Marijuana

The Ten Biggest Colorado Marijuana Stories of 2019

Colorado's cannabis industry is maturing, but not without growing pains.
Colorado's cannabis industry is maturing, but not without growing pains. Jacqueline Collins
Colorado has somehow managed to survive six years of recreational cannabis sales without burning down. But even so, there were plenty of hot, skunky issues to cover in 2019.

This year, the Colorado Legislature further established this state as an epicenter of cannabis, passing laws that expanded medical marijuana access and legalized social use businesses, such as pot cafes and smoking lounges. The state also continued in its role as a guinea pig of regulation and cannabis culture, dealing with challenges ranging from moldy pot to equitable industry participation.

After trimming our way through the year's stories, we landed on these as the ten biggest in 2019:

Moldy Marijuana
Moldy cannabis wasn't on the radar of regulators at the dawn of retail legalization, but it's since surpassed pesticides as the leading cause of commercial pot recalls. Since December 2018, at least seven different health orders issued by city and state governments have recalled cannabis that failed microbial testing from dozens of dispensaries, including some of the state's largest chains. Not only are there worries about the level of mold and yeast inside grows, but there are also concerns about shady practices used to pass lab testing, as well as steps down the packaging and storage roads that could inadvertently lead to further contamination, as shown by a round of Denver Department of Public Health and Environment investigations that led to 20 out of 25 dispensaries failing mold and yeast testing. Some industry representatives say the testing is too harsh, while others consider these recalls a reckoning for a previously unregulated field of agriculture.


Consolidation Begins
In 2019, we began to see a turn toward consolidation and corporate involvement in Colorado's cannabis industry, something that had previously been prevented by state laws that blocked publicly traded companies from owning marijuana business licenses. Those rules ended in November, however, and the buying sprees have already started. Medicine Man Technologies, a public firm located in Denver that helped write the law allowing publicly traded participation, has agreed to purchase over thirty dispensaries, as well as several cultivations and infused-product brands. Meanwhile, the Green Solution, one of the state's largest dispensary brands, agreed to sell all of its twenty-plus dispensary and growing operations to a Canada-based public marijuana firm.

Proponents of the new rule say that more capital and public entity involvement were a natural progression for a legal trade, while others worry about small businesses getting shoved aside. Some Denver dispensary owners think the effects of outside money itself may be overestimated, though. "I'll bet some banker types look at Amy and I and think that if we can do it, then they'll kill us with all of their money and resources," L'Eagle owner John Andrle said in November. "But there's all sorts of examples of those models going out of business in two years."

Social Equity
As nationwide cannabis legalization becomes more of a "when" than an "if" scenario, energy and focus have shifted toward the human side of the plant. Activists fighting for nonviolent cannabis felons and victims of the War on Drugs have taken issue with a largely white-owned cannabis industry, and Colorado is ground zero for some of these discussions. Although this was the first state to legalize retail pot, Colorado has been criticized for its lack of social-equity programs, with minority business owners pushing for more training programs, access to capital and lower barriers to entry into the cannabis space for minority entrepreneurs, as well as easier paths to expungement for former cannabis offenders. Still, Denver and Boulder programs created to clear prior cannabis convictions struggled to find qualified applicants for record-sealing in 2019, with state laws preventing mass expungement efforts.

Meanwhile, elected officials in Denver and in Washington, D.C., are talking about how to promote social equity in legal cannabis. Steps were taken at the state level, with legislators creating new micro business licenses for budding entrepreneurs without financial resources, as well as eliminating a rule banning anyone from becoming a licensed marijuana employee if they were convicted of a felony within the past five years or of a drug felony within the past ten years. The new law removes the special drug-felon ban and cuts the five-year ban for felons to three years.

CBD Everything
Was 2019 the peak of CBD? Some of us sure hope so. With hemp's federal legalization the year before (even though that didn't legalize CBD federally, and the FDA still frowns on it despite very little enforcement), the non-intoxicating cannabinoid has finally gotten shine. And it certainly seems to deserve some praise, with CBD's reported efficacy in treating certain forms of inflammation, epilepsy, skin disorders and other ailments. But things are getting out of hand. At first the CBD-infused coffee, doughnuts and protein bars seemed cute — but do we really need CBD in our Carl's Jr. burger, toilet paper, tobacco chew and pillow covers?

Legal Pot Lounges and Cafes...Almost
Denver and the rest of Colorado have struggled to figure out social cannabis use since the plant was legalized in 2012, but this year we might finally have found our footing. In May, the Colorado Legislature passed a law allowing restaurants, hotels, music venues and other businesses to apply for social pot use permits and dispensaries to apply for a tasting-room license similar to that of a brewery — if their respective town or county decides to allow them, as local governments must still opt in to the program.

If your local jurisdiction does allow social consumption licenses, non-dispensary businesses could also apply for limited pot sales, while mobile marijuana lounges such as tour buses and limousines will also be licensed but cannot sell marijuana; temporary licenses for special events will be available, too. None of these entities could have an active liquor license and allow social pot use, however, and we've only heard of one Colorado town — Durango — that is preparing to officially take on the issue. Denver's much-aligned social use program remained unaffected by the new law, and it's unlikely to be revisited until months into 2020.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell