Marijuana legalization in Colorado reflects a maturing industry

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post cited a document in which economic projections for Washington and Colorado after legalization were swapped. That document has been updated, as has this post. 

DENVER — On Wednesday morning, Sean Azzariti became the first person in the nation — and potentially the world, experts say — to buy marijuana for recreational use under a regulated, sanctioned system. The former marine who served twice in Iraq helped to make history, but his involvement on New Year’s Day reflected another change: the professionalization of a multi-million dollar industry that just 20 years ago was fully underground.

Azzariti turned to pot after receiving prescriptions for daily doses of 6mg of Xanax, 4mg Klonopin, and 30-50 mg of Adderall to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. “I just looked at this cocktail, and I was like I just can’t do this. Absolutely no way. I’d just be a drug addict,” he says. “[Cannabis] saved my life, basically.”

His involvement was part of an organized media event hosted by the industry — a reflection of a business that, after emerging from the shadows, is becoming increasingly professional. Store owners talk about $100,000 investments and expanding by tens of thousands of square feet. Even the profile of the business people involved has changed. A few years ago, most in the medicinal marijuana business had a high risk for tolerance or extraordinary passion for the work, says National Cannabis Industry Association Deputy Director Betty Aldworth.

“But now what we see more and more are experienced investors, experienced entrepreneurs coming in with lower-risk tolerances,” she says. “People who tend to be more averse are looking at this industry seeing potential and poking their toes in the water.”

Toni Fox, who is both passionate about the legalization movement and a serious business owner, owns the 3D Cannabis Center, the 18,000 square foot space where Azzariti made his purchase. She plans to expand and expects her average monthly revenues of $30,000 to grow more than eightfold to $250,000 once improvements are made. Medicine Man, a few miles away, boasts an even-larger 20,000-square-foot production space with plans to double it underway. Painting that expanded space alone had cost roughly $100,000, according to Peter Williams, who owns the company with his brother Andy and mother Michelle Zeman.

Even the industry organization, the NCIA, is experiencing rapid change. A year ago it counted 118 member organizations. Today it’s nearly 400, Aldworth says. And they just hired two outsiders with experience in Washington, D.C.: Deputy Director Taylor West, whose focus includes communication and education; and Michael Correia, a former Republican House staffer who is the group’s director of government relations. [Disclaimer: West and the author are former co-workers.]

“This is an industry growing up, this is an industry that needs and deserves full representation in D.C.,” Aldworth says. “The consumers of adult-use recreational marijuana deserve that, as do the businesses.”

Ancillary industries have also popped up. There are business strategists, lawyers who specialize in marijuana regulations and security firms. Blue Line Protection Group boasts 30 employees and 12 contracts with marijuana-related business seeking extra security, according to a spokesman. The business was providing security at Medicine Man on opening day.

No one knows the exact impact the newly legal sales will have on the economy, but if the actions of the businesses that secured licenses is any indication, it’s going to be a boon.

In its second “State of Legal Marijuana Markets” report, ArcView Market Research projected that the newly legal recreational sales in Colorado will add $359 million to the economy, while Washington stands to gain $208 million. 

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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