By Patrick Wagner
Even before Colorado residents voted in favor of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana possession and sale for recreational use, many indoor grow shops and hydroponics retailers had been witness to a steady increase of business year after year.
Crowds of tourists and consumers can now trek across the state, largely enjoying cannabis freely. However, many business owners remain wary of officially hitching their wagons onto the emerging marijuana industry.
“Some people are still stuck in the Stone Age and will hang up on you if you mention the nasty ‘C’ word or the ‘M’ word,” said Kevin Frender, one of the owners of Black Dog LED.
Black Dog LED, from Boulder, is one of the suppliers that openly identifies with the medical and recreational marijuana markets. It has been supplying both indoor hobby gardeners, as well as the cannabis growers, since the company was founded in 2010. Black Dog sells by storefront and through its website, where it displays photos of its presence at the 2013 Cannabis Cup, right alongside photos of using LED lights to grow basil and cilantro.
“There are definitely spaces around the country that we see that people are not willing to discuss cannabis at all,” Frender said. “I have seen that dramatically decrease here in Colorado since the amendment passed. More people are openly willing to discuss the aspects of growing cannabis directly.”
Nationwide garden suppliers have been selling marijuana cultivating products under the guise that their customers have been growing tomatoes in their closets and garages for decades. But now that recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in Colorado, the masses looking to cultivate tomatoes in their closets have begun asking new questions that put shop owners at a crossroads between their suppliers and their customers.
Coloradan business owners are in the midst of a changing legal atmosphere that has many faced with the choice of turning away business for fear of being guilty by proxy. It’s clear the divide between state laws and federal remains central to the way business owners approach growing cannabis.
At a gardening supply store in La Plata County, a customer service rep (who chose to remain anonymous) was eager to discuss the new business and potential future for cannabis crops. The stain of the previously illegal business was hard to wash off.
“It’s still a real gray area for us,” the rep said. “Some customers will talk to us about it. It’s not like we can just tell them to shut up. But for us and all the people like us, our suppliers are still in all 50 states so we have gotten a little bit more lenient about talking about it; whereas five to 10 years ago if you were to ask about it (cannabis) at all you would automatically be asked to leave.”
The rep continued to explain that mid-tier suppliers need to consider that there are another 48 states that treat the plant as a narcotic and that they cannot have an open forum just because of the Colorado state laws. It should also be noted that many larger suppliers have been getting by just fine without openly acknowledging the emerging marijuana market. Many grow shops made similar statements about the incline in business year after year, allowing them to slowly expand and continue to prosper; however, Grow Big Supply in Denver has seen an unprecedented expansion from a simple second-hand shop into a retail juggernaut.
With 30,000 square feet of retail space in three warehouses, Grow Big Supply claims to be the largest grow shop in the world. Another unique quality at Grow Big Supply is summarized by the slogan, “Always open, never closed,” meaning customers are able to access the same services at 3 a.m., as they would at 3 p.m.
“We are the only grow shop in the world that never closes,” its website boasts.
The store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“Technically we started in 2010. It started as a used gear store,” said Colin Gordon, a manager and commercial consultant for Grow Big Supply. “We were basically a consignment kind of pawn shop. We’d buy and sell used gear. The significant growth happened in 2012 — that’s when we started to become a real full-service store.”
Since that significant growth a few short years ago, the company has courted the marijuana community by hosting a number of events for everyone from industry insiders to those who would find themselves on the fringes of cannabis culture, including tailgating parties and industry cocktail mixers that feature the “Grow Big Go-Go” dancers. Every solstice Grow Big Supply lets local graffiti artists transform its warehouse walls in a graffiti battle. Every Thursday Grow Big Supply hosts a networking event where information is exchanged and new contacts are created.
“Our job is to nurture the grower whether you’re a home grower, outside for vegetables or whatever someone’s doing with one light or 2,000 lights. Our job is to make them successful. We really try to nurture those relationships and every Thursday really helps out with that,” Gordon said.
The perks of being king have allowed Grow Big Supply to live up to its name, however it seems that the farther you get from the Denver hub, the more growers might have to play coy about their intentions. In the town of Nederland, Greener Mountain Grow Shop owner Scott (last name withheld) noted that while the conversation about cannabis has definitely loosened up between consumers and suppliers, it still carries many of the social taboos it always has.
“When I first opened, a lot of people would come around looking for advice on their tomatoes,” he said with a laugh. “And I would just try to not get into other people’s business.”
The owner said he hasn’t seen much of a difference in sales since Amendment 64 was implemented. He said every year he sees a shortage of good fertilizer, and he has seen a small increase in hydroponic growing.
“Every few months a new law gets into effect,” Scott said. “People are getting excited about the prospect of selling their own, but the market hasn’t really changed.”
Scott opened his shop in the small town in 2009 and has been a local go-to for indoor and outdoor gardeners since. Despite the amendment for recreational use in Colorado, Scott points out that there still is a good amount of paranoia leftover from the past few decades.
“The customers have definitely loosened up. Some of the older guys will talk your ear off, but some are still looking over their shoulders,” Scott said. The lingering fear from the black market days still surfaces when a helicopter flies overhead, and the possibility that law enforcement officials are scouting for illegal grow operations. It could be paranoia but the state has done little to quell fears.
Some would say that business owners have good reason as the state definitions of legality for the marijuana market have certainly not encouraged many grow store owners to open up.
There was a trend beginning to surface between the grow shops who played coy with their marijuana curious patrons and with the grow shops who answered questions directly. Since Amendment 64 was enacted in January the garden and hydroponics suppliers who made room for an open dialogue about cannabis saw a spike in sales while the opposite was said for those who turned a blind eye to the business.
“We see sales are just going up in general but it’s still a growing industry and instead of a spike, we are going to see a longer upward trend,” Frender said. “From what I have seen the medical side still seems to be coming along very well and now we have the (recreational) retail side on top of that.”
At One Love Garden Supply in Boulder, co-owner Mike Leago said he looks to acknowledge each customer’s needs individually as a way of moving forward while being mindful of the present.
“We’ve gotten more open with Amendment 64 in terms of helping people out,” Leago said. “But we kind of want to be the guys who are right in the middle, not the guys advertising in the paper on how to do this or that.”
Leago opened One Love Garden Supply with the help of his two northwestern partners in the spring of 2010 alongside a slew of other shops that sprouted up at the time.
“It seems like everyone around here in Colorado was jumping in from a closet or a spare bedroom into a warehouse without knowing the proper steps on how to change and grow into this space,” he said.
“We’ve always tried to stay on the right side of that line, never going over the top in terms of what we’re talking about. We can explain every process when people come in without getting crazy specific about too much.”
That sentiment was shared by Gordon of Grow Big Supply.
“The distributors we work with and a lot of the companies we work with are national companies and they don’t want direct affiliation with hemp,” Gordon said. “Now we don’t volunteer the words, but instead of saying things like trichomes or terpenes, we can talk about the essential oils that your plant will produce, about flower growth, flower density. You don’t have to use those words to get your point across, there is a larger lexicon of words that are more understandable now,” Gordon said.
Semantics may seem trite to those outside of the industry, but in order to maintain the relationship between suppliers and customers, grow stores have to tread carefully around details.
The current law in Colorado — different than the initiative that legalized marijuana in Washington — could potentially bring another type of customer into local grow shops. In Colorado, adult residents are allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants, as long as they are kept in an enclosed, locked area and that extra precautions are taken to ensure that only authorized adults have access to the plants.
Children and pets should be kept away from the plants at all times, the state warns.
Home-grown marijuana cannot be sold in any form.
The home grow portion of Amendment 64 means a license is not necessarily required to grow marijuana legally under state law.
Mike Cross of EZ Trim in Broomfield, said business owners may be more likely to open up if they knew that the customer was operating legally and that they were licensed. Like Black Dog LED, EZ Trim has operated with an open forum for all customers including those looking specifically to grow cannabis. The company manufactures bud trimmers for rental or sale and as part of their mission statement the company lobbies “to help promote and support the cannabis industry in every way we can…”
“I think that the problem at hydroponic stores, in general, the issue that they run into is that they have a very broad customer base,” Cross said.
“In other states there is a certain amount of careful that you have to be. It’s just a “don’t ask don’t tell” situation, so they don’t have any more information than they need. I think that people are very careful talking about it because they need some form of insulation or protection.”
With all of the gray still in Amendment 64, EZ Trim abdicates any notion of negligent operations by maintaining a disclaimer on its website that specifically condemns the illegal use of its equipment. The statement puts responsibility on the end-user of the equipment and looks to have had little to no impact on sales since Amendment 64 went into effect.
“Certainly, I would say that it (Amendment 64) has increased our business at least 25 percent nationally. It has opened up the floodgates for people to get more comfortable, so we’ve seen an increase in sales locally and nationally,” Cross said.
Comfort seems to be a valuable commodity for many suppliers in Colorado who have suddenly found themselves on the frontier of the cannabis trade. Looking forward, Cross and others agree that in the next few years they will see comfort settle in alongside cannabis law.
“As more states come on board on a recreational level, I think that as you see that continue, the federal government will start to have a hands-off approach towards the industry,” Cross said. “But I think the biggest thing is going to be the language of the law.”