From behind the wheel of an SUV, Ryan watches the rear of a nondescript office building in the Denver suburbs, waiting for his partner to emerge. Tall and well-built at 48, he sports a neatly trimmed goatee, and tattoos peek out from beneath his shirtsleeves. Dog tags dangle from the rearview mirror, and a combat medic’s kit hangs off the back of his headrest. I’m seated in back, beside a black tactical vest loaded with six 30-round ammo clips (no longer legal to purchase in Colorado, they’re relics of his career as a cop). There’s also an extra bulletproof vest—for me, in case of an ambush. “If shit goes bad,” Ryan tells me over his shoulder, “you’ll come with me. We’ll leave Phil to deal with the threat.”
When Phil appears, Ryan backs the truck as close as he can to the exit: Less distance for his partner to cover means less time to draw unwanted attention. Like Ryan, Phil wears a navy blue polo shirt stretched over a Kevlar vest, which he tugs down to hide the Glock 21 on his hip. He pops the hatch and slides a long black soft case forward until it’s inches from my ankle. It contains an AR-15 rifle positioned upside down, its forward grip sticking out of the open case, in easy reach from the front seat.
“You’ll notice it doesn’t say weed delivery on the side of our vehicle,” Ryan says. “Our pedigrees are high, but we’re very discreet.” An employee of Blue Line Protection Group, a firm of former law enforcement and military personnel hired to secure big shipments of cash and “product” for Colorado’s legal marijuana industry, Ryan knows that clients value his discretion. “The government spent millions of dollars training us. Now we’re taking that training to the marijuana industry.”
While Ryan takes us down a side street and onto a main boulevard, Phil monitors the side mirrors to make sure we’re not being followed. Because they’ve been here only a few weeks, and because BLPG uses a dummy address on its website, they assume no one yet knows where to find them. But it’s part of an effort to stay sharp, Phil explains, and not get complacent.
The list of who might be following us runs the gamut from organized crime to street-level opportunists. In the worst-case scenario, it’s a cartel. Mexico has plenty of military-trained professionals, Ryan tells me. “It would be almost our counterpart they might send to make a statement—to attack us and say, ‘Hey, you’re taking away part of our business. We’re gonna do something about it.’” Armored transports are robbed all the time by lesser adversaries such as thugs and career criminals, and on any given run, Ryan and Phil may be transporting as much as $1 million in cash and weed stuffed into bags piled so tall it’s hard to see out the back window. The odds of an eventual violent confrontation, says Phil, are “extremely likely.”
“Anything can happen,” he says. “We just always assume that today is the day. It’s the same as when we were cops.”
That was at the Jefferson County sheriff’s office, where the pair worked together for years on the Special Operations Response Team. They received SWAT training, executive-protection training from the U.S. Marshals Service and the Secret Service, and hostage-rescue and vehicle-assault training—generally not a transferable skill set in the civilian economy. But since Ryan left the sheriff’s office last year to invest with others in BLPG, it’s a skill set they’ve found a use for.
Their clients were, understandably, a bit edgy at first, unaccustomed to mixing casually with agents of the law. But Ryan, who smoked pot as a teenager on the beaches of southern California, was more than at ease. He talks about the parallels between the present moment and the end of Prohibition—he recently watched a Ken Burns documentary on the subject. “This is a unique time in Colorado and the nation. Now you’ve given back to the people something the government had taken away.”
Before he became a cop, Ryan served five years of active duty with the Air Force military police before joining the reserves. “I’ve been to Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, all over the desert,” he says. “I’ve done some good things over there, and I’ve seen a lot of bad things over there.” Deployed to the mountains of southern Afghanistan in 2005, he began to feel that politicians were not allowing him to do his job. “I’m thinking to myself, Okay, what is my life worth out here in this environment? What am I actually doing here?”
It’s a common thread at BLPG: disillusionment and an attendant desire to tap into their inner entrepreneur. Phil explains it more succinctly. He loved his first four years as a cop but hated the last four. “It wears on you after a while,” he says.
Phil had been around pot in high school and college but never tried it. When he began working at BLPG, a client mused that it must be surreal for Phil to find himself on the other side of the drug war. It didn’t feel strange until a month later, when he took $22,000 in cash to pick up 10 pounds wholesale for a client. “I had my surreal moment,” he tells me. “I felt like I was in Scarface.”
About 90 minutes outside the city, through pure cowboy country, Ryan turns onto a weathered blacktop of patched-up potholes and slows to a crawl. “Everything clear?” he asks. The most vulnerable point along their route is just ahead, inside the grow operation, a confined space that affords no easy escape, where he worries most about getting hit. But the road is empty, and Phil nods him onward.
At the entrance to the compound, a rancher type with a short gray beard and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans emerges. He waves at us and slowly swings open the gate. Ryan pulls forward into a cluster of about a dozen hangar-like tents. Each looks big enough to house three small Cessnas and is outfitted with industrial-size fans churning at the rear. Phil cracks the door, letting in a potent, disorienting breeze of skunky sweet tang.
Ryan waits behind the wheel while a hefty middle-aged worker in blue overalls and a ball cap greets Phil and leads us inside. A small forest of potted marijuana plants blankets one side of the room like a Christmas tree lot. On the other side nearly a dozen workers are busy separating buds from leaves into big cardboard boxes. The 1970 classic rock track “All Right Now” blares from a stereo.
We make our way to a row of wheeled baker’s racks. Each holds six shelves, and each shelf is covered with giant bags filled with weed. Nearby, the industrial-size fans are blowing a mountain breeze off the Hindu Kush through the tent. The big man kneels down and begins to hand up bags to Phil. He explains how he tries to keep each bag as flat as possible, with the weed evenly distributed, so it doesn’t bunch up and lose the identifying sticker slapped on top—part of the state’s effort to track every marijuana plant from “seed to sale.” The bags contain strains such as Sour D, F Place, Space Queen and Flo. “I don’t know where they get the names for this stuff,” the man says, flashing me a smile as he pinches his finger and thumb around an imaginary joint and takes a hit.
Any debate over legalizing marijuana quickly becomes a discussion about many things: crime, cultural values, failed policies, science, public health and safety, black markets, supply and demand. In this part of Colorado, much of that discussion centers on a more basic component: jobs.
“We got people working here who are allergic to marijuana, breaking out in all sorts of problems,” drawls the large man in the blue overalls, tracing a hand up and down his forearm. “But there’s hardly no work around here. We had the coal mines, but they closed ’em because they say it’s dirty energy.”
As the big man hands over each bag, Phil places it on a red bucket atop a scale to weigh it. A patina of professionalism coats the legal marijuana business. Old-school dispensary owners refer to marijuana as “medicine.” Industry professionals use the term cannabis. The Blue Line Protection Group calls it “product.” Phil scribbles a note on his clipboard after weighing the product and lays it flat in a black hockey bag on the floor. They quickly fill two bags and resort to using garbage bags for the remainder of the shipment, about 50 pounds—nearly $500,000 worth—in all.
The profitable niche that Blue Line Protection Group and its competitors are exploiting is the result of a rift between federal and state drug laws that emerged in 1996, when California first voted to legalize marijuana for medical use. Other states soon followed California’s lead, including Colorado in 2000.
Although 21 states and the District of Columbia have since legalized marijuana for medical use, the federal government still considers it illegal. In fact, the Controlled Substances Act classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
That didn’t stop Colorado and Washington from voting to legalize recreational marijuana use, with hopes of bringing a surge in business and tax revenue. In 2012 Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 with 55 percent of the vote, and as of January it is legal for Colorado residents over the age of 21 to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana (out-of-state buyers are limited to a quarter ounce) and grow up to six pot plants in their homes. Smoking is restricted to private residences, and motorists with more than five nanograms of THC in their system can be ticketed for impaired driving.
With state legislatures forging ahead, the Obama administration was pushed to act, and last summer it began issuing a series of memos and guidelines to address the situation. In August one memo from the Department of Justice announced it would not try to block the state laws as long as states establish regulatory systems in line with recommended marijuana-enforcement priorities. But the nebulous legal rift persists, particularly when it comes to money.