Mass. Senators Learn The Ins And Outs Of Colorado’s Marijuana Businesses

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A jar of marijuana buds for sale inside the River Rock dispensary in Denver. (Steve Brown/WBUR)
A jar of marijuana buds for sale inside the River Rock dispensary in Denver. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

 Updated January 13, 2016, 5:40 pm

It’s still early, but Fall River state Sen. Mike Rodrigues is eager. He’s grilling an Uber driver who was taking him to a high-tech Denver laboratory that extracts potent compounds from marijuana leaves.

“You’re out and about driving, picking people up. Do you see more people under the influence when they get into the vehicle? Do you see them roaming the streets or anything like that?” Rodrigues asks driver Jay Arcuri, who’s lived in Denver all his life.

Arcuri doesn’t hold back.

“Hell, as soon as they open the car door, you can smell it,” answered Arcuri, who tells Rodrigues legalized pot has made his home state the “laughing stock of the nation.”

Rodrigues and seven other Massachusetts senators — all members of the Senate Special Committee on Marijuana — are in Denver this week to gauge all aspects of Colorado’s marijuana industry, including how it’s being received by the community.

While many doubt the Massachusetts Legislature would legalize the recreational use of marijuana on its own, a referendum on the matter is expected to be put before voters in November. If approved, lawmakers would be required to draft and implement regulations for the legal consumption of marijuana. So the senators came to learn about how a state that has already legalized recreational marijuana is handling the emerging industry.

A Huge Potential

The senators arrive at a facility owned by a company called Evolab, located in an old warehouse in an industrial area of Denver. Founded in 2009, Evolab focuses on extractions, using carbon dioxide as a solvent to make a substance that looks like honey but is in fact potent, 99.9 percent pure, pharmaceutical-grade cannabis oil.

A container of just-extracted cannabis at Evolab in Denver. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

A container of just-extracted cannabis at Evolab in Denver. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

Jason Katz used to work in financial services, but got out of it when the housing market went bust. He’s now the vice president of consulting and business development for Evolab. He says the company creates products for both medical and recreational use and hopes to grow the market.

“We want to appeal to not only existing cannabis consumers, but we’re really interested in appealing to people who don’t consume cannabis products right now,” Katz told the delegation.

“We think there’s huge potential in that marketplace, for products that aren’t necessarily aimed at getting you incredibly high, but really sleep ailments, pain ailments, seizures, whatever it might be.”

The senators then stop at River Rock Cannabis, a combination grow and retail operation. Inside, sales clerks describe in detail a wide variety of products, displayed prominently in containers in a glass case running along the back of the store.

While not purchasing, senators stand wide-eyed as they pepper employees with questions about the products offered for sale, including cannabis oil and different types of edibles laced with a measured dose of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Sens. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), John Keenan (D-Quincy), Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) and Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) listen as Jim Elftmann, chief operating officer of River Rock Cannabis, explains how marijuana plants are grown. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

Sens. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), John Keenan (D-Quincy), Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) and Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) listen as Jim Elftmann, chief operating officer of River Rock Cannabis, explains how marijuana plants are grown. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

Still A Lot To Learn

While the trip has answered many questions for the senators, it has prompted even more. Dorchester state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry says it is helpful to see how things have been going in Colorado.

“Since they were the first state, some of the issues that they faced, although it’s been successful, but there are some roadblocks and some issues that maybe they can’t tackle,” Dorcena Forry said.

“So I do think that if the voters of Massachusetts support adult-use marijuana, but how do we regulate it, and how do we make sure that there’s not one opening up on every corner?” she added. “I think that’s important.”

Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester says there’s still a lot to learn.

“The voters of Massachusetts will likely be the ones to decide if marijuana is legalized,” he said. “But the decisions that will have to be made about how to implement legalization will really determine whether the policy is a success or a failure in Massachusetts.”

The senators wrap up their Colorado trip Thursday, and will issue recommendations to their fellow lawmakers sometime next month.

Here’s some video of Sen. Jason Lewis learning about the legal sale of marijuana in Denver:

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