The entrance to The Acceptus Group’s medical marijuana dispensary on Rivergate Lane, near Animas Surgical Hospital, is marked only by the company’s logo that portrays hands cupping a stylized human stick figure.
Nowhere to be seen are the green cross or marijuana-leaf signs common at other Colorado dispensaries.
Adam Gifford and his partner picked the location in part because it’s discretely tucked among medical and professional offices.
Patients buy the marijuana, up to 2 ounces at a time, in preweighed and vacuum-sealed bags. For patients who don’t want to smoke, a colorful range of edible products is available, from marijuana-laced beverages to crackers to knock-off candies with names like “Twigz” and “Snockers.”
Gifford is part of a growing cadre of Colorado marijuana entrepreneurs who seek to quietly join the mainstream business world.
He is a Fort Lewis College graduate who studied finance and has a separate career selling medical equipment. His business partner, a Durango man who asked not to be identified, trades commodities.
Acceptus Group’s medicalized, business-like image is carefully thought out. The business eschews the Bob Marley-and-blunts iconography popular in marijuana circles. Patients sign in at a waiting room with a modernist water feature and muted gray tones.
Gifford talks not of the joys of getting high but of the industry’s economic benefits, tax contributions and energy-efficiency measures.
“This is exactly what the industry needs and where the industry is gravitating to – an image of professionalism,” he said.
Local regulations coming
Colorado, along with Washington, is at the forefront of state experiments with legal marijuana. With the passage of Amendment 64 in November 2012, Colorado voters decided to allow anyone age 21 or older to purchase marijuana.
The stakes are high. Legal marijuana could be wildly lucrative for marijuana purveyors like Acceptus. But budding marijuana entrepreneurs must navigate a rapidly changing regime of state and local regulations.
State law will allow the sale of recreational pot beginning Jan. 1. The city of Durango and La Plata County enacted moratoriums to allow time to craft regulations.
La Plata County is moving toward allowing the cultivation and sale of recreational pot. Regulations could be in place by July, said Bobby Lieb, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. All three county commissioners have voiced support for allowing recreational pot.
The city of Durango also appears poised to allow recreational pot around next summer.
On Monday, Silverton’s Board of Trustees voted to extend Silverton’s moratorium on recreational sales until April 1, when two competing initiatives on the issue will be up for a vote.
Telluride will allow recreational sales beginning Jan. 1. The town’s licensing authority will meet Monday to decide on three applications for recreational licenses by Telluride Green Room, Alpine Wellness and Telluride Bud Co.
But in La Plata County, Bayfield, Ignacio and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have opposed any marijuana operations in their jurisdictions.
La Plata County’s marijuana growers are cagey about their plans.
Gifford said he is unsure if Acceptus Group will pursue growing recreational pot. “You can’t even plan for it because they haven’t decided whether they’re going to do it or not,” he said.
Ron Guffey, who runs a Durango dispensary, Sante Alternative Wellness, has applied to grow marijuana in a commercial facility just north of Durango. He also said he is unsure about recreational pot.
“I haven’t made my decision on that yet,” he said.
Inside a grow facility
Acceptus grows and cultivates about 60 varieties of marijuana in a nondescript commercial building near Mercy Regional Medical Center. There are no signs on the building’s exterior and no indication that the building houses a grow facility. (Gifford asked the Herald to not publish the address for security reasons.)
Acceptus Group, like other medical marijuana growers, is allowed to grow up to six plants per patient. Gifford declined to say how many plants or patients the business has.
The plants are divided into several rooms according to their age and need for light. Marijuana’s famously skunky odor is mostly absent. Fans help indoors, and charcoal filters block the smell from escaping outdoors.
Gifford is working to make the grow facility more energy-efficient. He’s replaced some 1,000-watt sodium bulbs with energy-sipping LEDs that cast a purple glow on the plants. The lighting retrofit has reduced usage by about 22 kilowatts a month.
“We’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint,” Gifford said.
Acceptus Group plants the marijuana in organic soils and feeds them organic foods like bat guano, kelp and seaweed.
Acceptus Group has six employees besides the two founders. One of them is Max Progar, head grower. He’s lived in Durango for 13 years and worked as a manager at local hotels. He was an Acceptus Group patient before he was hired.
It is Progar’s job to make sure the plants are thriving.
“I love it,” he said. “There’s nothing I’d rather do in the world. It’s one of the few jobs where you can really see the work you put in.”
Acceptus Group’s dispensary is managed by Rachel Landreth, a 25-year-old Durango native. She jumped at the chance to join the medical marijuana industry.
“I thought it was a growing industry, and I really liked being in an industry where we’re helping people,” she said.
Economic impact, legal uncertainty
Marijuana operations spread money around the state. Growers hire engineers, architects, accountants, lawyers, electricians and welders.
Acceptus Group also pays tens of thousands of dollars in payroll tax annually, along with sales tax and state and federal income tax.
“The economic impact is huge,” Gifford said.
To take advantage of business opportunities in other states, Gifford and his partner recently established a consulting group, Colorado Grow Co. They hope to save future growers some of the hassles they went through.
“We have three years of knowledge, of trial and error,” Gifford said.
Gifford and other marijuana entrepreneurs are acutely aware the drug remains illegal under federal law, and their investments could be lost if the federal government changes its largely hands-off stance on Colorado’s industry.
Acceptus Group’s name states Gifford’s goal: Accept us.
County officials and marijuana entrepreneurs are waiting to see the demand for recreational pot. Commissioners have expressed doubt the county suddenly will be overrun by marijuana stores and grow facilities. Accordingly, they’ve declined to cap the number of stores or grow facilities allowed in the county.
“I don’t have a good handle on how much we’re actually going to see,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “As a major source of tax revenue or economic development – I don’t expect that.”
Durango, despite its relatively small population, has a number of factors that could attract marijuana business. It’s the largest city in Southwest Colorado, with more than 4,000 college students and a laid-back reputation that draws young, outdoorsy types. Tourists stream into town during summer. Durango is a short drive from three states with limited or no access to legal marijuana.
Lieb expects the marijuana industry to continue to become professionalized as more people with business backgrounds chase the money.
“I think you’ll see the marijuana industry evolve very quickly,” he said. “If there’s a dollar to be made, the capitalist-minded people are going to find their way into that business.”