The smell hanging over the warehouse is the first thing one notices. The building covers a full city block in a northeast Denver industrial park, but the name of the company that owns it, Verde Natural, is nowhere to be seen. Keypad locks on all the doors and security cameras everywhere are the only signs that there might be something interesting inside. That, and the telltale odor, pungent even a hundred yards away: slightly sweet, slightly acrid, but unmistakable to anyone who has been a young person in the last two generations.
It is the smell of marijuana. And lately, it is the smell of money.
Andrew Salini ’06, Verde Natural’s chief operating officer, offers a tour through the rabbit warren inside. He has offices, testing labs, 25,000 square feet of grow rooms full of cannabis plants under 1,000-watt heat lamps, and a 7,000-square-foot greenhouse for seedlings. There are “cut rooms” where nipped buds hang upside down to dry and processing rooms where the high-inducing cannabis resin is distilled into hashish oil or dried into something that looks like peanut brittle. It’s all perfectly legal: Colorado allowed medical cannabis in 2009 and broadened that to include recreational use in 2014.
About 74 miles to the west, in the ski town of Silverthorne, Colo., the overpowering smell is of pine trees and mountain air. In a strip mall above what used to be a Quiznos sub shop, Nick Brown ’05 runs High Country Healing, one of four dispensaries he owns in the state. If Verde’s Denver warehouse represents the wholesale end of the cannabis business, High Country Healing is a typical retail store, although Brown, too, grows the stuff. Display cases contain jars of marijuana buds with brand names such as Train Wreck, Cookie Monster, Grape Ape, and Strawberry Cough. Patrons can see the cannabis growing behind large show windows while they shop. The store even lets customers select their own buds from the plants, which might be a great first-date idea — sort of the stoner’s version of apple picking.
A few years ago, when he worked for Brown, Salini had the idea to color-code cannabis by the effect it induced, and that is how the products at High Country Healing and Verde (which operates two dispensaries) are grouped. Blue and gold are cannabis sativa, and their effects range from mindfulness to euphoria. Purple and red are cannabis indica, which will chill you out or put you to sleep. “Indica — in da couch,” as devotees say.
Alongside the store’s marijuana buds are pre-rolled joints, which also have provocative names such as Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered scientist who turns into the Incredible Hulk. There are shelves of vape pens, salves, tinctures, and “edibles” such as cannabis-infused chocolate bars and gummy bears. Brown’s trained staff members are eager to explain their wares or recommend something new. “We’re here to help people find the strain that would best suit them for the moment,” one employee explains from behind the counter.
It’s all a little like venturing into your local wine store or cigar shop. In fact, Brown and Salini would argue, it’s exactly like venturing into your local wine store or cigar shop.
This is the state of marijuana in 2019, at least in states where it is legal: no longer baggies full of who-knows-what scored from a friend of a friend, but a fully consumerized product. Former House Speaker John Boehner recently joined the board of a cannabis company, while Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and other pillars of Wall Street are also starting to invest in the industry. Legal marijuana is projected to produce as much as $12.4 billion in revenue this year, a figure that could double by 2025. According to the Marijuana Business Handbook, there are now more people working in the cannabis industry than there are dental hygienists.
At the same time, however, a small cadre of writers and scientists warn that we don’t understand the long-term effects of cannabis use and call for further research and perhaps a pause in legalization. Even they concede, however, that they are trying to stop a moving train, because the legal marijuana business has already left the station and is well down the tracks.
Ten states and the District of Columbia now allow the recreational use of cannabis, and 23 others allow it for medical use with a doctor’s prescription — 36 if one includes products, such as salves and lotions, that include cannabis chemicals used to treat pain or nausea. Put it another way: Only four states — Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota — do not allow the use of cannabis-based products in any form.
Cannabis plants contain more than 100 chemical compounds, known as cannabinoids, but the two most significant are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the stuff that makes a user high, and cannabidiol (CBD), which is believed to have palliative properties. Closely associated with cannabinoids are terpenes, the aromatic oils secreted by cannabis and other plants. Terpenes give different types of cannabis their distinctive smell or flavor, and they interact with the cannabinoids to affect mood and outlook.
Brown prefers to say “cannabis” rather than “marijuana,” a slang term that “disrespects the plant,” in his opinion. (Other slang terms, such as “pot,” “weed,” and “grass,” don’t bother him, though.) Call it whatever you want, he has been smoking it for a long time — how long, he’d rather not say. Still, this is a man who had a “bud bar” at his wedding reception last year, offering homegrown weed to family and friends.
Engaging and friendly, Brown gets passionate when he talks about cannabis. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes and drinks only rarely. He smokes cannabis to relax and says that, unlike alcohol, it doesn’t leave him with a hangover or make him belligerent. “Cannabis,” he insists, “is all I have ever wanted or needed.”
Brown was a star high school athlete in Colorado Springs, the state football player of the year. At Princeton, he started all four years at free safety and majored in economics. Returning home after graduation, he joined his father’s mortgage-lending business, which went bankrupt during the 2008 financial crisis. Brown was a real-estate agent in July 2009 when he decided to attend an information session offered by the Colorado Department of Health to explain the state’s new medical-marijuana law. An individual with a recognized medical condition and a doctor’s prescription could own up to six cannabis plants for personal use, but could transfer those plants to a third party, such as a licensed dispensary, which could in turn hold them for dozens or hundreds of people.
Brown recognized his calling.
After obtaining a license, he opened High Country Healing, the first medical dispensary in Silverthorne, in October 2009. From the beginning, he built bridges to local officials, inviting the entire city council and the local police department into his store before it opened, to introduce himself and familiarize them with what he was doing.
Brown is an evangelist for the medicinal properties of cannabis, which is used to alleviate the pain and nausea of chemotherapy and to treat a variety of other conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, and glaucoma, although there have been relatively few research studies on its effectiveness. Brown gives away a strain of hashish oil used to treat epilepsy, from his own personal supply, to people who cannot afford it. One of them, a young woman visiting from Florida who was seeking cannabis oil to treat her son’s seizures, is now his wife.
High Country Healing grew steadily selling medical marijuana, but the big leap came on Jan. 1, 2014, when Colorado allowed its sale for recreational use. Brown and his employees stayed in the store all night on New Year’s Eve, preparing to serve the opening-day crowd. “The line stretched all the way down my stairs into the parking lot,” he recalls. His Silverthorne dispensary, which had been doing about $7,000 a day in business selling medical marijuana, sold $51,000 worth of recreational marijuana that first day and had to close early.
Overall, Brown says that his sales have quadrupled since recreational cannabis was legalized. With four dispensaries now, in Silverthorne, Vail, Colorado Springs, and Alma, High Country Healing is a relatively small chain by Colorado’s standards. There are currently 365 cannabis dispensaries in the state, both recreational and medical. To put that in perspective, there are more cannabis dispensaries in Colorado than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.
With business booming, Brown brought Salini on board to help guide his company’s expansion. The two had been officers at Cottage Club, and Salini would visit Brown every winter “to ski and smoke.” Salini, who is as intense as Brown is laid back, had gone straight to Wall Street after graduation. Both his parents had suffered from cancer, and he believed in the palliative properties of cannabis as well as in its business potential. In November 2014, he quit his job at a hedge fund to join High Country Healing as chief operating officer.
“People told me that I’d never work on Wall Street again if I went out [to work in the cannabis business],” Salini recalls with a laugh, “but I never planned to go back.”
One of the biggest challenges Brown and Salini faced was broadening the public palate for a product that many casual users regarded only as a vehicle for getting stoned. Imagine if most people had grown up consuming only grain alcohol and were suddenly introduced to wine varietals, single malt scotch, and craft-brewed beer.
In addition to their color-coding system, which Salini says was inspired by a gourmet tea store in Brooklyn, the company introduced new products, including “Mini-Js,” which are half the size of a normal joint and easier to smoke in one sitting. “We thought it would be really great to have something portable that had just enough for you and a few friends,” Salini told the website The Cannabist, which featured the product in its supply kit for hikers.
Brown and Salini are proud that they grow all their cannabis organically, with a proprietary soil and nutrient mixes developed through years of experimentation. High Country Healing grows as many as 50 strains of cannabis at a time. Plants begin as clones and are grown hydroponically until they sprout roots, at which time they are put into ordinary garden pots. As required by state law, each plant is given its own radio tag, so inspectors from the Colorado Bureau of Marijuana Enforcement (a division of the Department of Revenue) can track Brown’s entire inventory “from seed to sale” and ensure that he is not selling on the black market.
Plants remain under grow lights around the clock until they reach maturity. To produce buds, which secrete the resin used in all forms of consumed cannabis, darkness is required. The company turns off the lights for up to 12 hours a day when it is ready to develop a new crop.
Cannabis is heavily regulated, as those radio tags suggest. Counties and municipalities have the right to restrict the number of dispensaries or ban them altogether. Public consumption of cannabis is prohibited, as are sales to minors, and there are limits on how and where it can be advertised. All cannabis products must have a yellow label stating how much THC they contain.
The products are also heavily taxed. In 2017, Colorado made more than $247 million from marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees, which sounds like a lot but is still less than 1 percent of the state budget. Much of that money goes into a school-construction kitty; it is also used to fund a day center for homeless people in Aurora and scholarships for disadvantaged students in Pueblo, among other things.
Even in states where it is legal, cannabis is a cash-only business. Banks, most of which operate across state lines, will not process credit or debit charges because cannabis remains illegal under federal law and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will not insure a bank that handles illegal transactions. Almost all dispensaries contain an ATM.
In March 2018, Brown and Salini, who was eager to expand more aggressively, parted ways on friendly terms, and Salini joined Verde. For Verde, the next frontier is California, which allowed recreational cannabis in 2018. Sales in the state actually fell last year, which some observers attribute to the slow processing of dispensary licenses and a huge surplus of black-market pot. By 2020, however, the firm New Frontier Data projects that cannabis sales in California could exceed wine sales. Salini is determined to be there for the bonanza; he has already sent Verde’s master grower to open a large growing and processing facility in Humboldt County.
Enthusiasm for legal cannabis can be raucous, but there are still voices of opposition.
Growing and using cannabis remains illegal under federal law. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies it as a Schedule I drug, defined as a substance that has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.” That’s the same classification as heroin and LSD and higher than cocaine, which the DEA notes can be administered by doctors for local anesthesia.
Much remains unknown about the long-term effects of marijuana use, and the efficacy of many medicinal uses has not been proven by scientific research. Those are among the points that former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson makes in a new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.
Berenson cites a 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that linked heavy marijuana use to psychosis, paranoia, and schizophrenia, as well as an increased risk of suicide, depression, and anxiety. “The higher the use, the greater the risk,” the report concluded. Those deleterious effects are amplified, Berenson writes, because much of the marijuana consumed today is significantly more potent than it used to be. Cannabis buds contain only 15 to 20 percent THC, but new hashish concentrates, called wax, shatter, or dab, can contain up to 90 percent of the compound.
Brown acknowledges that hash extracts and concentrates have grown in popularity. People like them because concentrates get them higher faster, and the vape pens in which they are smoked are harder to detect since they don’t emit that telltale marijuana odor. He and his staff don’t promote concentrates but wait for customers to request them and then try to educate customers on the products, their potency, and how to use them safely.
David Nathan ’90, a Princeton-based psychiatrist, founded the group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, which, its website declares, is the “first and only national physicians’ organization dedicated to the legalization, regulation, and taxation of cannabis in the United States.” He concedes that cannabis can trigger or exacerbate psychosis in people who are predisposed to it. That is one of the reasons he believes cannabis products should contain ingredient and warning labels, so people who are at risk can avoid them. Similarly, he says, cannabis should not be sold or marketed to children.
In short, what Nathan advocates is what states like Colorado already have — legalization coupled with regulation. The war against marijuana use has been a failure, he insists, and the harsh criminal penalties for possession have fallen disproportionately on minorities, helping to drive mass incarceration.
“When I hear people say we need to regulate cannabis like alcohol and tobacco, I disagree,” Nathan says, pointing out the patchwork of often-ineffective rules governing their sale and use. “I think we need to regulate it better than we have regulated alcohol and tobacco, because that has led to a host of societal ills that our government has not been particularly proactive in solving.”
Robert Mikos ’95, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, has studied legal attempts to suppress marijuana over the last 80 years. Although he takes seriously the concerns that Berenson and others raise about improper usage, Mikos suggests that, when it comes to cannabis, what skeptics present as medical questions are often really philosophical ones.
“Let people decide for themselves to take on those risks, so long as they are informed,” he suggests. “That is what we do with alcohol and tobacco. We know those are very dangerous substances, but we let people assume those risks. Some, in fact, are even greater than the hypothesized risks with marijuana, yet we regulate [alcohol and tobacco] less heavily. I don’t think anyone says that marijuana is harmless.”
Back when they worked together, Salini says, he and Brown sometimes imagined the warning labels they might put on cannabis, such as, “Side effects might include euphoria and anti-inflammation. You might also fall asleep or have a great time.” Still, it is a subject he takes seriously. Regular cannabis users know that smoking too much, or something too powerful, can produce bad side effects. “Is cannabis totally harmless?” he asks. “No, but it’s not binary. Cannabis should not be abused. But the benefit is tremendous. We need to understand it.”
For his part, Brown also supports cannabis regulation — anything that makes it safe and easier for him to spread the word about a product he believes in with all his heart. “I want as much transparency as possible,” he says, “because I believe so heavily in this plant as a positive factor in our community.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.