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The story of cannabis in Colorado used be a tale of entrepreneurs looking to get rich quick during the so-called Green Rush. And many of them did. More recently, however, the predominant narrative in the weed business is one of sinking sales, supply outstripping consumer demand, and an industry in decline. But for one Denver-based CEO who’s ridden both the crests and troughs of the industry’s waves, things are less chaotic now than they’ve ever been.
“I know it doesn’t seem like it, but [the industry] is a lot more settled now,” says John Moynan, the chief executive of Slang Worldwide, which oversees a portfolio of vaporizer, edible, and medical-grade cannabis brands. That might be easy for Moynan to say, because Slang has found ways to post consecutive quarters of growth despite sluggish sales numbers across the industry in Colorado. (It turns out that vape pens, including those made by Slang’s flagship and Denver-based brand O.pen, continue to be a growth market.)
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But Moynan is also confident that some much-needed financial sanity has been injected into the greater cannabis industry. After all, he’s watched it evolve over nearly his entire adulthood. The Denverite, who’s 34, has now been involved in the business since the very first recreational sales started in Colorado in early 2014.
So how does he frame this current moment? “The story of cannabis now,” Moynan says, “is a story of resilience.”
The Wild, Early Years of Rec
Moynan came to the industry as an intern while he was in law school at the University of Colorado Boulder. That an ambitious vaporizer company in Colorado—then called O.penVape—appointed an intern and law student as its legal adviser in 2014 is indicative of how unconventional the early years of the cannabis industry were in the Centennial State. Moynan’s only plan was to use his law degree to advise startups, perhaps as a general counsel someday. But he arrived in Colorado, after graduating from Arizona State University, as Amendment 64—the historic ballot measure that voters passed in 2012 and paved the way for recreational cannabis sales—went into effect in 2014.
Usually, Moynan says, corporations hire seasoned attorneys as their legal counsel. “But for me, it was just this kind of opportunity where I could get in,” Moynan says. “You had all these cannabis companies, and a lot of them were run by people who were drug dealers the day before, and now they were multimillion-dollar business owners.”
Those business owners suddenly needed a lot of input on how to run above-ground companies in a complex legal environment—including navigating the fact that marijuana was, and remains, a federally illegal substance. “Everybody had the same problem, which was: None of this has ever been done before,” Moynan says. “For example, we were pulling together the first large-scale cannabis supply agreement, and it’s like, Where do you go to pull a template for that?
For any imposter syndrome the intern felt—Moynan says he hired an outside lawyer to check over his work—his bosses at O.penVape were impressed enough with his research and ingenuity that they made him an offer: If he passed his bar exam in 2016, he could stay on as the company’s general counsel. Moynan passed on his first try, and as he puts it, joined “a really close team and a really close group.”
The team would need to be close given the wild and sometimes unpredictable situations the vape company would encounter. Some situations were fun, like when O.penVape proposed to buy the naming rights for Mile High Stadium in 2016 after Sports Authority, which previously held the naming rights, filed for bankruptcy. The proposal caused a minor media sensation, particularly around what could have become the official name of the Broncos’ home stadium: O.penVape at Mile High. As one CBS Sports columnist put it, “it would easily be the greatest stadium name in NFL history.” The Broncos leadership apparently did not feel the same way, and O.penVape was not successful in its bid—though it did get a lot of free publicity.
Then there were the challenges around a constantly shifting regulatory environment. “Banks changing policies and shutting your account down and suddenly you’re paying everybody in cash that smells like weed for a couple weeks,” Moynan says. “Jeff Sessions making an offhanded comment and everybody suddenly thinks this all may go away tomorrow; or the irrational exuberance of everybody not really knowing how to value these businesses.”
That irrational exuberance—overvaluations of companies, and many players jumping into a market where the expectation was that everyone would get rich—led to the Colorado market’s first correction in 2017. Moynan recalls that when he joined O.penVape in 2014, it was one of the only companies manufacturing rechargeable vape pen batteries that could attach to CBD or THC cartridges (usually filled with concentrates including distillate, wax, or shatter). By 2017, as many as 161 other brands were producing similar vape products. “And then, that year, it went from 161 to like less than 50 companies over a six month period,” Moynan says.
That 2017 contraction is often forgotten or overlooked now, perhaps because overall sales and tax revenue for cannabis kept growing year-over-year in Colorado until they peaked in 2020, during the pandemic. But for Moynan, the experience offers an anchoring lesson in today’s economic climate. “What’s happening in the Colorado market right now is very similar to what happened in 2017,” he says. “We have a proliferation of brands and products, with flower prices way down. There’s a contraction in volume, and suddenly it looks like the bottom is dropping out of the Colorado market.”
That is, he adds, “until equilibrium is re-established.”
The New Equilibrium
Like many maturing markets, cannabis has trended toward corporate consolidation. O.penVape was no different. As general counsel, Moynan facilitated acquisitions that helped build a portfolio called Organa Brands. Then in 2018, a new corporation, Slang, was formed to acquire Organa Brands and another vaporizer company Firefly. Slang Worldwide went public on the Canadian Securities Exchange in early 2019, and almost immediately, its stock tumbled.
The industrywide cratering in stock prices still has hasn’t recovered, and Slang wasn’t the only cannabis and CBD company that changed its leadership as stocks continued a downward trajectory. First, Moynan was appointed chief operating officer. Then in October 2022, as the overall market conditions remained challenging, the one-time intern was appointed CEO of Slang Worldwide.
One year into his role, Moynan says he’s been focusing on Slang’s core products, customers, and partnerships—including local ones, like a collaboration with Illegal Pete’s. O.pen (since being acquired by Slang, the company dropped Vape from its name) worked with the local Mexican food chain to develop a THC vape cartridge with cheesy flavors that is supposed to pair well with Illegal Pete’s queso. The product debuted on September 20, National Queso Day, but it will continue to be available at dispensaries until October 31—and customers who buy the queso vape cartridge can take proof of purchase to any of Illegal Pete’s Colorado locations to get a free order of chips and queso.
Whether munchies are helping drive continued vape sales or not, Slang’s vaporizer and concentrate products are helping it stay afloat when overall industry sales are down. Focusing on those areas has helped Slang and O.Pen specifically, but Moynan also believes that the challenging financial landscape has caused the industry to be more humble and wise. “If you’re going to enter the cannabis space now, there are easier things you could be doing,” he says. “And it’s created a more authentic culture in cannabis now because nobody’s in it just for the quick and easy buck anymore.”
Moynan does not expect anything to be easy moving forward, especially as uncertain regulatory changes loom—if the U.S. reclassifies cannabis, for example, it might make certain activities like banking and filing taxes easier. But there’s also fear that Big Pharma could decide to enter the cannabis market at some point and cause a whole new industry realignment.
With a team that’s been through quite a few hoops already, Moynan says he isn’t too worried. In fact, he feels confident enough to make a promise: “We’ll be one of those groups that’s there at the end—whatever that looks like.”