In late April, in a nondescript storefront next door to Starbucks in Frisco, baby marijuana plants grow leafy, tall, and strong under bright lights and a Bob Marley poster. Nearby, Jerry Olson, the owner of the Purple Voodoo and Triple Diesel strains, sits slumped in a chair, looking dejected and defeated. At a time when the weed business is booming in Summit County and across the state, Olson is packing up his Cheeba Chews and Maui Waui and closing Medical Marijuana of the Rockies—a stark reminder that pot, as an entrepreneurial endeavor, is anything but a sure thing.
“It hurts,” Olson says. “I’m sad.”
When Olson opened his little medicinal marijuana dispensary on Summit Boulevard in 2009, it was the first in the county. His business expanded, and in the wake of the November 2012 legalization of pot for recreational use, he planned to purchase the near-vacant Holiday Center next door to the Holiday Inn off Dillon Dam Road and open a 10,000-square-foot recreational marijuana retail outlet, medical marijuana dispensary, and grow facility that would have created nine jobs. The Holiday Inn’s owners objected—they feared the smell of pot would ward off guests—but the town council effectively green-lighted Olson’s cannabis superstore on Jan. 27 when it adopted an ordinance aligning its retail and medical marijuana business codes with state law.
On Feb. 19, New Vision Hotels Two (which owns the Frisco Holiday Inn franchise) fired back, partnering with a national antidrug nonprofit (Safe Streets Alliance) that filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver, citing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a federal statute enacted in 1970 to prosecute mafia dons controlling criminal syndicates. The ongoing suit alleges that Olson—and cannabis entrepreneurs everywhere—and anyone who does business with them are subject to liability under federal RICO law, which prohibits the sale of marijuana. Safe Streets and the hotel didn’t just sue Medical Marijuana of the Rockies; it sued the Holiday Center’s owners, Olson’s investors, his contractor, and his bank, among others. (The bank subsequently was dropped from the suit after Safe Streets verified that it had closed all of Olson’s accounts, as were the property owners and contractor after they severed ties with Olson and the project.)
The landmark RICO lawsuit is just one of several challenging the state’s recreational marijuana law; sheriffs and neighboring states have sued Colorado in cases that are wending through the courts. And Medical Marijuana of the Rockies is hardly the suit’s only intended target. Safe Streets attorney David H. Thompson says that the Washington, DC–based nonprofit (headed by James Wooten, a Reagan-era Justice Department political appointee) hopes to shut down not only Olson, but every pot shop in Colorado and across the country.
“It’s no more legal to sell marijuana in Colorado than it is in Utah. In both places, it’s a federal crime,” Thompson says. “You learn the first day of law school: when there’s a federal law, it preempts state law.”
Aside from spawning a statewide Holiday Inn boycott, Thompson’s lawsuit has fanned a growing unease among Olson’s recreational-marijuana entrepreneurial peers.
“If the feds wanted to, they could come after us,” says Brian Rogers, a co-owner of Breckenridge-based Backcountry Cannabis Company who co-stars in the CNN reality show High Profits. “We all know that most of the industry is in violation of RICO because of the way it’s written. If we’re selling an illegal substance, then we’re in violation.”
Which means they could go the way of Olson, who, after a going-out-of-business sale on April 24, turned off the lights at Medical Marijuana of the Rockies and posted a farewell online, urging customers to donate to a legal defense fund he had established at fundrazr.com. At press time in June, however, Olson’s online legal relief fund had netted just $674 from 10 donors, 3 percent of the $25,000 goal.
If he loses the suit, Olson could owe the hotel owners restitution (RICO entitles plaintiffs to collect three times the amount of awarded damages, plus
attorneys’ fees), which would make rebooting Medical Marijuana of the Rockies a daunting prospect. Still, he’s determined to try.
“I am not going to give up on my convictions,” Olson says. “I’ll find another way.” For now, he’ll go on tending to the few juvenile marijuana plants he’s cultivating in a closet, the seeds of an uncertain future.