DENVER (MainStreet) — Two things in great demand – jobs and marijuana – will converge in the Mile High City on Thursday at what is being billed as "CannaSearch," the first-ever job fair for the legal marijuana industry.

Job seekers needn't worry about peeing in a cup. "If we had a drug test, it would be to try something and tell us how it was," joked Tim Cullen, co-owner of O.PenVAPE, the company that organized the event.

The nascent weed industry seeks qualified professionals in sales, marketing, accounting, information technology, quality control, horticulture and administration, said Todd Mitchem, O.PenVAPE's chief revenue officer. It's quickly getting to be just like every other business.

"Jobseekers will be pleasantly surprised at the number of well-paying, mainstream positions," he said.

O.PenVAPE bills itself as the largest national brand in cannabis. It operates businesses in Colorado, California and Washington. It plans to next set up shops in Oregon and Massachusetts as it sets its sights on a nation that is incrementally legalizing pot.

Since 1996, 20 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized medical marijuana. This year, Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of the drug. And wherever weed goes, O.PenVAPE plans to grow.

So far, O.PenVAPE employs 125 people. It is one of a handful of companies that Cullen owns with his business partner, Ralph Morgan. Their companies provide an integrated production line from seed to sale. They sell just about everything from plants that customers can grow in their gardens, or their basements, to pens that vaporize cannabis oils and can be puffed like e-cigarettes.

As a leader in the industry, O.PenVAPE hopes to showcase the jobs that legal marijuana is creating. Several companies have signed up to present job opportunities at O.PenVAPE's downtown Denver headquarters.

Mitchem offered a wide range of guesses as to how many people will show up at the fair, which will run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 10th and 1058 Delaware St -- maybe 100, maybe 1,000 attendees. There's no registration required. Some people have called the company from out of state, so it could even be more.

Colorado's unemployment rate, at 6.2%, is healthier than that of the rest of the nation, but many jobseekers are looking to trade up to better-paying jobs, or to get involved in a fast-growing industry that might offer more room for advancement. O.PenVAPE's 6,000-square-foot office could be swiftly overrun by throngs of job hunters and curiosity seekers.

Dixie Elixirs, O.PenVAPE's biggest competitor, will be among the companies scouting for employees at CannaSearch. The company infuses marijuana into everything from candies to soda pop. It employs about 45 people and adds about one or two more every week, said its founder Tripp Keber, who is currently at work building a 30,000 square-foot factory.

Pot Job Opps

Other companies participating in in the job fair include:

  • Two travel services catering to cannabis tourists: Colorado Green Tours and 420 Tours.
  • CannaClassifieds.com, publisher of marijuana industry help-wanted ads.
  • Cannabis Hemp Academy, an online training provider for the cannabis and hemp fields.
  • Three marijuana dispensaries: Colorado's Best, Southwest Alternative Care and Walking Raven.
  • Denver Packaging Co., a provider of cannabis storage solutions.
  • The Hemp Connoisseur, a magazine and website.
  • O.PenVAPE and other companies its founders own, such as the cannabis dispensaries; Colorado Harvest Co. and Evergreen Apothecary; and Organa Labs, a producer of oils extracted from marijuana.

From Medicine to Money

O.PenVAPE boasts selling four or five units every minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the states it serves.

Before getting into this booming business, Cullen was a high school biology teacher. He bristles at any suggestion that he is kind of like the high school chemistry teacher who turned to selling methamphetamine in the hit TV crime drama "Breaking Bad." Meth, after all, is dangerous and illegal. Weed is medicine and politically acceptable.

"It's much more popular than any politician in Colorado," said Cullen. "It went from a point where politicians wouldn't even talk about cannabis, to where they better be in support of it or come out with some really good new info as to why you are not."

It's not quite a scene from "Breaking Bad," but Cullen said he has had the experience of running into a former student, having reached legal age, in one of his stores: "Hi, Mr. Cullen. What are you doing here?"

Cullen became interested in marijuana in 2000 when his father was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder. A few years later, Cullen was diagnosed with Crohn's as well. Marijuana, he said, works wonders for the sometimes debilitating condition.

"I just fired up some lights in my basement and grew it for the two of us," Cullen said.

A degree in biology helped, as did a little skill in the kitchen. "We mostly made Rice Krispy treats," Cullen said.

After years of cultivating medical marijuana, Cullen founded Colorado Harvest in 2009 and began buying up warehouse space and grow lights.

Morgan, who would become Cullen's business partner, was starting his own businesses at the time, too. Morgan studied journalism, advertising and business in college. He also worked as a hospital orderly and a medic, and he's worked for a large medical device company that makes surgical joint replacements.

He said he too jumped into the medical marijuana business in 2009 seeking healthier alternatives for serious ailments.

Cullen and Morgan soon ran into each other, because Denver is a small town and marijuana is a small industry. They merged their businesses together under the O.PenVAPE brand after realizing how well they complimented each other. Cullen is an expert grower, and Morgan has developed techniques to extract oils from plants. Morgan also knows how to run the retail side of the business.

Together, they are growing an empire with no help from venture capitalists or lenders. Their revenue stream is so robust they don't need investors. Cullen said he turns down offers just about every day.

Cullen said he suspects that in about five years marijuana will be completely legal under federal law and that large pharmaceutical and tobacco companies will be moving into the industry.

"Our goal is not to be bought out by R.J. Reynolds, but to compete," he said.

Next Growth Stage

To do this, he'll need top corporate talent, which is one of the ideas behind the CannaSearch job fair. And so what if they smoke a little weed?

"Some of these people who work for us were not able to get a job somewhere else, because they couldn't pass a drug test," said Mitchem, O.PenVAPE's chief revenue officer. "Yet they turn out to be amazing employees who are doing everything they can to build a word-class brand."

--Written by Al Lewis for MainStreet

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