Marcos Bretón

‘Marijuana meets Silicon Valley’ comes to Sacramento

Dar Azimi tends to his marijuana plants in a retrofitted shipping container on Friday in Sacramento. Azimi and his father are owners of Ohana Gardens Collective, a medical cannabis cultivation and delivery business that uses technology to grow the plants in retrofitted shipping containers.
Dar Azimi tends to his marijuana plants in a retrofitted shipping container on Friday in Sacramento. Azimi and his father are owners of Ohana Gardens Collective, a medical cannabis cultivation and delivery business that uses technology to grow the plants in retrofitted shipping containers.

In an anonymous industrial park in North Sacramento, the seeds for a potentially lucrative business are being planted, but you’d never know it just driving by.

“We are interested in a business that is discreet,” said Nasser Azimi, 57, who used to run computer systems for the state but now sees opportunity in the burgeoning marijuana industry. “We don’t want our business to be visible to our kids, to local churches. We think our business model will go a long way toward mitigating criminal conduct.”

Inside Azimi’s 8,000-square-foot warehouse, you’ll find something unexpected: rows and rows of shipping containers filled with marijuana plants. Azimi has a bigger warehouse in south Sacramento, a similar setup in San Diego and two more in the works for Long Beach and the Bay Area.

Proposition 64, which legalizes the adult use of recreational marijuana, has ushered in a new era for California. However, even with the measure’s passage, local governments maintain significant control over how pot is regulated and taxed in their jurisdictions.

As the city of Sacramento grapples with how best to manage a growing marijuana industry – the City Council is set to vote on cultivation ordinances this week – Azimi is the type of entrepreneur who would seem to be attractive to local legislators.

He wants to follow regulations. He wants his business to be transparent. He wants Sacramento to structure a regulatory system that encourages fair competition in marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and delivery. That would encourage responsible entrepreneurs and discourage black market profiteers, he said.

The pressure is on the City Council to create workable policies that make good on the promise of legalized recreational pot – that it will generate millions of dollars in annual public revenue. But it’s anybody’s guess as to whether they can or will.

For example, will Sacramento’s 30 sanctioned pot dispensaries be the only entities that can deliver pot once it’s legal to do so? The city appears to be leaning that way; however, Azimi thinks “allowing only storefronts to deliver would be a fatal mistake. It would encourage monopolistic behaviors,” given dispensaries also are allowed to cultivate.

Azimi wants a level playing field for his operation, which, for the uninitiated, is a sight to behold.

The shipping containers are 8 feet wide and vary in length from 10 to 20 to 40 feet long and have been retrofitted with LED lights. A computer system Azimi designed controls the amount of light the plants receive. Also automated are the watering schedule, air flow and humidity.

How does he describe his setup? “Marijuana meets Silicon Valley,” he said.

“I’m most proud of the data analytics,” continued Azimi, a father of three. “The data associated with each (grow) goes into a database that will help us predict results of a certain strain. We can manipulate the controls and evaluate the results based on variations of light.”

The lights are set to run during off-peak hours. So while its nighttime for us, it’s daytime for Azimi’s crop. The automated system re-creates a gradual sunrise and a gradual sunset.

A growing cycle can take eight to 12 weeks, he said. With elements controlled by computer, and the container doors sealed tight, Azimi’s plants are protected from mites and molds that can afflict outdoor grows.

Tucked away in an unassuming warehouse and monitored by a first-rate security system, Azimi’s business is less of a target for the kinds of criminals carrying out home invasions that have afflicted too many neighborhoods in Sacramento.

Also, I didn’t smell Azimi’s grow until he opened one of the container doors and I stuck my head inside. This is worth noting because the pungent smell of marijuana has become a problem in many Sacramento neighborhoods, even though growing pot outdoors in the city is illegal.

Azimi calls his business Ohana, a word in the Hawaiian culture that means family. As a lifelong computer guy – he was raised in San Francisco and educated at Sacramento State – Azimi said it was his son, Dar Azimi, who first proposed he go into the pot business.

“I was interested but hesitant,” Nasser Azimi said.

His hesitancy came from being a buttoned-down business guy used to formal proposals containing analytics that predict success. That marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government also created a dilemma.

Azimi also didn’t like that his son had become familiar with the industry by experimenting with marijuana himself.

“My dad did the parent thing with me when he came across me smoking marijuana,” said Dar, now 23. “But I took (the business idea) to my dad as an opportunity, knowing he was an entrepreneur.”

So the father did what he always does: He insisted on a rigorously researched plan, which Dar ended up formulating. Once Azimi saw the potential, he bought into the idea.

It became a family business, hence the name Ohana. The family isn’t Hawaiian but has had memorable vacations there. Azimi’s primary partners are Dar and his daughter Mariam Azimi.

Right now, Ohana is strictly in the medical marijuana business, as regulated by the state of California and the city of Sacramento. Like many business people, Nasser Azimi has hired a lobbyist – in his case, Rob Fong, the former Sacramento city councilman – to help promote his interests. In addition, Azimi attends council meetings. He’s involved in the political process.

He said he’s not interested in trying to set up storefront dispensaries. Other business models hold more appeal. “We’re looking to be the model as opposed to the Walmart model,” he said.

After 10 years of running computer systems for the state, Azimi founded Teranomic – a web development software company specializing in helping businesses perform better. But he sees marijuana as the vehicle for what could be his most successful venture yet, one made all the sweeter because his kids are his partners.

“This is a fantastic opportunity,” Azimi said. “We’re establishing something worthwhile. The technology goes a long way toward bringing accountability and transparency. And it’s a family business.”

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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