Too High To Fail: Inside Denver's Weed Boom

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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.

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