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colorado marijuana dispensaries that sell seeds

The journey of a legal pot plant, from seed to sale

In Colorado, marijuana retailers are making millions. Here’s how.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

MARIJUANA PLANT NO. 4045 begins as a wisp of green with leaves no bigger than a butterfly’s wings. On this morning in mid-January, it’s attached to the stem of a larger marijuana plant, No. 3269, more commonly known by its street name, Strawberry Diesel — STD, for short — one of the most popular and productive cannabis strains sold in Colorado.

“What a pretty girl!” Kristina Imperi says as she runs her hands across the mother plant’s leaves. “This one’s perfect.” The 26-year-old Colorado Harvest Co. (CHC) grow house worker kneels at the plant’s side and presses the tip of her trimming shears against the plant where the stem meets a branch. “Time to make some money,” she jokes.

Taking a marijuana plant through its three-and-a-half- to five-month grow cycle is a time-intensive, exacting job from the first day. Pick the wrong plant to clone or fail to prepare it properly, and the results — anything from mold to mite infestations to less-than-stellar bud — can kill the bottom line. For cannabis companies like CHC and its sister business, Evergreen Apothecary, whose combined revenue is estimated to reach $7 million this year, anything less than perfection is pot heresy.

Imperi collects 10 Strawberry Diesel clones and pulls out the first. She trims a couple of leaves near the bottom, then uses a razor blade to make a 45-degree slice across the base and a vertical cut an inch higher. This is where the plant’s roots will grow.

She grabs more clones and repeats the process. She dabs nutrient-rich purple goop at the base of each of the freshly cut clones and then plugs them into Box 4, an aeroponic setup made from plastic and PVC pipe that holds up to 77 future plants and looks like a massive block of Swiss cheese.

Five months later, the survivors from Box 4 will be packaged and sold. Among the superstars will be No. 4045, one plant among many that will help make the owners of this business very, very rich.

At CHC’s grow site in Denver, 45 people care for the sprawling subdivisions of green — pruning, spraying, and feeding hundreds of marijuana plants each day until the buds eventually are cut, trimmed by hand, cured, dried, packaged, and sold. “It’s like Disney World,” says CHC grow manager Greg Fortemps. “For every person you bump into at the front of the store, there are four more making the magic in the back.”

Since recreational shops in Colorado started selling cannabis on Jan. 1, CHC’s team has produced about 2,000 retail plants and turned the end products into everything from traditional, smokable pot to vaporizer-pen oils, topical creams, and edibles.

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Combined with medical marijuana, recreational pot in Colorado is estimated to pull in $47.7 million in tax revenue in fiscal year 2014 off $400 million in sales. More than $1 million of that tax revenue will come from CHC, which is considered a midsize weed business.

IT CAN BE DIFFICULT to wrap your mind around the enormity of a grow operation — and that it’s all happening under the watchful eye of state and municipal bureaucrats. One day this past winter, I pulled up to the curb outside CHC’s 8,000-square-foot, cinder-block-and-concrete facility in south Denver. A heavy, skunky aroma enveloped the block. I swiped my driver’s license on the scanner to the right of the reinforced door out front. Inside, one of CHC’s co-owners, Tim Cullen, led me into a small, climate-controlled hallway filled with dozens of budding marijuana plants. “Welcome to Colorado,” he said with a laugh.

On that day, more than 500 plants were in various stages of life, growing behind the locked warehouse doors, guarded by an armed security staff, and watched by more than 30 video cameras placed around the complex. Even the metal trash bin out back had a lock on it. The place was like the Fort Knox of ganja, and nearly all of the security measures are required by state regulators.

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To record what’s been dubbed the “seed-to-sale” process, Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division employs a first-of-its-kind computer system called Marijuana Enforcement Tracking, Reporting, and Compliance. METRC, as it’s commonly called, is a database that tracks all of the pot-producing plants and their eventual products in the state in real time. The data is the state’s fail-safe, giving Colorado’s 30 marijuana enforcement investigators the ability to monitor an individual plant’s size and movement through a facility, all the way to a store’s final transaction.

If the process has a 1984 feel to it, that’s for good reason. With an estimated 130.3 metric tons of marijuana projected to be sold legally (or otherwise) in the state this year, Colorado has found itself in uncharted territory. “There isn’t a regulatory framework we could borrow coming into this,” says Lewis Koski, a former police officer who now oversees Colorado’s pot enforcement. “There’s nothing like it in the United States. There’s nothing like it internationally, in the world.”

Five years ago, Cullen quit his job as a high school biology teacher and opened CHC, one of the state’s first medical marijuana dispensaries. Today, the business is among the state’s more popular marijuana operations, and Cullen has the look of a man who’s enjoying life. The 42-year-old wears designer jeans; his custom shirts are left untucked, with the cuffs flipped up in a way that gives off an air of casual success.

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Like many folks, Cullen first was exposed to marijuana in high school, then experimented with the drug as a college student. He swore off illegal pot after he became a high school teacher in 2000; that same year Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, which allowed small, independent grows for medical marijuana users and caregivers who registered with the state. Four years after the law was signed, Cullen began producing plants for himself and his father — both of whom suffer from Crohn’s disease. “It was a great feeling knowing I could help my dad like that,” he says. Over the next several years, Cullen tweaked his private grow, careful to never exceed the state maximum of six plants at a time.

Six years later, Colorado’s legislature created the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code, which established a dual licensing system to regulate medical pot businesses at both the state and local levels. At the time, Cullen was staring down the next 30 years of his life as a teacher. “I felt I had to make the leap, or the opportunity might close forever,” he says.

With $150,000 in retirement savings and maxed-out credit cards, Cullen started leasing the warehouse in southwest Denver and retrofitted it over 18 months. He brought in a business partner and hired his first three employees, and CHC made its first sale in February 2010.

By January 2011, Cullen recouped his initial investment and bought out his partner. The company expects to spend $2.5 million in payroll this year — its 45 dispensary employees average $17 an hour — and all workers get two weeks of paid vacation, plus maternity and paternity leave. “The marijuana world is so dramatically different today,” Cullen says. “Now we’re employing all these people. We’re expanding. And I’m the former teacher who’s driving around in my badass Lexus, listening to the Grateful Dead. That’s pretty damn cool.”

BETWEEN CLONING AND growing, No. 4045 is constantly on the move. It’s put in a grow room for four weeks, then transferred to the main vegetation area, where it’s transplanted from its quart-size container into a 5-gallon bag and put on a strict 18-hour-light, six-hour-dark schedule. By mid-June, the plant is nearly 5 feet tall; many of the buds are 3 to 5 inches long. They’re so heavy they appear ready to snap the plant’s branches.

The harvest initially weighs in at 1,726 grams — roughly 61 ounces. After trimming and drying, it’s common for a harvested plant to lose about 85 percent of its weight, which would put No. 4045 at around 8 ounces. Gretchen Gonsch, a CHC trim manager, records the weight on a piece of paper, enters the numbers into METRC, and gives the plant to Jeremy Adamson, a thin, soft-spoken trimmer with a red beard.

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While Adamson works on the trim, two women on the other end of the room roll joints and put them in bright pink, green, and yellow tubes. Gonsch operates the scale and calls out weights to workers who’ve turned in their product. The numbers are followed by nods and little whoops from the five trimmers. Each of the employees is paid by weight: A good two-week period generally nets about $1,000 per trimmer, while an excellent two weeks can bring in $1,700.

After No. 4045 is harvested, the buds are dried on a hanger, stored in a glass jar, and weighed one last time. No. 4045’s final weight comes in at 234 grams, or about 8.25 ounces. The jar is moved to the other side of the room, where a woman parcels out eighths and sixteenths and puts them into childproof plastic canisters on a table. When the woman finishes, she steps back and starts to count. All told, there are 89 canisters on the table.

At CHC the next week, a bearded, broad-shouldered former Marine swipes his driver’s license at the door and enters the shop. Richard (not his real name) is a regular customer and knows most of the storefront employees — colloquially called “budtenders” — who greet him from behind stainless-steel countertops.

The showroom has a clinical-chic feel. Classroom beakers and microscopes (the better to see the crystallized THC) are juxtaposed with café-like chalkboards advertising prices for eighths and sixteenths. Marijuana-infused mints are neatly stacked next to the cash register. Richard tugs on his beard as he looks through the store for a few minutes — “I’m a two-joint-a-day guy,” the 40-year-old says — and settles on the Strawberry Diesel. Alex, one of the tenders, pops open the black canister. It’s No. 4045. “Nice, huh?” Alex says.

Richard doesn’t ask questions. He pays $72.67 for an eighth of an ounce, 22 percent of which is taxes. Alex drops the canister into a black plastic bag, then heat-seals the package. Within a few minutes, Richard’s out the door and in his Subaru.

Back at his apartment, he pours a glass of water in his kitchen, then settles on the couch in the family room. Despite the image of the pot-smoking slacker, many legal recreational marijuana users in Colorado are exactly like Richard: middle-age-ish white men with college degrees. Richard is studying to become a nurse and volunteers on the weekends with local charities. When he realized his apartment complex didn’t have an American flag, Richard found a pole, dug a hole in the courtyard, and poured the concrete himself.