Marijuana in Massachusetts

Dispatch #2: A blindingly bright room of Denver green

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Norton Arbelaez quick-walks me through narrow, employee-only corridors inside River Rock Cannabis, one of Denver’s oldest growing operations.

I don’t take it personally. He’s just a purposeful guy, as his success in this business suggests. 

We emerge into a dim and cavernous space inside the company’s building in an industrial neighborhood northeast of downtown Denver.

The lights are off in part because it’s late on a Friday afternoon and the cultivation crew, which gets in early, is gone for the day.

But with an electricity bill that hits $27,000 a month, you can’t blame Arbelaez, River Rock’s co-owner, for preferring to steer the juice into the 300 high-intensity lights that hang throughout a network of flower rooms. 

He opens one door and blinding light spills out. Cannabis plants crowd the room. They sit atop low, wheeled carts, their tops stirred by wall-mounted fans.

A bunch of plants. Well, hundreds of them. I decided that a flower room like this needed to be one of my first stops here in Colorado. 

In this dispatch, a kind of reportorial “open notebook,” I share initial voices and photos. This weekend, I’m joining a tour of other facilities around Denver. So there’s more to come on the flower front.

Arbelaez squeezes along a wall inside one room, the heat coloring his face. 

“This is real expensive real estate under the lights,” he says. 

“Weeds” have never been treated with such respect. But few have the ability to make people a lot of money at a time when attitudes about marijuana are shifting toward full legalization -- a move people here expect to see to play out around the country in just a few years.

I’m here getting an account from Arbelaez of what it takes to make it in Colorado’s cannabis industry. He’s recognized as one of the pioneers of this trade, having founded his company in 2009. River Rock first served the medical marijuana market, then added recreational sales when they became legal in January 2014. 

The flower rooms here are staged to produce harvests every 10 days. Some of the buds picked and cured in this building travel all of a few dozen yards to the showroom up front, others to a second retail outlet across town. 

The facilities here are “first generation,” Arbelaez explains. He’s making a distinction with the more modern operation in Franklin, Mass., that he oversees as a “service provider” to the nonprofit New England Treatment Access. That firm uses a Franklin, Mass., growing facility to supply cannabis to medical dispensaries in Northampton and Brookline. 

So yes, Arbelaez is part of the Colorado connection to the nascent cannabis industry in the Bay State, the link I explored in an earlier post. 

He and his partner, John Kocer, are regulars on Jetblue flights between Denver and Logan. Arbelaez has made the roundtrip so often the airline gave him free tickets to a Superbowl.

The seeds of that growing business were planted here, in a non-descript building once used to repair Denver’s transit fleet. 

“We had to start with nothing, quite literally,” Arbelaez says of the operation, located on North  York Street. “We learned the ropes here and used all that knowledge back in Massachusetts.”

Eight years into this business, he and Kocer are old hands -- with the business bruises to prove it. 

“There’s a saying out here that the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land,” he says.

Arbelaez, dressed in a white dress shirt and dark sport coat, shows me a few more flower rooms. He’s a lawyer, so as work duds go, he’s business casual all the way. 

I take photos and Arbelaez -- a good sport -- agrees to provide a 30-second cannabis chalktalk for a video. 

After a few more trips along dark corridors, we sit on big black office chairs for a while in a security room, as video images flicker on a giant display.  

Arbelaez is a fount of information on the cannabis industry -- both here and in Massachusetts. He provided a lot of story tips that I’ll be pursuing here in Colorado in the coming week. 

In a rough and tumble trade, he’s kept his sense of humor. 

Arbelaez, River Rock’s co-owner, notes one irony of the structure’s new use. Bus drivers once visited a room here to be screened for drugs. It’s home now to River Rock’s showroom.

Tour stop

Out in the retail showroom, manager Erika Lindquist is aiding a brisk stream of customers. 

She says the retail operation gets a lot of tourists, in part because it’s on the Colorado Cannabis Tour. But through the week, it’s also common to see groups of young people on road trips from out of state. 

“It’s really cool to meet a lot of people from everywhere,” she tells me. “We see mostly people from out of state coming in, not so much local people.”

That’s likely because of the location. River Rock’s other retail shop, on West 6th Street, lies closer to residential neighborhoods. 

Lindquist understands the pull of a cannabis state, having moved to Denver a few years ago from Salt Lake City. The River Rock crew of about 30 people is like a new family.

“It’s a good place to work. I’ve been here for awhile because the people are so great,” she says. “We can to do the same thing together. It’s been fun.”

I ask about customers. She says people of all ages come, including families.  

“A lot of older people come in with their daughters and sons,” Lindquist says. 

The shopping trips give members of the younger generation -- provided they are age 21 or over -- a chance to educate their parents about how the cannabis culture has changed in its new legal era.

“They’re showing their mom stuff that is new,” she says of what parents hear. “They’ve smoked their whole lives but don’t know about edibles and stuff like that.”

In the air

The River Rock compound lies just north of I-70, a main road into the city from the Denver airport. 

Because property is relatively cheaper here, including in this neighborhood known as Elyria Swansea, several growing facilities make it their home. 

Their make their presence known to all, from time to time, depending on prevailing winds.

“On certain days, the whole corridor smells like marijuana,” said Chris Walsh, a veteran news reporter and editor who oversees Marijuana Business Daily. 

When I worked as a reporter in Winston-Salem, N.C., the smell of tobacco hung heavy around factories downtown. 

“That’s the smell of money,” people liked to say.

Have a question about what’s up with the cannabis business in Colorado? Email Larry Parnass at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com. And watch this space for regular reports from the road.


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