Drugs

Meet the Colombian Lawyer Who Became the Face of Colorado’s Weed Industry

Norton Arbeláez turned $800 into one of the state's largest medical marijuana companies.

by Juan Camilo Maldonado Tovar
May 2 2016, 12:40pm


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

This article was originally published on VICE Colombia.

Norton Arbeláez is used to getting 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 to construct the 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 over 100 of his employees work. He's a businessman, a politician, and an activist who has influenced regulations and navigated through 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 schoolsand several American states have followed in its footsteps. After sending some of its bureaucrats to Colorado, Uruguay also legalized the production and consumption of the plant in 2013.

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

Arbeláez was born in California. While growing up, his Columbian parents encouraged him to maintain two things above all: a dedication to his studies and his " paisa wit"—a way of being "flexible, easygoing, and creative," a common trait in parts of Colombia.

Like with most Colombian families, marijuana was a taboo in the Arbeláez household. "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. That changed when a car accident left him with an unbearable sharp pain in his spine, caused by an injury to two of his vertebrae. One of his friends who had been through a similar accident had become addicted to painkillers, and Arbeláez didn't want to follow his example. He decided to buy some weed from a dealer, and the effect was immediate and revealing: Arbeláez's prejudices against the plant dissipated, and he 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 an opportunity."

"If we had started promoting recreational marijuana, we would have gotten the federal government pissed off, and it would have shut the whole thing down."

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. That was thanks to Amendment 20, which was approved by voters in 2000.

To Arbeláez, this opportunity 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. There were the hippies—or people who had homegrown it for a long time—there were criminals, and there was us—people who generally came from other industries that had collapsed at that time, such as real estate."

Arbeláez and Kocer eked out a somewhat tenuous existence with their new company RiverRock, 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. "Along with the entrepreneurs, lawyers, and lobbyists that were part of Medical Marijuana Industry Group, we designed a clear and accountable system. A bureaucracy that controlled the field and kept the industry from becoming criminal," he said.

In order to achieve that, Arbeláez studied the institutional architecture that regulated several similar industries. He started with the most obvious one—alcohol—and went on to look at the pharmaceutical sector to understand the relevant licensing and quality-control systems. Then he 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 recreational use] and gave recommendations, but we didn't promote it," he explained. "In fact, we assumed a neutral position. We didn't want to put our patients in risk or danger—many of our clients are people with cancer, HIV, and post-traumatic stress [disorder]. If we had started promoting recreational marijuana, we would have gotten the federal government pissed off, and it would have shut the whole thing down, which would leave the patients without 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, and 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 pills, ointments, vaporizers, and other products they sell in their stores. Additionally, he's preparing to open medicinal marijuana dispensaries in other states, and he's gearing up for a bidding war over who will become the first foreign company selling marijuana in Uruguay.