Part 2 — What does it take to earn a license in a tightening Pueblo cannabis industry?
Somewhat damaging to the connotation of a prosperous Napa Valley lies a significant barrier to entry. With such large financial means necessary for starting a business, as well as a clean criminal record, is Pueblo County an inclusive environment for establishing a successful business? (Noah Weeks for PULP)
By Miriam Brown and Michael Gorman
High Hopes is a collaboration between PULP and Colorado College’s Journalism Institute.
In the black market of some unregulated basement somewhere, an illegal grower can start with a seed, some water and soil — and a lot of experimentation.
For an above-the-board licensed grower in Pueblo, though, legitimacy means beginning with a flurry of paperwork and wading through the red tape of double-digit form packets, background checks, and a public hearing before they can even put the first seed into the ground.
Licenses are tied to street addresses, so the first step for potential Pueblo business owners is to coordinate with local zoning laws and find and establish ownership of a plot of land. Counties set their own limits as to the number of licenses they’ll hand out. Some municipalities establish moratoriums after awarding a certain number of licenses.
In 2018, Pueblo County’s commissioners extended a moratorium on any new licenses that at the time was set to last until January 2020, with some exceptions. The moratorium, for instance, does not affect the town of Boone, and the city of Pueblo is accepting license applications for grows and cannabis-infused products, but not stores.
Like elsewhere in Colorado, obtaining a license happens at the state and local level for a potential Pueblo business owner. The state will grant a conditional license pending the status of application for a local license, which the seven-member Pueblo County Liquor and Marijuana Licensing Board awards to an owner based on criminal history, previous felony convictions, and financial indebtedness, among other factors.
For an indoor retail cultivation facility, a 12-page application packet — complete with a location, water source, security cameras with Digital Video Recorder — a background check, and a $5,000 operating fee plus a $.50 fee per square foot of where plants are located are some of the first steps of the local licensing process. Eventually, the Liquor and Marijuana Licensing Board schedules a public hearing for the license.
For some, the main barrier to entry into Pueblo County’s cannabis industry lies in the licensing process.
Five years into Colorado’s cannabis experiment, one critique of the industry has been a limited aspect of diversity among business owners. Government information surrounding social equity in the cannabis industry is a big question mark for those critics.
Katie Foody, reporter for The Associated Press, said on a February panel about cannabis journalism that diversity and equity in the cannabis industry is a “big area where we don’t know a lot.” Wanda James, a black owner of the Denver Simply Pure dispensary, has been outspoken about why she believes that is the case.
“The fact that for over five years we were the only black licensees and that the state refuses to release the ethnic background of the ownership of cannabis businesses says something about the failure of the state to address social equity,” James said in an interview with the Denver alternative weekly Westword. She added that regulatory rules and steep costs of licenses and leases have made it difficult for anyone who isn’t a millionaire to start a cannabis business.
“To get a business running, I think you’re looking at basically around $1 million,” Travis Nelson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Association, told PULP. “It takes a lot of capital to get into the industry.”
For others, the required background check is another roadblock.
Ean Tafoya, co-chair of the Denver-based Colorado Latino Forum, told PULP background checks that bar Coloradans with criminal histories are key to understanding the lack of diversity and inclusion within the cannabis space. Tafoya emphasizes the “War on Drugs” for disproportionately affecting people of color and leaving them with criminal records.
“Secondly, a structure that is created that excludes people with criminal records, marijuana records for example, without them having to be expunged, that kind of access as well,” he said. “What we saw was people who have been growing and supplying, though in the black market, for a long time were people of color, yet when the industry changed hands, there was a massive shift of who had the wealth, and that was wealthy white investors.”
Pueblo County alone has a population that is 43.1% Latino. But Tafoya says he personally doesn’t know any Latino owners of cannabis businesses in Colorado. He added that he could only think of one black owner in the state industry, who lives in Denver: James.
About the Authors
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Miriam is a student journalist at Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. She worked for CC’s independent student newspaper, The Catalyst, for two years in a variety of roles, including reporter, section editor, copy editor, and co-editor-in-chief.
Junior, studying race, ethnicity, and migration studies and journalism at Colorado College. From Bethesda, MD, with journalism experience in the Journalism Institute at CC as well as running The Sideline Observer, a student-run online media organization. @SidelineOMike
Noah grew up in St. Louis, MO, and is a senior Film and Media Studies major at Colorado College. His interests include public policy, political journalism, and sustainable international development, and his documentary “Guns for Everyone” was featured on Rocky Mountain PBS’s series “In-Short.” Noah can be found on @WeeksNoah.
Ana is from Swarthmore, PA. She’s currently a sophomore at Colorado College, where she is pursuing a degree within their Journalism Institute. She works for the school’s independently run newspaper, The Catalyst, as both a writer and layout editor. @ana_mashek