In 2008, real estate developers Tripp Keber and Chuck Smith owned and operated an upscale RV resort just outside Gulf Shores with aspirations of building a national chain.

But the recession would see those dreams dashed, and in 2009 the business partners took a risk and diversified their investment portfolio in a new way by putting money into an up-and-coming cannabis company in Colorado.

Business was good, and they soon realized that legal pot was quickly becoming a booming industry. So in June 2010, they took the next step, incorporating a humble Denver-based cannabis start-up called Dixie Elixirs.

“Seven or eight years ago there was something called the ‘green rush,’ and my partner Tripp said, ‘I think we should take a look at investing in this industry,'” Smith said in a December phone interview.

“I guess we had pretty good vision. We saw that there was going to probably be a marijuana industry in Colorado. … As we got further into it we realized that this had the opportunity to be a big industry and we really wanted to be part of it.”

A national brand

Both Keber and Smith have since moved to Colorado, but they chose a name that pays homage to the state where they blossomed as business partners by putting retirees in luxury trailers by the coast.

Dixie Elixirs has since matured into Dixie Brands, a well-established, nationally recognized company selling THC-infused beverages, candies, oils and other consumer goods in five states.

With about 100 employees and plans in place to expand to other states as they enact laws increasing legal access to cannabis, Dixie Brands is one of the most successful weed companies in America.

But in order to turn their dreams into reality, Keber and Smith had to leave Alabama largely behind. Smith’s daughter still attends the University of Alabama and he owns a condominium in Tuscaloosa, and the two entrepreneurs still own the RV resort in Foley.

But Dixie, their big-money venture that provides jobs across the American West and has generated hundreds of thousands – likely even millions – of dollars of tax revenue for the state of Colorado, cannot legally exist here.

In the fiscal year that ended in June 2015, Colorado alone collected more than $129 million in state taxes on recreational marijuana.

‘Opened my eyes’

The journey to the 2017 iteration of Dixie Brands has not always been a smooth one. In May 2013, Keber became more familiar with how Alabama’s legal system treats marijuana users than he ever wanted to be.

While attending the popular Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, he was arrested for possession of two-tenths of a gram of THC-infused liquid. That day, instead of watching musical acts like Kendrick Lamar and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Keber spent 18 hours in jail.

He later pleaded guilty to marijuana possession, and was required to abstain from marijuana use for two years, submit to random drug tests and serve a year in prison if he were to be caught with drugs in his system, which he never was.

More than three years later, Keber, who has been dubbed the Willy Wonka of weed, Gordon Gekko of ganja, and mogul of marijuana by various publications, admits “it was incredibly arrogant for me to possess cannabis, which I was absolutely guilty of. One thing I will apologize for was the arrogance of intending to use cannabis.”

He said in a December phone interview that though the experience “scared [him] to death,” it came with a silver lining, in that it helped him to understand the inequities in treatment of drug offenders of different races and in different parts of the country.

“I was the first to get out of that court system because I have the financial fortitude to do so, and still to this day there are hundreds of thousands of people of color languishing in jail cells,” he said. “It really opened my eyes … to the fact that people of color are languishing in jail cells in a disproportionate level to whites.”

Keber now serves on various marijuana policy and industry boards, hoping to fight back against what he describes as the nation’s “failed prohibition policies” and work to end mass incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes.

Looking forward

After flourishing for much of the past decade under President Barack Obama, the cannabis industry faces uncertainty under President Donald Trump.

A former Reagan Republican who did a stint during the eighties at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, Keber sees cause for cautious optimism. So does Smith, 55, who describes himself as “an old guy. I’m not the young stoner that was the typical stereotype of the industry.

Neither of them believe that Trump, a businessman who ran on a platform of jobs and economic growth, will do anything to severely hinder the legal cannabis industry.

Late last year, Keber predicted: “I believe President-Elect Trump, who is a staunch, vocal opponent of the War on Drugs, who categorically believes it’s a failed effort, will be probably neutral or potentially neutral-positive. He’s also strongly in support of states rights.”

“It’s very difficult to imagine how expensive it would be to put the genie back in the bottle, not to mention the loss in tax revenue and jobs. Colorado doesn’t want to give $150 to $160 million in tax revenue per year back to the cartels.”

And yet the Trump administration signaled last week that it may crack down on recreational marijuana even in states that have legalized it. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he does “believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it.”

Plus Trump appointed Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General, and Sessions has a history of comments in opposition to loosening laws related to marijuana.

This week, Sessions told reporters: “Most of you probably know I don’t think America is going to be a better place when more people of all ages and particularly young people start smoking pot.”

Sessions was even more explicit last April , saying during a Senate hearing that “we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.”

With his stated beliefs generating dozens of alarmist headlines like “Jeff Sessions’ Coming War on Legal Marijuana” and “Jeff Sessions Could Reverse Years Of Progress On Marijuana Policy” since Trump named him as attorney general, many pot entrepreneurs are nervous about the future of their industry.

But Smith believes that the concerns are overblown and that the Trump administration is unlikely to take steps that will impact their bottom lines.

“I don’t think we are ever going to be able to get Sen. Sessions to say that he likes marijuana, and my point is he may believe that but he is now moving into a position where he has to have a national position on issues, including on marijuana, as opposed to a state-based position in Alabama,” Smith said.

“I have some confidence that the people around him in the administration will value the 250,000-plus jobs and the tax revenue, and that they wouldn’t want the industry to go back to the cartels.”

‘An accelerated pace’

Even if Sessions does work to reverse the ending of marijuana prohibition across the U.S., Dixie’s masterminds believe that the arc of history bends toward legalization. They emphasize the importance of cannabis as a medicine, citing thousands of testimonials from customers who say their products have helped them deal with chronic pain and other ailments.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 29 states – including Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas in the Southeast – and eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing recreational use of the drug.

Smith and Keber hope that one day in the not-too-distant future people will be able to openly drink a bottle of Dixie Elixir everywhere from Chicago to the banks of the Coosa River.

“I actually think we’ve moved at an accelerated pace, but I think it’s because a lot of us in the industry decided to build a very credible, regulated and transparent industry,” Smith said.

“Because of that, I think that other states have followed Colorado’s lead and been able to use the framework that Colorado has had, and that foundation has allowed a lot of other states to have the confidence in doing it … It seems like there’s a lot of momentum.”

Original Article via AL