High Country: Why Snowmass Village local Whitney Justice went all in on cannabis cultivation in Saguache County
The co-owner of Area 420 gets candid about fighting for social equity at Colorado’s largest (and anti-corporate) farming co-op.
Welcome to the inaugural and annual Harvest Series, where each week in October, High Country will introduce you to leading local cannabis cultivators and entrepreneurs as a celebration of the season. Synonymous with a final gathering of fruits and vegetables before the first frost, autumn is equally as ripe for cannabis farming — it’s a crop, too, after all.
On a stunning recent September morning, I sat down with fellow Snowmass Village local Whitney Justice in a quiet corner of The Collective’s patio. After exchanging hellos, the first thing she said to me was, “I love your phone case. I’m a Deadhead.”
My “Bertha” by Casely isn’t just a protective cover, but also a conversation starter when spotted by another Grateful Dead disciple. Justice was introduced to me by a mutual friend after I learned that as an owner of Area 420 — one of Colorado’s most massive commercial cannabis cultivation operations — she was also a neighbor.
Calling Aspen and Snowmass home since 1989 after graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder, Justice eventually embarked on a career as a residential builder and developer. She retired in 2015.
“After two years of biking and skiing (Justice holds multiple 100- day pins), every single day that I could, I said, ‘OK, I can’t retire, I’m too young to retire, I need to do something,'” she laughed.
My first interview question: “So how did you decide on cannabis?”
“It was actually at (a Dead & Company) concert during the set break. I ran into an old buddy I’ve known since eighth grade from Crested Butte. He had a friend with him, who told me he had moved to Moffat — a place I had never heard of but driven through a hundred times,” Justice recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, there’s explosive growth in the cannabis world down there, it’s just happening, you can do whatever you want, it’s truly like the Wild West.’ And I said, ‘Really?'”
With her bags and truck already packed for the weekend of shows, Justice headed straight from Boulder to Saguache County “on an exploratory mission.” It sounded so exciting that she canceled a solo trip to Costa Rica to see it for herself and soon found the beginnings of her next chapter. It was then and there where she met Mike Biggio — an ex-felon who spent eight years behind bars for selling cannabis between British Columbia and Colorado and, upon his release in 2008, went on to work in the legal cannabis industry in his native state.
“He’s the best business partner I could have ever imagined, because I don’t speak the cannabis language. I speak the development language — I can make all this happen logistically and he can make all of this happen for growers,” Justice said of Biggio. “The fact that Moffat is so underdeveloped, it was like a blank canvas for us. And now we have created a real community of like-minded, passionate cannabis entrepreneurs.”
Together in 2017, they were quickly embraced by the Moffat Town Board and became co-owners of a 420-acre business park that’s zoned for licensed commercial grows, marijuana-infused products (MIP) laboratories and testing and research facilities for both recreational and medical cannabis. Justice later purchased a second home in nearby Crestone to make her three-hour commute easier in the summer (her winter visits are less frequent when Independence Pass is closed).
According to the Area 420 website, it’s “the world’s largest collection of independently owned commercial cannabis operators who have formed like Voltron to compete against corporate cannabis!” And it happens to be located in one of the smallest towns in the state; according to the 2010 United States Census, Moffat’s population was 116 people, far fewer than its heyday in the early 1900s when it was a major cattle-shipping hub along the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
Area 420, named as a nod to the paranormal activity in the region (the UFO Watchtower is 15 miles away), opened for business in 2018 selling parcels of land (the minimum is 1 acre for $250,000 with a 20% down payment) and providing in-house automatic financing (without credit checks) — a challenge to obtain independently within the industry. Area 420 also offers ready-to-grow infrastructure beyond its plots like power and water for its businesses — 100% of which are growing cannabis to sell to dispensaries throughout the state.
“A big part of our mission at Area 420 is that we specifically want to help people who have been targets of the war on drugs and help them get back into it in the right way and start over,” Justice proudly proclaimed. “We give those people, like Mike, who have lost years (of their lives) they cannot get back preferential treatment, that’s for sure.”
Citing the freedom from a lack of building codes and regulations — a stark difference to that of Pitkin County — Justice also just put the finishing touches on Area 420 Studios, where offices and podcast-recording facilities were up-cycled from an antique caboose and baggage car found in Alamosa. Other planned projects include the transformation of a retired American Airlines MD-80 aircraft into a consumption lounge; the Area 420 team just had an ordinance drafted and passed to get its social use permit, which Justice called, “a really big deal.” Plus, she’s also about to begin building 12 houses made out of grain bins so tenants will have the option of residing on site.
“For me, the coolest thing about Area 420 is seeing all of the cottage industries that have cropped up around us that are feeding off of what we’ve built,” Justice noted. “It’s very rewarding to provide jobs to see people in and around Moffat starting businesses involved with or related to ours. There really is this momentum that has returned.”
Justice added: “From a business perspective, I’ve done a lot of real estate development plays, and this one is the grand slam of them all. I mean, I bet the farm on this thing … my kids’ college funds, everything.
I thought, ‘This has to work.’ And sure enough, it’s been an incredible ride and a financial home run. I’m loving every minute of it.”