The imminent opening of recreational pot shops in Colorado is leading to backlogs in licensing employees, with dozens or hundreds of people showing up each morning at a cramped state office hoping for an appointment.
State officials say they recognize the problem and are taking steps to speed up the process, but business owners question why the state wasn’t prepared and worry about adequate staffing when the first shops open Jan. 1.
To get a state badge to work in Colorado’s marijuana industry, employees must get fingerprinted and clear criminal and financial background checks.
But first their applications must be processed, and state officials say they’ve been inundated in the past month as businesses preparing for recreational sales add jobs and job hunters bolster their résumés.
At 8 a.m. on a recent weekday, would-be bud-tenders and trimmers filed in bleary-eyed to the Marijuana Enforcement Division at 455 Sherman St. in Denver.
They lined up to get their paperwork stamped. The rules change with the circumstances, but on this day anyone who had come back 11 times — and gotten 11 stamps — was given the green light for license processing.
Those on the short end on stamps were cast into a lottery, their fates tied to green poker chips drawn out of a red Folger’s coffee jar.
“This is awful. Just awful,” said Madysen Mezoff, 22, who had come from Highlands Ranch with her 1-year-old daughter in tow. “There is no point to the system. What are the stamps proving? That we can get here early and get here in time?”
Mezoff — who is beginning work as a bud-tender, or a counter worker selling marijuana — did not even have enough stamps to enter the lottery. She’d have to return the next day and try again.
A budget shortfall caused the state to close enforcement division offices and slash staff in 2012, concentrating all of the state’s licensing processing at the Denver office.
But the division has since doubled the administrative staff processing occupational licenses from three to six and has eight investigators conducting background investigations, said Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman for the agency.
The state workers also must contend with technical slowdowns when using an electronic fingerprinting machine and when connecting to FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation databases, she said.
Still, the state has been licensing between 100 and 120 employees a week, Postlethwait said. The division could not provide detailed figures on current application volume. One recent morning, 245 people were turned away.
Postlethwait said state officials have been processing applicants as quickly as possible, could not have predicted demand and have tried to adjust.
“We know it’s a problem, and we are taking steps to do something about it,” she said.
The state is processing applications at other Department of Revenue divisions, she said. It will open a new office in Colorado Springs next month and free up more space for processing in the main office.
The state is processing only medical-marijuana occupational licenses, which allow people to work in recreational shops. Only medical dispensaries are allowed to get recreational licenses initially.
Brooke Gehring, co-owner of the Patients Choice chain of medical-marijuana dispensaries, said the state should be adequately staffed to handle the influx of applications. Her business is hiring more people as it prepares for recreational sales at three of its four locations.
“These are people who want and need jobs and are willing to go through this process,” Gehring said. “I don’t want to be short-staffed for security or safety reasons, and for customer service, as well.”
Gehring said she scheduled a licensing appointment for a group of employees in mid-January so they don’t need to make multiple trips to the state offices to play the lottery.
Norton Arbelaez, co-owner of the RiverRock Wellness dispensaries in Denver, said his business and “everyone who is a real serious actor” conducts their own background checks in addition to the state’s.
If Colorado is ill-prepared to handle the greater employee licensing volume, he said, the blame lies not just with the marijuana enforcement division but the executive branch and state legislature.
“It’s a problem that has to be sorted out because it’s only going to get more complicated and we’re only going to need more employees as we go on,” Arbelaez said.
At the lottery last week, a state employee acknowledged to the crowd that the process was burdensome. He pleaded for patience. Twenty people ultimately got appointments that day.
“It is what it is,” said an applicant named Travis, who declined to give his last name. “It sucks, but in the same way, it’s life.”
“Man, it’s a little crazy,” said Tyler Greaves, 23, who was collecting his third stamp so he could work at a grow warehouse. “It’s like at Elitch’s where you have to wait in line for a ride. But it has to be done.”
Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/egorski
State requirements for receiving an occupational license to work in Colorado’s marijuana industry:
Applicants must be 21 or older.
Applicants may not have any controlled-substance felony convictions or any other felony convictions that have not been fully discharged for five years prior to applying.
Applicants may not have any delinquent governmental or child-support debt.
Applicants must be Colorado residents at the time of application.