How I Went From Outlaw Weed Dealer to Legitimate (Weed) Businessperson
When did you start smoking?
Steve Tuck, 48, resident horticulturalist, Weedmaps, Irvine, CA: “I hate to admit it -- I think I probably smoked my first joint at 8 years old. I didn’t start smoking regularly until I was 12 or so. Being from Kentucky and being hyperactive, I found at a very young age that marijuana made me normal. I skipped a couple of grades in school as a kid and graduated from high school at 15.”
Ryan Clendenin, 38, COO, One Dab (a hash-making consulting firm), Denver, CO: “When I was 13 years old [growing up in Rochester, NY], I came home and my brother -- he’s five years older than me -- was smoking blonde hash out of a homemade bong on my porch. He forced me to smoke pot so I wouldn't tell on him. I got higher than anything. Everybody talks about how they don't get high the first time, but I got really high. I fell in love for the rest of my life... But with a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps for a father, let's just say I had to be very discreet about my activities.”
Aaron Axline, 35, CEO, One Dab (Clendenin’s business partner), Denver, CO: “I was born and raised in a small town of about 600 people. Woodsboro, Maryland. No stop lights. I got in some trouble in the middle of high school, and the day I got off probation [in 2000] I headed West to Colorado. That’s how it started. I was in my backyard in Durango and our neighbors had the back door of their house open, and I saw the bright lights glowing. I had no idea what they were, and being naive and 20 at the time, I just asked, ‘What are those lights?’ They said, ‘Those are grow lights,’ and they invited me in. Next thing you know, I was smoking.”
Luke Ramirez, 27, owner & managing director, Walking Raven Retail Marijuana Center, Denver, CO: “The first time I consumed cannabis was at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It was a Dave Matthews concert. We kinda snuck in, climbed up on the rocks. I just remember thinking, I don’t care what anyone has told me, or what the books say, or what the teachers say. I love this, and there’s nothing that’s gonna stop me from doing this. It was my 17th birthday."
When did you start selling?
Ramirez: “You know, you’re 17 years old, you don’t have a lot of money, and [weed] is obviously very expensive. Hence the classic: buy an ounce of cannabis, sell seven-eighths of it, keep the eighth. That’s really how it started. Selling to friends in Colorado. Then I started to sell bigger amounts to people that weren’t necessarily my friends. I don’t really know exact weight amounts per se, certainly not El Chapo by any means or anything, but I was definitely a pretty big-time black-market dealer at that time.”
Tuck: “I was the younger, smarter kid, doing things [in his family’s illegal marijuana business]. In fact, I was sent [by his family] over to get seeds -- to Holland, to Jamaica, to Mexico -- after I started college at 15. After I came home, I was always kept secret. Like, when I set up grows and things like that, people weren’t allowed to be there. Until I became medical in 1996, I was probably one of the best-kept secrets in the whole deal because I have a botany and a horticultural degree and a background in cannabis.”
Axline: “I started out moving some pot to all my friends. Then it grew to moving carloads of pot, to moving big carloads all the way across I-40. This was back when a pound of weed cost $5,000 in Colorado. Now it’s $1,800.”
Pam “Mama K” Kelly, 49, home grower, Washington, DC: “I was in Meigs County, Ohio, that’s where I went to college [at Ohio University]. I was the only female in a group of men that was cultivating, growing on our own land as well as planting in [other people’s] cornfields. It was like a SWAT-team type of thing. I drove my little VW bus and we all rushed in there at night and planted the plants, and rushed out. We let them grow over the summer and harvested right around my birthday in October, which I always loved.”
William “Kind Bill” Fenger, 43, founder, Kind Billy's Kreations (a hash-making consulting firm), Denver, CO: "I was a runaway. And the guys who taught me how to grow were older Canadian smugglers who where actually on the run and hiding out in South Florida. I lied to them and told them I was 18 when I was 16. I ended up working with them. Got myself way in over my head. Even when I look back now, I’m like: wow. A lot of my friends say I was really brave, but I was just lucky and dumb.”
Did you ever get busted?
Kind Bill: “I was caught on a fairly large cannabis-growing operation by a helicopter in South Florida. I ended up serving time and being on parole for about five years. It took up the better part of my 20s. It was a federal charge. I had 570 plants the day they rolled on me. I was a kid, 19 years old. It was pretty scary.”
Ramirez: “One time a police officer pulled me over. He thought my car was stolen. I had over 3lb of cannabis in my trunk. I was young and not very intelligent. I was actually smoking cannabis when he pulled me over. To say that my car reeked of it would be an understatement. He took my license, he went back to his squad car, and then I saw two other police officers pull up. I’m thinking, This is it. He’s calling for backup. I’m done. And then he comes over and hands me my license and my registration back and apologizes and says that he misread my plate and he thought the car was stolen. And I drove away. It was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve always spoken highly of the Denver Police Department.”
Tuck: “The only time I’ve been busted was two-and-a-half years ago, when my nephew OD’d and died in Kentucky, and I came back home for the funeral. I was [out in the country] at my ex-wife’s house, sitting on the front porch smoking a joint, and they landed a helicopter in her yard for one scraggly-ass plant in the garden that I didn’t even know anything about, and the cops smelled the pot. I had 10g. They were threatening to take my stepdaughter’s kids, so I told them the truth, you know? This dickhead took me to the mat, fucked my health up. I had a heart attack in jail, man. That’s the only reason I got out. I had to pay $12,000 to keep from doing the other two weekends over fuckin’ 10g of pot.”
Clendenin: “They kicked me out [of college] for having a bong in my room. Four cops, the whole fleet of 14 resident-hall assistants, and the resident-hall director. They basically ran a training session on me. Flipped my room, found a bong that I had hidden in my closet. It was a really conservative campus. That shaped my position on authority.”
Did you ever get jacked?
Tuck: “Fuck man, it’s an extremely violent business in Kentucky. There’s not very many stories I can tell you without a murder or two somewhere. It’s not like it is out here [in California]. Most of the shit out here -- the people who get murdered out here deserve it. But shit, back then in those days [in Kentucky], shit was going fast and furious. I was 12 years old and watched a dude get dragged to death [behind a vehicle] for narcing on somebody... I mean, it wasn’t a Friday night if somebody didn’t get shot or stabbed.”
Axline: “Look, there are misunderstandings [in Colorado]. Product loss is a huge issue [whether from getting robbed or busted by police]. But we’re all pretty much college-educated people, and we know that violence doesn't get anything done. That's the shit you see on The Wire, on TV. That's not the reality of how the underground marijuana market really works. It’s really professional. It's very different from that violent drug culture. My house has been broken into, I've had some trials and tribulations because of my involvement -- but at the end of the day, I can't say it wasn't worth it.”
What was it like going legal?
Tuck: “In 1996 when 215 passed [California’s Proposition 215 legalized the first medical marijuana program in America], I got one of the first prescriptions. My spine is fused 13 times from a parachuting accident in the military... When I started this, I knew that it was my medicine, but we didn’t understand the kind of medicine it was for so many other people, and the potential that it had -- until I went to Humboldt County. We opened one of the first [medical marijuana dispensaries] right after ’96. We went from having 280 members to having, I don't know, probably 18,000 or 19,000 in a three-month fucking period. After some publicity and shit, people would drive from all over California."
Aari Ruben, 38, director, Desert Bloom Re-Leaf Center, Tucson, AZ: “The licensing process was an adventure, particularly here in Arizona. Gov. Jan Brewer delayed the program for a year after it was supposed to open. So the early days of the program were very much a waiting game, both for patients and for prospective operators like myself. We didn’t know if the dispensaries that opened were going to be raided by law enforcement or closed down in short order. And so, many operators were reluctant to make large financial investments until we saw the initial group of dispensaries open in late 2012, early 2013. After some of the dispensaries were open for about six months, there was a big push from the other license holders to go ahead. We were toward the later round of the stores that opened in the first generation of licenses -- the only generation of licenses, so far. But we did sort of wait and see what the lay of the land was going to be before we jumped in.”
Axline: “My grow started with homemade trays. We were doing 20 plants. And then it went to the caregiver level, where you’re allowed to grow 99 plants. Then you transition into a legal medical market and you’re managing up to 500 plants. Now I'm sitting here in Washington [State] and we've been working on a farm that includes basically 11,000 plants. So when you're talking scale: we're overseeing six acres now -- six acres of flower."
Mama K: “I’ve had brain surgery for my migraines. The doctor asked, ‘Do you want to do more?’ and I decided, no, I don’t want to do anything more. I don’t want to take any more pharmaceutical drugs. That was my whole reason for moving to DC: knowing that we had Initiative 71 [a ballot initiative that legalized possession of marijuana for personal use in 2014] passing. I didn’t necessarily have the intention to grow when I moved here, but as soon as I started meeting people and going to the NORML meetings, I decided that this is an opportunity that I can’t pass up. I had never done indoor cultivation before, only done outdoor. I finally talked to a vendor who provided me with a tent and all the equipment. He came out and set it up in my apartment, and started to plant seeds and it started to take off. I took a couple of classes and got some clones and that’s when I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and knew that this was my passion. I fell in love with this plant.”
Ramirez: “When the door opened to do it legally, it was a pretty obvious choice. I could use my skill set, which was pretty rare, but also do it honestly and not have to necessarily worry about the criminal aspect. I remember looking up from my desk and, after reading an article about the industry, just deciding that if I didn’t take advantage of legalization I would’ve never been able to live with myself. And I was doing well at the time. I was 21 years old, selling insurance, making $45 to $50,000 a year and having a bright future. And I threw it all into marijuana. It definitely didn’t make my parents very happy, to say the least.”
Did having a criminal record hold you back?
Kind Bill: “I was actually poised to be an owner of an early dispensary and an early extraction company [in Colorado], but then they passed HB 1284 [the Colorado legislature’s follow-up legislation that passed in 2010], which banned drug felons from participating, and I was out, as far as ownership or employee of any medical marijuana business. It put me on the sidelines instantly. I’ve been able to prove my worth as a consultant, but I’m still not able to own or participate in the way that I would like. I can’t actually handle any cannabis or extract product in any medical marijuana facility. On the medical side, it’s a lifetime ban. For the recreational side, it’s a 10-year ban. So I’m doing a lot of work to make it so I will be able to participate fully."
Clendenin: “My sister got into the underground market very early, and then she got into the medical market as a caregiver. But in 2009, she ended up with four felonies for being a caregiver. It was Clendenin vs. the State of Colorado -- the legal case that caused all the dispensaries to start adding haircuts and massages to the dispensary because the medical providers as [ordered] by the Department of Health couldn't have a direct relationship with patients without providing a service other than selling cannabis. All the dispensaries in Colorado had to add haircuts to their dispensaries. A week later the Department of Health repealed the rule. But my sister still has four felonies on her record, though she really only ended up with a year of unsupervised probation. The real crime is she can't be part of the industry, and she's a great grower. She's since moved out of Colorado.”
Tuck: “I know thousands [of growers with criminal records] that want to get in but can’t get in. But your record will fuck you in some places more than others. It’s a question of how far you want in. I mean, if you want to stand at a counter and say, ‘Do you want indica or sativa?’ and make $20 an hour, I don’t think a record will hurt you too bad. But if you want to climb any higher, it can become a problem. I’ve got 15 years of college. That’s the only reason I get to play.”
What’s it like leaving the black market behind?
Axline: “It’s tricky, because you didn’t have ‘clients’ in a traditional sense [in the illegal market]. A lot of these people are your brothers because of the trust factor that you have to have in a business of that nature. My man [his former partner] was in my wedding. He's the guy I asked to stand for me because he's a pimp, he's my brother. [Transitioning out] hurts because you get used to the freedom and the closeness that brings. Instead of being on the grind at a job all day, you're with your friends and good people."
Kind Bill: “Most people that I know are really happy that people aren’t going to jail for this anymore. That being first, there are definitely some guys that aren’t happy that their profits are gone and that their old ways of doing things are gone and they don’t get to participate. But largely, people in the community are happy for it to move in the direction that it is.”
Ramirez: “We’re so used to it now that I can even talk to you about it. Back then, I would not talk to anyone from the media, ever. I didn’t care who you were. We weren’t sure if we were gonna get arrested the next day. It all changed when Amendment 64 [which legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado] passed on November 6th, 2012. Literally it happened the very next day where people finally treated you like a normal person and a non-criminal. You can probably walk up to someone and say, ‘I’m in the cannabis industry,’ and it doesn’t faze them. In 2010, they would look at you like you were an alien.”
Are dealers still selling weed illegally?
Ruben: “The black market is alive and well. Our tax burden and our cost of operation make our costs prohibitively high for some users. We also have a lot more overhead with staff and rent that drives the cost up. And so, some people still access the black market for less-expensive products.”
Clendenin: “There’s obviously still some black-market stuff going on. What’s interesting is the way that, by having a medical system and a recreational system [with different tax rates], the state system is turning the medical users into dealers. That’s because anybody with a ‘red badge’ who can get medical marijuana can go buy pot cheaper [than recreational pot], and sell it for cheaper than the recreational prices in the store. So the black market ends up less cartel-driven, and more distributed person-to-person. It’s like the social media of black-market pot... There are holes in the system, and people are going to exploit them, and that’s where the black market goes.”
Are you making more money now?
Tuck: “Hell no. I’m making less. I mean, I’m making great money, but I could be making -- fuck -- a lot more. I just turned down a half-million-dollar bonus and a big salary [to set up an illegal grow] the other day just because I love my boss. He’s got me for the rest of my life, man. And I’ve been paying taxes now for the last four years.”
Ruben: “It’s easier to conduct business, so yes. The volume we’re able to achieve, we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Lower margin with a higher volume.”
Clendenin: “The legal system is more a labor of love to get this legalized wide-scale and mainstream. So, most of the startups and people willing to put their backgrounds on the line and to stand up and become growers and do this stuff, they’re operating at 60-70% labor costs as startups. We’re all sinking, we’re all not breaking even, and we’re all struggling to make something big. There’s some few people that are really rock-stars in the industry, absolutely. They’re front-runners and they’re blowing it up.
"But I would say the bulk of the small- and middle-sized enterprises in the industry are struggling. There’s a lot of taxation, obviously, but there’s a lot of overhead, where you have to do packaging and labeling and compliance, and mandated compliance tags. And then you have to hire a compliance officer, and systems to run the operations and a database for a database system. So when you start talking about personnel and overhead like that, versus a couple of guys in a basement grow, the overhead is astounding on the legal side. But it’s worth it because without it, there’s not going to be proof that the revenues are going to come in to support the tax incentives for the state to keep [legalization] going as a program.”
Axline: “It’s a different mindset now. Ten years ago, I would look at a basement in my house and think, ‘Oh my God, I could pump out $10-$20,000 a month out of this.’ Now I look at a basement and I'm like, ‘I could risk this warehouse I’m working on that pumps out $400,000 a month [if he gets caught with an illegal operation in his basement].’"
What happens next?
Axline: “Big corporations are going to come in with the power, the money, and the technology. That will be a bad sign for the small fish in the game.”
Clendenin: “There's interest from Monsanto and Philip Morris and interest from all these Fortune 100s that want to come in -- everybody’s afraid of corporate America coming in and blowing it up. The big corporate mobsters are in here and they're doing big-box stores and giant warehouse grows. We're opposed to that, because it’s like a non-drinker making liquor.”
Mama K: “Right now, there’s only a handful of women who are growing here in DC, and they’re doing an incredible job. I also see the men not wanting to share their information. I feel like they feel a little threatened by women. And you know what? That’s OK. Let them feel a little threatened. When we come out to the next Growers Cup coming up in May 2016, we’re going to kick some butt.”
Tuck: “We’re going to be Jim Beam after the  election [when California votes to legalize recreational marijuana]. We got the licenses and everything lined up, ready to go.”
Ruben: “There’s going to be one or two ballot initiatives next year [in Arizona]. I suspect the Marijuana Policy Project-sponsored initiative will narrowly pass. It will give permission to me and other license holders to begin selling to the adult-use market, and that would mean a tenfold expansion of our existing market.”
Clendenin: “We’re basically holding a very fragile egg right now in an egg race across a minefield. If we drop that egg, it's all over for everybody. We want to be on the up-and-up, and we're not dropping the egg. Potheads tend to have a reputation for being passive and docile and taking it, but we’re not going to take it anymore. We’re fucking Twisted Sister.”
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James Higdon, a journalist in Louisville, KY, is the author of The Cornbread Mafia, which tells the story of the biggest marijuana syndicate in American history. He has also written for The Washington Post, POLITICO Magazine, The Daily Beast, Al Jazeera America, Esquire, and Fortune. Follow him:@jimhigdon.