Colorado's cannabis scene has changed drastically since Chuck Blackton started Verde Wellness in 2009, but his dispensary's reputation for providing some of the best buds in Denver has only solidified. Winner of multiple awards for his work in the grow, Blackton cut his teeth in the Netherlands before coming to Colorado with an encyclopedia of cultivation knowledge and a stash of superb genetics.
To learn more about his growing techniques and how Colorado compares to the rest of the world, we talked with Blackton about his green thumb and love for sticky icky weed.
Westword: How did you learn about growing cannabis?
Chuck Blackton: It's kind of been in my blood since I was a kid. I was probably twelve or thirteen years old when I grew my first plant. It starts from wanting some good stuff, and there's only one way to do it: Pop a seed and make it happen. I went out to the Netherlands in 1999, and that's basically where I got my network down. I learned from the best of the best out there. I was always good at what I did, but that was the mecca.
What was it like to learn about cannabis in another country and culture? What was different compared to America?
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You had a lot of cool things going on in California, of course — they've always been ahead of their time — but in Amsterdam, it was more of an open vibe. It was easier to talk about that back then, but it's changed a little. It's crazy for me to go back [to Europe]. ... The Dutch came down on us in around 2009. They started cutting plants down, busting grow rooms left and right. It became scary for a lot of people.
Amsterdam was always known for seeds back in the day, so you had a lot more production of seeds going then. Everywhere in the world wanted cannabis, but you needed seeds to make it happen The mecca of breeders was sort of out there. In Denver, you have a lot of people just wanting to opening dispensaries — not that there weren't growers in Amsterdam trying to make a lot of money, but it's just more industrialized out here.
There was a lot more experimentation going on in Amsterdam, but the Dutch people are very impatient, so if they can't dial a strain in right away, they'd just kind of give up. Back in the day, in America, you had a lot of people taking the time to stabilize these great genetics. Nowadays, people just want to push a new strain and get their names out there.
How does the quality of Colorado's cannabis and genetics compare to those of other states and countries?
I hate even saying this, but right now we have way more industrial cannabis then we've ever had. There's a lot of eye candy, but in terms of real quality, that product is limited out there. That being said, you have a better standard of cannabis now than ever, especially with the testing requirements and all that stuff. But I still think the masses of people are getting a lot of commercialized cannabis.
Don't get me wrong: It's a lot better than getting seeds and stems — people are getting better cannabis overall than they've ever gotten — but in terms of connoisseurs, it's becoming such a limited scene. It's a double-edged sword. It's kind of cool to see this evolve, but it was fun to pull out your sacks back in the day with some friends and be like, "Wow, look at what you got!" I feel like that still goes on, but people are so spoiled here these days.
How can commercial cannabis growers improve their reputation among consumers?
These days, it's a big balance. We've got to run a business and pay a lot of taxes, and the labor that goes into running the business. I think it's very possible to do both, but you have to be able to set your rooms up and hire the right people in order to make this quality happen. That can be a lot more cumbersome, for sure.
Everyone thinks that going bigger is better, but in all actuality, that hurts the market, because there's so much product out there, and it drives the prices down. That hurts all of us. Good quality takes time. It takes good nutrients, hand-trimming weed and a staff that takes the time for you. Everyone can cut corners; it costs more money to make a better product, but it doesn't mean people have to price-gouge. You can set an industry standard and educate consumers that it's not about the price.
How far have cultivation techniques and technology come since you opened Verde in 2009?
I think they've come super-far. We've got a lot of educated people in the industry now who've actually studied at universities, coming from horticulture and agricultural backgrounds. Real doctors are doing research now. Cannabis has been bashed for so long; it's got this terrible reputation, and that's sad. Cannabis got categorized in the drugs category, but you have to separate it from everything else. It's a magical plant.
Where do you see Colorado's cannabis industry going in the next five years? What are some challenges to its status as a standard-bearer?
I think it will stay in the mix, for sure. We have such an educated group of pros that are coming in. Keeping up is getting hard; we have a lot of competition. But with all the states that are going legal, this will spread out differently. We were first, so other states will always look up to us to make this happen
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So many people from Colorado and California who have been doing this for so long are getting selected to come to these new states that have recently legalized, because they've put in the time and have the experience now. For us in the industry, it's been a nice thing, as we can spread out to other states now.
One of the biggest challenges I see is with all the big money coming in — private equity and hedge fund money — it's getting away from our culture of quality. We're going to start seeing a lot more industrial cannabis. It takes away from the culture we tried so hard to start back in the day. These things take time. You can't be pushing a new strain every year, but you can't be naive and just focus on quality and never focus on numbers. It's all about balance.
For all of us, we can make money off this, and nobody has to be greedy. It's nice to let everybody get fed off their own plates instead of one person hogging the whole pie.
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