Too High To Fail: Inside Denver's Weed Boom

Welcome to the city where pot nerds are growing the new American economy

Gaia's master grower Phillip Hague, with some of his Afghan-derived plants.
Tristan Spinski/Grain
June 5, 2013 11:00 AM ET

Even if you didn't know that Denver has become America's undisputed stoner capital, there are clues. Like the two Jerry Garcia-themed bars. Or the 24-hour-a-day stand-up-comedy radio station. And the too-perfect-to-be-a-coincidence nickname (Mile High City) and NBA franchise (the Nuggets). But even if you didn't pick up on any of that, there's a good chance you'd notice the smell – skunky, green, a little piney – wafting through an open car window as you cruise along I-25 into town.

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Follow the scent to the industrial zone of Platte River Valley, where vast, anonymous warehouses hide more than 250 high-octane, connoisseur-grade weed operations. Or as one grower says, "Platte River Valley – highest concentration of marijuana on Earth." If your nose is Snoop Dogg-calibrated to sniff out only majorly primo herb, you just might end up at Gaia Plant-Based Medicine, a booming high-end cannabis enterprise with big-time ambitions. There, in an unmarked 40,000-square-foot warehouse across the street from a police station, 15 or so gardeners tend to an indoor jungle of artisanal weed worthy of a Peter Tosh album cover, which the company sells in its three medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Last year, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, legalizing recreational marijuana. Starting early next year, anyone over the age of 21 will be able to walk into a weed store in Colorado – the first will be current dispensaries – and buy up to an ounce of stonier, tastier pot than whatever they've been getting from their dealer at home. There will be giddy, effervescent sativa-leaning varieties like Bubbleberry Haze; couch-lock-inducing indica-heavy ones like Purple Urkel; and everything in between. In shops with names like the Clinic and Pink House, you'll find all kinds of pot candies and cookies and cakes and sodas, and stuff you probably haven't even heard of yet, like butane-extracted hash oil, which can top 80 percent THC and get you so ripped you might as well be tripping. If Tolkien-level geeking out about "juniper notes" and "optimal cure times" doesn't sound mind-numbing, this will be the vacation spot of a lifetime, my friend.

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But it's not just the next generation of obsessive weedophiles who have reason to be psyched. The referendum passed because it appealed to libertarian-leaning conservatives as a states-rights issue. Soccer moms and legislators alike were enticed by the high rate at which pot will be taxed (somewhere around 25 percent), with much of that revenue going toward school construction – a precedent that can only tempt cash-strapped states from Michigan to Florida.

At a brunch spot that features stoner-friendly delights like "chicken-fried eggs with buffalo hash" (delicious, for the record), Ry Prichard, 28, a vaguely Seth Rogen-y dude friends describe as the biggest weed nerd in town, breaks the scene down. Enthused, hyperarticulate and seemingly immune to the heroic amounts of crazy-strong herb he consumes throughout the day, Prichard makes his living as a photographer (he takes those alien-looking super-close-up pictures of marijuana flowers you see in High Times) and as part owner of a hash-oil company called TC Labs. "What's happening here is special," he says. "Amsterdam gives you a taste of it, but in terms of quality and selection, we blow Amsterdam away. Absolutely kill it. I was out there for the Cannabis Cup in 2011, and it was just . . . disappointing [laughs]. It was still a nice experience and everything, but Colorado's where it's at."

Colorado became the seventh state to legalize medical marijuana, in 2000. But in 2007, a court decision lifted a five- patient limit for providers, kicking off a weed boom that pretty much everyone there refers to as the Green Rush. Growers and pot entrepreneurs from across the country began relocating to Colorado, lured by the promise of pursuing their livelihoods without fear of arrest or violence. The state's regulations, which require dispensaries to grow 70 percent of their own product, make ambitious, large-scale grows like Gaia's possible. In California, for instance, it's legal to sell medical marijuana, but there are no statewide regulations governing how it is grown and sold, so things are murkier. "I have some friends in California, and they're still kind of hood-rat status," says Prichard. "They're growing on the sly; they're looking over their shoulder constantly. Some of the best growers out there are still just fucking criminals. Out here they would have the chance to have a 500-light warehouse where they could do all their experiments, but they just don't want to give it up because they're so attached to Cali."

Colorado's pot regulations are helping guide other states, including Illinois and Connecticut (which both just passed medical-marijuana laws) and New York (where legislation is pending). Among activists and weed-business interests alike, there's a major sense of urgency: The idea is to use the current momentum to pass pot-friendly laws in so many states that the federal government, which still classifies marijuana in the same legal category as heroin, will have to accept the new reality. The potential financial upside of ending prohibition is enormous: Estimates of the value of the legal market range as high as $110 billion.

Which kind of makes Denver ground zero for the legal stoning of America. But for now, Denver's pot pioneers are modeling themselves on a product that's modest, artisanal and, well, Denver. "I really compare this to the microbrew industry," says Gaia CEO Meg Sanders. An impressively no-nonsense blonde, Sanders, a mother of two who used to work as a financial-compliance manager, represents pot's new establishment-friendly face. The only representative from the marijuana industry on the task force that Gov. John Hickenlooper put together to make recommendations for implementing the new law, she half-jokingly introduces herself as "Meg 'Big Weed' Sanders."

On this Saturday afternoon, she's working in Gaia's front office. With the exception of some pornographically detailed photos of superfrosty buds on the walls, the space could be the HQ of any small manufacturer. "Our patients, soon to be our customers, are very snooty about their product," she says. "The growers here are phenomenal. We have really knocked it out of the park. And you have to. Because if you don't, there's somebody down the street that does."

Gaia's grower, Phillip Hague – known in the weed community as Tierra Rojo – moved to Colorado from Austin three years ago, as soon as he heard the news that Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder wasn't targeting providers in medical states. "I literally that day turned to my wife and said, 'We're going to Colorado,'" says the 36-year-old. "I grew the biggest crop I ever grew in Texas, specifically to make enough money to move to Colorado to get this going."

He wears a baseball cap pulled down low over clear blue eyes; tattoos (including a marijuana seed) snake up and down his left arm. But in contrast to his slightly wary look, his affect is totally unfurtive – he's forthcoming and chatty without the braggy, self-aggrandizing vibe that Denver's hotshot growers are known for. Hague grew up on farms and working in greenhouses, and has a seriously impressive knowledge of botany and horticulture. "I grew plants on a huge commercial scale," he says. "Poinsettias, chrysanthemums, anything and everything. And I've always grown pot, as well. Having that commercial experience, it was a little easier for me to adapt to these large warehouse situations."

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