Oscar, a former Colorado-based black market marijuana grower, shows off current buds from a former growing partner at his home in December. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

How legalization forced this weed grower out of his illegal business

Growing illegal marijuana in rented houses across Colorado’s front range and illicitly selling it throughout the state isn’t for everyone, but it was once a way of life for Oscar.

And the 36-year-old loved everything about his job, from the $80,000 income to his work schedule that left time for snowboarding to his simple daily regimen amid the awkwardly towering pot plants occupying his various living rooms and basements.

“The heyday on a really good ounce was $350 in 2003 to 2008,” said Oscar, whose real name isn’t Oscar, but he was speaking to The Denver Post under conditions of anonymity. “But then the scale started to tip. (The ounces) went down to $300 — and this was really good weed.

“I felt that price dip, hard.”

That decline came in 2009, Oscar said, when Colorado’s medical marijuana dispensary system started to flourish under state-governed regulations. The market suddenly was flooded with legal cannabis, making Oscar’s pot less valuable.

Marijuana prices in Colorado continued to drop during the next few years, Oscar said. And then the bottom fell out just a few short months after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Amendment 64 into law in December 2012, legalizing recreational pot.

“In early 2013, it was down to people wanting ounces for $175, so it was half of what it had been,” said Oscar, working his way through a vanilla latte at a coffeehouse in the Art District on Santa Fe. “Only the things you had to buy to grow it weren’t getting cheaper. Dirt wasn’t going down in price. In fact, it was going up in price. Pot was legal, and they only had 50 pounds of dirt to sell, and so their dirt prices almost doubled.”

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Oscar illegally grew cannabis in Colorado and sold it in bulk here and elsewhere for 10 years. He never had a massive grow, but his 20 or so plants provided more than enough yield. Business was brisk and friendly and all among close friends, which lessened his risk.

Once local prices started to drop, Oscar focused on selling pounds to buyers who could still pay full rate; his friend in Texas would drive up to get the product, and friends on the East Coast would receive Oscar’s overnight packages and send him money in return. Oscar eventually married, and he and his wife lived comfortably, even if it meant paying stinky cash on every trip to Target or the grocery store.

Forced out

While a few black market growers and dealers have bragged anonymously to national media organizations about how Colorado’s legalization of marijuana has been a boon to their underground business — given the high taxes on legal pot — Oscar’s experience has been quite the opposite. When low prices forced him from the underground career he loved, he went back to school and landed an entry-level job in the finance sector.

“I just couldn’t make the money I needed to make,” Oscar said.

Some of Oscar’s former colleagues also gave up growing, while others transitioned into the legal market — often taking a pay cut. He still has a friend or two who grow underground pot, sometimes from seeds and clones from Oscar’s original 2003 plants (including a New York City Diesel that Oscar still buys), but they’re not making the profit they once did in pre-legalization Colorado.

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The timing of Oscar’s forced career change makes sense to Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles who often writes on legal marijuana. And Kleiman doubts Oscar was alone in moving on from illegal marijuana as more and more U.S. states rewrite their pot laws.

“That’s what I would have expected,” Kleiman said after he was told about Oscar’s experience. “I don’t see how you can have an illicit market in the face of the Colorado medical market.”

A grower’s life

Oscar remembers the first time he ever got high. He was a sixth-grader, and it was schwag weed out of a refashioned soda-can pipe while riding bikes in a Michigan nature preserve near where he grew up. It was the beginning of 15 to 17 years of “smoking without missing a day,” he said.

He later moved to Colorado after falling in love with the Rocky Mountains during a 26-day Outward Bound program spent in the Chicago Basin between Durango and Silverton, a gift from his parents. It wasn’t long before he made friends with a grower who offered to teach him the trade. And shortly afterward, Oscar had the first of two grows in the high-elevation Placer Valley, which sits between Breckenridge and Fairplay.

Oscar skipped all over the state with his rudimentary setup of grow lights and buckets. After growing in two Placer Valley homes, he moved to Boulder, Louisville, Thornton, Morrison and finally Denver.

“I still have a bottle of cloning gel in the fridge,” Oscar said on a brisk December night, sitting in his north Denver living room with his pretty, whip-smart wife. “It’s Olivia’s (brand), I think. You know, I always used the same nutrients that whole time I grew? There was always the next big thing, but why mess with what worked?”

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As Oscar reminisced, his wife told a story that shared some of the conflict marijuana has introduced to their lives, especially given the most recent addition to their home.

“I had a C-section with her,” said Oscar’s wife, nodding down to the bouncing baby girl in her arms. “It was planned, and my parents were out here for (her birth). The nurse was putting in an IV and said, ‘I have to ask you some questions. Have you ever smoked cigarettes?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I quit seven years ago, and I haven’t had any since then.’

“Then the nurse asked, ‘Have you ever smoked marijuana?’ And I just looked at her with big eyes. And there’s my mom and dad looking at me, waiting for a big answer. And then the nurse moved on. My parents are fairly liberal for Midwesterners, but, no, they would not be down with any of this. I couldn’t tell them about what (Oscar) used to do, absolutely not.”

So did the arrival of their first child have anything to do with Oscar’s career shift?

“I was a little concerned once we were going to start having a family,” his wife said. “I wouldn’t want her going down and getting into something that might make her sick.”

Added Oscar: “My wife never pushed me or led me into it, but she knew I was stressed about the prices. And once I said something, she said, ‘I think that’s a good idea.’ ”

A new leaf

Oscar’s life in late-2014 couldn’t be more different than it was a year ago. Back then he and his wife regularly would enjoy the dried and cured spoils of his crops as well as the added income they brought in. While his wife always held down professional jobs, Oscar often would spend his days on the slopes.

“I (mainly grew pot) for the freedom,” he said. “I could go snowboarding and go to concerts when I wanted to. I never had any responsibility to be here or do that, and I never did anything I didn’t want to do.”

Oscar uses words like “important” and “special” when discussing that time — in part because of the fun he had on his own and the time it allowed him with members of his family.

“It’s relaxing and gets me into this zone where I feel like I’m floating down the mountain,” he said. “When you’re on the hill, seeing the big blue sky, breathing in that air that makes you feel like the inside of your nose is going to break open and start bleeding, that’s what gets me going.

“But that time was also very personal to me, because I still had my sibling for much of that time,” said Oscar, who struggled after an unexpected loss in the family in the mid-2000s. “And my dog was around the entire time, too. I became myself in that period of time, and those decisions led me to where I am today.”

Now Oscar and his wife have a baby, and he’s working 70 hours a week and pulling an entry-level salary of $45,000 — but they seem content with their new life.

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“We had more money then,” his wife said matter-of-factly. She’s not as melancholic or romantic about the old family business as Oscar can be.

The irony of Oscar’s evolved financial state isn’t lost on him: The jump from paying for groceries with drug money to opening his first 401(k) and Roth IRA as he studied for a major financial exam was a quick one.

“I never thought about saving money, but I also never had a kid,” he said. “I was only taking care of myself and my dogs, and so I just needed to get us through the month. … Now I only have 10 vacation days — which is a foreign concept to the me of five years ago.”

Oscar has friends who transitioned their black market experience into high-profile jobs (and sometimes ownership stakes) in legal cannabis businesses.

“I’m happy for them,” he said. “They get to do all that on a much larger scale. So if that was appealing to them, great. I never wanted to keep getting bigger and bigger. I grew really good pot, and people enjoyed it. It wasn’t transactionary for me.”

And while Oscar has shopped for legal weed only twice — “It was the worst weed I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said — he would consider work in the aboveground pot market if the opportunity presented itself. He has a friend who is contemplating a lucrative, fly-in, $10,000-a-month consulting gig in Florida cultivation centers.

He liked the sound of that.

“But I’d only do it legal now,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to get in trouble because I have the kid.”

Ricardo Baca: 303-954-1394, rbaca@denverpost.com or twitter.com/bruvs

This story was first published on DenverPost.com