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The legal trio didn't have a choice, says Vicente; no one else was going to do it. "The three of us have been guiding people to act in a proper and legal manner," says Vicente. "Warren, Rob and myself attend a handful of conferences a year and learn how to effectively mold this industry. It's fleshing out the law in favor of patient providers."

The key for dispensaries and vendors, says Vicente, is to develop a web of patients and caregivers. When a new dispensary opens, for example, its owner or employees have to be designated caregivers for enough patients to legally warrant all the pot they have at the operation. These caregivers will have to take on more patients as business grows, and they need additional product. If the dispensary contracts with outside growers to provide them with marijuana, some of its customers will likely have to designate these growers as their caregivers so the crops abide by state law.

Since there are no rules about dispensaries, however — in Amendment 20 or anywhere else — many patients haven't limited themselves to shopping only at the dispensary associated with their designated caregiver. And many enterprises are operating under the premise that as soon as a patient walks in their door, that dispensary becomes his or her de facto primary caregiver for the duration of the visit. That means that any patient can buy marijuana there without changing his or her designated caregiver.

Several questions remain about these arrangements. Can caregivers really sell leftover pot they don't provide to their patients to other caregivers and to other caregivers' patients? Is it really permissible for patients to frequent any dispensary in town? What is legal and what isn't may eventually come down to a court battle, and that's where the dispensary model could be tested. "They're juggling medical marijuana cards and ounces," says Scott Carr, Colorado manager of the THC Foundation. "If you are not the caregiver, you are not protected if you take money for the cannabis. Everyone seems to be excited by the California model, but nobody seems to read the law."

Ted Tow, executive director for the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, agrees that dispensaries don't hold up to legal scrutiny. "Medical marijuana is legal, but nothing says by definition that dispensaries are," he says. "We didn't define them in the amendment. We define everything else in the constitution. If you pull out the blue-book description they put out about Amendment 20, it specifically said it will not legalize the distribution of marijuana. And that's what dispensaries do."

So far, law-enforcement agencies have largely left the dispensaries alone — possibly because Amendment 20 suggests that the authorities would have to continue cultivating any marijuana they seized from dispensaries or grow facilities until they obtained a conviction in court.

But this could change.

Attorney General Suthers suggests that the state Board of Medical Examiners should look into parts of the medical marijuana industry; he adds that he may have his own office do so, too. "We knew we would have these dispensaries and have thousands more patients than medicine would dictate. You would have a lot of people claiming chronic pain without much specificity. And the roles of medical marijuana would be pretty large."

Dispensary owners and their legal advisors say they'd like to work with state officials to clear up vagaries in the law and develop reasonable regulations, but they say they don't have much confidence that state officials are willing to work with them.

"There is a history of the state engaging in underhanded tactics in an attempt to destroy and weaken the medical marijuana law," says Vicente. As an example, he points to the fact that the health department first instituted the five-patient rule at a closed meeting in 2004, a fact that led Chief Denver District Judge Larry Naves to suspend that limit in 2007 because it lacked public input. Then, at the Board of Health hearing to consider re-instating that limit this past July, health officials said the average medical marijuana patient age had recently plummeted from 42 to 24, insinuating that patients were abusing the system. A week later, however, the health department noted there'd been a numerical error and the actual average patient age was 41.

Leigh at Boulder County Caregivers is playing it safe by requiring her customers to designate someone associated with the dispensary as their caregiver and refusing to host doctor referral services on site. While her business is still growing by leaps and bounds — she's planning to open two additional locations in the Boulder area — she doesn't like having to second-guess every business decision she makes.

"I would like to see some legislation that clarifies the law, but I don't see that happening," she says. "Now anything officials do to change it will end up in court. If law enforcement and district attorneys don't deal with it, we are going to stay in this gray area forever."


A day after I become a state-certified medical marijuana patient, I discover my perfect cure. It's dispensed by the Candy Girls.

Eventually the state will send me an official medical marijuana ID, but in the meantime, a copy of my signed doctor recommendation works the same way. So, after my appointment with the physician, I'm offered a no-pressure visit to the pharmacy room, even though I didn't make anyone at the dispensary my designated caregiver. But looking at the spread of glass jars filled with green, lumpy buds with names like Afwreck, Mendocino Madness and Green Crack, I pass. The stuff seems too traditional, too much like old-fashioned dope smoking. Now that I'm official, I want something special.

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