October 4, 2013 Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:49 am
Don't tell the Stanley brothers that they're drug dealers, or stoners, or whatever else comes to mind when you hear that they grow marijuana - and a lot of it - on their Teller County spread near Divide.
The six brothers - Josh, Joel, Jesse, Jon, Jordan and Jared - are firm believers in the medical side of their marijuana business, and they've been making a name for themselves nationally with the strains of pot they've cultivated to lower the component that produces a high in favor of the component believed to help with seizures, migraines and other ailments.
"We are not a bunch of stoners, and we do not associate with the stereotypes of what people would like to associate with us," Joel Stanley said. "We care about what we do."
It may seem an unlikely business for a group of brothers that, with the exception of one, graduated from Colorado Springs Christian School. But to them, they are simply trying to live the faith and help people in need.
Two events coincided to get them into marijuana cultivation.
The first was a memorandum issued in 2009 by the U.S. Attorney's Office that provided "clarification and guidance to federal prosecutors in states that have enacted laws authorizing the medical use of marijuana."
The second was the day Joel met cancer patients at a dispensary that Josh owned. The Stanleys held a meeting in their mother's living room that same day.
"We all felt compelled to be a part of the industry," Joel Stanley said. "We felt that it was the right time politically to begin."
Since that day four years ago, the brothers have built their business to include 45 employees in operations spread across Colorado. They have the farm and processing plant in Divide and a breeding lab in New Castle, west of Glenwood Springs. Jared co-owns two dispensaries in Colorado Springs, and Josh owns one in Denver and another in Fort Collins.
A rough beginning
Despite the growth of their business, it hasn't been easy for them, or the other people who got into the industry after Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, legalizing medical marijuana, in 2000.
Growers don't have access to traditional banks to finance capital projects, inventory and mortgages. A private investor footed the Stanley brothers' property loan, but the annual interest rate is 6.5 percent, making the monthly principal and interest payment nearly $8,300 a month.
Other state and federal bank regulations, designed to stop money laundering, prevent the Stanleys' business from obtaining credit cards and opening traditional checking and other accounts. Without traditional banking means, the Stanleys have to operate in a dangerous all-cash world.
In January 2012, one of their employees got a gash on his head and a mild concussion after he was attacked as he opened a dispensary.
"We are forced to operate like the late 1880s," said Josh Stanley, the oldest of the 11 Stanley children. "Yet, we are required to comply with every law and pay employees FICA and Medicare and wage withholding taxes, and we have to do all that with cash."
Without bank loans, the brothers quickly learned how to improvise. They built their first 6,000-square-foot greenhouse out of PVC pipe, Joel Stanley said. Income from the dispensaries helped pay for a second 10,000-square-foot greenhouse.
Then, to comply with state building codes, they had to tear down and rebuild the first greenhouse at a cost of about $40,000. They spent $12,000 on chain-link fencing and another $20,000 for nearly 100 security cameras that line their farm's perimeter and scan the rows of marijuana plants inside the greenhouses.
For the first couple of years, there was no such thing as payroll or even employees, Joel Stanley said. Since bringing on employees, the Stanleys have never missed a payroll.
"It is an excellent small business," he said, "but like every small business, it takes time and sacrifice to achieve stability."
Finding their niche
The Stanleys grow operation sits on 52 acres northwest of Divide, hidden by aspens and ponderosa pines. Their three climate-controlled greenhouses are filled with various strains of marijuana plants. Some are nearly 8 feet tall; others are as fat as a 50-gallon drum.
At first, the Stanleys grew what most other medical marijuana farmers were growing: pot with a good amount of THC, the psychoactive component that gets people high.
Then they realized there could be a market for a variety of pot that is low in THC, but high in cannabidiol, or CBD, a component believed to be a key to the medicinal properties of marijuana.
They developed their non-psychoactive plants through the cross-pollination of four varieties in a 1,200-square-foot laboratory in New Castle. It took nearly two years of breeding to create six low-THC, high-CDB plants. Today, the low-THC strains account for about 70 percent of the Stanleys' crop.
"Hippies can go charging through our fields all they want and smoke all they can, and they are not going to get high," Josh Stanley said.
The Stanleys have nearly 550 people to whom they can legally sell marijuana through their dispensaries. Most are 30 to 60 years old. But 40 are under age 18 - a target group for low-THC cannabis.
Their work has won them some fame nationally. Last year, they were featured in six of the 13 episodes of the National Geographic Channel show "American Weed," which chronicled some of the challenges they've faced in the business.
In August, Dr. Sanjay Gupta included the Stanleys in his heavily promoted CNN documentary, "Weed," tied to their growing involvement with pediatric patients - particularly Charlotte Figi, a 6-year-old from the Colorado Springs area who was born with a genetic condition that caused frequent, violent seizures and stole her ability to walk and talk.
After seeing how the Stanleys' low-THC, high-CBD sharply reduced Charlotte's seizures and helped her regain some of her physical abilities Gupta publicly apologized for speaking out against marijuana as medicine.
Last week, CNN was back on the brothers' farm doing a follow-up story, Joel Stanley said. The production company also talked with patients who moved to Colorado to access marijuana legally, he said.
"There is such an interesting dynamic here in Colorado, with basically medical 'refugees,' if you will," he said.
Nonprofit has greater reach
For most of the past four years, the Stanleys have poured themselves into their for-profit business, but they're turning more of their attention to The Realm of Caring, a nonprofit they started to counsel people looking for an alternative treatment to what ails them. The nonprofit also qualifies people for discounted medications from one of their dispensaries, and advocates for better research into marijuana's medicinal uses.
Joel Stanley said the nonprofit is the brothers' future. They want to take The Realm of Caring into all states where medical marijuana is legal.
"We realized that our business could only take care of so many people operating this way," he said. "That is why we founded the nonprofit organization, to invite others to help us help more patients.
"To be clear though, the nonprofit and the dispensary are very separate," he said. "The nonprofit is a resource for the patients and does not handle any medicine."
But the nonprofit is a natural extension of why they went into a business that still draws smirks and snarky comments from people who don't see the results the Stanleys have seen in treating patients like Charlotte Figi.
When asked how five brothers who went to a Christian school could sell marijuana, Joel Stanley said people should ask the question in reverse.
"If we were growing psychoactive plants for a bunch of potheads, then that would be the question," he said. "But what people should ask is 'How did a group of Christians come to grow a plant for sick people?'"
Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275.