Aspen Times Weekly cover story: The pot trade grows up
April 18, 2012
“If you don’t like my fire/Then don’t come around/Cause I’m gonna burn one down.”
Ben Harper’s words flourish in the quests of ganja buffs across the world this week as the weed-smoking celebrations of “420,” more formally known as National Pot Smoking Day by its media counterparts, commence. Arguably one of the most unofficial and unsupported holidays of its kind with a subculture origin dating back to the 1970s, the merriment of this day revolves around what Rastafarians call “a natural state, man” and what Americans simply call “getting high.” In its evolved fame and shame, April 20 marks the annual day when people from all walks come together under one singular goal: to smoke cannabis and be happy.
Here in Colorado, reefer madness stems to big and small towns alike. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, thousands will gather for an annual “smoke-out”; in Denver, thousands of others will participate in the two-day High Times Medical Marijuana Cup, bringing the newest and most popular pot strains from medical dispensaries around the country to compete for awards and prizes.
But as the adoption of medical marijuana under Colorado state law in 2001 has spearheaded the incorporation of hundreds of dispensaries – putting Denver on the map for more medical marijuana centers than Starbucks – it appears that the pot culture no longer revolves around a teenybopper image of a couple of kids meeting outside the school grounds to get high but around the business model of the dispensaries and the regulated oversight of the entire pot trade – from seed to plant, from farmer to caretaker, from caretaker to patient.
In a mission to track down the methods behind Colorado’s most elusive industry, I was fortunate to speak with Pete Tramm, owner of Locals Emporium for Alternative Farms (L.E.A.F.) in Aspen, who unlike most in his line of business, talks as if he has nothing to hide.
The first dispensary to grace the streets of Aspen back in 2009, L.E.A.F. (downstairs from Johnny McGuire’s) serves about 100 patients regularly. Ten to 15 types of hash and 30 to 35 strains of indicas such as “Granddaddy Purps” and sativas such as “Golden Goat” line the shelves.
With lit display cases of pipes, bongs, vaporizers and T-shirts reading “4:30, Better Late Than Never,” Pete Tramm’s L.E.A.F. appears to be just like any other medical marijuana dispensary. But fix your eyes toward the walls where framed photos of indoor and outdoor grows hang, and the scale of the operation becomes a reality.
Licensed as one of six outdoor growing operations in the state of Colorado and the only one existing on the Western Slope, Tramm and his two partners proudly tend an outdoor medical marijuana farm in New Castle along with two indoor growing facilities: a 3,000-square-foot facility also in New Castle and a 7,000-square-foot facility in Carbondale. Responsible for growing 100 percent of the bud for L.E.A.F, Tramm believes in a direct relationship between his plants and his patients.
“We could outsource product from Denver or other areas, and we could most likely tell you all about it, but in the end it’s just not the same as knowing the details of how it was grown,” Tramm said.
Currently caring for between 200 and 250 plants, Tramm considers himself a passionate farmer whose approach to pot growing stems back to his days owning his own restaurant on the farmlands of Indiana, where he used organic, local ingredients.
“Who controls the spice controls the universe,” Tramm said. “I had pictures of my cows on the walls. … My customers knew exactly what they were eating. … The same goes for my cannabis. It’s quality from the ground up.”
But overseeing three separate growing facilities and keeping up with a dispensary, according to Tramm, requires much more than a passion for growing, especially when an electric bill for just one indoor grow is $1,200 per month.
Using a combination of high-pressure sodium and metal halide grow lights to mimic the temperature of the sun, organic ingredients such as chili oil, chrysanthemum oil, neem oil, seaweed, kelp and molasses, a regimented water schedule and a completely sterile environment, Tramm credits his indoor growing success to being preventive and proactive.
“You can have all the right principles and ingredients for growing, but you can’t always predict what’s going to happen. The worst is a loss of hundreds of plants because of spider mites or cockroaches,” he said while recalling having to bleach an entire indoor operation due to bug problems.
But according to Tramm, his indoor environments are much more sensitive and allow bugs to multiply much more quickly than his outdoor environment, which is why he wears a full protective suit upon entering. And though his indoor grows sustain his business throughout the winter months, Tramm believes his outdoor grow, bordered by a 12-foot-high razor-wire fence with protective netting, yields much more productivity.
“You just can’t beat the sun,” said Tramm, who plans to plant 1,000 clones in the ground in June for harvest in October. “The outdoor yields the most optimum light cycles, especially during the flowering phases of 12 hours of light followed by 12 hours of darkness.”
Much like corn, Tramm’s plants are annuals and are therefore cut down following the harvest. To obtain the most from his plants, however, Tramm uses the remaining components to make different types of hash, which he also sells at L.E.A.F.
“People ask all the time what the best ingredients are for growing, and the truth is, it depends,” Tramm said. “Each strain is different, and it often comes down to an individual basis. … An unsurpassed compost is probably the biggest key, but unfortunately no farmer is going to share their recipe with the world.”
In November, Colorado voters will decide whether marijuana should be legalized for recreational use, making a bag of hash as easy to purchase as milk and eggs.
Until then, Tramm and his partners at L.E.A.F. continue to comply with the ever-changing regulations of running a medical marijuana dispensary.
Each time Tramm gets in his car with marijuana, which is as many as three times a week, he must receive a transport manifest online that documents the time he is leaving, how much he is carrying and where he is going. On a good day, the manifest takes 15 minutes to process.
At the dispensary and at each offsite grow, video cameras survey every move, and random visits from field officers are the norm. Every plant and patient must be accounted for, background checks of employees must be completed, and certified badges must be worn at all times.
But separate from other dispensaries that are only allowed six plants per patient with a maximum 2-ounce yield per plant, Tramm is currently one of 14 in the state with a marijuana infused product license, meaning he is permitted to grow as much cannabis as he desires.
In the following weeks, Tramm and his partners plan to remodel a commercial kitchen adjacent to L.E.A.F. where they will make their own pot candies, cookies, brownies and more for patient use and for wholesale to other dispensaries.
“We are seriously looking into the future of cannabis,” Tramm said. “The plan is to make L.E.A.F. as transparent as possible by using all organic ingredients and labeling our products so our patients know exactly what they are buying.”
In the months to come, Tramm seeks to produce his own pot strains and make L.E.A.F. a self-surviving model for the cannabis community.
“My theory is that 99 percent of our population could benefit from cannabis,” he said. “You’re going to smile, you’re going to eat well, you’re going to sleep well, and you’re not going to get into any confrontation. So tell me, what’s the downside to that?”