RETAIL MARIJUANA: COLORADO’S BUDDING PIONEER MOVEMENT

BY ABBY TEMPLETON-GREENE AND NACHE GREENE PHOTOS BY MIKE BOHNER ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SARAH HARVEY

One year after retail marijuana dispensaries first opened their doors, Coloradans are still wondering how the change will affect our state economy and culture. 

As other states begin to contemplate similar laws, Coloradans are already in knee deep. Many of us have heard the reports of weed friendly hotels opening up (the Bud and Breakfast on 14th and Race, the Cliff House in Morrison, to name a couple) as well as companies like Colorado Cannabis Tours that offer weed tours of dispensaries and marijuana businesses. Perhaps you have also heard that last year Priceline.com listed Denver third for most popular spring break destinations, trailing only Las Vegas and New Orleans. But what does this really mean for the people who live here?

At the top levels of state government, it seems the verdict on marijuana is one of cautious optimism. Though he had called legalizing marijuana “reckless” in October of 2014, in a more recent statement from his office, Governor John Hickenlooper said, “While I believe it was [emphasis his] risky for Colorado to be the first state to step away from a failed federal policy given all of the unanswered legal questions and implications, the adoption of Amendment 64 by Colorado voters sent a clear message to the federal government that marijuana should be legal and regulated.” Hickenlooper added that while legalizing marijuana was risky, it is less so now. Partnerships between a diverse set of stakeholders including law enforcement, business owners, and regulators have led to a “robust regulatory enforcement system.”

Meanwhile, because of a law in Colorado that mandates tax refunds when state revenue exceeds the rate of inflation and population growth, Hickenlooper has left it to state lawmakers to decide what to do with $30.5 million of recreational marijuana taxes that qualify as a potential rebate for Colorado residents. 

As government leadership grapples with the challenges of marijuana legalization, Colorado continues forward into unchartered territory. 

 

The Job Creators

According to Brent*, bud-tender at Colorado Care Facility, the perception of pot has changed dramatically since legalization. “Pot culture in Denver today is not like any pot culture anywhere 10 years ago. Pot has come out of the closet and it has become, for the most part, socially acceptable.” Brent, a transplant from Texas who moved to Colorado in 1996, has been in the weed business for many years. “My step-father was a crop duster who flew pot in from Mexico. So, I guess pot has been in my family for a long time.” Brent describes his job as a bud-tender as a “nice, quiet retirement job.” Before finding a job in the marijuana business he owned a cleaning business in Dallas. For Brent, the legalization of marijuana brings a stable work environment in a field in which he is passionate, highly skilled, and knowledgeable. “People have woken up,” he says, “it is no longer just about selling pot, it’s about providing a service…the people who test it, the people who make edibles, so many jobs have opened up.” 

Larry Nassau, owner of Colorado Care Facility, describes this new weed culture as a classic example of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism: “When medical [marijuana] first came out, everyone was against it…after 64 passed, medical became the middle.” Nassau goes on to explain that people who were once against medical are now saying “Well, I am all for medical, but I am not sure about recreational [marijuana].” 

The Marijuana Industry Group estimates that over 10,000 workers in Colorado are involved in the marijuana market, and that 1,000–2,000 of those jobs were created in the first half of 2014.

 

Tourism

Not all of those who have benefited from legalization are pot-preneurs seeking to cash in on the “green rush.” Enter Walter Keller, 20-year owner of the Lumber Baron Mystery Mansion, who recently decided to create a cannabis patio at his bed and breakfast. Keller says, “This year people started calling because they wanted a cannabis friendly environment…you have to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.” Keller, who has never tried marijuana, explains that part of the reason he was open to allowing guests to smoke at the Lumber Baron was due to the fact that the wedding business has been declining. With this loss in income, Keller decided to explore other ways to stimulate business. As a hotel owner he has always been in the business to help people relax: he sees marijuana as an extension of that equation. Keller admits that at first, when potential customers started calling and asking what his cannabis policy was, it caught him off guard. “I didn’t have a cannabis policy,” he says. After seeing his “guests in their cars with the windows all fogged up like Cheech and Chong” he decided that firstly, this was not pleasant for his guests and second, what were the neighbors thinking?

Keller visited The Adagio: Bud and Breakfast but felt that the smell of marijuana smoke indoors was too intense for a business that wanted to remain family friendly. He had created an outdoor patio for cigarette smokers years ago, so he thought why not do something similar for pot smokers? After creating the cannabis patio, Keller made CCT (Colorado Cannabis Tours) aware of the cannabis friendly accommodations, and business has increased ever since. 

Keller, Nassau, and Brent all agree that today’s weed tourist comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the stoner tourist who wants to come to Colorado to party, the pilgrim who has waited his whole life to be able to smoke pot without being labeled a criminal, the first timers who need to be taught how to roll a joint as they make their purchase, and the empty-nesters who haven’t smoked pot since the 60s. As Nassau puts it, “People come from everywhere…and it is not just 18- to 24-year-old males. People in their 60s, and even 80s come to CCF for both medical and recreational. Our oldest patient is 88 years old.” CCF has customers from all over: South America, the Philippines, Europe, Australia. Nassau says people are “culminating on this salient moment…some just want to be able to say they have bought it, others buy a joint and frame it.” 

 For some tourists there is fear of the stigma about marijuana. Mira Totaro-Bloom, the General Manager at Botanico Fine Cannabis, tells of a group of 60-something women who lied to their husbands saying they were taking a girls trip to Las Vegas, when they were really coming to Colorado to get high. 

 

Migration

At Botanico Fine Cannabis, Totaro-Bloom meets a vast number of people who plan on moving here just because marijuana is legal. She estimates up to 75 percent of out-of-staters who come to her shop tell her they wish they could move here. Many are coming to enjoy the freedom of legal weed, while others are looking for economic opportunity. Out-of-staters regularly ask Totaro-Bloom how to get a job working in the marijuana industry

 Brent told another story of a client who was a former criminal. This individual (who wishes to remain anonymous) had done time behind bars for a marijuana-related offense. He had been looking at a few different states to move to that offered similar economic opportunities, but it was the freedom of legal weed that solidified his decision to move here. When Brent’s customer made his first legal purchase at a dispensary, he was literally brought to tears. It was more than strange, after years in prison, to walk into a dispensary as casually as one would walk into a liquor store. It was heartbreaking, amazing, and relieving, all at once. 

A tourist from Minneapolis had another story. When she was recently planning a ski trip for this winter, many locations came up: Jackson’s Hole, Taos, Colorado? Her friends replied, “Obviously Colorado—weed is legal!” Marijuana may not necessarily be the only reason people are visiting and moving to Colorado, but it is definitely the deciding factor for some. The potential economic impact is mind blowing. 

Dollarsandsense online journal says Colorado is entering a market that could gross anywhere from $10 - $46 billion a year. NPR is calling this a $1 billion industry. By July 2014, Colorado had collected $25,307,067 from marijuana taxes, while experts project this number will increase to $60-70 million by July 2015. 

As business at the Lumber Baron has been excellent, Keller speculates that even the 7-Eleven sales down the block have increased. “I am thrilled by what is happening,” Keller said, “I never predicted it would have given me any means of profit, had I known that I would have voted for it ten times! If I am [making a profit], then the vendors I buy things from are as well. So, the impact, the ripple effects, through the economy are wide and great.” According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, through September of 2014 more than $50 million had been collected from both medical and recreational taxes. 

While marijuana is drawing people of all ages, the ones who are migrating here are those who are able to move: young folks in their 20s and 30s. Not all of these new residents are cashing in on the green revolution, however. Both Urban Peak and the Salvation Army reported an increase in homeless individuals they served in 2014. According to Kim Easton, CEO of Urban Peak, “Anecdotally, at least one out of three youth asked reported that they were in Denver and seeking services at Urban Peak due to the legalization of marijuana in the state of Colorado.” And according to Lt. Colonel Daniel Starrett of the Salvation Army, his organization saw a 20-25% increase in the number of homeless coming to them for services; one third of that group said marijuana was their reason for coming to Denver. 

With this increase in population, as Denver native Totaro-Bloom says, “it’s getting a little congested.” There are a lot more people renting apartments, more homebuyers, more cars on the road, more job competition. Totaro-Bloom laments she may never be able to buy a house. As growers have snatched up every available warehouse, even warehouse rental prices have increased. 

With all of these increases, there is one area that has not increased since the passing of 64: crime in the city. While many might have feared legalization of marijuana would increase crime rates in Denver, the good news is, as of now, crime rates have stayed pretty much the same. There was a slight increase in drug and narcotic violations in Denver in the past year, however these numbers did not go up as much as they did between 2011 and 2012, when retail marijuana was still illegal.

In just one year since the passing of Amendment 64, Colorado has seen profound economic and cultural changes. For Nassau, this change is not only good for business, but the taxes are good for our state. To those who oppose this bill Nassau asks, “Would you rather build schools and educate or would you rather build prisons and incarcerate?” For some, the legalization of weed brings a new sense of freedom to finally live within the legal margins of society, and for others, like bed and breakfast owner Walter Keller, it might just mean stocking the hotel room with Cheetos and Lays potato chips. ■

 

*Brent asked that his last name not be published.