It’s a Sunday evening in Denver, a friendly security guard checks my ID, and I settle onto a couch with my book while ambient music comes through the speakers. Around me is a group of friends in their early 20s dressed casually, a guy in a suit who looks like he just got off of work, and men and women of all ages hanging out, talking, and texting. There are white brick walls, a refurbished wood look throughout and lighting that’s bright but welcoming and befitting of any hipster establishment.

This isn’t a coffee shop or bar, though, this is Kind Love: an upscale and award-winning medical and retail cannabis dispensary in Denver. With one-third of millenials in Colorado reporting past-30 day cannabis use, I went to Kind Love with the goal of seeing for myself what the legalization of retail marijuana looked like at point of sale and beyond. Like the city itself, which legalized retail cannabis in 2012, you couldn’t sum up or stereotype anyone in the shop that night. But they all had one thing in common – a mission to get lit.

Denver residents feel like their town has long been a well-kept secret. Known for its progressive culture, endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, 300 days of sunshine and a vibrant arts’ scene, it’s no wonder News & World Report ranked it as #1 in their 2016 Best Places To Live list. Since becoming the first city in the U.S. to legalize retail cannabis, an even brighter light has shone on the city. Non-cannabis related efforts and city improvements fueled by the city government, the arts community, everyday citizens, and the private sector have all contributed to a significant improvement in quality of life in Denver, resulting in a major growth in its population. Currently home to 680,000 residents, economists predict that the city’s population will grow by another 100,000 over the coming decade – a fact that has some residents I spoke with feeling weary about how this would impact cost of living, among other things.

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Street art in Denver.

The legalization of cannabis is like icing on the proverbial cake, making an already appealing city that much more so. Denver has always been attractive to the young, but it’s become a true innovation playground for millenials, and now there’s a billion dollar industry adding to the dynamism.

But what impact has the legalization really had? There are no shortage of analyses from a legal, health, and economic perspective on the cannabis industry. But with all eyes on the Mile High City as it becomes the first in the world to implement the selling and commercialization of retail marijuana, I wanted to find out what’s really happening on the ground and how it has impacted the city, from entrepreneurship to civic engagement.

The Evolution of Entrepreneurship

With the creation of any new industry comes innovation, opportunity and the potential for challenging traditional business models. I dropped by Cultivated Synergy – a co-working space and community hub for cannabis entrepreneurs – and chatted with COO Sebastian Nassau. On the impact these entrepreneurs are having on challenging traditional models, Nassau believes that “cannabis entrepreneurs are definitely changing the narrative of business building and successful business practices.” He continues: “In an industry that developed from scratch and is still building upon its foundations, we get to explore ways that a creative, dynamic, and socially-responsible community can be created before having to be accountable to any “business as usual” way of thinking and managing our respective businesses and industry as a whole.”

Businesses at Cultivated Synergy include a marijuana staffing and human resources agency, a distributor  of high-tech cannabis products and a company dedicated to the science of soil used for growing cannabis. Outside of Cultivated Synergy is a florist creating wedding bouquets that can be smoked after you say “I do” and a retired Wall Street lawyer running a “bud and breakfast.” Rounding out the entrepreneurial impact of cannabis are small businesses – such as galleries looking to incorporate cannabis as part of the experience of art, and yoga studios and music venues looking to incorporate cannabis in their offerings.

After spending some time at Cultivated Synergy, I get the sense that this is truly a collaborative and open environment. There’s a mentality among many cannabis entrepreneurs that a rising tide will lift all boats, and working together has eliminated the fear and scarcity mindset that is often seen in startup environments. Like with anything that’s illegal or stigmatized, cannabis consumers are a community that have typically been marginalized (with people of color facing disproportionate prosecution). The entrepreneurs at Cultivated Synergy get that this disenfranchisement can now turn into empowerment, and they’re starting by empowering each other through information sharing in order to build a more collaborative economy. Nassau has seen this first hand, noting that “as the cannabis community is built with many others with this perspective, opportunities for building a creative, engaging, and symbiotic industry landscape arise.”

cannabisIn addition to the membership of Cultivated Synergy that spans several types of marijuana businesses, it is also home to NORML’s Denver state chapter, part of the nationwide nonprofit advocacy group for marijuana legalization that has been around since the 1970s. I chatted with Denver NORML’s Executive Director Jordan Person and Outreach Coordinator Kevin Mahmalji. When discussing the challenges entrepreneurs face, they explain that one of the biggest has been the paradigm shift of going from fighting the system to working alongside it. While everyone is excited by the culture of entrepreneurship that has come from the legalization of cannabis, they recognize that shaking off old narratives around engagement with the government has been tough. Cannabis consumers are generally weary of law enforcement, and activists now have to switch their frame from one of fighting for the legalization to collaborating with city officials on policies while building their businesses.

“Unlike other, established industries, the cannabis industry isn’t fighting against existing dogma and gender standards/roles. Instead, many see creative opportunities to enter the industry and shape the culture they’d like to see. I think as an emerging market, we aren’t shaped by preconceived notions of “how it should be” and can instead hop in where opportunity is seen,” says Cecile Weigle, Event Director at Cultivated Synergy.

Leading the Way With a Collaborative Approach

My conversations at Cultivated Synergy made me wonder how the government as a whole is engaging with cannabis entrepreneurs and the community at large. Leading these efforts within Denver’s city government is Ashley Kilroy, the City’s Executive Director of the Office of Marijuana Policy. The ultimate commitment of this team is to maintain Denver’s quality of life and the safety of its residents, while focusing on doing things right, not fast – a favorite motto of the Mayor. They know the world is watching and the city wants to be seen as a leader in terms of engaging employees and stakeholders throughout the community. This has required them to be nimble, responsive and innovative – qualities not often associated with government.

One way they’ve done this is through creating task forces, giving the marijuana industry and its entrepreneurs a direct line to the Mayor’s office, and having frequent check-ins with employees and community stakeholders, ensuring that a diversity of voices are present and heard at the table.

They’ve worked out how to engage with cannabis businesses and have built a regulatory framework through starting with a clean slate and creating it from the ground up. “We feel like we’re building the fire truck on the way to the fire, says Ashley Kilroy. The key for her team has been collaboration and adopting an entrepreneurial approach to their work. They understand that marijuana use doesn’t exist in a silo, and that it impacts everything from safety and the environment to licensing and education. The Mayor made the decision to not have a standalone marijuana department, but rather to put together a “small and mighty team” housed in the Mayor’s office that coordinates with all agencies that marijuana touches, building a truly collaborative model within the government.

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Visual designed by Alchemy Strategy, the end product of a process to engage diverse stakeholders around important issues in their communities (like marijuana).

What Can Other Cities Learn?

It’s not surprising that hundreds of people from around the world have been attending the now-annual Marijuana Management Symposium, the first of its kind, where the City of Denver shares everything they’ve learned with other state and local governments. This is in line with one of their core values, which is “a commitment to exchanging information and best practices with others to contribute to the public good, build better communities and develop common ground for the future.”

“One of the things the mayor talks about is ‘What makes a city great?’ He thinks that we all have an obligation to share ideas with other cities…by sharing those ideas, we can build standards, build better cities, and create for the better good,” says Kilroy.

So what do cities want to learn? Everything from ensuring that government employees are bought in once a community votes to legalize, to public safety, revenue, and the effects on children. But ultimately, Kilroy says that delegates from other cities and countries show up and “they don’t know what they don’t know.” Every day is a new challenge, and being flexible has been crucial to identifying issues as they’ve arisen and quickly collaborating on solutions.

It’s not surprising that Cultivated Synergy’s Sebastian Nassau agrees with the collaborative approach the city is taking. “Outreach to authentic and viable community groups becomes a primary goal held by all, and no one is asking why this is a goal. Everyone in the region who cares about the quality of community becomes a stakeholder in the venture and a player in the game in which everyone’s a winner.”

How is this impacting the fabric of the city? For one thing, it’s turned previously unengaged cannabis consumers into activists, with Jordan Person of Denver NORML seeing 80-100 people consistently showing up at community meetings each month. There’s a strong desire for information, and to bring that knowledge back to their neighborhoods, which has only picked up with the recent passing of I-300 in November 2016 – a Denver ballot initiative to support social consumption. Person’s hope is “for people to be a part of the change, to feel empowered.”

Empowerment & Engagement Through Destigmatization

And that’s what I really came to learn about the impact legalization has had on this city. What we’re talking about here is so much bigger than $150 million in tax revenue and the slew of policies and surface-level changes happening in Denver since retail marijuana was legalized. We’re talking about what happens when an entire portion of a community becomes empowered, and the impact this has had across the board – from entrepreneurship and government practices to the arts community and civic engagement – and on a deeper, human level.

What happens to a city when a segment of your population that used to keep part of its identity hidden is now expressed? And what impact can that have? When a significant portion of your population engages in cannabis use, it’s an important conversation to have and plays a clear role in the quality of life of residents in the state and beyond.

“The de-stigmatization of anything that’s important to people’s lifestyles in turn allows people to connect more with one another and brings communities together more deeply. Allowing people to enjoy and recreate with one another in public forums allows people to meet over shared interests. This then becomes part of a culture of growth,” says Nassau.

The beauty of cities is that they aren’t contained, and through exposure of and education around cannabis in Denver, the stigma surrounding it has flipped, and that extends beyond the city itself. “People feel empowered and are able to express themselves.” Kevin Mahmalji of NORML tells us. “There’s a strong feeling of home and optimism – there’s a ‘fire.’”

“When we’re speaking about the effects of the cannabis de-prohibition, it’s important to cite the systemic impacts. Cannabis activism has given the general population strategy and confidence to engage our legislative bodies, from the general population,” says David Serrano, Colorado Chapter President of the National Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. “In other words, cannabis pioneers have paved the way for Americans to question everything the government does, [providing] a path to discussion and sensible law making.”

At the end of the day, our cities are only as strong as their residents are empowered. Denver is a city that has the potential to fully express itself, and the spillover effect this can have on other cities is not to be understated. From the arts and entrepreneurship all the way to multi-million dollar businesses and the government itself, we’re seeing a progressive city push the envelope further. Denver is a city passionate about consistent evolution, and the empowerment of individuals and entrepreneurs is only contributing to the overall excitement. There’s a long way to go and a lot for the city to still figure out, but it’s well on its way – and it’s bringing the world along for the trip.

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