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Marijuana Millionaires

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You want a hit of this?” That was a friendly Coloradan offering President Obama a drag of pot in a bar on July 8. Federal prison for this fellow? Nope, just a smile from the Commander in Chief, who, probably wisely, kept moving. This month Washington State joins Colorado in allowing legal recreational use. With a seven-month lead, Colorado has already seen a cultural shift. Here’s how one investor describes the buyers at legal dispensaries: “It’s you. It’s your mom or dad. On Friday evenings people come in who are going to a dinner party to pick up a couple joints instead of bringing the bottle of wine.” Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs are cashing in on this budding industry. PEOPLE spoke to four, most of whom had previous careers: as event planners, commercial bankers, paralegals, venture capitalists. “I was raised very traditionally,” says Tripp Keber, who after college worked for a conservative think tank in his native Washington, D.C. “Marijuana was certainly not acceptable in our home.” Now these newly minted moguls are providing jobs, paying taxes (an estimated $134 million this year) and navigating the strict regulations and ambiguities of an industry that – while illegal on the federal level – may rack up $1 billion in sales this year.

Hank Borunda, 25

GROWER & SELLER

Borunda’s business model is simple. “Have good weed,” he says, “and they will come.” They certainly have. On Jan. 1, the first day marijuana could be sold to recreational users over the age of 21, a line of nearly 500 customers snaked out the front door of his Greener Side dispensary. He raked in $47,000 in 24 hours; within three months, he says, he grossed $1.5 million. “My father always told me, ‘Don’t work for anybody. Work for yourself.’ ” Now Borunda, who earned money as a teen selling pine nuts on street corners in his hometown of Pueblo, Colo., has 20 employees (including some relatives and childhood friends), a 3,600-sq.-ft. greenhouse and two retail outlets. “I’ve known since I was a kid that I was going to make money,” says Borunda. Although his mother, Cathy, initially opposed her son’s pot venture, she has come around. “I listen to him talking to engineers and commissioners,” she says, “and I’m in awe.”

Brooke Gehring, 33

DISPENSARY OWNER & GROWER

During her straitlaced days as a commercial banker, Gehring never “expected that marijuana would be an income source or a career path.” But that changed in 2009, as Gehring discovered that clients came to her with one purpose: “to cultivate marijuana.” Before long the analytically minded Miami University grad had learned everything she could about local and federal marijuana laws. After borrowing cash from her “extremely conservative” family, she started building her weed empire, Patient’s Choice, which consists of four medical and recreational dispensaries, two cultivation facilities, 85 employees and two new partners. In the first six months of 2014, Gehring, who dates another pot-shop owner, sold recreational bud to more than 65,000 customers. That’s a lot of Benjamins – and taxes. Since January, Gehring claims to have paid more than a million in state and federal fees – all of it delivered in cash, with armed guards in tow. (“In my past life, years would go by and I wouldn’t even see cash.”) While most of her windfall gets invested back into her business, she has plenty left over for travel, artwork for her new home and “my handbag collection.”

Tripp Keber, 46

EDIBLES ENTREPRENEUR

When people hear Keber is the king of Colorado’s edible marijuana products, most ask about pot brownies. “So clichéd! Anybody can make a pot brownie,” moans Keber, a purveyor of 115 pot-infused sodas, mints and candies. His is a tricky part of the industry: In May the state passed legislation to protect kids from sweets containing pot after children ended up in the ER. Even adults with college memories of funky brownies need to use caution, so each of his products lists the amount of the psychoactive chemical THC it contains. Losing three friends on Sept. 11, 2001, “had a profound impact” on Keber, and the newly divorced dad – his daughter was 2 at the time – wanted a fresh start. So Keber, a venture capitalist, sold his dot-com company in 2002 and moved from D.C. to Colorado with plans to retire. But in time the entrepreneur in him was roused: “The opportunity to profit was there.” Today he employs more than 40 people, including chefs and biochemists. But his rise hasn’t been without a few flops: Pot ice cream never caught on. Says Keber: “I thought it was going to be a home run.”

Chloe Villano, 33

CANNABIS CONSULTANT

Villano doesn’t sell marijuana, but she has made a small fortune – $2 million, according to her records – untangling the complicated business issues for those who do. For instance, can you market weed for recreational use if you’re licensed to sell medical marijuana? (Answer: Nope.) The former bikini model and event planner was working as a paralegal in 2009 when she started fielding questions from clients interested in the medical-marijuana biz. Now Villano is the go-to cannabis consultant, charging $100 an hour for advice on licensing, branding, mergers and acquisitions. A self-described “workaholic,” she began the first accredited marijuana university (offering courses like Cannabis Business Marketing 101 and Intro to Greenhouse) and an industry awards show. Some of the proceeds from the show go to a children’s charity, and she is starting a trade association to help those who want to enter the field even beyond Colorado’s borders. (Medical use is legal in 22 states.) Still, Villano, who drives a 10-year-old Mercedes, says, “I’ve never felt that I’ve ‘made it.’ Anything can happen. If the feds decided to shut down every business in this state, did we make it?”