By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
I knock on the locked door of the nondescript one-story building not far from downtown, willing away my anxiety.
1240 S. Parker Road
Denver, CO 80231
Category: Medical Marijuana Services
Region: Southeast Denver
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"Can I help you?" A security guard peers from behind the door, eyeing me suspiciously. He's an older guy, probably somebody's grandpa, but he gives me a look that says he doesn't have a problem tangling with a whippersnapper like me.
"I have an appointment," I stammer. I have Xeroxed medical records and $200 in cash to prove it. At that, the security guard is all smiles.
"Come on in," he offers, opening the door wide and beckoning me into one of Denver's most successful medical marijuana dispensaries.
I'm here to become a state-certified medical marijuana patient. If I succeed, I'll have access to one of the fastest-growing — and unusual — businesses around.
Colorado voters legalized marijuana for medicinal use in 2000 with the passage of Amendment 20, but until recently, the state's medical marijuana community was small and fairly inconspicuous. As of January, 5,000 people had applied to the state registry, and there were less than two dozen dispensaries selling pot.
But that's changed, thanks to the Obama administration's move in March to end most dispensary raids, as well as a Colorado Board of Health decision in July that did nothing to limit the number of patients that medical marijuana dispensaries can have. As of June 30, the Colorado medical marijuana registry had swelled to more than 10,000 applicants, with the state receiving more than 400 new applications each day. To meet that demand, at least seventy Colorado dispensaries have opened, forty in the metro area alone.
Many of these are operated by what insiders are calling a "second wave" of ganjapreneurs — savvy, experienced businesspeople and professionals. Some honed their chops running ventures that have nothing to do with marijuana; others are opportunists from the heady California dispensary scene who see a new market ripe for investment.
In the meantime, legal consultants, insurance companies and real-estate brokers are carving out their own niche, building industry-wide infrastructure for a form of commerce that never before existed.
Whether any of it is truly legal — and whether any of it will last — is anybody's guess, because marijuana, after all, is still illegal under federal law. And although Amendment 20 allows people in Colorado to use pot for medical reasons, the law says nothing about dispensaries or whether buying and selling marijuana at them is legal. ("Growth Industry," February 5.)
"I saw it coming," says Colorado Attorney General John Suthers about the growth of the dispensary industry, of which he disapproves. "Even when we looked at the amendment in 2000, it was very purposely designed, in my opinion, by the advocates so it was so broad you could drive a truck through it."
Cities and towns aren't waiting for Suthers and his colleagues to sort the laws out. To deal with the reality of a business model that isn't going away, one municipality after another is looking into their zoning or planning codes, and some have passed dispensary-specific rules, like where they can be located and what type of signage is allowed.
I'm not waiting, either. Past the security guard, I can see a brightly lit, professional-looking operation. People shuttle paperwork to and fro, chatting and laughing. It's a far cry from a drug-dealing operation — though a familiar smell lingers in the air. No time for second thoughts: I'm already late for my appointment.
I step inside, ready to get medicated.
For Craig Mardick, it's a great day for a grand opening.
The windows of his new business, Golden Alternative Care, are freshly polished, and a spread of complimentary fruit, veggies and dip greets customers just inside the door. Mardick's landlord and insurance agent stop by to congratulate him and his employees. His mom pops in, too, with a freshly framed art poster to hang on the wall.
Mardick has just launched Golden's first marijuana dispensary, and behind a discreet curtain, a glass display case offers marijuana strains with names like Bubble Berry, AK-47 and Pot of Gold, plus an assortment of cannabis-infused edibles.
"I have never seen an economic model like this," he says of his new undertaking. "It's unheard of. Economists don't know how to forecast the industry."
A former medical technician and environmental scientist by trade, Mardick had been laid off from a couple of jobs in the past few years when he got the idea to open a dispensary. A medical marijuana patient himself — he's been diagnosed with a large hiatal hernia, a serious gastrointestinal ailment — he'd been using his botany background to grow medicine for a half-dozen patients.
In February of this year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the state medical marijuana registry, revealed that it was considering limiting marijuana caregivers to providing for a maximum of five patients — a move that would have put dispensaries out of business, since they need more than five customers to survive.
But at a heavily attended hearing on July 20, the Colorado Board of Health, the advisory board for CDPHE, voted against the proposed limitation. The decision was seen as a tacit endorsement of the dispensary model, and state registrar Ron Hyman says the state has received 6,000 medical marijuana patient applications since then.
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.
It turns out I'm one of those young men with severe pain. I've been seeing a chiropractor for much of the past year for muscle spasms in my back, and I can say without a doubt that I'm not pretending to spend nights writhing in pain or walking around like Quasimodo just to score some reefer. On the other hand, I'm a much less appropriate candidate than someone battling cancer or suffering from muscular dystrophy. But that's not for me to decide. That's why I start calling around to find out about scoring a medical marijuana card.
I begin with the marijuana-focused doctor referral services. These operations have sprung up on the premise that many patients' primary caregivers are reluctant to consider pot as medicine. My first call is to the relatively long-established THC Foundation, a three-year-old Wheat Ridge operation that's part of a multi-state non-profit chain. My medical condition could warrant medical marijuana, says a THC Foundation representative — though she adds that they're not about to provide me one with just my records from the chiropractor. "A chiropractor is not technically an M.D.," she says. "We really need something from your physician."
So I ring up the THC Foundation's main competition: CannaMed in Denver. I'm a bit surprised to find out the place is still operating. A week earlier, FBI agents had raided the operation — not because of the pot, but because they suspected it was associated with an $80 million nationwide fraud scheme. The feds did confiscate CannaMed's patient records, but attorney Charlie Crosse says no one at CannaMed was arrested or charged with crimes. "I am informed by the FBI that CannaMed is not a part of its case," he says. It turns out CannaMed was quickly up and running again.
"Sure, we take chiropractic records," the CannaMed representative tells me on the phone. It'll set me back $200 for the CannaMed doctor's visit, plus a $90 registration fee to the state, he says — or he can offer me a special deal for $50.
"$50?" I ask, incredulous.
The catch is that I have to let CannaMed choose my caregiver, the person who can grow up to six marijuana plants on my behalf, for one year. And during that time, I can't grow medicine myself. "Can I switch my caregiver before then?" I ask.
"If you pay us $290," he replies.
I'd heard about this process. Amendment 20 allows each medical marijuana patient to possess up to two ounces of marijuana or six marijuana plants at a time. Since these patients can alternatively assign these "pot rights" to a designated caregiver, the patients themselves have become a sort of key commodity in the blossoming industry.
Dispensaries and marijuana growers are trying to become the designated caregivers for as many patients as possible so they can increase the number of plants they're allowed to grow. Some dispensaries are offering incentives to those who will sign over their caregivership. CannaMed, I'd been told, was offering this $50 "low-income" option because marijuana cultivators are sponsoring these patients in exchange for obtaining their pot rights — though there's little guarantee that these growers were acting in a true caregiver role for these patients.
CannaMed referred all questions to its lawyer, Crosse, who says he doesn't get into operational issues. "I don't understand about the two price structures, and I am not informed, so I can't comment on that issue," he says.
As attractive as CannaMed's price tag sounds, I decide it's not worth signing away my pot rights. So instead I turn to the back pages of Westword, which has become a major marketing venue for medical marijuana businesses. Many dispensaries listed there advertise on-site doctors, though it's a risky move. Amendment 20 instituted a referral-based state registry so that doctors wouldn't be prescribing or helping patients obtain marijuana, since that practice could put them at risk of losing the Drug Enforcement Administration-issued license that lets them prescribe narcotics.
"It is my belief that having a doctor in a medical marijuana dispensary is too close to helping a patient get marijuana," says Brian Vicente, executive director of the drug-policy reform organization Sensible Colorado, who consults with several dispensaries. "I think they are at risk of losing their license."
Putting legal questions about these in-house doctors aside, I choose the operation with the biggest ad. The person who answers the phone explains that the dispensary works with a couple different doctors. Some won't take chiropractic records, although the one who comes in on Wednesdays does — for a $110 fee, plus $90 to the state.
I make an appointment for the following Wednesday.
Kevin, a marijuana cultivator, is proud of his $10,000 indoor state-of-the-art weed-growing operation, what with its hydro-organic flood tables attached to automated pumping systems and high-pressure sodium lights and perfectly calibrated carbon dioxide regulators. Just don't expect him to show it to you.
His growhouse, somewhere in southern Colorado, is protected by a security guard and movement sensors in the driveway; cameras beam footage to an off-site server. Since he's moving his operation — something he does every six months or so — he's not inclined to give a tour. Kevin, who didn't want to use his last name, may be amenable to visitors at that time, but only if they wear a blindfold and a pillowcase over their heads on the way there.
"I try not to be too paranoid, but truth of the matter is, under federal law it is not a hundred percent legal," says Kevin. The risk is worth it, however, since Kevin's services have been in high demand lately. With the number of marijuana patients swelling, the need for medicine has outpaced the supply. Some dispensaries have instituted limits on how much medicine its customers can buy so they can ration their stock.
Kevin is a caregiver for about twenty patients, which allows him to cultivate up to 120 plants on their behalf — though he's careful never to cultivate more than 99 at a time — the amount that would trigger a five-year mandatory minimum drug sentence if federal authorities ever come knocking. Kevin gives each of his patients an ounce of free medicine a month; he sells the rest, roughly a pound a month, to half a dozen dispensaries in Denver and Colorado Springs for $250 an ounce. The dispensaries typically turn it around for nearly double that, he says.
Prices for marijuana vary widely, depending on the quality, the grower and the dispensary. As an example, however, a patient could typically buy a quarter ounce for $100 to $150 (on the high side). There are around 28 grams in an ounce, so if a person put half a gram in each joint and smoked one joint per day, that pot would last for two to three weeks. At that rate, a month's worth of medicine would cost $200 to $300.
The industry has also spurred a wide range of pot-related support services and products. Lakewood commercial insurance agent Edward Leonard, for instance, helped a Boulder dispensary obtain a policy last October, and has since become the go-to guy for dispensary insurance, having worked with 23 operations.
"There are lots of insurance agents in Denver that would like to have this business," says Leonard, since he's one of the few who's been able to find an insurance company (which he wouldn't reveal) willing to write a policy that covers general liability and personal property at a dispensary, plus limited coverage for product for sale.
Then there's Naresh Chandranatha, whose website, MMJLine, and call-in phone number, catalogues the ever-increasing number of Colorado dispensaries. "We are essentially a 411 for dispensaries," says Chandranatha, who gets a few hundred calls a day for information. Dispensaries are listed for free, but some pay for advertising.
Those who want to grow their own meds might want to seek out the expertise of "Hans," a legendary marijuana cultivator known for helping develop the "sea of green" mass-production technique. Hans recently relocated to Colorado from Tucson, and he's teaching growing classes at a downtown dispensary, the Peace in Medicine Center.
Hans recently shot footage in town for his popular "Cooking with Marijuana" DVD series — quite fitting, since he filmed the first movies here a decade ago.
"The atmosphere in Denver ten years ago when we made the videos was such that we had to hide the house we were working in, we all wore masks, and we swore the cameramen to secrecy," he says. "Now we did it in an open, public forum at Owsley's Golden Road. We smoked right on stage, and the patients who were there with their cards were able to share in the food."
In Crestone, two businessmen just opened the High Valley Healing Center, the state's first medical cannabis retreat, and in Longmont, Mitchell Shenassa has been singing the praises of the Incredibowl. "We are putting people on the moon, and pipes haven't changed in 300 years," he explains. "For soccer moms and business executives who were smoking joints in high school, we wanted to step it up to the next level."
Shenassa and his business partners spent the past three years developing three-dimensional models and working with engineers they located through Craigslist ads. The result was the Apollo 11 of weed pipes — featuring a polycarbonate expansion chamber and a smoke-injection nozzle — which now retails primarily at Colorado dispensaries for $200, or half that for registered patients. "The dispensaries are a new market," Shenassa says.
Waiting in the dispensary for my appointment with the on-site physician is every bit as tedious and mind-numbing as a trip to a run-of-the-mill doctor's office.
As soon as I'm inside the dispensary, the security guard shows me to a waiting room where a table is stocked with clipboards full of forms to fill out. Through a doorway, customers lounge on a cushy leather couch, watching the History Channel on a flat-screen TV while waiting for their turn to enter the pharmacy room in the back. While the dispensary features a pool table, free fruit and munchies, complimentary chair massages and even a bar where people can ingest their medicine of choice by inhaling it through a vaporizer, all that's off limits to me until I get certified. To help speed up that process, well-dressed workers scurry all around me, Xeroxing driver's licenses, collecting appointment fees, pointing out the on-site ATM, writing out $90 money orders to be sent to the state health department along with each application. Between the chaos and the fact that my back is acting up, I'm starting to feel like I could really use a hit.
I'm not the only one waiting for the doctor. One guy, who looks to be in his twenties, inquires about whether the physician can authorize him for more than two ounces of pot at a time, so he can keep enough product on hand to cook edibles with it. An elderly woman sitting next to me nervously tells a staff member, "My family has been pushing me to do this for a while." She says she hasn't touched the stuff in forty years. A young man who looks to be her grandson watches over her shoulder.
My paperwork filled out, I'm finally called to see the doctor. I'm led into a small office where an older man in shorts and a short-sleeved button-down shirt sits behind a desk. The desk is empty save for a takeout menu for Cheba Hut, a restaurant franchise specializing in "toasted" (wink, wink) subs. He immediately gets down to business.
"I know why you are here, but why are you here?" he asks, and it takes me a moment to realize he wants to see my medical records. I hand over my chiropractor's notes and mumble nervously about my symptoms. I feel like I'm back in high school, taking a major test — one I might be cheating on.
The doctor reads over my records, then clears his throat. "There's only one problem," he says. My spirit drops; it sounds like I'm about to fail.
"I don't know what to write down for your diagnosis," he continues, gesturing to my state registry application. I realize he can't find the chiropractor's diagnosis on my medical records. I point to the top of a page where my chief complaints are listed as muscle spasms and tortacollis, a painful neck and back condition. "Oh," he says, satisfied. "I didn't look up that high.
"Tortacollis isn't bad," he says. "That's serious." But it would be better, he adds, if I got some additional diagnoses, maybe have some X-rays done. No rush, he adds. Just think about it for next year, when you come in for a renewal.
And with a flash of his pen, he recommends me as a medical marijuana patient. "Okay," he says, concluding our five-minute appointment. "You're all set."
Englewood's city council faced an unusual conundrum at its August 17 meeting. Two dispensaries had recently opened in the city, and more were on the way. The news was a bit overwhelming to elected officials, who were considering an emergency ordinance that night that would impose a six-month moratorium on all new dispensaries.
"I need to get a better handle on why these things are coming along so fast," councilmember Wayne Oakley told the room.
Rob Corry, a Denver-based legal consultant for several dispensaries, spoke up at the hearing to argue that the moratorium would be a mistake. "It would be a bad idea for the City of Englewood to remove itself from this growing — no pun intended — industry in Colorado," he said. "The City of Englewood would be walking away from hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially millions of dollars, in potential revenue."
It wasn't enough to appease the concerns of Englewood's city council, however, which passed the moratorium. Corry told councilmembers that, going forward, if they needed help developing regulations, he'd be happy to offer his services free of charge.
Englewood is not alone in its confusion. Dozens of dispensaries have opened in the past months in places like Wheat Ridge, Federal Heights, Lakewood, Littleton and Highlands Ranch. And while Aurora and Greenwood Village have laws preventing them from issuing business licenses to operations that violate federal law, other cities and towns have discovered that they have no rules about dispensaries whatsoever.
In the past month, Durango, Steamboat Springs, Craig, Basalt, Dillon, Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Frisco and Northglenn have all instituted temporary moratoriums on new dispensaries until they develop guidelines for them. Some municipalities, like Aspen, have decided that dispensaries should be treated like pharmacies when it comes to zoning issues, while others see them as nuisance businesses like strip clubs that should be a certain distance from schools and public parks. Denver and Boulder aren't currently considering any dispensary-specific policies.
Commerce City recently revised its city code to include rules for dispensaries (it prohibits public advertisement and outdoor use of medical marijuana), but other communities are reluctant to follow suit, because there's little legal precedent for anything other than requiring that they have a business license and pay sales tax. To figure out how Wheat Ridge should proceed, city staff there borrowed recommendations from "Medical Education and Dispensary Safety," a guide prepared by Colorado Springs-based Cannabis Therapeutics, one of the oldest and largest dispensaries around.
But city officials in Englewood and elsewhere might be wise to take Corry up on the offer of free advice. He and two other Colorado lawyers — Brian Vicente at Sensible Colorado and Warren Edson, co-author of Amendment 20 — know more about the dispensary industry here than anybody, since they've built it from the ground up.
Nearly every dispensary seems to keep at least one of these three legal gatekeepers on retainer, and they constantly rely on their opinions, not to mention their Rolodexes of marijuana-friendly landlords, realtors and doctors. "Everything you do, you contact your attorney and you develop a procedure that you think is the best argument in court," says Jill Leigh, co-owner of a dispensary called Boulder County Caregivers. "You have three attorneys who essentially developed dispensary policy in the state."
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.
I find what I'm looking for the next day in a tidy, sunlit kitchen. Here, three women are hard at work: rolling maraschino cherries in fondant and dipping them in Ghirardelli dark chocolate, slicing up cookie pans of coconut crunch bars into bit-sized hunks, assembling confectionary boxes jam-packed with professional-looking sweets. All of it is made with cannabis-infused oils or butters.
The women, wearing matching aprons and pot-leaf bracelets, are Jennifer Hawkins, Jennifer Smith and Katie (last name withheld), but they usually go by their company name, the Candy Girls. For a while, they operated under the title Growers for God, since they believe the Tree of Life was a cannabis plant, but their customers kept calling them the Candy Girls, and the name stuck. The undertaking began less than a year ago, when the women began making cannabis-infused candies for medical marijuana patients they knew who couldn't afford to buy their own. Soon dispensaries started seeking out their repertoire of chocolate truffles, lemon pies and mini-cheesecakes.
"People who will never, ever smoke pot will eat it," says Hawkins. "It's a whole additional market of people." The candies go for about $4 each.
Now they bake up about 800 goodies a week for eight Colorado dispensaries, including a customer who drives in from Grand Junction and a Chinese restaurant in Colorado Springs that sells their medicated chocolate-dipped cherries. They obtain raw cannabis from outside growers and make sure they're covered under state law by having some of the customers at each of the dispensaries they contract with designate one of the Candy Girls as their caregiver. To keep these relationships personal, the Candy Girls hold meet-and-greets with their patients, as recommended by their lawyer, Edson.
It wasn't always like this, says Hawkins. Diagnosed with a seizure disorder, she was one of the first hundred Coloradans to get a medical marijuana card. To get it, she had to go to twenty different doctors before one was willing to help her. And she visited some dispensaries so shady that she was glad she'd brought her husband along.
Now, not only is their medicine of choice gaining acceptability, but it's helping them support their families. "From my position, we were all in a really difficult spot in life," says Hawkins, who'd been laid off from her previous job. "This became an opportunity, and everything has fallen into place."
When the Candy Girls hear I'm a new patient, they offer me a sample box of their signature specialties: chocolates, brownies and trail bars, several of which feature stickers that say "For medicinal use only." Enjoy it, they tell me, with one note of warning: No matter how good they might taste, it's best to sample one at a time.
I've never been so excited to take my medicine.
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