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Mardick wanted in on the action. He figured that if twenty people purchased a quarter-ounce of medicine from him each week, he'd net nearly $6,500 a month. So with an investment of $15,000 — some of which he got from his father, because banks are reluctant to offer loans for such enterprises — he went into business.

He began by calling the Golden police chief, who told him that while he didn't believe in marijuana use, he'd support the dispensary as long as it stayed within Colorado law. Mardick also talked with the city zoning department, which, after a week of deliberation — the staff had never considered a marijuana operation before — decided that Golden Alternative Care would be allowed to open in the city's central business zone.

It took time to find an amenable landlord; many property owners refused to work with what they called a "drug dealer." Mardick had to get a sales tax number, obtain a federal Employer Identification Number and register his company with the secretary of state as a limited-liability company. While he currently grows much of his medicine himself, he contracts with three Colorado growers who can each provide him within 24 hours with a quarter- to a half-pound of weed — just in case business booms.

And boom it might, considering the success of Mardick's predecessors. In June, for example, Bob Carleton took a break from dabbling in mergers and acquisitions as the co-founder of Denver-based international strategic consulting firm Vector Group, to open Herbal Connections at 2209 West 32nd Avenue. Now he has upwards of 600 customers and some competition: At least two other dispensaries have opened in the neighborhood.

Because every aspect of the business, by law, has to stay within Colorado's boundaries, the dispensary industry is essentially a statewide financial Petri dish — one that Carleton believes could grow to exorbitant dimensions. "You have this soon-to-be-half-billion-dollar industry with no infrastructure, and those don't exist," he says.

While the open nature of the industry is enticing, it also poses challenges. For instance, how do you get a loan for a copier or obtain a company credit card when national banks fear violating federal law if they work with dispensaries? How do you create dosage levels and quality standards for, say, a THC-infused trail bar when there are no health or medical regulations? How can dispensary owners work together without being guilty of racketeering as defined under the federal RICO act? It reminds Carleton of other places he's worked that had big regulatory gaps — places like Macedonia, Russia and Azerbaijan.

"I spent a lot of time working in developing countries," says Carleton. "It made it more intriguing thinking there is something like this in the United States."

It's intriguing to a lot of people.

Scott Durrah and Wanda James, the couple behind Eight Rivers restaurant in LoDo, are teaming up with Noah Westby, owner of DaGabi Cucina and Sole Coffee Roasters in Boulder, to open a Denver dispensary called the Apothecary of Colorado.

"The decriminalization of pot makes sense to us as a civil-rights issue, a medical issue and a legal issue," says James. "That's why we're looking into opening a dispensary. I think medical marijuana is the first step, and I think legalization or decriminalization could be the next step."

The trio is aiming for an up-market, professional atmosphere. "We are very proud of what has been done with the marijuana movement and the people who are involved, and we just want to create that second piece," says James. "It's the second generation of dispensaries, and we really want the 45-year-old professional to feel comfortable coming in." They plan to model their business after Harborside Health Center, an Oakland, California, operation that, with its natural-wood decor, electronic checkout counters and on-site Buddha garden, is the Neiman Marcus of dispensaries.

They won't be the only ones taking that approach; Harborside itself is coming to town.

On a recent afternoon, a well-dressed Californian named Don Dunkan stops by a vacant storefront downtown near the busy intersection of 22nd and Lawrence streets. "It's an empty canvas," he says of the 2,200-square-foot space — one that will be transformed into a swanky new breed of dispensary that will go by the name Local Product.

Dunkan is a partner in Harborside Management Consultants, an offshoot of Harborside Health Center that's branded itself the "A-Team of medical cannabis." The consulting group plans to help others launch Harborside-quality dispensaries around the country. Of the thirteen states besides California that allow medical marijuana use, the first place they decided to do so was in Colorado.

"We have been looking at Colorado for several years now, watching the scene," says Dunkan. "I would say right now in the state of Colorado, there is a vacuum that needs to be filled. It's an exciting place to be."


Amendment 20 authorized people with cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, muscle spasms, severe nausea and other serious medical conditions to use marijuana. To get on Colorado's confidential medical marijuana registry and obtain a certified medical marijuana card, a patient needs a doctor's recommendation for the program.

But the state health department has highlighted a suspicious trend: More and more young men are getting authorized by doctors to be on the state marijuana registry, the vast majority suffering from the vague ailment of "severe pain." The implication, it seems, is that lots of stoners are finding a way to smoke pot legally.

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