A Gold Rush as begun here in 2011. However, this rush is actually in the form of green, marijuana green. With over a quarter of the country legalizing and another twenty percent trying to push the movement it is only a matter of time before people start turning a profit from their marijuana sales. Colorado has cut the middle man making their state the only for-profit state in the U.S. Although it is hard to turn a large profit in these economic times at least Colorado is giving you the choice.
At the 2011 Hempcon medical marijuana convention in Denver in October, business lectures and panel discussions shared the program with more provocative events, like a Miss Hempcon pageant, in which scantily clad women (many of them dressed as nurses) danced for the audience. (The “Hot Ass” and “Best Orgasm” contests were canceled, though they were included at Hempcon events in other cities.)Offering a counterpoint to the spring-break–style high jinks, local attorney Joel D. Russman, speaking at a Hempcon seminar called “Know Your Rights,” warned aspiring medical marijuana entrepreneurs to practice a little restraint when promoting their businesses. “You don’t want to attract a bunch of extra attention,” he said, especially if your industry is essentially breaking federal law. In other words: Cool it with the naked chicks.
There are currently 16 states that allow some form of legalized medical marijuana, but only Colorado allows marijuana businesses to operate as such. It’s the first, and for the moment, only, for-profit marijuana marketplace in the U.S. Predictably, Colorado is in the midst of a marijuana boom. Between 2000—when Colorado voters legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes with Amendment 20—and 2008, Colorado issued roughly 2,000 medical marijuana cards to patients living in the state. By 2011 that number had jumped to over 127,000 paying customers, according to the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry, and at least 25,000 more have applications pending.
The exploding demand for medical marijuana has triggered a “green rush,” which has in turn rattled Colorado’s old-guard legalization advocates. Michelle LaMay, chairwoman of Willie Nelson’s Teapot Party in Colorado, would rather the for-profit side of marijuana disappear completely. “I’ve never met so many greedy slugs in my whole life,” LaMay says. “I’ve taken calls from over 3,000 people who want to start their own cannabis business … all out-of-towners convinced there’s a fortune to be made here.”
Most dispensary owners will laugh when asked about profits. Michael Bellingham, co-owner of one of Boulder’s oldest medical marijuana suppliers, MM Dispensary, claims he has yet to make a dime after almost two years. Despite a large clientele, he hasn’t been able to pay back the $120,000 investment it took to launch his company. “One day I’d like to be on the payroll,” he jokes. Bellingham isn’t discouraged, as medical marijuana is far from a conventional business. For one thing, he says, you have to be 100 percent self-financed. “You can’t go to a bank and say, ‘I have a business plan and I need to borrow money.’ Banks are federally regulated, and marijuana is against federal law, so they won’t touch you.”
The customer base is undeniable—a 2010 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed that 17.4 million Americans use marijuana, up from 14.4 million in 2007. The challenge for would-be marijuana tycoons is trying to keep up in an increasingly competitive business while marketing a product that is, at least on a national level, illegal. Opinions are mixed on how medical marijuana should or shouldn’t be promoted. Russman warns that being too vocal leads to early retirement. He points to Chris Bartkowicz, the fully licensed owner of a Denver-area dispensary. “He went on the 10 o’clock news,” Russman says with a laugh. “He bragged about the $500,000 worth of marijuana he was growing in his basement a block away from an elementary school. That’s not marketing, that’s just stupid.” In February 2010, Bartkowicz was arrested and later sentenced to five years in prison.
Mike Smith, one of the five co-owners of the marketing firm 420 Studios, has a very different marketing philosophy: “You have to go balls out.” He’s seen countless dispensaries fail, he insists, because of timidity and fear. “You’re already starting out with your hands tied behind your back because of the law,” he says. He suggests selling marijuana in much the same way that beer companies sell beer or cigarette companies sell cigarettes—with sex. After all, according to the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry, 68 percent of medical marijuana cardholders are male.“If you’re not using sexy girls to market your product,” says Smith, “you’re handicapping yourself,” he says.