As personal marijuana grows proliferate throughout the state, so do the problems that can accompany them. Entrepreneur Alison Helsley thinks she may have found a solution: Rooms to Grow, a space where individuals can grow their own plants away from their private residences. But she's had to deal with growing concerns in her business's home base of Cañon City.
Home grows can present a variety of challenges for all parties involved. Growers — medical patients, recreational users and caregivers — face spatial, financial and practical challenges, as well as having to comply with restrictive plant caps. Landlords grapple with potential property damage caused by their tenants’ grows. And neighbors often complain about noxious smells coming from next door.
With Rooms to Grow, Helsley hopes to provide an ideal alternative to home growing, particularly in communities with bans on retail marijuana and commercial grows, such as Cañon City.
“Any community that doesn’t have a retail store leaves the residents with one choice that’s legal: grow for yourself," she says. "So, if communities want to lower the amount of home grows, they’re going to need to find another outlet."
Currently in its pilot phase, Helsley’s business seeks to get marijuana grows out of neighborhoods while providing medical patients and recreational users with a secure space where they can cultivate their plants.
“I wanted to create something that was affordable, that would create transparency, that would help with safety standards,” Helsley says.
Helsley, who opened Rooms to Grow in Cañon City last September, has firsthand experience with the downside of home grows. While living in Dallas two years ago, she rented a house she owned in Cañon City to a man who seemed to be the ideal tenant. “He always paid his rent on the first of every month," she says. "There were no problems.
“At the end of the lease, I became aware that he was growing marijuana in my house. And he had basically trashed it,” she continues. The damage was catastrophic: holes in the walls where the tenant had created makeshift ventilation, plus jerry-rigged electric wiring, water spills and mold.
Helsley quickly found that landlords had little recourse in her situation. “The police wouldn’t come. They directed me to civil court,” she recalls. But since the tenant had abandoned the wrecked property, Helsley had no way to get damages. She also found out that unless she specifically prohibited marijuana cultivation in her lease, she would have no legal right to press charges against another tenant.
Other attempts at getting compensation proved equally fruitless. Her insurance agency refused to cover damage caused by federally illegal activities. A local DEA agent told her that most police departments and federal forces were hesitant to seize marijuana plants from a residence: If the grower later proved that the plant count was within the legal limit, the agency would be financially responsible for the plants they’d seized.
“I was a risk-mitigator by profession,” says Helsley. “I started really realizing that I had no way of mitigating my risk.”
Helsley flew to Denver for a medical caregivers' conference, intent on expressing her frustration. Instead, she gained a new perspective — and the inspiration for Rooms to Grow.
“I was planning on speaking, but when I got up there, I ended up listening for six hours,” Helsley says. “There were other landlords who’d had similar situations, police departments that were struggling...and I also heard a totally different side that I hadn’t thought about, which was the patients’ side. They weren’t necessarily happy with [home grows], either, but for a lot of them, that was their only legal place to grow. As I was looking at it, I was thinking that I saw an opportunity here, because there’s no one who is perfectly happy with this situation."
Helsley worked with one of the authors of Amendment 64 to develop her business model, which she designed for patients and caregivers in smaller Colorado communities. Patients were moving into Colorado from all over the country, and many of them couldn’t afford Denver or Colorado Springs.
“In the smaller parts of Colorado, where there’s a limited source, or no source, you have no place for them to grow but in rental houses or in their houses," she points out. "And you could kind of see the writing on the wall that it was going to become a problem for the communities to find a solution to this.”
The first Rooms to Grow facility, at 465 Valley Road, in the Dawson Ranch area of Cañon City, contains both growing space and community resources. “I have two businesses there,” says Helsley. “One is my club, which you have to apply for membership for and be approved. Once you’re a member, one of the things you have the ability to do is rent space.”
Interviews and background checks are required for membership. For medical patients and caregivers who wish to grow more than six plants, Helsley requires proof of medical need and a doctor’s plant-count recommendation. Caregivers must update the state as to the new location of their grow.
Members gain access to community rooms, educational events and workshops designed to educate members about the legalities and practicalities of marijuana cultivation and use.
Helsley says many members want the educational opportunities that the club provides. “We have a lot of people who have cancer, or their kids have seizures. For the most part, they’ve just been limited to getting information on the web, which can be contradictory because there’s so much information out there,” she says.
Each plant grown in the facility is tagged and tracked throughout its flowering cycle. Tenants have 24-hour video access to their plants; an online portal allows them to track how much has been harvested. A consultant provides training for members and assists with plant care and trimming; the consultant also ensures that no tenant grows more than is legally allowed.
Once plants have flowers, the harvest remains in storage at Rooms to Grow, where each tenant has a personal reserve of marijuana. “When they come and pick up some of their reserve, it’s tracked in our online portal. We know how much they’ve picked up, we’ve verified who picked it up. They’re limited to how much they can take out [of the reserve] by state law,” Helsley says.
Though her startup immediately attracted growers eager to rent space, some Cañon City residents and city council members expressed uncertainty over how to classify Rooms to Grow...and whether to allow it at all.
A proposed plant-cap ordinance that would have required marijuana to be grown only in private residences threatened Helsley’s venture; after she appeared at a Cañon City Council meeting last November to defend her business, the city deferred action pending further consideration of the issue.
At a council meeting in May, Helsley's business came up again when a Cañon City resident questioned the nature of the Rooms to Grow facility. Councilmembers disagreed as to whether Helsley’s business should be allowed to continue operations. According to City Attorney John Havens, Rooms to Grow is in violation of a Cañon City zoning ordinance that forbids the cultivation and production of marijuana in commercial zones.
In June, Helsley agreed to place her business on hold until council decides whether Rooms to Grow will be allowed; she is not accepting new tenants or allowing new plants after the current crops flower. On August 1, the Cañon City Council announced that it would form a Marijuana Cultivation Regulations Committee to address and regulate marijuana grows throughout the city — and Helsley’s business in particular.
“The purpose is straightforward: to create and protect the public’s health, safety and welfare by trying [to get] residential grows into a more secure environment,” says City Administrator Tony O’Rourke.
But some councilmembers remain uncertain about the nature of Rooms to Grow. “How are we going to distinguish the difference between a Helsley operation, a commercial operation and a retail grow? I can’t see that clear picture,” Councilman Jim Meisner said at the August 1 meeting.
The committee, which includes Helsley, several city council reps and community members, will meet once a week into September, and work on proposals for zoning regulations and special-use conditions that would regulate the cultivation of marijuana in Cañon City.
In the meantime, Helsley's business remains in limbo. “I do worry about some of the tenants,” she says. “The particular strain that some of these people need isn’t in any of the stores around here, and with the new plant-count caps, their caregivers can’t grow plants for them anymore.”
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One of her tenants has a child with Davet Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes seizures. The tenant requires a large number of plants to produce the concentrated oil that treats the child's seizures. “So they have no legal location to grow the medicine that their doctor has recommended to them, and their kid is seriously sick,” she says.
“Yes, Cañon City voters voted out retail stores and retail cultivation, and yes, this might seem at first glance similar, but it’s not in any way — it’s a way to help the community’s overall goal of reducing plants in neighborhoods by providing an alternate option and alternate location,” Helsley says.
If Rooms to Grow is allowed to continue under Cañon City rules, Helsley hopes to expand her business into other communities in Colorado. “What I’d really like to see is Rooms to Grow working with many different communities to help them with a solution that helps everyone,” she concludes.