How Norton Arbeláez Became the Face of Colorado’s Weed Industry

How the former medical lawyer came to Colorado and turned just $800 into one of the state's largest medical marijuana companies.

by Juan Camilo Maldonado Tovar
03 May 2016, 12:00am

Norton Arbeláez at RiverRock's headquarters. Photos by Michael McGrath

This article was originally published on VICE Colombia.

Norton Arbeláez is used to calls from journalists. The 35-year-old is both the founder and manager of RiverRock, one of Colorado's largest marijuana companies, and the founder of Medical Marijuana Industry Group (MMIG), a cannabis entrepreneurs association that has helped construct regulatory framework for the production, sales and consumption of the plant for medicinal purposes.

He's a natural subject for articles about Colorado's legal pot industry—a clean-cut former lawyer miles away from any stoner stereotypes, seemingly always happy to grant the press access to his world. He's driven reporters in his own car to visit his Denver dispensary, plantations, and processing plants where his over 100 employees work. He's all at once a businessman, a politician, and an activist who has in his career influenced regulations and navigated them to turn a profit.

"This is not only my business, it's my passion, my intellectual calling," Arbeláez explained to me during a recent Skype conversation. I was calling him because I wanted to understand both his business and the regulatory framework it operates under. The world has been watching the Colorado experiment in legalization—which involves allocating marijuana tax revenue to schools—and several American states have followed in its footsteps; Uruguay legalized the production and consumption of the plant in 2013, after sending some of its bureaucrats to Colorado.

In the course of a conversation, Arbeláez can reference Raphael Mechoulam—an Israeli pioneer in medicinal marijuana research—and then switch to the racist origins of the banning of marijuana in the US. "Mexicans and African Americans were the ones who used cannabis, it's obvious that its prohibition had to do with racial bias," he said.

Arbeláez was born in California. His parents, who were both Colombian, nurtured in him the love for studies ever since he was a boy. They also encouraged his "paisa wit," which is a way of being "flexible, easygoing, and creative," a common trait in parts of Colombia.

Like most children raised Colombian families, Arbeláez grew up surrounded by the taboo of marijuana. "Being called a 'pothead' was almost an insult," he told me. He maintained that perception of the drug being bad, dirty, and criminal throughout his college years. Then he had a car accident that left him with an unbearable sharp pain in his spine caused by an injury to two of his vertebrae. One of his friends had been through a similar accident had become addicted to painkillers, and he didn't want to follow his example. So he bought some weed from a dealer, and the effect was immediate and revealing: Arbeláez tore down his prejudices against the plant and discovered its potential to help people in pain.

Four years later, after a job as a medical lawyer, Arbeláez decided to try his luck in Colorado with a partner, John Kocer. "We knew the medical practice and we wanted to help people," Arbeláez said, "so we saw this as opportunity."

At the time, Coloradan patients with prescriptions could possess up to two ounces of marijuana at a time and have up to three flowering pot plants thanks to Amendment 20, which was approved by voters in 2000.

To Arbeláez, this was an opportunity, but it was also a very uncertain scenario. "I got to Colorado with $800," he told me. "Back then, in the middle of an economic crisis, there were three kinds of marijuana cultivators in the business. On one side, there were the hippies, or people that had homegrown it for a long time. On the other side, there were the criminals. And finally, us, many of which came from other [industries] that had collapsed at that time, such as real estate."

Arbeláez and Kocer eked out a somewhat tenuous existence, at one point even living in their medical marijuana clinic. Then they began to worry that there wasn't enough in the way of a regulatory framework—it was impossible to control the illegal recreational market, and "under those circumstances, the federal government was going to come and shuts us all down," Arbeláez said.

The solution that the two partners and other weed-industry professionals came up with was to take it upon themselves to keep their business clean.

"What we did with the entrepreneurs, lawyers, and lobbyists that were part of Medical Marijuana Industry Group was to design a clear and accountable system. A bureaucracy that controlled the field and kept the industry from becoming criminal," he told me.

In order to achieve that, Arbeláez studied the institutional architecture that regulated several similar industries. He started with the most obvious one, alcohol, went on to look at the pharmaceutical sector to understand the relevant licensing and quality-control systems, and then studied the mechanisms the government uses to keep casinos free from mafia money.

After several months of political meetings, interviews with the media, and lobbying, MMIG and other pot policy groups were able to convince the state legislature to enact the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code, which regulated the business of selling medicinal weed.

Though Arbeláez pushed for those new rules, he and the MMIG held off from getting involved in campaigning for the legalization of recreational cannabis.

"We studied the proposal [to legalize recreation use] and gave recommendations, but we didn't promote it," he told me. "In fact, we assumed a neutral position. At that point, we already were in business and we didn't want to put our patients in risk or danger. We were serving many people with cancer, HIV, and post-traumatic stress. If we had started promoting recreational marijuana, we would have gotten the federal government pissed off and they would have shut the whole thing down. And the patients would be out of their medication. What would have we achieved?"

But when voters approved Amendment 64 in 2012, making recreational weed legal, RiverRock was quick to take advantage of the new opportunity.

"We asked the authorities to let us start selling recreational marijuana for a year, before other people joined the business," he said. "They already knew us, they had visited our crops, our employees were already certified. It made sense: the government had to learn too. You don't make a Marijuana Enforcement Division overnight."

Arbeláez declined to discuss the specifics of his company's finances, but he claimed that his staff has doubled between 2014 and 2015. His company produces "several tons" of cannabis a year, and then there are the pills, the ointments, the vaporizers, and other products that they sell in their stores. When I asked him about his annual sales, he replied, "I can't tell you how much it is exactly, but I can say that Colorado's sales every year represent $1 billion in legal marijuana, and no one owns over 15 percent of the market."

Arbeláez is preparing to open medicinal marijuana dispensaries in other states and gearing up for a bidding war over who will become first foreign company selling marijuana in Uruguay. "If we achieve that, I guess we will have to call ourselves Río Roca," he joked. "I doubt Uruguayans would like to talk about River Rock."