POT PIE

01.29.14

Ganjapreneurs Flock to Colorado Following Marijuana Legalization

From "Cannabranders" to The Medicine Man, everyone’s rushing to cash in on the green in colorful Colorado.

“The future is so bright, I gotta wear shades,” croons Peter Williams, the 46-year-old chief of operations at a Denver dispensary that hopes to be known as the IKEA of Weed.

Spoken amidst blinding high-voltage light at The Medicine Man’s 20,000 square-foot grow facility, Williams’ reference is appropriate. Thousands of baby cannabis green plants are blooming—but the vision of what they’ll reap has already blossomed. Despite being one of the largest dispensaries in Colorado, Medicine Man will soon double in size. Call Williams—and his co-owner brother Andy— “ganjapreneurs.” But they’re not the only ones.

Just 27 days after Colorado opened the doors to recreational marijuana stores, gutsy weed pioneers are flooding the centennial state. From tour guides to chefs, glass blowers to club owners, they each tout different talents to hit the jackpot.

Long a destination for young men answering Greeley’s call to “go West,” Colorado’s status as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana sales has taken its desirability to a new, ahem, high. Mike Maciag, data editor for the state and local government-focused magazine Governing, says an estimated 36,284 people moved to Colorado in 2013, almost 8,000 more than the year before. The number places Colorado in third place as the state with the most domestic in-migration (following North Dakota and Washington, D.C.). With 300 days of sunshine, 54 peaks above 14,000 feet, and a marijuana market poised to bring billions, Colorado is America’s treasure chest—the gold rush gone green.

“Once legalization happened, I knew Colorado was the place to be,” says Max Patton, a 26-year-old Denver newcomer. Weeks after moving from Oklahoma in November 2013, the skiing aficionado launched maxqualityglass.com—a company specializing in high quality, and high priced, glass pipes (still advertised strictly for tobacco). With a love for marijuana, a background in business, and a first-hand knowledge of the glass market, Patton knew he’d be an asset to dispensaries. He was right. Just two months in, the former land management worker says he’s raking in $12,000 a month and then some. “It’s a great job,” he says. “I get to put a smile on people’s faces.”

Nipping at his heels for a whiff of something smokin’ are Jennifer Defalco and Olivia Mannix, two 24-year-old east coasters who met at UC Boulder and have since created the ”first recreational marijuana branding agency”, Cannabrand. Jumping on the phone while racing from one meeting to the next, the best buds are nothing if not enthusiastic. “The world perceives cannabis consumers as deadhead, unemployed people—our mission is to change that,” says Defalco. Representing all things cannabis from clothing stores to parties, they’re now major players in the weed world. “Nothing is certain, but everyone in the industry is so friendly,” says Mannix. “It’s a risk we’re willing to take.”

“The world perceives cannabis consumers as deadhead, unemployed people—our mission is to change that.”

Stories like these are what Dr. Phyllis Resnick, lead economist for the Colorado Futures Center and co-author of CSU’s Amendment 64 Fiscal Analysis finds exciting. “It’s a really interesting phenomena that’s happening,” Resnick tells The Daily Beast. While the first three months will likely be inflated by pot tourists gunning to “see it first,” the months following will be a better indicator of the overall economic impact.

So what would the expert get involved in if she wasn’t too busy projecting the future of Colorado’s economy? Edibles. “I think the food side of things is really fascinating to watch,” she says. “The most sustainable impact—assuming there are no hitches legally—will be ancillary things like that.”

Tripp Keber and Chuck Smith know just what she’s talking about, and are already mixing things up in the kitchen with their company Dixie Elixirs. What started four years ago with a single “orange pot soda,” has become an edibles empire in Denver. Now catering to all dispensaries in Colorado, Dixie offers 100 different variations of marijuana-infused products, from tootsie rolls to lotion. “Demand for the product has far exceeded our best expectations,” says Joe Hodas, Dixie’s newly-hired chief marketing officer. “The crew here is working around the clock.”

Less than a month in, it’s impossible to tell whose gambles will actually pay off, especially since many aspects of Amendment 64 are still subject to interpretation— most notably, explicitly banned public consumption. As of the second week of January, the Denver police had cited one person for public pot use every day since recreational dispensaries opened for business. The ban isn’t limited to lighting up at the park; it forbids using cannabis at any location—indoor or outdoor—that’s open to the public. This puts a wrench in the state’s hope to regulate weed the same way it does alcohol. But, for the time being at least, it leaves a void for smoking spaces that certain enterprising marijuana enthusiasts are eager to fill.

Tom Valdez is one of them. The 55-year-old computer technician is panning for green by staking his claim in what he views as the soon-to-be-booming, private smoking club business. In lieu of legally smoke-friendly bars or coffee shops, Valdez and others are creating smoking clubs. By charging membership fees, holding events at private venues, and requiring guests to bring their own cannabis products, these clubs technically—or as far as Valdez and his contemporaries understand it—circumvent the public consumption ban to allow like-minded marijuana lovers to smoke and socialize in a common space.

Save for a few tobacco-shop housed clubs like the iBake lounge, the pot spots that have popped up so far are more like ganja gatherings ranging from live DJ parties to mellow salons. As the law also prohibits purchasing and consuming cannabis in the same place, the clubs are all BYOC, but include some variation of snacks, glassware and other paraphernalia for purchase, along with complimentary bars for vaporizing and or dabbing—the increasingly popular and highly potent method of smoking concentrated butane hash oil. Others, like Cronic Magazine founder Joel Camarena’s Friday night Cronic Cabaret, provide a burlesque show and other entertainment for smokers with their $50 one-night membership.

Valdez’s bluetooth blinks under his shaggy, chin length grey hair as he shows off the wood paneled yoga and T’ai Chi studio he plans to use as a homebase for his club. He springs to attention, planting his white socked and sandaled feet firmly into the hardwood floor, and spreads his bejeweled hands wide, instinctively posing without a beat when asked to take a picture. Membership for a single event, which he initially says are open to every demographic but later clarifies are catered to an older, more mature crowd, is $10. VIP members will get a card, a T-shirt and the ability to organize their own events for just $40 more.

Where Valdez aspires to parlay his decades of stoner experience (he brags that he’s been smoking weed since the ‘70s) and self-proclaimed business savvy into a potentially profitable part of the marijuana industry, Jane West is using her professional event planning skills to carve out her own piece of the pot pie.

After 15 years as an independently contracted event planner, Colorado’s recreational marijuana law inspired West to start her own business combining two of her passions: good weed and good food.

Under the tagline “munchies for foodies,” West’s Edible Events caters to the sophisticated stoner. Her first event last Friday, an end-of-prohibition-themed party at a Denver art gallery, was a major success thanks to a Denver Post preview. An unnamed Heisman trophy winner, two sixty-year-old women from Kansas and a few groups of six or seven 25-year-olds were among the 140 people who paid the $125 ticket price. Once inside, guests ate gourmet hors d’oeurvres, examined stimulating art, sipped on wine or local craft brews, and socialized with fellow marijuana users, all of whom were enjoying the effects of their own vaporizer pens, hash oils, or marijuana-infused food and drinks from their favorite recreational dispensary. But since Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act was amended this year to ban marijuana in addition to cigarette and cigar smoke from most bars and restaurants in the state, West had her guests do any pure puffing in a limo outside.

Ever the seasoned party planner, West considers each minor detail for her events—of which she’s already scheduled one per month for the next year—from what kinds of succulent munchies her dry-mouthed patrons would enjoy to how they’ll get home. She requires that her guests don’t drive to or from her events, partnering with Uber to offer a 20 percent off coupon with every ticket purchase. She’s also equipped herself with a lawyer and liability insurance.

While West sees a number of opportunities for her business to branch out into tourism, she’s currently focused on perfecting the pot party for Denver locals—hoping to expand from one event per month to two. “I have faith that if it happened the first time, it’s going to happen again,” she says.

To be sure, the Colorado itch isn’t brand new. Between 1995 and 2000 alone, 644,000 people moved (PDF) to Colorado from other states. So really, the ganjapreneurs aren’t the only ones bringing in green. But if the Colorado Futures Center’s projections (PDF) are correct, marijuana sales will bring the state over $100 million in additional revenue. Who’s the dope now?

Related:

From Dry to High: Your Guide to State Pot Laws