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The Green Rush

The Gold Rush of 1849 transformed California as multitudes of dream seekers converged on the state to stake their claim and work it in hopes of striking it rich. In the 21st Century, the legalization of cannabis for medical and retail sale has had much the same effect in Colorado.

Cannabis (for smoking) and a few sometimes-crude baked goods led the way, but soon edibles/drinkables and topical products — lotion, ointments, and tinctures — expanded appeal to non-smokers. Marijuana and methods of consumption are now varied and increasingly reliable in quality and intensity. And Colorado is at the forefront in almost every aspect.

How has this benefited businesses and individuals not directly involved in pot industries? The widespread boon to Colorado’s economy is fascinating to contemplate.

Money + Development

Financial reports around cannabis sales are stunning! TheCannabist.com reports that sales in 2015 topped $996 million and The Denver Post reports that in 2015–16, average monthly sales have exceeded $100 million. Keep in mind that these are direct-sales figures; they don’t reflect the infusion of pot start-ups and operations back into the economy — everything from rent and wages, to build-in, security systems, and all the specialized equipment for growing and extraction.

The ripple effect of pot money extends from operational outlay to advertising and marketing, to office supplies. I tried to zero in on numbers for Doritos sales — even asking a delivery driver if he knew whether 7-11s near pot shops were selling greater quantities than other stores, but nothing official.

Then there is the workforce for this industry: Wages for entry-level grow attendants and shop staff are casually estimated to begin around $20–40k/year. An office manager for one retail/grow operation casually mentioned,

“Kids barely qualified to work fast food are pulling down $35,000 a year tending plants in the grow operation.”

I lived in the Ballpark neighborhood for six years and saw the difference a well-run operation made on our block. A disused, one-story warehouse across the alley from the building where I lived provided cover for alley traffic ranging from those who were camping or passed out to drug dealers/buyers/users. That turned around in days when a medical-marijuana wellness center took over the building, installing security cameras and motion lights, eliminating isolation as employees and customers arrived, and instating round-the-clock security guards to patrol the parking lots and alley.

Hospitality staffers in restaurants and bars have long commented that credit card use can be a sign of consumer confidence, and belt-tightening is observed when people begin paying with cash in an effort to tame their debts. That has changed: The cash-only pot industry means many customers use cash — often the cash reeks of pot.

I contacted managers at new- and used-car dealerships who report that cash sales are at an all-time high. They can’t confirm it’s pot money, but the sales manager at a luxury import dealership said that when $50,000 in bundled bills smells like skunk, it’s easy to assume its previous stop. Huffington Post reported in its “Denver” section that financial institutions are frustrated that they can’t provide banking and credit card services because pot is still illegal federally.

This is how loudly money talks: Colorado Public Radio reported in the first week of April that numerous towns that opted out of legal pot are putting the measure on the ballot. Several small mining and oil/gas towns, whose fortunes have plummeted in the past two years, are reevaluating the revenue stream they are currently snubbing.

Rent + real estate

How has legal pot affected day-to-day living issues such as housing and local business? I asked realtors for viewpoints and Merlin Parker of NextHome 5280 Realty summed it up this way: “Cannabis has helped fuel our extremely competitive and strong real estate market,” but points out that securing financing is tricky, since traditional banks and lenders are regulated by federal laws. But all is not lost. Merlin points out: “A purchaser may qualify for a portfolio loan or a ‘no doc’ loan from a lender who funds and carries loans.”

One problem Merlin has observed in attached housing — townhomes, condos, and apartments — is the invasiveness of pot smoke. This has prompted many complexes to institute prohibitions against smoking of any kind.

Rentals where smoking is permitted — including tourist accommodations such as hotels and Airbnb — have seen solid bookings and waiting lines.

A quick scan of Airbnb listings for Colorado reveals a common phrase: “420-Friendly.” I found six such listings and all were booked solid and had a waiting list.

Antique Row VS The Green Mile

When new money elbows into neighborhoods, there are bound to be conflicts. One highly visible example is the retail stretch known as Antique Row, which overlaps what’s become known as The Green Mile. For a long time, Antique Row has been a solid retail district from 400–1700 South Broadway, but many antique dealers, booksellers, and sellers of collectibles with leased storefronts are struggling to remain. Pot shops and grow operations are willing to pay high rents and purchase prices. It’s changing the face of that neighborhood.

For decades, the stretch from 1800–2700 South Broadway was bleak and nondescript — so much so that a block-long stretch fronting onto Broadway was developed into mini-storage. Now retail pot locations are fueling urban evolution, and that growth is moving northward, encroaching upon Antique Row.

Businesses such as La Cour Bistro and Art Bar and Azucar Bakery are direct beneficiaries of increased traffic to the area, as well as employees seeking nearby food and drink. Last year, when Marjorie Silva of Azucar Bakery found herself in the spotlight over efforts to sue her for not inscribing cakes with anti-gay messages (she never refused to bake or sell the cakes), I asked how pot retailers have impacted her shop and distinctly remember her cheerful response:

“They’re great! They’re hungry.”

Time will tell how this shakes out, especially with more states legalizing pot every year and federal approval a very real possibility; anti-pot attitudes have lost credibility, largely due to Colorado’s economic boon and surprising sea change of attitudes among law enforcement and public figures — except for the most intransigent. The direct and ripple effects of Colorado’s mega-millions pot industry has been a jackpot … and the nation has taken notice.