An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
By Trish Regan
The story of marijuana’s growing acceptance in America begins in the Colorado Rockies, where cannabis is meeting capitalism head-on.
Once a month, at his downtown Denver restaurant, chef Scott Durrah teaches a cooking class. It’s well attended, mostly by retired and affluent boomers. It’s exactly the market Durrah and his wife and business partner Wanda James want to reach.
“What we’re seeing, which is really interesting, are older people,” said James. “I would say over the age of 30, and definitely women. These women are your mom, your grandmother, women that you see at the post office, at the day care center.”
It’s their new twist on classic cuisine that draws this crowd. The ingredients are common, except for one — a Colorado-grown herb. The secret ingredient is marijuana.
Pot has arrived in mainstream America. And entrepreneurs like Durrah and James are leading the way as one of Denver’s power couples, prominent in the local political and business scenes. He’s is a former marine. She’s an ex-naval intelligence officer, a successful public relations executive and a top political fundraiser.
In most places in America, they would be considered dope dealers. In Colorado, they are savvy entrepreneurs in a fast-growing, state-sanctioned industry, branding and marketing medical marijuana under their label, “simply pure.”
It’s a new kind of company in an old industry, one that generates tens of billions of dollars a year in this country. Most of it illegally.
Durrah and James are taking the high road, using their business know how to take America’s most popular drug from the back alley to the corporate suite.
“When you look around this industry and the people who have come into the industry, there are people who were laid off from corporate America,” James said. “This is America’s new hot industry.”
James took CNBC to the heart of the operation: a lush marijuana farm inside a temperature-controlled warehouse. With 1000-watt lights, a sped-up growth cycle produces a new crop every two to three weeks – about twice as fast as Mother Nature. According to James, a typical plant yields 2.5 ounces of marijuana, with high-end varieties selling for $300 to $450 an ounce.
Even at those prices, medical marijuana is flying off the shelves. The choices are exotic, like choosing a bottle of wine. If you need help, just ask the pros, known here as “bud-tenders.”
As long as you have a state medical marijuana license, you can sample all you want. It’s all regulated, taxed and legal as far as the state is concerned.
Federal law, on the other hand, said pot is illegal. But in 2009, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. Department of Justice to defer to state laws regarding medical marijuana. With a single memo, the White House turned 70 years of prohibition on its head by advising U.S. attorneys in medical marijuana states to not go after individuals who are “in compliance with state laws.”
The threat of raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration seemed a thing of the past, and Colorado’s cannabis gold rush took off. People applied for medical marijuana licenses in droves, flooding the health department with more than 500 applications a day. The number of dispensaries jumped from about a dozen to more than a thousand across the state — outnumbering Starbucks almost two to one.
Today, you can buy pot next to a pizzeria, an auto repair shop or inside a medical office building. From downtown to the suburbs, pot dispensaries become neighborhood fixtures.
CNBC Special Report:
Premieres: Wednesday, Dec. 8 at 9 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 8 at 10 p.m., 12 a.m. and 1 a.m.
Friday, Dec. 10th at 9pm, 1am
Sunday, Dec. 12th at 10pm
Wednesday, Dec. 15th at 8pm
Sunday, Dec. 19th at 1am
Tuesday, Dec. 21st at 8pm
Friday, Dec. 24th at 9am, 5pm, 1am
Friday, Dec. 31st at 1am
All times Eastern.