On Wednesday, I sat down with Steve Ackerman, the owner of the Organic Alternatives medical marijuana dispensary in Fort Collins and the former president of the Northern Colorado Medical Marijuana Association. I met Steve at In Harmony Wellness (346 E Mountain) to talk about his experience with the Fort Collins cannabis industry, some myths surrounding cannabis in Fort Collins, and the future of Organic Alternatives.
In the back room of In Harmony Wellness is the once and future site of Organic Alternatives, a spacious bar that Steve says is over a hundred years old. It’s dimly lit right now – Steve says he needs to replace some burned out track lighting and make some other repairs – but it already feels less like a dispensary and more like a place to sit back, relax, and take your mind off things.
Moving to another part of the bar, Steve shows me an anti-cannabis propaganda poster from the late sixties: “If you run across this plant, do not try to apprehend it yourself,” he reads in a sinister voice before listing its many “aliases”. The poster is just one small reminder of marijuana’s fear-cloaked past and the obstacles that people like Steve have had to overcome in order to make medical cannabis a legitimate business.
Eventually we move back to the front office of In Harmony Wellness, a clean, open space with hardwood floors and a waiting area filled with comfortable leather chairs and couches, where we get down to business:
Budding Fort Collins: How did you get started in the [medical marijuana] business?
Steve Ackerman: I started out as a grower. About 2009 is when we decided to start growing in a warehouse on the north end of town. Then it was decided that we needed to have storefront, so in 2010 I was able to acquire this space. We did some quick remodeling on it and opened up toward the end of January in 2010. We jumped through every hoop that was thrown out in front of us, I mean, there’s a hurdle every place you turn.
Wasn’t too long after that that they came up with the licensing scheme, and then 1284 [Colorado House Bill 1284] came along…there were some real expenses. Every time you thought you were getting caught up, boom, they hit you with something else. Then I saw Windsor and Loveland go down in an election at the end of 2010, and that alerted me to the fact that we were very vulnerable here in Fort Collins, because those are neighboring communities and the people that would be against it here in Fort Collins would be encouraged to try and mount that same campaign here.
So I [started] an organization here with the different medical marijuana center owners [the Fort Collins Medical Cannabis Association]. I think there was a core of about ten of us who…had a regular meeting just to try to come up with some guidelines for all of us to follow, to make sure we were more accepted in the community. We were trying to undo all of the stuff that was done in the early months of the business, where people were advertising with signs out on College Avenue and doing things that really upset a lot of people in the community, and that taste didn’t really get washed out of their mouths before that ballot initiative came up.
A big landmark I think was in March of 2011 when the city council was going to make a decision whether to allow all of the businesses that had established themselves to that point to be grandfathered in, no matter if they fit the zoning regulations or not because, you know, they had already opened up before the zoning regulations. And when they made that decision to grandfather us all in, that’s when the forces against us really mounted and said “that’s enough”, and we found out within a month that they were mounting a petition drive to get it on the ballot. And all that was required was about 4200…to get it on the ballot.
We felt that we were very vulnerable at that point. We were really behind the eight ball…we were organized enough to mount a campaign, but we didn’t have enough time to make the community know that we were complying with all of the regulations, that the regulations were much stricter than what was in place the year before, with security cameras everywhere in the building, and manifests that were required to be filed before any product moved from anywhere to anywhere, and Point of Sale systems done electronically, making sure that every purchase was recorded. It was really pretty airtight, and people didn’t understand that.
The petition drive set up a tent out by Ace Hardware on Harmony. I went there one morning to scope it out, and there was the sheriff of Larimer County [Justin Smith] in a sport coat. He was asking people to sign this petition. He did not know who I was, and I said: “Well, why should I sign this petition?” And he said “There’s a lot of criminal activity around this marijuana, and we didn’t really have any problem with marijuana in Fort Collins until these dispensaries started popping up, and then marijuana-related crime went up 40%.”
I debated him in a League of Women Voters forum and I said “So, where do you come up with this 40% figure” because he brought it up again [around 15:45 in the video], I said “Where’s your data?”[starting around 18:50]. And he said “Well, we went through all of our incident reports, and every time marijuana appeared, we counted it,” [around 19:50]. I mean, this isn’t convictions, it’s not even…it’s nothing. But since it was coming up, well, the sheriff has the ability to make it come up as much as he wants to. So…interesting. But anyway, ultimately we lost that election.
February 14th, that was the last day of business. We tried to wrap things up and figure out what to do, and Kirk Scramstad, who was associated with one of the dispensaries [A Kind Place], said “Steve, we gotta do something about this.” I said “What do you wanna do?” and he said ‘Let’s get it on the ballot.’
We saw that the election was well-placed to beat us out. Every four years we have a presidential election, every two we have a mid-term election. Even people who vote every four years don’t vote every two years…This was not just a mid-term, it was a third year, which was basically a school board election. So a lot of people that voted in 2008 and didn’t show up in 2010 – this was a mail-in ballot only – didn’t even get a ballot in the mail. They were deemed an inactive voter, because they hadn’t voted in the last election.
So we had an extra-double job of trying to get people back on the voting rolls. We tried to get people to register to vote, got a thing going on campus, you know, “register to vote so you can vote on this.” Then we had to spend the next few months just trying to get them to vote…So it was very frustrating.
BFC: Where do you see the industry going here in Fort Collins in the next five years?
Steve: I see…God, who knows? I couldn’t predict any of this stuff. I saw us in trouble before that last election. I had a feeling about the most recent election, that we could turn it around. And there was…55% to 45% that were in favor of it. There’s also statewide, the 55% for and 45% against Amendment 64 as well. I think that there will be less medical marijuana centers whenever we get to open. Hopefully the community will embrace us. We’ll run a tight ship and follow the rules, the way we were doing. People will take notice or not take notice, we will just disappear. We’ll only be known by the people that need to know about us.
BFC: Is Organic Alternatives just going to be a medical dispensary?
Steve: Yeah, that’s actually right now, as you know, the only legal way to purchase marijuana in Colorado. Though it’s legal to possess it, you can’t buy it, and you can’t sell it. You can grow it, but the only place to buy it is a medical marijuana center. So when we open up, that’s what we’ll be. That is not to say that we won’t look at the model of the regulated recreational shop when it becomes available. I think that that is not going to be something we’re going to see until 2014.
BFC: I agree with you. From the sound of it, it’s going to be structured a lot like the medical industry already is.
Steve: And then if you look…there was a big article in the Denver Post on Sunday, regarding the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division really is understaffed, and that they’re…all these cameras, and internet connections that we had to have, that they’re really not being able to utilize them that much.
BFC: There’s a huge backlog.
Steve: But part of it, you know, I never hear anybody say in the same sentence that in 2010, when over a thousand businesses went down in a two-day period and ponied up over $8 million to apply for licenses and most of them haven’t even received licenses yet. It was within just a few months that Gov. Ritter then took a good portion of that money away from other programs. If that money had been left in there to help develop this regulatory system and to be able to keep it going, we might not be in the situation we’re in today. That article wouldn’t have to be written. They had to cut staff and everything. They raised all this money for licensing and everything, and then had at least half of it stripped away for other stuff. But you never hear anybody say “What happened to that? What happened to the money that you actually collected to do this regulation?”
BFC: I feel like there’s a lot of hesitation to engage with these sorts of issues. Have you seen any stigma around cannabis use, or owning a dispensary, that sort of thing, here in town?
Steve: Well, I haven’t been open for a while, but I don’t have any qualms with telling people what I’m involved in. I think if you look at the numbers from the last election, 45% of the people in town are not with it, and 55% are. I’m guessing that if I tell somebody that’s in the 45% what I do, they don’t usually say anything. And if I talk to somebody in the 55%, they’re like “That was really horrible what they did to you guys.”
If you think about it, how can people that are all for controlling everything be against regulating something that is as prevalent in our society as [cannabis] is? You don’t hear about people overdosing on marijuana. There is not much crime documented around the use of marijuana. There is about alcohol. Alcohol is a factor in a lot of crime that occurs. So marijuana might be a little better for our society, and the stigma should not be attached to it. I don’t think this community or most communities are ready for people to be out smoking on the street or in sidewalk cafes or anything, but interestingly enough, you can walk down any street in Fort Collins and people are drinking out on the sidewalk.
It’s been seventy years in the making, and it’s going to take a little more than a few years to undo it. Prohibition doesn’t work: you have to regulate, you have to educate.
BFC: Yeah, and I’m really of the opinion that you should treat it as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue as well.
Steve: Truly, if somebody shows up to work drunk, they’re going to get sent home or get fired. If somebody shows up stoned, they’re going to get sent home or get fired, at least in my business, and I’m in the business of selling it. It’s the same thing. There’s a time and a place for its use.
BFC: You wouldn’t drive drunk, and you shouldn’t drive drugged either.
Steve: Drive stoned, right, drugged.
BFC: Are you a user yourself?
Steve: I am. I’m an occasional medicator.
BFC: Do you have any favorite strains or things you look for?
Steve: No, I like to try a lot of different stuff. I like good flavor. I mean, that’s one thing we do at Organic Alternatives is we grow 100% organic, we grow in soil, we use high end nutrients, and we get a product that is very high in flavor, you know, it’s very tasty. And if you go put it in a jar and leave it around on the shelf for a couple months, it’s still good. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve tried that, it doesn’t have a shelf life, and it doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Or it’s got a flavor, but you don’t particularly…you know, it burns, and it hurts. We try very much to come up with a product that’s enjoyable to smoke.
BFC: When do you expect to open?
Steve: The clerk told me she thought it was going to take 90 days to process a license, and they didn’t even allow anybody to apply for a license until the last few days of January. So if I use her calendar, that’s the beginning of May. Somebody else, that has another center here in town that’s reapplied, called me the other day and told me that he’d talked to the CBI, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and they said that they were so far behind on background checks that it isn’t happening that soon.
BFC: Even being grandfathered in?
Steve: The city made us apply all over again. The locations are grandfathered, but the licenses are not.
BFC: So is it like Amendment 64 where you have the right to apply for a license before new businesses can?
Steve: Yes, what they did is they said anybody that was in business on November 1, the date of the election, some date around there, previous businesses would all have the ability, provided that they came up with a building that was in zoning or was their original location, could re-apply, and they would be the priority.
Then the other criteria is that the ballot initiative called for a limit on the number of licensees in Fort Collins based on the number of registered patients in Larimer County. So currently there are about 4000, maybe 4500 patients in Larimer County, so based on 500 patients per center, there can be nine. So already ten people have applied, so there aren’t going to be any new people. The cutoff date for everybody is April 2, so about a week, and then we’ll know who all applied.
BFC: Is there anything else you want people to know or you want to share?
Steve: We’re accepting patients [laughs]. I’m accepting patients as a caregiver…Patients of Organic Alternatives will have a discount rate that people that just walk in with cards won’t have. So we’re looking for people to help get us going again, we’re looking for former patients to sign up with us.
If you would like to be interviewed for Budding Fort Collins or have your Northern Colorado dispensary reviewed, contact me at bc [at] buddingfortcollins.com.
 Sidney, Stephen. “Comparing cannabis with tobacco–again.” BMJ: British Medical Journal (International Edition) 20 Sept. 2003: 635+. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.