It seems obvious in retrospect, but they're basically selling the fact that they have a connection. "There's a guy I sell an ounce to for $200," he tells me. "He'll literally sell the ounce to some other dude for $220, and it's an easy $20 for less than 30 minutes of his time, so he'll come back and do it again right away. Sometimes it feels like you're not even selling weed." Darren's been dealing for three years now, and he's moving a pound or two every week and a half.
The guy above him, he says, is moving anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds a week, but still doesn't consider himself a kingpin, or even big-time. Darren has no desire to get to that level; he wants to pass his business onto someone else when he graduates from college. But if he kept with it, he might come to resemble a dude I'll call Brian, who makes big bucks running drugs as a full-time business. Brian claims he grosses half a million a year, which comes out to about $250,000 after payroll and other expenses. Brian's been in the weed business for about three years and has watched it become even more lucrative in that time. A pound used to cost $4,500, but now he can get one for $3,330 or $3,800. "That means a lot of people are making good money now because wholesale has gone down so much." On paper, Brian makes next to nothing, about $15,000 a year. He has an LLC officially set up in Delaware, where taxes are lower, and now employs an uncurious accountant and a handful of deliverymen to do the schlepping he's grown tired of doing himself.
Brian claims he grosses half a million a year this way, which comes out to about $250,000 after payroll and other expenses. Despite this, he doesn't consider himself big-time, either. "Big-time guys are out in California and have connects to multiple farms," he insists. "They fly out here, arrange things, fly back and make sure everything is packaged correctly. They do that twice a year and make a million each time and are chilling in California the rest of the time." Brian tells me that he knew quite a few people who had been robbed, which highlighted one of the big downsides to selling weed illegally. The thought of that looming risk, coupled with his comment about big timers having connects with Cali, though, made me wonder about the other side of the weed business—the legitimate side. Was it easier to make money selling weed the legal way? To answer that question, I called up Anthony Franciosi, the budding entrepreneur behind the Honest Marijuana Company, who moved to Colorado from New Jersey when he was 18 to become a marijuana farmer. As he learned to grow, he worked as an irrigation specialist and did restaurant work in the resort town of Steamboat Springs. He got his start hawking extra buds from his harvest to a local dispensary. "I found that when I would give it to them, it was just disappearing, and they wanted even more of it," he tells me. "If I had the foresight back then, maybe I would have put some money away and got some licenses." Instead, he found starting a farm of his own difficult. His first opportunity came in the form of a family friend who figured Franciosi was responsible enough to entrust with a $300,000 investment. The idea was to control the product from seed to sale, eventually opening a storefront. But it soon became apparent they didn't have the funds to build that kind of operation. "They weren't really happy with the product they were gonna be able to come out with using that kind of money," Franciosi says. "Basically that whole plan just flopped on its head." He found a second partner from New Jersey, however, someone with a bit more capital who was willing to spend $1.5 million to build a growing facility from scratch in a rural area. It's set to open early next month, and it will employ five full-time employees as well as some auxiliary help, like trimmers. Those workers will earn around $45,000 a year, Franciosi says, which is a pretty good deal considering those jobs don't require a college degree. Overhead is a lot more complicated for on-the-books businesses like his; Franciosi not only has to pay his employees, he has to fork over a ton in taxes, without a lot of the write-offs that many federally legal businesses enjoy. Much like the illegal weed industry, the legal one seems to run on Monopoly money.
"I feel like the margins are shrinking, and that the people who got into the industry early were able to realize huge profits," he says. "I think going forward it's still a profitable business but practices just need to get better. I want to be a boutique facility—7,000 square feet as opposed to some in the state that are 200,000 square feet." In the end, he hopes to produce 90 pounds per month in flower and have it retail for $200 an ounce in Denver and around $300 in the mountains. Obviously, having a backer to the tune of $1.5 million helps. What I learned from talking to Franciosi is that much like the illegal weed industry, the legal one seems to run on Monopoly money. While it's called "putting it on the arm" in the former, it's called "venture capital" in the latter. Eddie Miller is one of the guys who has a vested interest in seeing small-scale entrepreneurs like Franciosi succeed.
The marketing professional, who built his first website in his parents's Long Island basement at age 16, is one of the new breed of weed enthusiasts, almost evangelical in his passion for both kinds of green.