has grown right along with the cannabis industry. According to cannabis research firm ArcView, the North American recreational cannabis market saw sales increase 34 percent in 2016 to $6.9 billion.

Driessen estimates that by 2020 cannabis will be a $20 billion dollar industry, and ArcView’s numbers agree, calling for an average 26 percent growth per year until marijuana is a $22 billion market by 2021.

“The thing I would tell Texans is, look, you’re either for a regulated industry, i.e. adult use and legalization, or you’re for the black market, period. There is no in-between,” Driessen said.

“They estimate that drug cartels make 40 percent of their money from cannabis. Well, mine’s cheaper, better, stronger and safer than what you’re going to get from across the border.”

Over a thousand gathered Saturday at Burnett Park and marched to the Tarrant County Courthouse to push for legalization. Video by Matthew Martinez.

DC marijuana (DCMJ), a pro-marijuana legalization group, plans to "gift" 4,000 joints on inauguration day on the streets of Washington, D.C., encouraging the public to light them up at the 4:20 mark of the new Trump administration. Marijuana activ

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