When Colorado’s so-called 70/30 rule expired in October 2014, it meant a lower cost of entry for recreational marijuana business owners. Nearly six months later, the residual effects are apparent -- most notably the declining value placed on medical dispensaries.
Until Oct. 1, Colorado’s recreational dispensaries were required to grow at least 70 percent of their product. This meant business owners had to either have cultivation expertise or the financial backing to pay for it. That entry barrier lifted with the expiration of 70/30, which opened the door to low-grade, wholesale purchases. No longer did shops have to pay for overhead costs associated with cultivation facilities. They could simply find the cheapest product on the market -- regardless of mildew, bugs or quality -- and move it to places where customers will pay top dollar.
Opportunistic shop owners are finding that uneducated tourists in mountain towns will pay handsomely for low-quality product. This summer, the Colorado Department of Revenue reported that tourists accounted for 90 percent of marijuana sales in the state’s busy mountain towns.
Kristine Theriault, who has worked as both a recreational and medical retailer, says tourists will pay the price as marked. Someone from out of town, who is excited about the prospect of buying legal marijuana, might fork over $30 for a gram, while medical patients, who know better, are looking for a gram in the $8 to $10 range. Combine that fact with the issue of wholesale purchases, and it’s a no-brainer for someone looking to profit off Colorado’s burgeoning industry.
“They know they’re hitting tourists,” Theriault said. “The store will see, ‘Well that’s more money for me,’ and shut down their medical side and just do rec. It’s kind of sad that rec, legalizing it is pushing out the medical, where some people actually are medical patients.”
“Crazy markup and crazy people walking in the door” is how she described the recreational industry. The value of offering medical expertise has been pushed aside to make room for revenue generation.
In Aspen, the real losers are the 18 to under-21 patient crowd. Before recreational implementation, there were four medical shops in town. But as shop owners have sought greater profits, they’ve all either converted to recreational or combined both operations. This affects the younger demographic because Colorado laws forbids anyone under the age of 21 from entering the premise of a dual recreational-medical shop. There are now six stores in Aspen that either operate solely as recreational or as a cohabiting space.
The closest medical offering for this age group is now a 30-minute drive to Aspen Roaring Fork Wellness in Basalt, a family-owned medical dispenser where Theriault works. Just in the past few weeks, she said she’s seen four or five new patients in that age group, either college students or entry-level workers. The next option for this group is Green Natural Solutions, which is another 25 miles away in Glenwood Springs.
“(Roaring Fork Wellness) is growing because what’s happened in the industry is greed’s kind of taken over,” Theriault said. “These stores went recreational and closed down medical, so it drove us some new patients from Aspen.”
Other medical patients will visit her shop for the atmosphere, which is void the wide-eyed tourist looking for his or her first marijuana experience. Theriault said she can appreciate both customers.
“It’s cool to see (tourists’) excitement and everything. That’s refreshing,” she said, adding that tourists sometimes fantasize out loud about their own state legalizing marijuana. “There’s a lot of excitement. With medical, they’ve been around the game a lot more. They’re pickier. They want the best stuff. They want the best weed, the best edibles. So that’s kind of the different.”
A lot of educationgoes into dealing with a recreational customer, she said. With almost every one of them, it’s like starting from ground zero. They don’t know the first thing about cannabis, or consuming edibles. Horror stories that emerged during Aspen’s first year of recreational sales make the educational aspect that much more important.
In April, a 19-year-old Wyoming college student -- visiting Denver on spring break - jumped to his death after consuming a legal marijuana cookie. In May, the Denver Post reported a surge in the number of children appearing at the Children’s Hospital Colorado emergency department for accidental marijuana consumption.
Stories like this led to Colorado changing its rules on edible packaging. One of the new requirements is that edibles cannot be sold in increments greater than 10 milligrams of activated THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Theriault said the new rules are overkill and have led to wasteful practices with plastic. The extra bags also cost about $2 each, a price that is passed onto the consumer. She said the packaging was not the problem but rather the fact that the public needs education, particularly children. She said there’s an unfair amount of focus on the cannabis industry, as compared to the liquor industry.
“Hey look, no one ever told me, ‘Don’t go chug a fifth of vodka,’” Theriault said. “They don’t treat the alcohol industry as ridiculous as they do this industry.”
She also brought up packaging requirements for pharmaceuticals, which come in child-proof containers but aren’t required to have 16-pound-pressurized bags in addition. Drugs like percocet or oxycontin are more dangerous for children, and yet parents have been safer with those than with edibles, she said.
“If they chose to have marijuana, (parents) should put it up high, do something with it. Lock it in the damn safe. Do something,” Theriault said. “That becomes hard on the dispensary because all the waste, all the cost, all the plastic.”
She cannabis still hasn’t shaken the stigma opponents have attached to it for decades, as the industry is still roaming new ground.
“It’s kind of a little bit ridiculous, where it’s treated as taboo,” Theriault said. “Alcohol and pharmaceuticals are way worse, and they’re definitely not treated that way.”