Getting started in Colorado’s green boom

Pot industry experts discuss unique opportunities in marijuana business


Colorado’s cannabis industry is really not like any other, to hear three industry experts tell it.

On one hand, hard workers are in high demand. There is plenty of room for professionals with skills in just about any expertise — human resources, accounting, marketing.

“We are business people, the same as any other manufacturer in this town,” said Jesse Burns, director of operation for Denver’s Sweet Grass Kitchen, a top maker of marijuana-laced edibles. “We are making a product and getting it out and we have deadlines to get it out to stores. It’s very important for us that people come in with that attitude.”

It can be a fun industry to work in — but not too much fun. Sampling the merchandise is frowned upon and will get you fired — and might get your company shut down.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy at work,” Burns said. “So you can’t go outside, smoke in your car and come back to work. We need people who are serious about working, show up on time every day — just like every other job.”

Burns, Alex Levine, director of operations at Colorado dispensary chain Green Dragon, and Ricardo Baca, the former Denver Post marijuana editor who left to join marijuana-focused communications company Grasslands, sat for a panel discussion Sept. 27 in Anythink Library’s Wright Farms Branch, answering questions about careers in Colorado’s cannabis industry.

The panel was part of the library’s district’s Startup Month, which devoted programs throughout September to offering advice for would-be entrepreneurs.

Illegal tender

Legality remains the biggest issue for marijuana entrepreneurs, they said.

Although Colorado legalized recreational marijuana sales and use in 2012, it remains illegal on the federal level. That means that Colorado marijuana businesses can’t rely on interstate banking for loans or deposits, can’t qualify for federal small business loans and assistance and can’t claim business expenses on their income taxes.

“It’s all illegal, but the IRS is all ‘Yeah, we’ll keep taking your money,’“ Green Dragon’s Levine said. “It’s all good for them. ‘Keep it coming,’ they say, ‘But we still don’t like you.’“

Even state and local regulations are tight. Because of rules written into state regulations, marijuana growers must meet especially stringent standard when it comes to pesticide use and other environmental concerns.

“It’s good for the consumers, that we have the safest cannabis market in the world,” Levine said. “Your milk can test for certain things at the level of part per 100,000. Our standard is one part per 10,000 — 10 times more strict than your milk, your meat or your produce. That’s how rigorous our standards are, and it’s ultimately setting a good precedent. Colorado really was the first and all eyes really were on us.”

But, because it’s a federal standard, marijuana growers cannot label themselves as “organic.”

That’s forced Colorado’s growers and sellers to be especially professional.

“When I first started in the industry, a lot of dispensaries were kind of what you’d picture — dark, unsanitary, grungy with dogs running around in the back,” Levine said. “But you have to move past that. You can’t just play into a stereotype, and every dispensary can’t be like that. Some can, and I have nothing against them, but to survive you have to take it to the next level.”

Both dispensaries and grow sites today tend to be clean and industrial.

“Our stores are brightly lit, they are clean and we have very knowledgeable budtenders,” he said. “We are trying to maintain a high standard and run a good business, basically. It’s all the same, if you want to run the best burrito shop or the best coffee shop. What makes the difference is the same — the best service, the best product and the best prices.”

Backyard roots

They admit the industry has its roots in the darker, illegal operations. Most of popular strains of the plant today were originally traded by fans and amateur growers long before marijuana was legal anywhere.

“Everything we grow eventually can be traced back to people growing it in their back yards,” Levine said. “But now, it’s getting more scientific. We are now seeing the need for chemists, people who can work liquid chromatography equipment for testing. People who can create an edibles line.”

Scientists around the world are picking apart marijuana’s chemical makeup to find out how it works and what uses its components could have.

“Cannabinoids, CBD, are kind of considered this miracle substance and we don’t really understand,” Baca said. “The most important research about it just came out in the last six months, a result of a British company paying to do (Federal Drug Administration) trials, which have been very encouraging. So many have told us that CBDs help adults with epilepsy.”

They predicted more growth and more jobs. Burns said his company looking to hire a manufacturing supervisor, with practical experience.

“It’s difficult to attract people, to show we are serious about this,” Burns said. “We are going to give you health insurance, believe it or not. And we are going to give you benefits and those sorts of things.”

It’s a wide-open industry for workers with the right attitude, with plenty of room to advance.

“I wouldn’t get caught up in thinking you need industry experience,” Levine said. “I know I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for somebody who’s driven, who wants to help grow the company and really help take the industry to the next level. And I don’t think any company is big enough that you won’t be able to advance really high up if you start now.”

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