January 2020

HIGH HOPES: What has happened to Colorado’s ‘Napa valley’ of weed?

In the wake of a promised economic boom, hurdles remain for a young cannabis industry in Pueblo County.

Pueblo’s “Napa Valley” moniker has been claimed by several different people, but what does it really mean? Has Pueblo County lived up to expectations? With evolving and unflinching state regulations, how has the county been able to grow their business? (Noah Weeks for PULP)

This series was produced by Colorado College journalism students in coordination with PULP.

“Colorado College is in a unique position to provide hands-on opportunities for students that will expose them to how journalism works and allow them to explore it as a profession.”

The Authors of ‘High Hopes’

Miriam Brown

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.

Michael Gorman

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 Weeks

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 Mashek

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

When it comes to who first started referring to Pueblo as the “Napa Valley” of cannabis, there might be some dispute.

“I started it,” says Shawn Honaker, owner of Yeti Farms in Pueblo, who told PULP in a recent interview he was a pioneer when it came to large-scale outdoor cultivation in Colorado. “When it comes to the Napa Valley of cannabis, that was my quote.”

But not so, says Sal Pace in a separate interview. As a leader in the state legislature and later a commissioner in Pueblo County, Pace has been a political proponent for the economic promise of the cannabis industry and also lays claim to the term.

“I figured that if Pueblo County was going to be the wholesale epicenter for the state of Colorado for marijuana cultivation that it would be the equivalent of the Napa Valley of cannabis for Colorado,” he said.

Regardless of who started it, the nickname has stuck, winding up in newspaper headlines, landing inside an official report by the Institute for Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and getting a national name-check in both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. A presentation called “It’s changed my home. Pueblo Colorado: The Napa Valley of Marijuana,” is even housed on the website of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The moniker is a reference to California’s Napa Valley, a region known worldwide for its premier wine-and-vineyard economy since the prohibition era almost a century ago. In 2016, 90% of exported wine from the United States came from California, according to the Wine Institute, an advocacy group that calls itself “the voice for California wine.”

Following a statewide voter referendum in 2012 that legalized the recreational sale and consumption of cannabis in Colorado, some political leaders and industry insiders believed Pueblo, with its comfortable climate and robust agricultural economy, could do for the fledgling pot industry what fermented grapes did for California wine country. The southern Colorado county about two hours from Denver saw early political support for cannabis businesses, and some flocked to the area for its spacious fields and newly-erected storefronts.

But five years later, whether the industry has lived up to its initial billing is not immediately obvious. Has it met expectations, or is there a different story to tell?

Currently, this county of roughly 170,000 residents and spanning nearly 2,400 miles is home to around 174 licensed marijuana businesses, and 139 licensed retail cultivators, according to a review of government documents by PULP. The county is also home to at least one testing lab, and a public university institute dedicated to cannabis research. The area might even get its own cannabis museum. According to a 2018 Colorado Department of Revenue report, Pueblo was the third-largest harvester of cannabis in the state behind Denver and El Paso counties, responsible for nearly 114,000 plants that make up nearly 45,000 pounds of consumable herb. At the massive Cannabis Business Conference in Las Vegas in December, the only county in the nation listed in publicity material as sending an economic development officer was Pueblo.

Of course, being such a hotspot for the industry comes with serious regulation. When farmers use water to grow cannabis plants, for instance, it can cost them as much as 10 times more than if they were growing alfalfa, said Kent Ricken, general manager of the Colorado Water Protective and Development Association. The reason: not a drop of it can be touched by any federal entity.

In recent years, law enforcement officers have also been raiding allegedly illegal grows in Pueblo that they say have ties to foreign organized crime.

The legalized market in Pueblo County, once known nationally as an epicenter for the steel industry, has its economic advantages. A 2017 report by CSU-Pueblo’s Institute of Cannabis Research reported an estimated net economic impact of $35.6 million for Pueblo County in 2016, a 23.5% increase in real estate values, and a 16.1% increase in construction spending since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

But to some, the “Napa Valley” of cannabis is a fading metaphor — or one that was never fair to begin with.

Closer to home, Kevin Niles, general manager of Arkansas Groundwater Users’ Association in Pueblo, says in 2014 and 2015, Pueblo County witnessed the “great green rush.” In 2015, he says, his association had around 16 growers. Last year, though, they had closer to four.

“The market— it’s survival of the fittest, correct?” Niles said. “I mean, the strong will survive.”

Five years into Pueblo’s great cannabis experiment, this series checks in with a handful of people at different points along the cannabis production process in Pueblo County, seeking to highlight the faces and personal stories of some of those living and working in this so-called “Napa Valley” of weed where the nickname means different things to different people depending on who’s doing the talking. It is not comprehensive, but offers a snapshot in time.

High Hopes

What has happened to Colorado’s ‘Napa Valley’ of weed?


What has happened to Colorado’s ‘Napa valley’ of weed?

In 2014, Pueblo was referred to as the “Napa Valley” of cannabis, but by whom?

High Hopes – Part 2

License and Registration, Please

What does it take to earn a license in a tightening Pueblo cannabis industry?

High Hopes – Part 3

Rising Tide in the Desert 

How federal cannabis regulation trickles down to raise water prices for Pueblo businesses.

High Hopes – Part 4

Bloom Doom, Seedless in Pueblo

How federal cannabis regulation trickles down to raise water prices for Pueblo businesses.

High Hopes – Part 5

From the Ground Up

Fluctuating market prices have made hitting profit thresholds a veritable science for cannabis growers.

High Hopes – Part 6

What happened to the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Testing? 

With only one functioning cannabis testing facility, how can retail owners and growers be sure of their product?

High Hopes – Part 7

Driving the Business

The white vans army fuels gets the cannabis from grow to the store.

High Hopes – Part 8

Seeds to Retail Shelves

What happens in a Pueblo dispensary, anyway?

High Hopes – Part 9

Not One Typical consumer

The white vans army fuels gets the cannabis from grow to the store.

High Hopes – Part 10

High Hopes: Profit, Taxes and the Budweiser of Cannabis

Which companies have found success or failure in the new and tumultuous landscape of cannabis in Pueblo County?