Norton Arbelaez has been a leader in Colorado’s medical cannabis industry since moving here in 2009.
He co-founded the Medical Marijuana Industry Group and is a principal in one of Colorado’s largest cannabis companies, RiverRock. A former medical malpractice defender in Louisiana, the 37-year-old currently divides his time between Massachusetts (where his company operates two nonprofit medical dispensaries) and Colorado.
His aspirations are international: Born in California to Colombian parents, he’s currently advising the Nasa people, an indigenous group in Colombia. The Nasa want to make the switch from an illicit economy to a regulated economy where they can grow legally on tribal lands in Colombia. Working with NGOs there, his goal is “to join indigenous rights and drug reform and have regulated cannabis be a motor for economic development in these marginalized communities in the mountains of Colombia.”
To the general public, the pace of legalization and appearance of countless dispensaries has felt amazingly fast. How has it felt for you?
“Marijuana years are like dog years, it feels like a lifetime.”
The biggest threats to the industry?
“Used to be external threats: Would the regulatory framework be shut down? In 2017, we’re doing an internal deep dive, looking at how to train employees, from the trimmer to the CFO.”
Predictions for 2017?
“It is the biggest year in history for marijuana reform. You have one of world’s biggest economies in California. If California passes its cannabis regulation proposition, it will be akin to an economy the size of France. Mexico has said if California passes this amendment, Mexicans will have to have a real hard look at the geopolitical logistics.
Massachusetts is also facing this question, against very staunch resistance by the political power players in the state — from the governor to the mayor of Boston. It will be a litmus test, where a state like Massachusetts is and where the American populace is.
Nevada, one of the world’s great tourist destinations, 60 million people go there every year. A state like Arizona on the border, it will change that border conversation. A state like Florida passing a medical marijuana constitutional amendment — this election will forever change the map.
So far California polling suggests it’s passing. It did not pass last time. Massachusetts is harder to predict, there is a fundamental conservatism even in liberal circles there. Change of this magnitude is very, very difficult. The fact is that Massachusetts does have a marijuana economy currently — not only medical but black market. The question is, should the cannabis economy be regulated?”
Have any advice to states embarking on legalization?
“Colorado and Washington provided two examples in 2012: Colorado decided to take advantage of the existing medical marijuana infrastructure on both the regulatory and licensee side. It was only those individuals for first year and a half. From a logistical point of view it absolutely is the way to do it. Washington started from scratch, it hasn’t worked out.”
What drives you?
“My initial motivation to enter this high-risk, white hair-inducing business, No. 1 for me: This is a social justice issue. On the other hand, my family is from Colombia. I lived several years of childhood there. We have a different relationship with the plant. There’s a plant-medicine aspect of this that goes back several generations in my family.
We are using market forces to precipitate societal benefit. The historical record on marijuana prohibition is absolutely clear. It is, in its core, a racist policy, it always has been. Look at Michelle Alexandria’s book (“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”), it was a mechanism of control over the poor and minorities.
I was a lawyer before this. I had a fine life in New Orleans, fancy dinners, etc. It was fine, but there was something missing: creating positive change. I have yet to meet a person who is really successful (in the industry) who doesn’t understand this is as much political advocacy as anything else. This is not a quick buck.”
RiverRock recently signed a licensing deal with Wiz Khalifa. What’s the significance of that?
“It signals a wider maturation in the cannabis market, going from being a commodity with a fanciful name to sort of a lifestyle brand that engages consumers on a visceral level. We’re taking advantage of the recreational market with the ability we have to brand and communicate … to make this part of a normal, healthy lifestyle.
It’s part of breaking the taboo of the 1960s — Cheech and Chong, god bless ’em. They continue to be activists. The idea that stoners are losers and don’t have jobs — it’s time to end that because everybody knows it’s a lie. I know incredibly successful people who have a healthy relationship with this plant.”
Your prediction for the industry 20 years hence?
“It’s very unlikely that in 20 years massive growers of marijuana will exist north of the Mason-Dixon line. Because at the end of the day, we don’t grow strawberries in Canada. There’s a reason for that.
When trade is normalized in this commodity on a hemispheric level it’s very likely it will be grown in warm countries, outside, where you can grow massive fields.
There will be a craft market, small localized grows that have peak strains, particular plant varieties … Looking into a crystal ball, the bulk of the world’s cannabinoids will be cultivated in warm climates. Nature does 90 percent of the work at a fraction of the cost.”
Do you partake? If so, what forms?
“Yes, the flower. Sometimes to focus, draft and work. Other times for a Sunday hike in beautiful Colorado. At times I abstain for weeks to reset.”
Your biggest fear?
“Nothing. Everything that could have gone wrong has. Fires, explosions, burglaries, you name it. Stress management and perspective are a critical part of surviving.”
Your most optimistic hope?
“Nobody’s going to take over the world. I’m not looking externally. Between Massachusetts and Colorado, we’re looking to make something lasting over the long term.”
(In Massachusetts, he says, the company counts 225 employees; in Colorado, 55.)
“When I walked my (late) 94-year-old grandma around these plants.”
What’s left to do in this facility?
“It is a work in progress. I could tell you 10 things in here that have to be fixed. After we’re done (with the interview), I’ll go back and paint and lay a floor.”
Best personal quality?
“I don’t give up.”
Worst personal quality?
“I have taken up a meditation practice. I’m working on humility, compassion, finding peace within myself. I need to stick to that. Sometimes I let my heart make decisions without my head.”
What’s the most overrated quality?
Your favorite food?
“I’m Colombian so, my mom’s rice and beans. In restaurants: local, organic sort of stuff.”
Do you have a motto you live by?
“Work isn’t work. For me, this is life,” he said, acknowledging that he didn’t take a paycheck for first two and a half years.
“I do yoga, lift weights.”
How are the pot industry’s customer demographics changing?
“We’re seeing very clearly that marijuana can be a sophisticated, safer alternative to alcohol. We’re also seeing an increase in Baby Boomers coming back to this after retirement, going back to the Summer of Love. The metrics bear this out.”
The biggest misconception about your work?
“People think it’s some sort of constant windfall and party, and the opposite is true. It’s been a windfall for the state, not yet for individuals.”
Your long-range goal?
“Philanthropy. 10-to-20 years from now, if I could focus on philanthropy, particularly in South America and Colombia, and also here locally in the Elyria Swansea neighborhood, the places that have allowed us to grow and be successful. I don’t want yachts, I don’t want cars, I don’t want jewels. I don’t want any of that.”
Your biggest indulgence?
“Pointless travel. Rio, Vienna, Istanbul.”