Marijuana Insiders Discuss Past, Present and Future of Colorado Pot

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It's always refreshing to see the cannabis industry treated like any other line of work, and that's exactly how Thornton's Anythink Library treated it during its Anythink Startup Month activities. Dedicated to highlighting local businesses and resources in order to foster career skills, the library has been teaching residents about various career and entrepreneurial opportunities. On Wednesday, September 27, the topic was jobs in cannabis.

In front of a gathering of around thirty people, Green Dragon dispensaries operations director Alex Levine, Sweet Grass Kitchen edibles marketing director Jesse Burns, and former Denver Post marijuana editor Ricardo Baca explained how they've seen Colorado's cannabis industry evolve and where they see it going.

"We all have our own 'coming out' stories," says Baca, who wasn't a cannabis user when he was offered the job as the Post's first pot editor. After some quick discussions with his wife and mother, Baca took the Cannabist job and hasn't looked back since, advocating for user rights, producing a documentary on covering legalization and starting his own content agency for cannabis companies after leaving the Post in 2016. "It was a stigma to overcome, but I took the opportunity to come out as a user," he says.

Burns has a different story, having worked on cultivations in the Pacific Northwest before Colorado legalized recreational pot, even voting for Amendment 64 in a mail-in ballot from Humboldt County, California, in 2012. After a successful transition from California's "Golden Triangle" of outdoor pot to Colorado's heavily regulated market, he's helped turn Sweet Grass into a consistent presence in Colorado dispensaries and one of the first edibles companies to micro-dose its products. "The way growth is happening now, it's about bringing new people into the game," he says. "New vaporizers, edibles and even flower, but in the right dose."

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(From left) Alex Levine, Jesse Burns and Ricardo Baca.
Thomas Mitchell
Colorado's cannabis landscape has come a long way, Levine notes. As a key figure in pushing it forward, he's had a closer look than most. Green Dragon is one of the five largest dispensary chains in the state, with eleven locations and a twelfth on the way in Thornton. "I was around when we were still called Greenwerkz and we just had two shops," he says. "You used to have to whisper the word [marijuana]. But it's not going away; it's going to evolve."

That evolution has been hindered by the plant's federally illegal status, Levine explains, which has virtually disallowed banking services and any tax exemptions from the IRS. Baca, who recently was named one of the seven most powerful people in America's pot industry by Forbes, agrees, urging the industry to put more money toward lobbying efforts for banking services if it really wants to move forward. Earlier this month, Denver NORML was in Washington, D.C., lobbying for banking services, among other advancements for legal cannabis.

Because of these federal blockades, however, the industry is better protected from becoming a bubble with bursting potential. "Cannabis doesn't have the presence on Wall Street like dot-coms did, so they can't crash as hard," Baca says, pointing to penny stocks as the current way that most pot companies out themselves on the stock market.

"With the dot-com boom, everything was so new; people were buying PCs for the first time," Burns says. "Believe it or not, people were buying weed long before it was legal." And people will continue to, he believes, as long as the industry keeps up with consumer demand, whether that be vaporizer batteries that shut off after a recommended dosage or edibles that kick in faster.

Industry products and consumption methods have been rapidly changing since 2014, when recreational businesses started production. Distillate concentrates, water-soluble THC and terpene extraction have all carved out new corners of commercialized pot, with CBD and THC isolates gaining more attention. Much of that innovation parallels rising professionalism among cannabis business owners and employees, according to Levine.

"A lot of our genetics are traced back to back yards and Grateful Dead shows. A lot of people who knew this [at first] were doing it in their closets," he says. "Chemists, biotech engineers, tissue-culture experts – our industry needs them all. We're past that stereotypical point. Don't play into it; avoid the cliché."