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The Colorado Experiment

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Space Gallery looks like the scene of any art opening in Denver, Colorado. The white-walled warehouse, just south of downtown in the edgy Santa Fe Arts District, is adorned with abstract paintings, and a crowd of mostly 30- and 40-somethings sip local beer and wine while a five-piece brass band crescendos from a classical concerto to an Indiana Jones theme.

Most of the action is on the surrounding patio, where women in cocktail dresses and men in button-downs and blazers gather, between food trucks and Popsicle vendors, and talk politics with the giddy excitement of campaigners at an election party. All in all, it’s an ordinary night in Colorado’s largest city. Except for one noticeable addition — pungent plumes of marijuana smoke that even the plastic-lined fences can’t prevent from wafting out into the warm Denver night. The air is hazy, but no one bats an eye.

These men and women are advocates and entrepreneurs involved in Colorado’s newly legal marijuana industry. They’re here to support an event called Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series. The BYOC (bring your own cannabis) fundraiser for the Colorado Symphony is sponsored by marijuana companies whose merchandise tables are littered with stickers, T-shirts, and glass stash holders emblazoned with names like Gaia, The Farm, and Wellspring Collective.

As joints and vaporizer pens (like e-cigarettes for cannabis) light up, attendees speak of expanding their businesses, lobbying for regulation changes, and worries about Governor John Hickenlooper — “a beer guy.” A young marijuana enthusiast, whose shoulder-length hair grazes the collar on his shirt, says he just moved to Denver from North Carolina to work for the Wellspring Collective dispensary. “It’s so nice not to worry about going to jail for pot,” he says.

Another man in a dark suit is Bob Eschino, the owner of the prominent marijuana-infused chocolate bar company Incredibles. He tells me the cannabis industry is growing faster than any other segment in the U.S. and that millionaires or billionaires are calling every week to try to buy the company. By the end of 2015, he plans to be open in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. “There’s a lot of money to be made all around the cannabis business,” Eschino says.

Six months after Colorado began its social experiment on the legal production, sale, and use of recreational cannabis, a profitable industry was established. Between January and the end of 2014, the state raked in $63.4 million in sales taxes from medical and recreational pot. Grow operations, MIP (marijuana-infused product) kitchens, and cannabis testing labs filled vacant warehouses, and run-down neighborhoods where these operations set up shop have started to gentrify. Nearly 12,000 licenses have been granted for cannabis jobs. That doesn’t include ancillary businesses (the ones that don’t touch the product) such as electrical engineering (for all those indoor growers); marketing agencies like Cannabrand; or the weed marketplace and social network Cannabase — which has already trademarked the term Cannalytics. There are now more than 800 outlets in Colorado where customers can buy pot legally, the majority in Denver. And at least once per month, anyone looking can find a public weed-infused dinner, art class, yoga workshop, or concert (such as the High Note Series) to attend.

To read the entire article, pick up the May/June 2015 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands or …

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