Company Poised to Expand in Wake of Amendment 64
RIDGWAY – The sign for the new medical marijuana dispensary is discreet bordering on bland – no giant psychedelic pot fronds or trippy new age logos clamoring to catch the attention of motorists whizzing by. Just a plain green cross (the universal symbol for medical marijuana) and the name of the business: Acme Healing Center of Ridgway.
It’s located at 157 US Highway 550, just north of the Cimarron Cafe and the town’s one stoplight, in a log building that formerly housed a real estate office. Inside, the dispensary still has an office vibe – it’s about as bland, frankly, as the sign outside. There’s a desk, a couch, and a bunch of wood-paneled cabinets. Nothing at all screams “pot,” although its musky scent is in the air.
The goods – 40 different strains of medical grade marijuana as well as infused products, edibles and hash concentrates – are kept under lock and key in a small, secure room off to the side, which Acme General Manager David Niccum is willing to show to guests, as long as they don’t handle anything (which is against the law unless you have a “red card”).
Niccum, an affable and articulate dark-haired 30-something, is fluent in all the legalities of Colorado’s fledgling pot industry. He and business partner (and Acme owner) Chris Sanchez are poised to capitalize on the industry’s pending expansion in the wake of the passage of Amendment 64, which is legalizing the recreational use of pot in the State of Colorado. (The Colorado legislature is currently grappling with out how to implement and regulate the amendment, which takes effect in January 2014.)
In the meantime, as Ridgway’s first medical marijuana dispensary enters its third week of operations, things are pretty quiet. “We are actively seeking new patients,” Niccum said.
Now, to become a licensed Colorado Medical Marijuana user, patients must obtain a doctor’s recommendation and then have a notary sign off on their paperwork, which goes to State of Colorado’s medical marijuana patient registry (along with a registration fee). Per the State Constitution, medical marijuana can be recommended for patients with cancer, glaucoma or HIV/AIDS. Patients with chronic or debilitating diseases or medical conditions that produce symptoms including persistent muscle spasms, seizures, severe nausea, severe pain or cachexia (a complication of late-stage cancer also known as Wasting Disorder) can also obtain a physician’s recommendation for the medical use of marijuana.
Niccum, who firmly believes in marijuana’s ability to treat such symptoms, boasts an impressive knowledge of what each of his products and strains of cannabis can do. Small glass jars full of plump, dusky green, sticky-looking buds on the shelf behind him bear labels with the name of each strain, as well as the effects on users (giggly, euphoric and focused; uplifting and happy; lazy and sleepy) and the symptoms it can best address (seizures, anxiety, insomnia, pain and so on).
Niccum recalls a patient with breast cancer, whose doctors could not fix the burning sensation in her chest. On Niccum’s recommendation, she gave a topical marijuana-infused ointment a try.
“She told me that she feels that it saved her life,” Niccum said, “because it was the only thing that eased the intense pain she was going through, which none of her doctors could help.”
Niccum started a patient with fibromyalgia, very wary of trying marijuana, with pain-relieving night pills that are THC-infused. She came in the next day in tears, saying it was the first time in years that she had slept through the night.
It’s a common misconception, Niccum said, that MMJ patients can shop at just one dispensary. So long as patients have a red card, they can patronize any dispensary they wish – including Acme’s three locations in Crested Butte, Durango and now Ridgway.
One of the benefits of shopping at Acme, he said, is that patients enjoy considerable discounts, passed along because the cannabis comes from a grow facility in Ouray County.
The facility, south of Ridgway in the Uncompahgre Valley, consists of large warehouse and an attached greenhouse – the only approved medical marijuana greenhouse on the Western Slope – where 40 different marijuana strains are grown.
“My goal is to get to 100 by 2014,” Niccum said.
Breeding takes place in quarantined areas, to avoid cross-contamination. About 1,000 plants in varying stages of maturity are nurtured by a staff of seven, with the sound of birdsong and chirping crickets piped in. “You kind of feel like you are sitting in a garden,” Niccum said. Some strains can get huge – up to 8 feet high – but the average height of the mature plants is about 4-5 feet.
Security meets (and exceeds) the State of Colorado’s medical marijuana enforcement division requirements on all levels, with a high fence, multiple security cameras “and a guard dog,” Niccum added.
“We run a really tight ship, and we are very proud of it.”
Sanchez, a native of Hotchkiss whose family has a large tree farm, had hoped to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Ridgway a couple of years ago after his own community voted to ban them.
He had to wait, though, because at the time, Ridgway had a moratorium in place for medical marijuana operations. That was lifted, as was a state moratorium and laws regarding state and local licensing procedures, in mid-2012.
According to Ridgway Town Manager Jen Coates, “The Town Council provided a forum for public input in regulating these types of facilities through the adoption of both land use regulations and licensing regulations for medical marijuana operations and facilities, which we employed in issuing a local medical marijuana dispensary license [to Acme] late last year.” The state took about four months to process the license, and Acme Healing Center of Ridgway finally opened in late January.
In the intervening 20 months that it took for all of this to unfold, Sanchez and Niccum worked to establish their grow facility and two other Acme Healing Center dispensaries, in Crested Butte and Durango.
“We are trying to build our grow operation out as fast as we are opening stores,” Niccum said, but per the current laws regulating medical marijuana in Colorado, “we are only allowed to grow plants for patients who have signed up. “So we are doing a big patient push right now. To support our dispensaries, we need people to apply.”
A year from now, all that could change, depending on what kinds of regulations Colorado lawmakers come up with in the current legislative session in response to Amendment 64. “If dispensaries go recreational, it will allow us to cater to anyone over age 21,” Niccum said. That means an exponentially larger customer pool than the 136,000 cardholders who can now patronize Colorado’s medical marijuana dispensaries.
“We are building out to be that way,” Niccum said. “We are ready to go recreational in all three cities.”
While Amendment 64 gives individual municipalities the option to ban recreational marijuana enterprises, Niccum and Sanchez are gambling that Ridgway will not go that route. Niccum reported nothing but positive feedback from the local community so far about both the grow facility and the new dispensary.
Support has come from surprising places. “It’s actually been really amazing,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how many conservative people have been shopping at our center. And they are not teenagers. They are 40-70-year-old people, saying ‘I’m curious.’ We really cater to those people.”
The Acme dispensaries in Crested Butte and Durango have met with similar community support. “They all see the sales tax potential, and that this is a growing business,” Niccum said. The Crested Butte dispensary brings in about $7,000 in annual sales tax revenues, and the Durango location is on track to earn that city about $20,000 in sales tax revenues in its first year.
Big-picture wise, things are looking good, but the math is a little bit tricky at the moment. It is impossible to stockpile product toward what Niccum and others anticipate will be a huge surge in demand next year, because current regulations limit the number of plants that growers can cultivate, depending on how many patients they serve.
“In my mind I’m thinking, what do I need to have in June to be ready for January 2014?” Niccum explained. “But until Jan. 1, 2014, our hands are tied. We are working with the county and city, and waiting to see what the state will allow us to grow.”
Still, these are headaches that Niccum and Sanchez say they are happy to have.
“We are very lucky to be in this business,” Niccum said. “We are trying to be a model for the whole country. We are starting from scratch; there is so much misunderstanding out there, but we are tightening it up and trying our best.”
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