A sea of green: Plants fill a room at a commercial marijuana grow in Denver, which is being inspected by Denver Fire Department Lt. Tom Pastorius on Dec. 2, 2014. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

A divided weed world: Black market growers and legit industry jobs

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced federal guidelines for medical marijuana in 2009, the number of marijuana dispensaries and MMJ cardholders in Colorado spiked exponentially. The state would eventually pass bills that more tightly regulated the medical cannabis industry, but for a brief period many black market growers embraced the gray areas of the budding new marketplace.

“For a short time (in 2009), you could walk from dispensary to dispensary with a backpack full of marijuana and just say: ‘You wanna buy some weed?’” says Diego (again, not his real name), a Denver resident who’s been growing pot since 2006. “And they would buy it from you!”

After voters passed Colorado’s Amendment 64 ballot initiative to legalize adult use of marijuana in late 2012, the state enacted recreational licensing rules that included a provision that forbade anyone with a felony controlled substance conviction from starting, or being employed by, a marijuana business. This does weed out a lot of potential black market growers from even applying for a job in the legal industry.

“From 2009 to 2014, we had a surge of black market business owners who wanted to get into this industry,” says Jordan. “But a lot of them have been filtered out because of the stringent requirements for licensing, background checks, and improper business management — because being a drug dealer is a lot different than running a business.”

Jordan adds that while a lot of the erstwhile black market business owners didn’t survive to 2015, he speculates that “a majority of the people in this industry got their start (in the black market).”

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Since recreational sales started in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014, there has been a great public-relations effort coming from all corners of the industry to prove to the world that they are not criminals. Thankfully for them, the media likes to focus on characters like former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, who announced recently that he will be the CEO of Kush, a new marijuana company that makes cannabis-infused products. There’s also Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose venture capital firm has invested in Privateer Holdings, another company that is launching the Marley Natural cannabis brand.

Capitalism often has been a selling point for marijuana legalization, and having established, credible names that have been successful in other industries now becoming the face of marijuana goes a long way toward convincing skeptical voters and investors. Though if you’ve spent the last decade secretly growing weed in your basement, it’s unlikely that you’ve also been out networking at the Rotary Club in your spare time.

“They probably wouldn’t hire me; they don’t want to be associated with criminals,” Diego says of the marijuana industry. He doesn’t have any drug convictions on his record, yet feels the stigma of his black market dealings would prevent him from being taken seriously as a grower.

Despite Jordan’s admission that many of those in the industry technically might have a criminal past — they were just never caught — Diego is right: Having your business in any way connected to black market growers (or any type of crime) is the kiss of death in this business.

During the course of writing this story, I spoke with a marijuana grower who began in the black market but has since seen tremendous success as an entrepreneur and innovator in the legal market. He declined to be interviewed for this story, fearing that his company (which, like most, are currently expanding) could come under special scrutiny if he admitted that he used to grow pot illegally.

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While Jordan and Gonzalez both say they don’t flat-out reject applicants with a black market history, they add that it’s not the incentive one might think it is. And with so many people clawing for a foothold in this booming industry, they can afford to be picky about who they hire.

According to the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, as of Dec. 31 the state had issued 15,992 occupational licenses to work in the cannabis industry. This is only the number of people who have gone through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to be employed by a marijuana company, so it’s possible that the number of jobs created is lower.

But many of the jobs are entry level: checking I.D.’s, rolling joints, cutting trim for hash. If Diego or Marcus were to give up their illegal operations and go work for a dispensary or grow facility, it’s likely they’d be taking a serious pay cut, at least at first.

“We pay about $10 an hour for non-experienced employees,” Gonzalez says, though he adds an experienced grower could potentially land a salary of “about $120,000 a year.”

For the type of management position at a cultivation facility that would pay a $120K salary, an applicant would have to have overseen a large-scale greenhouse in a university, a commercial flower or other agricultural growing operation, or had several years under his or her belt with the medical marijuana industry.

With the stigma that comes with being a black market grower, an applicant would be better off never mentioning he or she has experience growing and selling their own, and hope that the botanical knowledge they do have helps them rise from an entry-level job to a management position.

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Naturally, Mitchem is optimistic about the upwardly mobile opportunities the white market industry can offer those looking to abandon their illegal trade (after all, he does run a marijuana job fair). “It’s like agriculture,” he says. “I may start out as a farmhand, and then the head farmer realizes I have skills, and I could move up in that operation. And maybe my goal is to have my own farm.”

Starting your own “marijuana farm” was a much better deal in 2009 than it is today. Back then, the danger of being raided by the feds, or getting shut down by the city for violating ever-changing laws, made the industry a risky — yet lucrative — gamble. And as Jordan points out, many of these folks knew all about risky business, having been involved in the black market leading up to medical legalization.

At that time, you could start your own dispensary with only a couple of plants and a few thousand dollars. Today the industry is a relatively safer bet, and so competition is much stiffer. If you’re looking to open a dispensary in Colorado in 2015, you’d better have either about a million dollars in the bank, or a very trusting investor with a MED associated person license, and you’d also need a clean financial and criminal background. And that’s just to get started.

Sure, there are fortunes being made in the marijuana industry today, but it’s primarily by those who took the big risks in 2009. Just as there was a lot of money to be made in the black market before the expansion of medical marijuana, when there was a greater threat of going to prison.

This is one of the cornerstones of capitalism: Reward is often relative to risk.

“Back then pot was very expensive and very profitable,” Diego remembers of his days growing and selling marijuana in the mid 2000s. “But it was also risky and scary as shit. No one was doing it; you kind of had to be crazy to, because you were looking at serious jail time back then.”

Today, both Diego and Marcus say they’re considerably less concerned about going to prison.

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Growers like Diego and Marcus do have entrepreneurial personalities that fit well within the marijuana industry. The problem is, they’re too much like the people at the top of the ladder, the individualistic visionaries who have strong opinions about how things should be run. Being a black market grower, you’re your own boss, the only cook in the kitchen. Transitioning from that to being a cog in the mechanized world of large-scale grow operations — or wearing a uniform and smiling at strangers as a budtender behind the counter — would most likely be a culture shock to Diego and Marcus.

Marcus has always kept a side job to supplement his income, and is currently spending his days as a carpenter. But he says the freedom of running his own marijuana operation is what makes the day jobs tolerable. “It’s always been my ace-up-the-sleeve. It makes going to work every day easy — when your boss is telling you to get your ass over here, saying, ‘This is wrong, that’s wrong,’ you can be like, ‘You know what? I’ve got 24 plants at home. You can fuck off.’ You’re not just some fool (with a) 40-hour work week.”

While becoming a master grower in Colorado would be a long, involved process, requiring a period of less income and possibly the swallowing of some pride, leaving the state for the ground floor of new marijuana operations may be the ticket. “The states that are just coming into legalization would be good options for black market growers looking to enter the industry,” Gonzalez says, referring to Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., where voters approved recreational marijuana in 2014.

Though for some, the desire to be an outlaw is so ingrained in their psyche that it has become instinctual to avoid mainstream legitimacy. When Diego tells me that he’d be interested in applying for jobs in a grow house, he adds that he wouldn’t be willing to give up growing marijuana at home. When I tell him that the company probably wouldn’t hire him if he did — and that the Marijuana Enforcement Division definitely wouldn’t give him an occupational license if he did — he gives me a slow, mischievous smile, and says: “Well, I just won’t tell them.”