Will Home Grown Marijuana Go the Way of Moonshine?
With retail dispensaries charging a hefty tax for legal weed, many Denverites are content to stick with their regular dealers. But will the convenience eventually outweigh the cost?
“This is going to be fun, I haven’t been to a dispensary yet.”
I’d been in the Mile High City a total of 20 minutes before my local friend shattered the image I’d built in my head of a post-Jan. 1 Denver. She is a pot smoker. Why was she not one of the thousands of people I’d seen on TV, waiting in lines that poured out the doors of Denver’s retail marijuana shops? If not on New Year’s Day (that’s not really her style), then at least once in the weeks following the stores’ legal opening?
“I just get my weed from my friend Dave,” she said. “Most of my friends do.”
About two and a half years ago, Dave (not his real name) and his roommate decided to use his medical-marijuana card to start growing in the basement of their Denver house. Once they collected enough cash for supplies (Dave says equipment can run a home grower anywhere from $1,000-$5,000 “if you’re going to do it proper”), the two UC Boulder grads hit the Internet forums and consulted grower friends for tips on how to get started.
Maintaining a home grow is as expensive, if not more expensive, as setting one up. Dave says his monthly electricity bill jumps to roughly $600 in the summer, when he has to turn up the air conditioning to keep his plants from wilting, on top of the high cost of constantly running one high-voltage light for every six of his 36 plants (12 more than his red card permits). But the money Dave has put into building his basement greenhouse is nothing compared to the green his plants brings in. The 26-year-old—who now runs the grow by himself—says he makes between $40,000 and $60,000 per year selling his weed. It’s more than enough to live on for only about five to 10 hours worth of work per week.
To clarify, Dave’s livelihood is not legal. Thanks to Colorado’s recreational-marijuana law, Amendment 64, adults over 21 can legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time. They can also possess six plants each—a total of 24 per household—of their own to grow indoors at home, with no need for a medical card. And they can legally “gift” up to an ounce to another 21-year-old without payment. Still, legal weed yielded from a legally home-grown plant cannot be sold to dispensaries or individual customers.
Dave’s risk has yielded extremely lucrative rewards, and doesn’t show signs of slowing down, as his clientele of peers would unsurprisingly prefer to pay $20 to $30 for an eighth of an ounce than the $60 to $80 retail stores are charging. In fact, the dispensaries’ high prices (Colorado charges a 10 percent excess tax on all retail marijuana sales, on top of which Denver tacks a special 3.5 percent pot tax in addition to the general city and state retail taxes of 7.5 percent) are enough to motivate any thrifty green thumb try their hand at growing.
Which is great news for Michelle LaMay.
Dave benefited from having experienced grower friends who could impart their knowledge onto him when he got started. But Michelle LaMay knows that learning to grow can be daunting and the many books and online guides available can be confusing. That’s why, in 2008, she started Cannabis University, offering monthly, day-long courses that include instructions on growing cannabis as well as an explanation of Colorado’s marijuana law. In the years that medical marijuana has been legalized in different parts of the country, other marijuana-focused trade schools like LaMay’s have popped up throughout the states.
LaMay says that before January, 80 percent of her students had moved from out of state for Colorado’s medical-marijuana laws. Denver’s first medical-dispensary owners, she says, were graduates of one of her first classes. But now her classes are starting to be filled with locals. She also said she’s received an uptick in registrants who say they want to grow their own because the dispensaries are so expensive.
“Over here on the corner the other morning I could smell pot. I was so dank, it was wonderful,” says LaMay, her voice raspy from years of cigarette and joint smoking. Under a string of coin pearls, she wears a pot-leaf pendant (once part of a set of earrings) around her neck, her almost translucent blue eyes contrast softly with her fiery red hair. A silver cuff slides back and forth over her 33-year-old winged scarab beetle tattoo as she grabs my hand or knee for emphasis while we talk.
“I lived my life backwards,” she says, explaining how, at 36, married and with children, she went back to school to study mass communication. It was the first in a series of degrees LaMay would come to accumulate as she explored a variety of careers including acting, teaching, and paralegal—all skills that come in handy in her current role as the “Dean of Green.”
LaMay doesn’t keep a storefront. Her roving classes, taught by designers from Multiponics, a Boulder-based company that designs and sells high-quality growing equipment, are held in various public spaces that are always both handicap accessible (LaMay has walked with a cane since a hip-replacement surgery in 1995) and child-friendly (she encourages students to bring their kids).
Tuition is $250 per four-hour class and everyone can bring a friend, “because two heads are better than one, educationally,” says LaMay. “After 700 students, I haven’t had one report of anybody starting their homes on fire, which is a danger when you’re running extension cords all over the place and don’t understand the electricity.”
Though she doesn’t sell or grow marijuana herself, LaMay boasts a vendor’s license issued by the city which, among other things, allows her to hire employees, transport large quantities of marijuana, and gain access to grows. Her paralegal license allows LaMay to do all of her own legal work.
Marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but it still holds a stigma for many. LaMay is “out,” but many of her students are not. That’s why she doesn’t take last names, accepts only cash or money orders for tuition, and communicates with students on a prepaid, burner-style phone that “can’t be traced.”
“Two months ago I had a surgeon come to my class, about 60 years old, who is moving his practice to rural Colorado,” says LaMay. “A surgeon comes to Colorado to feel confident that he won’t lose his friggin’ license to practice medicine because he uses cannabis!”
Though Dave goes to great lengths to keep his “very smelly, stinky process” quiet, using lots of filters to block the smell and covering all the windows, he feels a bit more at risk now that marijuana is legal. Not only is his house a target for burglars, he assumes that since dispensaries can give receipts with their weed sales, it’s now easier for cops to identify illegally sold pot.
In fact, the opposite is true.
“Eventually, they may start barcoding plants and creating genetic tags to tell where it’s grown, but at this point it’s impossible to know [if someone is selling weed illegally] unless we see them do it,” says Lt. Matt Murray, chief of staff at the Denver Police Department. His marijuana team of detectives is driven almost entirely by complaints and, even then, those they respond to involve too many plants or bothersome smokers, not sellers. Murray says his team has also been shocked by how few marijuana-related burglaries they’ve seen since January 1.
While LaMay says she “wouldn’t even consider going into a store” (much as Dave’s customers are content to stick with personal connections), Murray doesn’t anticipate illegal weed will be a problem for much longer in Colorado.
“You can make wine in your house—I’ve done it, but it’s a pain in the butt,” he says. “It’s way easier to go to the liquor store and buy it and I think that’s what we’re going to see” with marijuana.