One year after Colorado became the first state to commercialize the widespread sale and development of retail marijuana, the nascent industry is attracting mainstream interest and participants.
At the first ever Cannabusiness Accelerator symposium, held in the ballroom of the Denver Athletic Club, no less, it became clear that “cannabusiness” was not just a term for people working with marijuana directly, but also includes architects, engineers, designers, plumbers, and other construction-related businesses.
“It is a startup industry, and you just don’t get to be involved in that very often,” said Brett Gilbert, owner of Competitive Edge Engineering. “Colorado is looked at as a model, a trailblazer for the rest of the country, and the rest of the world really – so it’s very exciting.”
As more industrial warehouses are converted to marijuana cultivations, engineers like Gilbert become increasingly important to the cannabis industry. During the symposium, experts spoke in great detail about the critical importance of water and ventilation in marijuana grow operations.
Unlike most other plants that are grown outside or in greenhouses, safety concerns mean that marijuana is cultivated most often indoors. So instead of using sunlight, warehouses have to be converted and equipped to use massive high-energy lighting. Instead of relying on rain and wind to grow plants, these cultivation sites require immense ventilation systems and water filtration devices.
All of those components require outside contractors.
Then there are the retail businesses, many of which have begun evolving their storefronts with design elements to attract a wider range of customers.
“Every time you have a retail shop you have to have somebody supplying their packaging, somebody supplying their advertising, somebody supplying their security,” said Megan Stone, owner and operator of High Road Design Studios. “There’s no way to measure how many people like me are out there because of this industry.”
Stone, an interior designer, works exclusively as a contractor for marijuana dispensaries. She mostly designs store rooms and waiting areas. She says as the industry continues to boom, store owners and cultivators have had to rely on more and more contractors to remain competitive.
Marijuana is a product that was once grown primarily in basements by just one or two people. Now many grow operations require upwards of 50 employees to tend to the plants – and more and more outside contractors are beginning to enter the cannabis market.
“We’re here to help growers get the ball rolling,” said Gabriel Romero, Xcel Energy spokesperson during a panel discussion. “We’re not going to deny service to anyone.”
Xcel Energy is a national company, and the largest retail energy supplier in Colorado. While Xcel does work in the marijuana industry, the company doesn’t widely advertise its role.
“This is still being done in the shadows, but it’s legal in Colorado,” said Chris Myklebust, Colorado Division of Financial Services commissioner. “So there shouldn’t be a reason in Colorado to say that this work is being done quietly, that construction contractors are doing the work quietly.”
That was one point this symposium aimed to address.
“It’s about legitimacy: Companies are asking how can you be part of this movement and legitimize it for a mainstream audience?” said Stan Wagner, one of the event organizers from Red Thread Creative Group.
The Society for Marketing Professional Services hosted the symposium in large part to address that issue. Guests were invited to bring information about their construction and design-related companies, and lighting manufacturers set up displays for new LED technology.
Panelists spoke about regulatory processes, insurance, and different legal questions, not the least of which was dealing with the federal government and banking.
“Guests wanted to know how can they get involved when there are these problems with banking and the federal government?” Wagner asked. The problem with the federal government, of course, is that it still lists marijuana as a Schedule I illegal drug. Profiting from the sale or cultivation of marijuana is a federal crime.
Several legal professionals and state regulators addressed the question.
“Because we are dealing with a lot of guidance but not law, not substantial law, you get these instances where it looks like things are getting better, but it’s really not,” Myklebust said. “Definitely banking the marijuana industry in Colorado really faces a lot of up and down.”
The real implication for businesses working with marijuana, even indirectly, is that they have to be willing and able to handle a lot of cash. And for many, even one year after full-scale legalization, the nature of the work can be less than transparent.
“One of my architecture clients asked me to do a fire hydrant design for a project, and it turned out in the end, that it was a cultivation facility,” Gilbert, the engineer, said. “I didn’t know until the project was almost complete, so I started to pay attention to the industry and I’ve embraced it.
“It’s really been great since then.”
And despite the many challenges, larger companies like Xcel have also begun embracing the industry. It simply means more clients and more revenue.
As more companies, including those that operate across several states, begin entering the market, the changes become more and more apparent.
“This isn’t an industry of the typical stereotypes, it’s really an industry of everybody now,” Stone said. “You have just as many white collar CEOs as you do mom and pops … “