MSNBC’s upcoming, six-part documentary series, Pot Barons of Colorado, is an in-depth exploration of the financial side of the marijuana business in the first state to legalize pot for recreational purposes. Watching a sneak preview of the first episode, provided by the producers exclusively for feedback from High Times, I was left with one dominant and quizzical impression.
The folks in Colorado have a huge problem with their green.
And I don’t mean weed.
I mean money. Cold, hard cash.
Because even though weed is legal in Colorado — the producers call it a “billion-dollar business” — banking is regulated at the federal level, where pot and pot commerce is illegal. So Colorado’s banks are refusing to open up accounts or deal in any way with the legal weed businesses or proceeds.
Meanwhile, growers are selling more and more weed to dispensaries and processors, who are selling as much as they can get to customers. Dead presidents stacked to the ceilings. The only real problem one detects is a lack of product. (And, BTW, if you have talent as a grower I’d pack immediately and head to Colorado.)
Imagine a world without credit cards, without checks, without anything but cash. That is the world of “legal” marijuana in Colorado.
Every day I am freshly amazed by evidence of another new hypocrisy in our country’s policies. From state to state, we have a half-ass agglomeration of marijuana laws, all of which have their quirks. For instance, in about a year, pot will be legal in New York — oh, except for one thing, smoking flower will still be illegal. DC just passed a law for use and growing, but no dispensaries are allowed. California is on the forefont of artisanal extraction; its dispensaries sell some of the finest wax, dabs and oils in the world — but it is illegal to extract concentrate from marijuana in California! (And more than 20 busts have been made over the last several months by a task for lead by the DEA.) Can it really be that some of our most glaring moral transgressions as a nation have to do with our marijuana laws?
Ask the millions currently imprisoned on pot charges in the nations’ correctional institutions.
In the first episode of Pot Barons, which is due to premiere on Sunday, November 30 at 10:00 Eastern, one of the barons complains that it takes her mother an entire day to count out her company’s payroll. Employees are handed their salaries in cash in cardboard boxes. Presumably none of them can have bank accounts either.
Later episodes, according to producer narrator Gary Cohen, will depict business owners paying their taxes with garbage bags full of cash. (The banks won’t take the money but they government will. Earned money though illegal enterprise is still taxable — remember Al Capone? He killed hundreds. Stole millions. And the government finally got him for tax evasion. By the way, for cash payments of tax bills, there is a service charge.)
We’ve all seen the stories about the lucrative new armored car services growing up to meet the cash demand. Presumably, in some future episode of Pot Barons, we will see a huge new warehouse somewhere, a building so large it dwarfs even the largest indoor grow. Inside will be a motherload of cash.
In the capable hands of MSNBC’s award-winning Longform Unit, and Cohen’s Triple Threat Television (known for its 30 for 30 documentaries for ESPN) Pot Barons provides a factual yet entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the frenetic and quickly growing world of marijuana businesses.
The six-hour series features a range of weed entrepreneurs as they are followed through the early days of Colorado’s “green rush,” which began on New Year’s Day 2014, when the nation’s first non-medical, recreational cannabis dispensaries opened in the state, which has always been known for its high altitude, sweet slopes, and open-mined populace.
There is Jamie Perino, the winsome blond owner of Euflora, a high tech dispensary that looks and operates more like an Apple store than a weed storefront, complete with iPad-ordering and circulating workers. As the story begins Perino has been in business only a month, having liquidated her 401K and all of her savings from a successful career in the building industry to stake her claim. Since then, there have been lines out the door, even though her prices are a little higher that the norm at her prime location on the 16th Street Mall. Customers wait their turns sipping cappuccinos and holding shopping bags from nearby designer stores.
Andy and Pete Williams are brothers, co-owners of Denver’s largest dispensary, Medicine Man. Like any family, there is a bit of a divergence of style and opinion. “We want to be the Costco of marijuana,” says Andy Williams. “We want to grow a huge amount and drive the prices way down.” Brother Pete, on the other hand, is a master grower who can be evangelical about the medical benefits of marijuana. On 4/20, he dresses up like Willy Wonka on 4/20 and hands out free joints. Somehow, along with their sister and other relatives they have allowed the company to blossom into Denver’s premier pot business.
Nick Brown, of High Country Healing, is a tattooed, 31-year-old Princeton grad who started smoking pot to help deal with the chronic pain from his football injuries. Eventually he got a license to grow; he now has five stores and visions of an empire. In order to keep up with the demand, Brown is converting a 15,000 foot warehouse into a grow house for thousands of plants. “The only direction is forward and upward,” he says. “If I hesitate for even a second, I’m allowing the competitors to catch up.”
Cigar chomping Tripp Keber’s company, Dixie Brands, Inc, is one of the state’s largest purveyors of cannabis infused products, from brownies to gummy bears to soda. Perhaps the largest surprise post legalization was the consumers’ appetite for edibles. Dixie now has 120 different marijuana-infused products, from cinnamon dewdrops to chocolate truffles to blueberry and pomegranate sodas that retail for $25 for an 8 ounce bottle. Keber and his partners have been corporate officers in the past and say they have the business experience to go big time. “We’re all in, with millions invested and many more to come,” Keber says with the smugness of a Wall Street master of the universe. “This will shake out quickly. If we’re still the leader in three years, I would expect that we’ll be a billion dollar entity.”
Five years ago, Brian Ruden was a top tax attorney. Now he has four dispensaries. “When I told my law school friends I was giving it all up to grow pot, they laughed at me. Now, they’re calling me for jobs or to invest a spare $100,000. Now, I’m the one who’s laughing, because their money looks pretty paltry next to the $10 million offers I see regularly. It’s the dotcom boom all over again.”
While the series will not disappoint aficionados of drug porn — there are plenty of sexy shots of money stacks, warehouse grows, large buds drying on lines, trimmers prettying up dank strains — you won’t see a lot of joint smoking or butane torches.Though light-hearted, the series is also sober and informational, ready for prime time. Ordered up by MSNBC’s business network, the show is decidedly a work of business journalism, meant to reveal the world behind the scene to users and non-users alike. The subjects have been remarkably open in letting Cohen’s crews into their business operations. You can ask anyone about sex and get a pretty good answer. Asking to see their money is a whole other thing. Somehow they manage to it with a modicum of respect.
“It’s a news documentary series, but the opportunity here was to create something that took more of a popular storytelling approach,” says Cohen. “We borrowed some of the techniques of the reality genre, like following certain characters, taking an episodic approach. But this is still NBC news. They still embrace the old standards of news gathering. It’s closer to longform journalism than Housewives of New Jersey.”
Either way, Pot Barons promises to be informative and entertaining — the fascinating and madcap world behind the scenes in any particular milieu is always stranger than fiction, and hey, this is a show about the business side of weed. Watching the barons stumble their ways through new and difficult territory, you get a sense of what it must have been like to live in the Wild West, when the laws, federal and territorial, were an incomplete quilt and society was inventing itself on the fly.