Every movement needs people with energy, passion and power to push it forward. Coming off its seventh year and record-breaking sales, Colorado marijuana's industry has never moved faster, and the people driving that movement have never been more interesting.
Leaders in law, government, industry, science, activism and media will all be stirring the pot in 2021 — even as we smoke plenty of it. Here are six to keep an eye on.
Cut off from publicly traded ownership and large investment groups for years, in 2019 Colorado’s cannabis industry started the transition from insular to wide open, and last year several new empires emerged.
The biggest overlord, however, could be Chris Driessen, president and CEO of Slang Worldwide. A publicly traded acquisition company on the Canadian Securities Exchange, Slang has acquired multiple Colorado marijuana businesses over the past two years, and currently employs 75 people between a Boulder facility and the United States headquarters in Denver. The company now owns stakes in several notable marijuana brands, including Colorado’s O.pen Vape, District Edibles and Pleasant Valley Ranch and California-based Cookies Fam, which just opened an outpost here. In late 2020, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade announced that Slang would receive the state’s first tax incentive offered to a marijuana business; the company plans to add 43 new jobs to its Colorado outpost, thanks in part to $584,399 in state job-growth incentive tax credits over the next eight years.
“Our business is in thirteen states, our products can be found in thirteen states and almost 3,200 retail stores — so a lot of the support for how that happens will now come out of Denver,” Driessen says.
And Denver is watching.
Despite record-breaking sales and a maturing market, cannabis in Colorado can only go as far as the government allows. As the member of Governor Jared Polis’s administration in charge of marijuana and hemp-industry issues, Ean Seeb will have plenty to say about where the plant goes in 2021. While the governor’s cannabis policy advisor — a veteran of the pot industry before he joined Polis’s staff in 2019 — didn’t make a lot of noise with the media, Seeb kept himself busy during the COVID-19 pandemic with public and private conversations about cannabis sustainability, banking and social equity. Seeb also played an important role in Colorado’s hemp framework, ruffling feathers over a hemp research contract but winning some new fans in the San Luis Valley after helping to lure Patagonia into southern Colorado. Under a new state-led partnership between the popular outdoor brand and a Colorado farm, hemp will be grown and processed into fiber for Patagonia’s outerwear line.
The program is one of four partnerships Polis wants to see created within Colorado’s hemp industry; we’ll be watching to see what else Seeb cooks up in 2021.
The ownership of Colorado's marijuana industry is predominantly white, but 2020 actually saw some movement toward diversity and socially equitable practices, much of that thanks to Sarah Woodson. The marijuana-friendly painting class teacher and founder of nonprofit the Color of Cannabis was visible (and vocal) at just about every government-led marijuana meeting in the metro area in 2020, and she became a regular presence at the State Capitol while supporting a successful bill that cleared old marijuana possession charges and created a definition for social equity marijuana license applicants.
But that was just the foundation, according to Woodson, who is now running a ten-week incubator course for diverse marijuana business owners while she lobbies cities like Aurora and Denver to set-aside pot business licenses and reduce fees for social equity applicants. This year will be busy for Woodson, and could bear even more fruit than 2020.
Now that the sky hasn't fallen during seven years of marijuana legalization, Colorado is finally starting to take legal marijuana's environmental impact seriously. But if the state wants marijuana business owners to learn and take advantage of these newer, more sustainable options, we're going to need more people like Kaitlin Urso.
The state Department of Public Health and Environment researcher and small-business consultant was an instrumental connection for the marijuana industry and its regulators in 2020, helping push through looser rules for waste removal and retail package recycling while teaching business owners how to take advantage of them.
Last year, Urso also wrote an extensive report on the pot industry's environmental impact for the National Cannabis Industry Association and helped lead a CDPHE study that measured the carbon impact of terpenes — plant compounds responsible for marijuana's smells and flavors — in urban marijuana cultivations. That study is expected to be published soon, but something tells us we'll be hearing about even more than that from Urso in 2021.
Where Denver goes with cannabis, the rest of the state usually follows. And as major shifts in state policy regarding marijuana delivery, hospitality and social equity force cities to take another look at their local pot regulations, Denver's impact should be bigger than ever in 2021. Ashley Kilroy, the city's director of marijuana policy, will be steering that skunky ship through the choppy waters of stakeholder meetings and rulemaking, with a to-do list that calls for new city ordinances for marijuana delivery, social consumption and socially equitable license practices to be written, approved by Denver City Council and implemented by the third quarter of 2021.
Dealing with marijuana business owners, parents against pot and even city council members while checking off boxes, Kilroy will have to draw on her seven-plus years of experience in Mile High pot policy to realize her agenda. Sounds like a lot of stress, but we know something that can help with that...
A longtime music journalist for the Denver Post and the founding editor of the Post’s since-neutered Cannabist section, Ricardo Baca was hardly unknown when he left the newspaper business to found Grasslands, a cannabis-centric public-relations firm. But the Westminster High School alum quickly expanded his reach, and now represents some of Colorado’s biggest cultivation, dispensary and edibles brands while taking on new clients from other states as well as the hemp industry.
Update: This article was updated at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 6, fixing an error stating that Slang Worldwide owns an interest in Denver dispensary Diego Pellicer. Slang Worldwide does not own a stake in Diego Pellicer.
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