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The Great Weed Rebrand: Inside Colorado’s Cannabis Lifestyle Industry

What happens when pot goes upscale?

The first thing I notice about doing yoga stoned is my pulse. That otherwise inconspicuous sign of life is suddenly very much present, from my forehead to my pelvis, and the latter makes me want to giggle. I think it's okay to giggle, and so I do. Here inside this garage-turned-yoga studio in central Denver, everyone around me is making noises—giggles and more—upon taking her turn hitting the communal vape that's being passed around.

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After another healthy inhale of vaporized weed, we flow through our vinyasa, and I start to take note of everything in the room: the intricate weave of the fishtail braid of the girl sitting behind me, the beads of sweat dripping down my spine, the goofy facial expression the woman to my right is making, likely the result of the drug’s effect tickling her eyelids and mouth corners. Eventually, my thoughts turn from fleeting to fixated, and by the time we hit happy baby pose, my back is melting into the mat and I’m taking in heavy, delicious breaths.

Shannon Donnelly, a 26-year-old pot entrepreneur and the class’s organizer, later tells me the reason I’m able to breathe so deeply is because of the relaxing indica strain we’re smoking. Its name is Flo and it’s a bronchial dilator, believed to help expand the lungs to facilitate intense breathing. Pair this strain with vaping, the preferred method of indulging for the health conscious, and you’ve got the ideal yoga practice.

"There’s this common misconception that smoking cannabis makes you slow and lazy, but it’s not true—there are some strains that are actually great for exercising," Donnelly tells the group of a dozen women who are attending her marijuana yoga class one Sunday afternoon in March. "Vaping is much better than smoking. There’s no carbon dioxide, tar, heat, or carcinogens getting into your lungs. Vaping is a great alternative for asthmatics too, because it’s not harsh."

sparkle pot leaf illo

Donnelly works for several local dispensaries in Colorado, but spends weekends running her startup, Healthy Honeys, which aims to promote a wellness-centric marijuana lifestyle. Healthy Honeys puts on yoga and burlesque classes, inviting participants to join in on group seshes beforehand and vaporizer demonstrations afterward.

Once our yoga class winds down, we pass around different vapes—the iPuff, the Pax, the Ripstic. The one that catches the most attention, however, is the Volcano, a gadget that sells for some $540 and releases vapor into a detachable plastic bag. At first glance, I think we might be doing whippets, but I soon realize that taking a pull of vapor from the Volcano has smooth and long-lasting results; it’s even been the subject of a medical study on the health benefits of vaping.

"These vapes can help you mellow yourself out," proclaims Donnelly. "They make you feel healthier when you smoke. In the last few years, my voice has gotten deeper because I smoke so much cannabis, but now that I vape, I don’t feel bogged down. There’s not as much gunk in my chest."

When Donnelly, or pretty much anyone else out here in Colorado, talks about marijuana, she doesn’t call it weed, pot, or bud: The preferred term is cannabis. Ever since recreational use was proclaimed legal two and a half years ago, the industry has been rebranding itself, wiggling away from its counterculture roots and in turn aligning with the burgeoning wellness movement.

Since cannabis companies officially opened their doors last January, high-end businesses have been popping up all over the state that challenge the idea that weed is just a lowbrow commodity. The phrase "classing up the joint" is ubiquitous in Colorado.

In Denver, the epicenter of this thriving industry, the dispensaries are chic, the grow houses specialize in organic strains, and the edibles are artisanal (and sometimes even gluten-free). There’s artful glass-blown paraphernalia, spa treatments that utilize THC, and cannabis beauty products too. The ubiquitous green leaf isn’t just a drug here, it’s a lifestyle.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2001, but 2012 proved to be the true watershed year, when residents of the state voted to change its constitution to permit the sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational use. Since Amendment 64 was passed in November 2012, Coloradans 21 years and older have been allowed to grow, possess, consume, and gift marijuana, though legal commercial sale of the drug only began on Jan. 1, 2014. Locals are permitted to purchase up to an ounce of weed every time they visit a dispensary, while tourists can buy up to a quarter-ounce.

It’s estimated that the industry will be valued at $10.8 billion by 2019.

Washington also voted to legalize recreational marijuana use around the same time, but Colorado was the first state to allow cannabis businesses and stores to open, provided that they abide by the newly established regulations set into motion by state and local governments. The drug is still federally illegal, and Colorado state laws are constantly changing, but the state’s thriving cannabis industry demonstrates that its economic potential is immense.

Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in the U.S., behind alcohol and tobacco, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML); and last year, a Gallup poll found that 51 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing it. Weed is also the country’s fastest-growing industry: In February, ArcView Market Research concluded that the legal cannabis industry grew by 74 percent in 2014, blowing past every other commodities market. ArcView also deduced that the industry’s value skyrocketed from $1.5 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion in 2014. It’s estimated that the industry will be valued at $10.8 billion by 2019.

Nearly $700 million in legal cannabis was sold in Colorado in 2014, with $386 million going to medical sales and $314 million contributing to recreational use. In the city of Denver alone, there are over 100 dispensaries, according to Weedmaps.

Not just anyone can open a cannabis business, though. You have to establish residency in Colorado, as well as obtain a distributor license. Last July, Colorado’s laws were amended to allow any resident to apply for a license; for the first six months of the year, though, only those who had previously owned medical marijuana businesses and were "in good standing" with the state could apply for recreational licenses.

Businesses also aren’t allowed to open just anywhere. Under Colorado law, local jurisdictions can opt out of the new laws and ban businesses from operating in their towns. Plenty of cities in Colorado have chosen these sanctions. Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, currently has a ban on all recreational businesses. In Denver, there’s a moratorium on new businesses opening until 2016.

Do you remember your first edible? It’s simultaneously easy and difficult to forget. Mine was a half-baked brownie, concocted from Duncan Hines batter and a lord-knows-how-big serving of pot. I forced myself to eat the whole thing, even though it tasted nothing like chocolate and a whole lot like burnt hay. My friends and I sat around for a couple of hours waiting for the effects to kick in; seven hours later, as we clutched the walls of the apartment, swimming through kaleidoscopic visions, we realized just how wrong we were about the measurements.

weed brownies illo

Julie Berliner, the 29-year-old owner of edibles bakery Sweet Grass Kitchen, recalls a similar experience. "The first edible I bought was a disgusting Rice Krispies Treat wrapped in Saran with no labeling. It was vile! I can only imagine where it was made and who made it," she laughs. "The edibles industry is leaps and bounds ahead of where it once was in terms of the packaging regulations and the attention to public safety. Those things are the No. 1 priority."

Berliner studied to become an elementary school teacher at the University of Colorado-Boulder but baked edibles in her downtime, eventually opening a medical edibles company in 2009. Sweet Grass Kitchen has since expanded to encompass two baking facilities and a full-time team of 20, including an executive chef. It sells some 15,000 wholesale units a week to dispensaries all over the state.

Sweet Grass Kitchen’s main operation stands among warehouses in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe. There are no signs outside, and the inconspicuous building gives zero clues as to what’s going on inside. The wafting smell of baking marijuana, however, hits me in the face the second I step outside my car.

Sweet Grass Kitchen Edibles

Julie Berliner of Sweet Grass Kitchen with a pan of freshly-toasted cannabis buds. Photo: Chavie Lieber

Berliner, decked out in a red dress, platforms, and a studded gold pot-leaf bracelet, greets me and we take a tour of her squeaky-clean facility. There are the requisite industrial-sized mixers and ovens, and nearby a team of workers stands in an assembly line, hand-packaging the day’s orders of cookies and brownies. The bakery cultivates its own grow and uses cannabis flowers to make cannabis-infused butter, or cannabutter, which is stashed in massive containers inside a freezer. Berliner says Sweet Grass plans to eventually sell its cannabutter as a standalone product because there’s such a demand for safely made ingredients.

Dooley makes sure all of her products—the line includes granola, roasted seeds, and trail mix—are organic and gluten-free.

"A lot of people ask us for our butter," she explains. "It’s our pride and joy, and we’ve really perfected the process. We also have third-party labs that test our products for potency and homogeneity. My advice when people ask about making butter at home is that it’s not safe."

Sweet Grass has both a medicinal and a recreational menu; the bakery makes high-quality chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles, brownies, pumpkin pies, peanut butter and jelly cupcakes, and lemon poppyseed cookies that sell for $3.50 to $15. For healthier options, Colorado cannabis enthusiasts flock to "the other Julie," Julie Dooley, the baker behind Julie’s Natural Edibles.

Dooley is somewhat of a celebrity in Colorado’s cannabis community—various media outlets have labeled her a "pot baron"—as well as an outspoken activist for drug reform, working with the Cannabis Business Alliance to establish safe and fair regulations. She’s also paving the way for healthy edibles. A Celiac sufferer, Dooley makes sure all of her products—the line includes granola, roasted seeds, and trail mix—are organic and gluten-free. Julie’s Edibles was the first company of its kind when it began in in 2009, and her concept was simple: Why get high on a calorie-loaded fudge brownie when you could pop sunflower seeds instead?

Sitting in her industrial kitchen in the Stapleton warehouse district of Denver, the 46-year-old mother of three is articulate and unapologetic. Given the overall cultural shift in favor of wellness, it’s no surprise cannabis consumers in Colorado now desire a healthier product, she explains. It’s also in keeping with the state’s reputation for promoting active lifestyles.

"More important than these being gluten-free is having healthy edibles where cannabis has been paired with protein," says Dooley. "You’ll have a much longer experience with my product than with a product that contains sugar." Behind her, employees are weighing granola bars before hand-wrapping them in plastic. "Granola was our first product, and it makes sense for what we do. I want to wake up and have a bowl of granola. I want to have a pain-free day because I’m going to do a lot."

There’s no more not knowing what the hell that random brownie at a party will do to you.

Dooley’s edibles are also a favorite in the industry because they are strain-specific. Cannabis falls under two categories: sativas, which people refer to as "uppers," and indicas, which offer a more relaxing high. ("In da couch" is a mnemonic device used to remember the difference.) While the number of strains on the market has grown tremendously—there are currently over 1,000—many edibles companies, like Sweet Grass Kitchen, use hybrids so customers can experience all-around highs.

Dooley, however, labels her products with the names of the strains used and their intended effect. A bag of roasted seeds, for example, is made with Kaboom, a strain that is 80 percent sativa, 20 percent indica, and the bag labels its anticipated high as "energetic, euphoric, pain relief." Nutty Bite granola bars are made with Lamb’s Breath, a 90-percent sativa strain that is said to produce an "active, intense euphoria." This transparency is as much a marketing tactic as it is a safety precaution. There’s no more not knowing what the hell that random brownie at a party will do to you.

"We keep all strains separated in this kitchen—we don’t mix them. We stay true to what the strains have to offer," she says. "I can give you low-anxiety, I can give you couch-lock. We have customers that just want to go to bed, and people who want to work all day. Cannabis helps tailor your mood."

Dooley buys much of the marijuana in her products from L’Eagle, a Denver favorite that prides itself on being Colorado’s only pharmaceutical-grade dispensary. Its cannabis is grown 100-percent organically, without the use of pesticides or chemicals, and its crops are tested on site for potency. One devotee tells me that smoking L’Eagle weed is like "eating an apple off a tree after years of buying canned produce from Walmart." According to Leafly, a review site for strains and dispensaries (a Yelp for cannabis, basically), L’Eagle has the "tastiest flower around, from the first smell to the last toke."

l'eagle organic dispensary

Inside L’Eagle’s organic grow house. Photo: Chavie Lieber

L’Eagle (pronounced "legal") is run by husband and wife team John and Amy Andrle. Behind their dispensary’s quaint shop is a massive grow house where former organic tomato farmer Lucas Targos oversees some 1,200 plants encompassing 65 strains. They grow classic ones you’ve smoked since high school, like Sour Diesel and OG Kush, as well as industry innovations like L’Eagle Eagle, a "potent sativa great for tasks and activities" with a "refreshing smell that hits strong and is an uplifting euphoric high," says Amy.

"Our market is the Whole Foods customer."

Spend just one minute at L’Eagle and it’s obvious this is no ordinary cannabis farm because, my god, the crop is holy. The plants are perky, the air is clear; there’s even an employee pruning fan leaves off the plants and readying them for compost. "Our market is the Whole Foods customer," Amy explains as we walk through her grow.

L’Eagle’s business approach centers around the belief that consumers are becoming more concerned about and interested in what goes into the plants they smoke. When cannabis is heated, the nutrients come alive, as do the toxins and pesticides it was grown with. John argues that smoking cannabis grown with pesticides is worse than eating produce that has been sprayed with the same substances.

Instead of using chemicals, Targos runs the grow operation using a prevention method; he treats his plants with natural alternatives, growing them in coconut cores and peat and spraying them with extracts of garlic, rosemary, citrus, and neem oil. Along with plenty of human eyes carefully scrutinizing the plants, these organic pesticides allow L’Eagle to catch pests early on, says Targos.

Consumers are becoming more concerned about and interested in what goes into the plants they smoke.

L’Eagle grows its cannabis by cloning full-grown plants. To start a plant’s cycle, Targos will cut a branch from a "mama plant," and place it inside a machine that provides hydration for two weeks, allowing the baby plant to grow roots. After that, it’s put in a one-gallon pot for about a month before it’s moved to a larger space and placed under 1,000-watt lightbulbs. Once the plant reaches a healthy size, it’ll then sit in a closed room under powerful yellow high-pressure sodium bulbs for eight weeks. At that point, the plants are blooming with flowers, complete with tiny crystals that make them sticky and glistening.

Once the buds go to harvest, the L’Eagle team dry-cures the plants, a practice Amy says is disappearing from the industry because there’s a rush to get to market. But she posits that "it’s important to let the live plant matter dry and dissipate completely in order to ensure the best flavor and smoothest smoke possible."

Impressive scientific research has grown out of the Colorado cannabis industry’s desire to perfect its grow methods. Casual pot smokers associate marijuana only with THC, the psychoactive ingredient that’s responsible for altering mood, behavior, and consciousness—what you would call "getting high." But research has found that THC is just one of six primary cannabinoids (chemical compounds found in cannabis) that affect the body and mind.

There’s CBN, which causes drowsiness and reduces spasms; CBC, which has anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties; THCV, a psychoactive element that can help with diabetes and obesity; CBG, a nonpsychoactive compound found to reduce tumor formation; and CBD, which helps battle nausea, high blood pressure, and pain. The discovery of these cannabinoids has allowed growers to tweak product so consumers—and patients using marijuana for medical purposes—can get exactly what they want from their weed.

"People think that the industry here is one big party, but the reality is, a lot of people who are coming in here are using cannabis for health and wellness."

There are specific strains engineered to help treat the symptoms of ailments like diabetes, migraines, shingles, and multiple sclerosis. You can even buy a strain like Durban Poison, which has the appetite-decreasing compound THCV, to ensure you won’t get the munchies (related: see Bethenny Frankel’s Skinny Girl Marijuana business plans). L’Eagle is currently testing a new strain to add to its grow, AC/DC, or Pennywise, which Targos calls an "industry game changer"; with its high CBD and low THC composition, it’s supposed to be of benefit to those struggling with epilepsy.

"People think that the industry here is one big party, but the reality is, a lot of people who are coming in here are using cannabis for health and wellness," explains Alison Ledden, the marketing director of The Farm, a craft dispensary in Boulder with a similar ethos to L’Eagle.

One of the city’s most popular cannabis spots, The Farm couldn’t be further from than the barbed-wire-protected medical marijuana dispensaries I’ve visited in Los Angeles. The interior has wood floors and exposed-beam ceilings, and the waiting area features a huge chalkboard with the day’s available strains written on it in colorful lettering. There are bookshelves lined with local glass pieces and cannabis-themed coffee table books.

It’s like being at a trendy coffee shop, except I’m about to buy a $12 rolled joint instead of a soy latte.

Inside the room where the cannabis is actually sold, a bud tender walks me through every strain on the menu, pointing to the various hash extracts that are laid out on silver cake trays. It’s like being at a trendy coffee shop, except I’m about to buy a $12 rolled joint instead of a soy latte.

"We’re now seeing an educated consumer," Ledden notes, showing me her store’s impressive selection of high-end vapes, not unlike the ones I test out after yoga. "They care about what they are putting in their body and the method in which they are doing so. That’s why vaping is so huge now. Five years ago, vapes were clunky and big. Now everything is really small and sleek."

Vapes aren’t the only category that’s seen a makeover. At Illuzion Glass Galleries, an upscale cannabis paraphernalia shop where pieces have price tags of up to $60,000, store manager Scott Halverson says buying expensive glass pieces has become an "obsession." The folks dropping $40,000 on bongs are usually collectors, but everyday consumers are also investing in devices that cost a few grand.

The fashion world is catching on to this luxury rebrand: featured an $8,750 gold joint case in its holiday gift guide, and magazines like Elle and Vogue have also started to cover the cannabis business. Shine Papers makes 24-karat gold slow-burning rolling papers that celebrities like Miley Cyrus and 2 Chainz have been spotted using. Cheryl Shuman, an LA-based cannabis branding professional, is working on a line called Haute Vape, complete with a 14-karat gold vape encrusted with diamonds. She told Fast Company she easily envisions the piece being sold at a high-end department store like Neiman Marcus.

Of all my appointments in Colorado, I’m particularly excited for my trip to Primal Wellness, which markets itself as "the world’s first cannabis infused day spa" and is a short 20-minute drive outside of Denver in Englewood. I’ve decided to test drive a weed facial.

weed facial

Owner Danielli Martel asserts that the cannabis oil she uses at her spa is especially great for facials since cannabis is a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. The theory goes that when it seeps into the skin, it works to combat conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne, while also rejuvenating the skin. When I get my complimentary treatment, I expect the room to reek of weed, but the scent is subtle. It feels like a normal facial in that there’s no discernible effect while the aesthetician works the cannabis products into my face—no tingles, certainly no high—but my skin turns plump and glows for days afterward.

Primal Wellness also uses cannabis oil for massage treatments that tackle internal problems. "We treat customers with neuropathy and carpal tunnel, as well as athletes like skiers dealing with soreness and inflammation," says Martel. "It feels great to have a massage medicated with cannabis and see the throbbing disappear."

Martel makes her own products, mixing oil she buys from a local dispensary into her homemade creams. Most other places around town that offer cannabis massages, though, use products from Apothecanna, a Denver-based body care brand that champions "traditional plant medicine."

Apothecanna was started by in 2009 by James Kennedy, a beauty industry veteran whose resume boasts positions at Avon and Johnson & Johnson. The products are distributed wholesale to some 300 clients around Colorado and are also produced and sold in Oregon and California as well. The brand has a full line of topicals that includes moisturizer, pain cream, body butter, and lip balm. They all contain cannabis-sourced THC, plus ingredients like lavender, chamomile, frankincense, arnica, juniper, ginger, and chili-pepper capsaicin.

"Cannabis itself has a stimulating property," says Kennedy. "It encourages blood flow, so you’ll get a naturally radiant, plump, healthful glow when it’s used for beauty."

apothecanna products

Apothecanna’s line of cannabis skincare products. Photo: Alex Ulreich

Apothecanna recommends its products be used for everyday care, though each has a specific suggested use. The stimulating creme for example, made with ginger and grapefruit, is best applied "in the morning and prior to physical activity to invigorate tired muscles and joints and to provide an all natural pick-me-up." The pain creme, infused with peppermint and arnica, is "perfect for use on sore muscles, swollen joints and distressed skin."

Kennedy believes cannabis beauty has huge category potential, and he’s not the only one. Apothecanna is certainly the biggest player in space, but there are also competing companies around Colorado like Mary Jane’s Medicinals, which sells cannabis bath salts that get you stoned while you soak in the tub. (A local bud tender promises I will sleep "deliciously well" after a Mary Jane’s bath.) Just two months ago, Women’s Wear Daily reported that cannabis products have piqued the interest of the spa industry, and stories about weed chapstick are popping up all over the beauty internet.

After testing out Apothecanna products, I get it: They look, smell, and feel great. The branding is clean (Kennedy references Kiehl’s and Malin + Goetz as inspiration) and after slathering my sore back and neck when I get to my hotel room, I’m blown away by the healing properties I experience. This stuff really works.

At this point, it’s probably pretty clear that I’m a cannabis user. Not a heavy one, but my friends and I like to smoke pot at parties and over casual dinner hangouts, and it’s understood that we keep it pretty under wraps. After all, in New York City, it’s illegal. We get our pot from local delivery guys, and while the system has come a long way (we now communicate via text), it’s still somewhat underground: You have to know someone who knows someone who has a guy who will deliver to your apartment.

In Denver, I’ve been told, pot is everywhere. But at the same time, it’s also nowhere.

When I fly to Colorado, I’m excited to finally be submersed in an open weed-loving society. In Denver, I’ve been told, pot is everywhere. But at the same time, I learn once I actually touch down in the state capital, it’s also nowhere.

Denver is the "Mile-High City" and its basketball team is the Nuggets. While those names are fun coincidences (and were instituted well before medical marijuana first paved the way for recreational legalization), they play into my preconceived notions of the scene: cannabis businesses all over town, most of the population good and stoned, sidewalk cafes offering me goodies laced with drugs. Upon my arrival at a hotel near Denver’s Union Station, I’m assigned to room No. 420.

But that’s where my all-pot-all-the-time fantasies end. A tourism counter at the car-rental outpost has tons of pamphlets on local businesses (restaurants, stores) and activities (hikes, tours), but no mention of cannabis. I don’t see ads or articles on the legal substance in local newspapers or magazines I come across on street corners and at vegan cafes (where, by the way, the clientele is so obviously stoned). While the industry is very much thriving, it’s also incredibly concealed, or as Amy from L’Eagle puts it, "hiding in plain sight."

Cannabis businesses can’t advertise in publications unless the publications can prove that 70 percent of their readership is over the age of 21. This law comes from the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, and its main objective is to halt "mass-market campaigns that have a high likelihood of reaching minors." Laws also limit how businesses can advertise beyond their actual storefronts. Martel’s spa can only post its logo on a sign hanging above its door since the design features a pot leaf; you won’t see promotional signage or materials anywhere else in the neighborhood.

There’s one stretch in Denver on South Broadway that’s loaded with cannabis dispensaries—it’s even been dubbed the Green Mile—but most businesses I visit are spread out in warehouses across various neighborhoods, some in the far outskirts of the city. This is because Denver’s cannabis laws prohibit businesses from opening up within 1,000 feet of schools, child care centers, competing cannabis facilities, and drug and alcohol treatment centers. The options are quite limited.

The most strictly regulated segment of the cannabis industry is by and large edibles.

But the most strictly regulated segment of the cannabis industry is by and large edibles. Last year, some 5 million edibles were sold across Colorado, where the category accounts for some 45 percent of the cannabis market. Three deaths have been linked to edibles in the state so far, and it was recently reported that calls to poison control centers about children who have accidentally ingested edibles have spiked.

As a result, concerned lawmakers are constantly implementing changes to dosing and packaging laws. "We legalized cannabis sales in January of last year, and by February of the following year, we had to have a massive change in how all of our edibles look," notes Dooley. "I had six products on the market before February that we had to pull."

Right now, Colorado laws mandate that edibles must be placed in "child-resistant" containers that are "opaque so the product cannot be seen." The edibles must also have hyperspecific labeling that includes "Colorado’s Universal Symbol indicating the container holds marijuana; a list of all nonorganic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides used to produce the marijuana; and a list of solvents and chemicals used to produce marijuana concentrate."

The delicious-looking cookies Berliner showed me at Sweet Grass Kitchen aren’t displayed at dispensaries. Instead, they’re packaged and sealed in thick red plastic containers, forcing customers to leave plenty to their imagination.

Almost every business owner I speak with mentions how difficult these regulations are on their companies—especially because the rules keep changing. Just last month, lawmakers voted unanimously for a bill mandating that cannabis-infused edibles "have a distinct look" by 2016. Come next year, every edible must be "shaped, stamped, colored, or otherwise marked, when practicable, with a standard symbol indicating that it contains marijuana and is not for consumption by children."

sweet grass kitchen cookies

Photo: Chavie Lieber

"It is incredibly challenging," says Dooley. "If a regulation comes, I have to be quick and nimble to be able to adapt. At any given moment, some inspector could come in and find a reason to shut me down. That is a terrifying way to run a business. As a consequence, we do things in small quantities. You can’t order anything in bulk. You can’t be stuck with a pre-labeled bag that you spend $10,000 on that’s no longer compliant."

But advertising, real estate, and packaging regulations are small potatoes compared to the basic money issue the cannabis industry faces. Currently, the entire industry operates on a cash-only model. Since marijuana is illegal on the federal level, businesses are forbidden from keeping money with or borrowing money from banks, which are federal entities. They also cannot accept electronic payments through credit cards.

This means everything—rent, wages, insurance, security, expenses—must be paid for in cold, hard cash. Bank accounts belonging to cannabis businesses (as well as personal accounts belonging to the people who own them) are shut down all the time, and not being able to get bank loans means only businesses that can scrounge up enough capital independently can survive.

Cash in this business, as the New York Times reported back in February, is "held in safes, handed out in clipped bundles on payday, carried in brown paper bags and cardboard boxes to the tax office and the utility company, ferried around the state by armored vehicles and armed guards." It’s not uncommon to walk into dispensaries and see employees specifically tasked with handling the money-moving.

Unlike alcohol, you can’t smoke weed in places like bars, restaurants, or sports stadiums.

This makes cannabis entrepreneurs understandably uneasy. Martel of Primal Wellness half-jokingly references the anxiety she feels driving around town with a huge bag of cash in the backseat. Berliner notes that, because she fears for the safety of herself and her employees, Sweet Grass Kitchen refrains from posting its address on the internet.

It’s not just cannabis businesses that are struggling with Colorado’s strict regulations; the rules are tricky for consumers too. Under Amendment 64, anyone over the age of 21 has the right to purchase, carry, and use cannabis in Colorado; however, the law prohibits cannabis from being consumed "openly and publicly." Unlike alcohol, you can’t smoke weed in places like bars, restaurants, or sports stadiums, and because of Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act, you can’t establish joint-friendly cafes or lounges like those in Amsterdam.

Law enforcement has pretty much turned a blind eye to vapes, locals tell me, and it’s fairly standard to see people vaping on sidewalks. As the Colorado Pot Guide’s website puts it, "discretion is appreciated, and usually required. … Most stoners in Colorado are pretty considerate in terms of keeping things low key. Avoid smoking near other people such as busy sidewalks and bus stops, and it is unlikely you will attract attention. For many people in Denver, any alley works fine for a quick session."

weed siren

Open consumption in Colorado comes with what can be a severe penalty: getting caught smoking a joint or vaping on a busy street corner could cost you up to $100,000 in fines and up to one year in prison, depending on how serious the offense. Denver Police issued some 668 public consumption citations in the first three quarters of 2014, according to Colorado Public Radio, compared to the 117 tickets police wrote the entire previous year.

There are a number of members-only clubs around Colorado that allow pot since they are considered private residences (Martel’s Primal Wellness Spa offers a membership in which participants can attend exclusive events where they light up and then enjoy spa treatments), but the rules prohibiting open consumption have made social smoking hard to come by. "There has to be some intelligent way of doing things," notes Apothecanna’s Kennedy. "Like juice bars to match the lifestyle—the equivalent of the Dutch coffee shop. But until then, I think it will be largely underground for a while."

This is what inspired 33-year-old Brett Davis to start Green Labs, a cannabis incubator that rents out office space and holds communal events. Under the same ownership as New York City’s AltSpace, Green Labs hosts events like Stoner Scrabble, Puff Pass Paint, Bong Bingo, Sushi and Joint Rolling, and Donnelly’s cannabis yoga class. The events are open to the public, but are considered private because participants must RSVP and buy tickets.

"We originally started out with larger consumption parties that got pretty big," Davis explains as we sit inside Green Labs’ three-floor loft. "We were getting, like, 300 people and it wasn’t really benefitting the community. We wanted to have a different type of angle for these events, so we looked at what was missing and realized there were no social events with an educational element."

Restricting public consumption is probably not the answer, mainly because people are going to do it anyway.

Running a place like Green Labs is tricky. The model is technically BYOC, and while Davis can’t hand guests joints, the space is always stocked with weed. At a Saturday night Puff Pass Paint class I go to, there’s a communal table stacked with rolling papers, bowls, and bud.

Davis says he understands the intention of Colorado’s consumption regulations—they’re about safety, which remains top-of-mind to everyone in the cannabis community. But restricting public consumption is probably not the answer, he says, mainly because people are going to do it anyway.

"Regardless of where you can or can’t smoke, when you walk down the street, cannabis is everywhere," he says. "That smell is not coming from the dispensaries. I’m just not sure who will be the one to pull the trigger, but I think things will have to change."

"One of the biggest misconceptions around here is that everyone is cool with pot. And they are fucking not."

Cannabis journalist and activist Diane Fornbacher has been a weed advocate for 20 years, and she isn’t one to tip-toe around issues in the industry, especially as they pertain to women.

She’s a founding member of NORML’s Women’s Alliance and has worked for both High Times and Skunk, but her main focus these days is running Ladybud, a site she started in 2013 to cover women’s cannabis culture. Over a very Colorado lunch at a vegan restaurant attached to a Hare Krishna temple, Fornbacher tells me Ladybud is the most "amazing nightmare" she’s ever had.

"Our demographic is brave women between the ages of 18 all the way to wherever, because we cover a full spectrum," she says. "Our ideal reader has an awareness of self and isn’t afraid to use her real name if she’s quoted by the news."

The stigma around the marijuana industry is very real for female entrepreneurs in particular.

Ladybud covers issues women in the cannabis community face, like the threat of having their children taken away by governmental child protective services, something that Fornbacher has been very vocal about ever since the child-welfare agency visited her home.

The stigma around the marijuana industry is very real for female entrepreneurs in particular. Dooley of Julie’s Edibles tells me it took her a while "to come out of the closet" as a mom working in cannabis. She’s open and honest with her kids about her career, and while she educates them on cannabis safety—her older son is studying chemistry in college and is interested in cannabis medical research; her younger daughter is "opposed to drugs"—she’s been attacked by mothers in her neighborhood who advocate for cannabis criminalization. When Berliner from Sweet Grass Kitchen gave up teaching to start her edibles company, she knew she’d never be able to teach again because "it’s just not culturally accepted yet."

"I don’t want to hide underground," says Fornbacher. "I fought for a long time for these rights and I still feel like an outsider in a place where it’s legal. It’s a repression of a whole industry, and it’s just not fair because they’ll take our tax money but they won’t give us our rights."

For the cannabis industry to truly rebrand itself and gain mainstream acceptance, it needs to confront the hypersexualization of women in its marketing. A quick flip through a magazine like High Times and you’re bombarded with ads featuring girls in bikinis blowing bongs, naked women straddling life-size vapes, and porny images of the infamous "420 nurse."

ganja girl illo

Advertising like this fuels the "ganja girl" stereotype and provides zero representation for the smart, successful, professional women in the business. Ladybud publishes pieces that both support and reprimand such imagery. Fornbacher says that though this type of branding bothers her, she believes the cannabis culture is an open space for everyone: "Yes, marketing has not lent itself to empowering females. I’m not a stiletto stoner, and I think there needs to be more inclusion, but I don’t object to other people’s advertising just because I’m not a fan of their aesthetic personally and professionally."

Others, though, are working aggressively to turn the tide. Olivia Mannix and Jennifer DeFalco started cannabis marketing agency Cannabrand in January 2014 to help businesses enter into the evolving market. The Denver-based company offers branding, digital marketing, advertising, and public relations services.

"We try to remove any of the seedy subculture messaging and pivot it," Mannix explains. "Advertising and imagery can get the luxury consumer, and that’s what we’re working on. Weed is the new wine, and we’re rebranding it to make it look more glamorous, especially for women."

Cannabrand creates mood boards to determine business’s aesthetics, sometimes whipping up entire brand identities from scratch. Its work stretches from interior design to social media to uniform strategy. Mannix says she encourages businesses to stay away from sexual imagery because "it’s alienating to consumers. The industry used to be heavily targeted to men, but now we’re trying to target men, women, and LGBT."

"Sex sells," she continues, "but it can also pigeonhole your market. We’re trying to legitimize the industry and our clients are steering away from the counterculture to promote cannabis in the best light."

The point that’s hammered home by everyone I meet is that you can smoke pot and also be a functioning professional (provided you’re not high on the job, of course). This is something I already knew; I’ve been doing it for years, thank you very much. So after days of staying sober while reporting this story, I let myself indulge during Donnelly’s cannabis yoga class on my last day in Colorado.

bong illo

I repeat the mantra Yes, I can! throughout the class, and during the vape demonstration, I’m an active participant, trying every piece. I feel great the entire afternoon at Green Labs, and all the way to the airport too. I’m also so unbelievably stoned that I’m convinced I’ve taken all my possessions with me, even though my purse (complete with wallet, ID, and apartment keys) is locked inside a closet at Green Labs. I only realize I’m missing these crucial items once I’m already at the airport.

I’m left to meekly call my editor and explain that I, cliche of cliches, have gotten too high to make my flight home on time. As if this lapse in responsibility needs to be further highlighted, I somehow find myself that night at a Bud and Breakfast, a "420-friendly" location decorated with Grateful Dead photos.

It has a "wake and bake" breakfast where hash browns are a full-on double entendre. The bud bar in the living room features a collection of pipes and bongs, and although the hotel isn’t technically allowed to provide cannabis, a stash is magically refilled every hour or so. I sit in the living room for a bit, admiring the fancy glass pieces on display in an antique breakfront next to a roaring fireplace.

I think about lighting up—when in Rome and all that—but remember my missed flight and pledge to stay sober until I land safely back in New York. I feel slightly ashamed. Did I drink too much of the THC-laced Kool-Aid? Could I not handle the freedom that comes along with legalization?

"That’s actually really common here," laughs Green Labs’s Davis when I tell him about my airport mishap. "Everyone is still trying to figure out how to use cannabis. It’s like when you first turn 21 and get shit-faced and sick the first few times you drink. But you don’t end up becoming that kind of drinker. Eventually, you learn how to be a responsible cannabis consumer, too."

Editor: Julia Rubin
Photographers: Chavie Lieber & Alex Ulreich
Illustrations: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Design: Kelsey Scherer
Copy Editor and Fact Checker: Heather Schwedel


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