Is Colorado about to get a Rocky Mountain innovation high?


An employee waters pot plants inside a grow house at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

The decision to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Colorado has already been considered from a number of perspectives, many of them focusing on the economic, social and political implications of the move. Here are three ways to think about Colorado’s groundbreaking move from an innovation perspective.

1. Business model disruption

View Colorado’s new, first-in-the-nation marijuana law just like any other brick-and-mortar business that’s ripe for digital disruption. Think about the opportunities for digital gurus and start-up entrepreneurs to disrupt a business that’s been run for years by people that idolize Cheech and Chong. There’s the obvious stuff – like creating some kind of Amazon e-commerce site for Bubba Kush and pot-laced chocolate truffles so that you don’t have to meet in a dark alley to make a transaction. Less obviously, there’s the ability to disrupt the entire supply chain so that it doesn’t resemble the plot line from “We’re the Millers.”

Just imagine the opportunities if you’re an Internet entrepreneur. Right now, there’s probably a Colorado college kid in his or her dorm room, creating the first great pot start-up. Imagine a TripAdvisor for marijuana tourism or a Yelp of weed. There could be entirely new online communities for pot smokers or new smartphone apps to track down the freshest stash. At the very least, there could be new emoticons for Facebook status updates, as well as new Foursquare badges for checking in at marijuana stores. And just imagine what the sharing economy could do with a few bags of legal marijuana. 

2. Formation of a new creative class

Colorado’s new marijuana law also has the potential to lead to the formation of an entirely new type of Creative Class in cities such as Boulder and Denver. As Richard Florida has explained in a series of books and articles starting with The Rise of the Creative Class more than a decade ago, the key to urban revitalization and economic development starts with creating a robust Creative Class. The logic is relatively simple – once you get a critical mass of creative thinkers in a densely populated area, you start to see things like new cafes, coffee shops, art galleries, and independent bookstores. That, in turn, attracts other people to the area, which sets off a virtuous circle of economic gentrification, as abandoned buildings are transformed into urban lofts.

Denver could become the new Brooklyn, with stoners replacing hipsters as the arbiters of the new cultural zeitgeist. Viewed from this perspective, Colorado’s pot smokers could become the vanguard of a new influx of artists, writers and musicians to the state. Attracted by the high life, entrepreneurs and professionals in creative fields such as marketing and design would soon follow. As they put down roots and revitalize urban areas, they would attract other creative professionals such as scientists, engineers, and technologists. In short, city planners would be tripping over themselves in a pot-induced daze to attract other pot smokers, rather than finding ways to keep them out.


Cheyenne Fox attaches radio frequency tracking tags, required by law, to maturing pot plants inside a grow house in Denver. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

3. A new $30 billion innovation ecosystem

Entrepreneurs are going to see the long lines of pot smokers queuing up for marijuana in cities across Colorado and realize, hey, there’s a viable business here with people willing to pay top dollar for a quality product. So, put aside your moral skepticism for a second and consider the cold, hard economics of marijuana. According to some legal experts, marijuana could become a $30 billion dollar industry within the United States. That’s going to require a whole new ecosystem of companies in adjacent or ancillary industries, including banks that specialize in making loans to marijuana stores, hospitality providers that are willing to relax their “no smoking” laws for marijuana tourists, and companies that provide security systems for dispensaries and cultivators. And just think about all the lawyers who are going to be employed as other states get onboard.

Of course, Colorado’s grand experiment could go up in smoke. At best, it may lead to a brief spike in tourism, a huge secondary market in Grateful Dead vinyl albums and new foodie trends in late night munchies. At worst, it could precipitate crime, lead to Reefer Madness and tip the state into a race to the bottom as economic greed crowds out fundamental moral and philosophical concerns. There’s something about legalizing marijuana that sounds, well, just a tad bit decadent.

However, it’s too easy to dismiss Colorado’s marijuana experiment out of hand by resorting to clichés about stoners, potheads and slackers. Remember all the worries when gambling was legalized outside of Nevada? Now gambling is nearly everywhere you look these days, with states rushing to pass their own gambling laws to attract tourist dollars and tax payments. We may be on the cusp of the same type of phenomenon with legalized marijuana use, as Washington becomes the next state after Colorado to legalize marijuana for recreational use, followed most likely by Alaska and Oregon. Now that the marijuana genie is out of the bong, it’s up to innovators to decide what comes next.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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