Too High To Fail: Inside Denver's Weed Boom

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

weed city colorado phillip hague gaia grower
Tristan Spinski/Grain
Gaia's master grower Phillip Hague, with some of his Afghan-derived plants.
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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."

But his real secret weapon is what he calls his "legendary tackle box of seed." As Hague tells it, no matter what strain your guy tells you he's selling, it's probably just a variation on one of four main types: haze, skunk, kush and northern lights. The reason? Back in the Eighties, growers in Holland – land of the perfect tulip – homed in on a small group of fast-growing, high-yielding plants, which they bred into hundreds of closely related strains that still dominate the kind-bud market here today. For a man who loves marijuana as much as Hague does, the loss of the plant's genetic diversity is a major crime. So he's traveled the world – to Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, North Africa, South America – building up a seed bank of strains that have been cultivated by local farmers for countless generations. "Even in Jamaica, they're starting to grow higher-yielding Dutch hybrids and things along those lines," he laments. "Every year, you lose more and more of those indigenous strains. We grow lots of plants that are based on these old Jamaican lines."

As Hague explains, Central Asia is the cradle of weed, and its heart is a place where there's been an active war for 12 years: Afghanistan. Remarkably, Hague has been there twice, in 2004 and 2006, working as a contractor for an agriculture equipment company. He returned with seeds from potent, ancient strains grown by farmers to produce hashish. He also got supremely baked there, even though lighting up in a place so dangerous that every move he made required private security didn't exactly feel irie. "Extremely paranoid," he says, cracking up at the memory. "It's not a very mellow place, and it's not like here, where every other person you know smokes weed. Pretty much all of it is grown for export. It's all money, money, bullets, money."

Hague offers a tour of his sprawling operation. As soon as you pass through the door in the back of the office, you feel like you've been transported to one of the equatorial zones he's visited on seed-gathering missions. It's warmer, there's noticeably more humidity, and before you get to any marijuana plants, it already smells like the freshest, greenest weed ever. Even though it's a weekend, the place is full of young, focused workers – an increasing number with college degrees – watering the plants, providing nutrients, checking for mites.

The first area he shows off houses a series of pods, each stocked with a cute, pea-shoot-green baby plant. As they grow, they're cycled through different parts of the warehouse until, four to six weeks later, they reach the flowering rooms, where massive, sunshine-replicating lights click on and off at optimal times. Almost all of the plants in this room are strains Hague created, including one particularly pretty variety called UpgraDDe. (If you want to try growing it yourself, you can buy the seeds.) "It's Sour Diesel crossed with Deep Chunk and Tang Tang," Hague says. "Sour Diesel is a legendary plant from the East Coast. Deep Chunk is a plant from Afghanistan that we use a lot in hybrids because it produces plants with lots of vigor. Really high trichome production; just a knockout."

Before he came to Gaia, Hague was running a way bigger grow for a crew funded by Colombian and Cuban cash. They offered him big-time money – about $800,000 a year – but the experience was bad enough that he was willing to take a pay cut to grow in a more copacetic environment. But he's still doing fine, financially: He has an ownership stake in Gaia, which has major expansion plans, including spaces staked out for huge-scale grows in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

On the fifth floor of a brick building downtown, above a sushi restaurant and a couple of blocks from Coors Field, is a pleasant dispensary called Natural Remedies. An attractive young woman checks customers' red state-issued medical cards in the reception area; graffiti-ish portraits of Biggie and Frank Sinatra hang on the walls. In the bud room, canisters of artisanal, hand-trimmed weed (including a strain called the White x Cinderella 99, which earned a silver medal in Denver's Cannabis Cup this year) line the shelves.

But the operation's thoughtful young owner, Andrew Boyens, 28, gives off the perma-stress vibe of recession-era small-business owners everywhere. "There are a few people making big money," he says. "But the bigger you get, the more your expenses go up. Trust me, I know!" The reality is, few of Denver's legal-weed entrepreneurs are living like Rick Ross. In the eyes of the federal government, their businesses are still illegal, which makes it tough to get a bank account, let alone credit. And with more dispensaries than Starbucks, prices have fallen to the point where you can buy an ounce of solid herb for as little as $150 – half of what it would cost in California. Everyone involved is just betting that the recreational shift in 2014 will bring the windfall they've been working toward, but in the run-up, things are getting a little weird. "People are at that point where they're diming each other out," says Prichard. "If someone can get a leg up on you by reporting you to the MMED [the Department of Revenue's medical-marijuana enforcement division], that's what they'll do. It's a very cutthroat business."

But that's not the note you want to leave Denver on. Let's imagine you're in the new headquarters of TC Labs, the hash-oil operation Hague, Prichard and some other friends (including a molecular biologist named David Salama) have launched. On a jumbo leather couch facing a monster flatscreen, one of the owners – a seriously shaggy Deadhead bro named Josh Zirlin – fires up a blowtorch and aims it at a titanium piece called a nail, which is attached to a small bong. When the nail glows red-hot, he uses a dental-implement-like thing to bring a piece of shatter – superpure, superstrong hash oil – in contact with the nail. In an instant, a vast cloud of the purest, mind-erasing-est vapor fills your lungs, and when you exhale, a feeling not unlike the first drop of a roller coaster races through your body. Suddenly, as if a cable attached to your brain was yanked skyward, you're higher than you ever thought a human being could get. This is America's insanely baked future, and, for a few hours at least, the future is kind.

This story is from the June 20th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1185: June 20, 2013