Charlie Stivers is on a mission to spread the gospel of cannabis to the curious and uninitiated in Douglas County, which is one of several cannabis deserts in the state.
But it's not marijuana that Stivers is using to preach about the benefits of medicinal cannabis; it's weed's half-sister hemp that is gaining a following in the southern rim of the Denver metro.
"It's funny seeing the looks on people's faces when they walk by. Some people walk by and and say, 'That's marijuana.' I can read their lips. I want to say, 'No! That's hemp.' There's still a lot of conservatives on the south end of town closer to Douglas County," Stivers says.
In the hip, liberal enclave that is Denver, it may be hard to imagine that anyone could still be oblivious to the difference between hemp and marijuana and the medicinal properties of both. But not so in Douglas County, which has outlawed all medical and recreational marijuana sales and has some of the most restrictive cannabis growing laws in the state.
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To introduce these deprived Coloradans — and a large segment of out-of-staters — to the medicinal benefits of hemp, Stivers opened Phytorite's first location in Lone Tree at Park Meadows, a huge destination shopping mall with more than 1.5 million square feet of retail space. Phytorite is just a kiosk, for now, perched near the chic and modern Tesla Motors store. It's fully stocked with hemp-derived cannabidiol — CBD — products, including salves, vape pens, gummies and oils, and even some hemp clothing, but Stivers's most popular products are his high-potency tinctures. What makes Phytorite a more desirable option among the health-conscious crowd is that the company only sources U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic hemp for its products. (And, of course, none of its products are derived from marijuana.)
Although Phytorite hemp CBD products are available for online purchasing, Stivers knew that he wanted to target first-time users, those who may have heard about CBD but don't know how to navigate the marketplace. And they certainly wouldn't be caught dead walking into a dispensary.
"We're getting interest from people who want a dispensary alternative, but they also want a resource to buy CBD other than driving all the way into Denver or down to Colorado Springs," Stiver says. "They have no interest in going to any kind of dispensary, to be associated with the stoner crowd or be caught seen going into one. They just feel more comfortable in a normal retail experience picking up CBD and finding out information."
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Most of his customers are middle-aged or seniors who want to try natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals for chronic pain and inflammation. (Even with the limited cannabinoid research out there, studies have shown CBD to have pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.) Most important, Stiver's customers don't want to get high or consume THC at all, which is why his hemp CBD products have been such a hit.
"It's kind of fun to see how you can't judge anyone. It doesn't matter how you vote; it doesn't matter what your affiliation is or how much you make. The most unassuming people walk up to us and say, 'It's good to see you guys here,'" Stivers says.
Phytorite's lease in Park Meadows Mall expires in May, since the kiosk was an experiment to see how customers would take to buying hemp CBD products outside of a dispensary or traditional storefront setting. So far the model has worked well for Phytorite, and Stivers says he's renegotiating his contract. The mall-model is expensive, he admits, but there may be room for expansion into other malls, whether in a kiosk or a traditional storefront.
"I chose the malls because what's more American than a mall?" Stivers explains. "We're really trying to normalize this movement and educate people, introduce them to CBD and hemp products in a normal setting and not a dispensary."