Something's going on in Pueblo County. You might not notice as you drive through the town – which took a big hit during the steel recession of the ’80s and has slowly been coming back — but your nostrils should get a clue once you reach the outskirts, where the aroma of cannabis hits you. Although this isn't an unusual odor in Colorado these days, the pot industry is in full bloom in the county surrounding Pueblo.
“I wish I could write my high-school guidance counselor a letter about this,” says Michael Cadwell, director of sales for the Los Sueños cannabis farm as he sniffs a bud the size of a football. “This is the way to do it.”
Los Sueños is a 36-acre farm just outside the city, in unincorporated Pueblo County; it's one of the largest outdoor grows in the country. Unlike Denver County, this one does not require that commercial cannabis cultivation be confined inside, and a stroll through the four fields – planted with 55 strains – shows what a difference the bright southern Colorado sun makes. Plants here grow much taller and heavier; they need to be tied to stakes just to stay upright.
“The high elevation and increase in ultraviolet rays tricks the plants into a higher resin production,” explains Aaron Hoavie, head grower at Los Sueños. “And the natural sunlight is virtually year-round.”
Still, the area can get cold. So when the winter frost hits Los Sueños and outdoor growing becomes unfeasible, Hoavie and his team operate in four greenhouses – a more eco-friendly alternative to the lightbulb/warehouse setups in Denver. “You can have 1,000 lights in some huge warehouse for massive production, but that’s not what we’re trying to do down here,” Hoavie says. “This is farming cannabis.”
Hoavie grew up in North Carolina, where he started growing marijuana outdoors as a teenager. Despite the objections of his parents and local law enforcement, he honed his craft there before finding a legal haven in Pueblo County, where he now nurtures the lives of more than 10,000 marijuana plants. “There’s no playbook to growing pot like this, and there are no guarantees with growing in the natural elements, but that’s what makes it fun,” Hoavie says. “You can’t be successful at this without good help. When hail and mold hits, you need people who know what they’re doing.”
Hoavie is just one of many Coloradans who moved to Pueblo to work with legal marijuana – but locals are getting in on the action, too. More than 1,300 jobs were created in Pueblo County in 2014 by the marijuana industry, according to a study by the Southern Colorado Growers Association; a staffing firm that helps people land marijuana jobs opened in Pueblo last February. At the same time, industrial vacancies decreased by more than 15 percent, and marijuana-related businesses accounted for 36 percent of new commercial building projects in Pueblo County in 2014, according to the Pueblo County Regional Building Department.
“Folks are quickly realizing that the cost of cultivation is a lot less in greenhouses and outdoors,” says Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who has championed the marijuana industry as a form of economic growth in the area. “We have a very sizable rural-agrarian portion here.”
When Coloradans voted to legalize the growing and selling of recreational marijuana, they also agreed to allow towns and counties to choose whether or not to allow retail pot businesses within their boundaries. Denver, already the state epicenter of medical marijuana, quickly became the first retail marijuana capital of the world – while much of the rest of state struggled over the decision of whether to accept pot businesses and, if so, how to regulate them. But Pace and his fellow commissioners were keen on the idea of an agricultural marijuana economy early on and began issuing cultivation licenses in 2014, in the hopes of spurring local industry. There are now cultivation licenses for 33 medical operations and 57 recreational operations in Pueblo and Pueblo West County.
Although the City of Pueblo allows cultivation, it's been more guarded in its approach to sales. Recreational pot shops are still under a moratorium in the city until a public vote on the matter in November 2016 – so residents need to purchase their pot at one of the thirteen recreational shops in unincorporated Pueblo County, where retail sales are legal. The Pueblo City Council is starting to come around on the medical side, however, and the first MMJ dispensary within Pueblo city limits opened in October.
Pueblo natives Steven and Monique Duran, who've been together for thirteen years, started looking into medical marijuana businesses several years ago. He started studying medical marijuana after his shift at the Comanche Power Plant, while Monique became a regulatory-rules whiz. Finally, after finding one of the rare buildings in Pueblo that met all of the city’s stringent zoning requirements for a marijuana operation – which include a location in a small, council-approved industrial zone – the Durans poured their savings into a lease for the building, which is now the Seven-One-Nine MMJ dispensary.
“There was a map the city had for us in order to meet the requirements, and it was very, very limited. We found this place, which met all of them,” Monique says. “Right now, it’s us and one employee running the store. We’re just a local couple, but we want to be the model for how to properly medicate patients in Pueblo.” There won’t be many competitors following that model, though, since the zoning map is so restrictive that only a few more medical dispensaries might manage to find a suitable spot in the city.
The couple’s inspiration for Seven-One-Nine came from watching Steven’s sister struggle through the difficulties of multiple sclerosis and seeing how pharmaceutical marijuana medication affected her. “She was just a different person on those meds,” says Steven. “Seeing what real patients have to fight through was some strong motivation.”
Now these homegrown owners are happy with what they've created. “Just coming in the shop and looking around, as two kids from Pueblo who never really had much – sometimes it’s like a dream,” Monique says. “It’s such a cool story, and we hope to make it a better one.”
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