Maryland native dubbed 'marijuana mogul' in Colorado

The Baltimore Sun
Harford County native says marijuana has changed his life.

The first time Brian Rogers took a bong hit at a party with his Havre de Grace High School friends, he said marijuana had no effect on him.

Now Rogers co-owns a multimillion-dollar marijuana company in Colorado at the center of the CNN docu-series, "High Profits," and he's no longer ambivalent.

"It's changed my life," the 34-year-old Harford County native said.

While recreational marijuana is illegal in 46 states — including Maryland — Colorado has been at the forefront of the legalization movement. And Rogers has been at the forefront of capitalizing on it.

Rogers and his girlfriend, 25-year-old Caitlin McGuire, opened the Breckenridge Cannabis Club in 2010 when marijuana was legal for medicinal purposes exclusively. Since then Colorado has legalized cannabis for recreational purposes, and Rogers has expanded his operation, becoming known as a "marijuana mogul" on cable TV.

With Maryland's nascent medical marijuana program taking shape, Rogers is one of many entrepreneurs eyeing the possibilities. And, he says, his trajectory holds lessons for the consequences of the nation's drug policies.

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has released draft regulations for allowing patients to receive the drug from licensed dispensaries. The commission could begin taking applications to grow marijuana by the end of September, with patients potentially gaining access to the drug by the middle of next year.

Rogers said he has high hopes that his home state will follow Colorado's lead, by first allowing medical marijuana before fully legalizing it.

"Spending a few years under the law they have in place now will demonstrate to Marylanders, and hopefully the Mid-Atlantic population in general, that regulating cannabis works," Rogers said. "It's a step in the right direction."

Some state legislators agree, citing the boost that fully legalizing marijuana would bring to the state economy. In Colorado, it was a $700 million dollar industry last year, generating $63 million in tax revenue and $13 million in licenses and fees.

"If we were to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in Maryland, we could tap into a significant fiscal resource that does not exist today," said state Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and vocal proponent of legalization.

"If you look at what Colorado has collected in taxes on marijuana, and the jobs created by dispensaries, we're missing a big opportunity to put Marylanders to work and bring money into the state that could be used for the treatment of other forms of drug dependence, like cocaine or heroin."

Others, however, believe recreational marijuana would have the opposite effect on Maryland's economy.

"It affects the parts of the brain dealing with motivation and memory," said U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who opposes legalization. "When we're competing globally, the last thing we need is a workforce not working at 100 percent of its ability."

The Baltimore County Republican said more research is needed on the impact of marijuana on people's health and brain development before the state thinks about moving forward. "Once you let that horse out of the barn, you can't get it back in," he said.

It wasn't a particular love for weed — Rogers describes himself as an occasional smoker — that set him on the path to opening a marijuana dispensary.

It wasn't the desire to someday get his own TV series.

It was the felony charge on his record.

Rogers always wanted to be a teacher at Havre de Grace High School, just like his dad. That's what he was working toward at Millersville University in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s.

The plan changed when officers arrested him after finding three marijuana plants growing in a 14- by 22-inch box in the closet of his college apartment.

"I'm not allowed to be a teacher with this conviction, and that changed the course of my life," he said. "Things all worked out, but certainly it's a one in a couple hundred thousand chance that I'm able to own a weed store. If I didn't, I wouldn't be allowed to work in a lot of different industries."

Stories of young people unable to move past criminal records for marijuana violations are part of what led Maryland lawmakers last year to decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana.

Maryland had the fourth-highest rate of marijuana possession arrests in the country, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, and spent more than $106 million enforcing possession laws in 2010.

"We were criminalizing tens of thousands of our own people for doing what our last several presidents have admitted to doing," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Rogers has asked the governor of Pennsylvania to pardon his charges.

"I see some momentum shifting nationwide on the attitudes toward marijuana and that, maybe, some of the penalties are a little too harsh," he said. "For more than a decade, I haven't gotten in any further trouble, and I haven't been a detriment to society. … Now I work in the cannabis industry that's regulated."

In the beginning, Rogers and McGuire worked seven days a week operating their store. At the time, they could only legally cater to the city's population of about 4,500.

"Cash was lean during those times," Rogers said. "But we had picked a spot right on Main Street, and once tourists were eventually allowed to buy marijuana, we knew this would be the place to be.

It seemed that momentum was going that way and the state was poised to vote to legalize. We thought, 'What else do we have going on with a better chance of success than this right now?'"

When legislation went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, crowds in heavy winter coats surrounded their bright yellow storefront.

The company made almost $50,000 during that first 14-hour business day under the new law — about as good as any month they'd had prior.

Since then, they've opened another shop in Crested Butte and rebranded as Backcountry Cannabis Co., keeping the initials they're known by, but no longer limiting their brand to Breckenridge.

Rogers declined to share how much his company makes annually.

"High Profits" first aired in April, with episodes running through June. It chronicled Rogers and McGuire through a year and a half of trying to become what McGuire calls "the Steve Jobs of marijuana."

One storyline involved the Breckenridge Town Council debating whether to kick the store off Main Street, the spot Rogers said they held on to despite exorbitant rent while selling medical marijuana in order to one day capitalize on tourist money once it was legalized.

One council member questioned what having the store downtown says about the identity of Breckenridge.

In the second-to-last episode, Rogers and McGuire are told they must pack up and move to a spot two miles from downtown where three other shops are located. Business has slumped nearly 30 percent since then, Rogers said.

Beyond the exposure a TV show would bring — they still get the occasional customer who says the show drew them to the store — McGuire said part of the appeal of doing the series was clearing up misconceptions.

"The people participating in the marijuana industry are average people like Brian and myself," she said. "We're just trying to put the work in to build a life for ourselves that we're happy with."

A 2015 Goucher College poll reported that 52 percent of Marylanders support legalizing their line of work — and Anderson says that sentiment is growing in the General Assembly.

When he introduced legislation in 2013 that would legalize marijuana, he had three co-sponsors. By 2015, he had 30.

"I give it a year or two," he said, "before we put together a situation in Maryland similar to Colorado."

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