Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Denver hits the million-dollar jack pot with 235 medical marijuana dispensaries

The March 8 issue of Time magazine includes a postcard from Denver, the cannabis capital of the country. This city's reputation as a mecca for medical marijuana is so pervasive that local law enforcement authorities recently paid a visit to Visit Denver, the convention and visitors bureau, to see if that reputation was posing problems. The short answer: no. After all, to get a medical marijuana card (or to apply for one, at least, because the state is running up to four months behind) you must be a Colorado resident. So no trade associations are booking meetings in Denver with the idea that they're coming to the new Amsterdam. Nor have any prospective conventions been turned off by the number of residents who'd like to turn on — and the number of businesses in Denver eager to help them. Two-hundred-and-thirty-five, to be exact.

On January 11, Denver City Council unanimously passed an ordinance defining what dispensaries must do in order to continue operating in Denver. No on-site consumption is allowed, hours are limited and security setups are mandatory — as are city sales tax licenses (and paying city sales taxes). Any dispensary that got its sales-tax license after December 15 is subject to a buffer zone, which prohibits a dispensary from being within 1,000 feet of a school or a day-care center — or another dispensary. And every dispensary already operating in the city of Denver (or planning to operate within the next few weeks) also had to apply for a new dispensary license before March 1. This process is considerably more involved than applying for a sales-tax license. Applicants have to produce a lease or deed for their building, a floor plan, a security plan, an area map showing how the dispensary fits within any buffer zones, a burglar alarm permit, a zoning permit and, for everyone who owns at least 10 percent of the business, fingers — all of which must be inked and printed for the requisite background check. And speaking of checks, every dispensary also must fork over more than $5,000 — $2,000 for the nonrefundable application fee, a bit more for expenses, and another $3,000 for the first year of operation. Refunded if the license isn't granted — but only on request.

Given the involved process (and the fact that pot proponents aren't known for their speed), it's no surprise that dispensaries didn't rush to apply. At 7:30 a.m. on February 8, when the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses started accepting applications, Wesley Fazio was first in line. His dispensary, Basking Ridge Comfort Clinic, at 2193 West Evans Avenue, hadn't even opened yet. But Fazio, who hadn't applied for his sales tax license until after the council back-dated the buffer zone rule to December 15 (and who politely made his displeasure known at council's public hearing), wasn't about to be caught napping again. In fact, he spent the night in a car outside the Wellington E. Webb building so that he'd be there when the doors opened.

Still, Fazio has yet to see his approved application. "I've been wondering where the paperwork was," he said Monday. But he's stayed busy: painting the previously empty building, putting in carpeting, adding a handicapped ramp. And with luck (and the proof that he's filed that application), he'll open the dispensary this weekend.

"The real work begins on Monday," said Penny May, head of the department, as she eyeballed the crowd that showed up on February 26, the last day to file dispensary applications before the March 1 deadline. The final person in line that Friday? Nick Ibarra, a native of northwest Denver. "We had this building for probably fifteen years," he says. "We have a security company on the other side. It's kind of been going downhill for the last three years, and we saw this opportunity." An opportunity in medical marijuana, of course. So on November 30, they opened the LoHi Cannabis Club at 2511 17th Street, at the edge of Highland. Since the dispensary got its sales tax license on December 9, well in advance of the December 15 buffer-zone cut-off, there was no hurry to get a dispensary application. Or so Ibarra thought when he came through the doors just before 4 p.m.

But it turns out that his building lies within the peculiar Platte Valley zoning area, so even though all the paperwork was in order, the LoHi Cannabis Club's application was put on hold until the city looked through the zoning issues — and the dispensary itself was put on ice. But at least Ibarra's going to get another piece of the business in the meantime: A dozen dispensaries have asked him for help with their security plans.

The four city staffers who were taking applications on February 26 finally left at 12:30 a.m., when the last application was tucked into a folder. And now that real work begins, as they look over plans, check distances on maps, collect the results of the background checks on 235 dispensary applications. But the city's been well paid for their efforts: It collected more than a million dollars (not including sales tax) in just three weeks.

Not to mention the priceless publicity that comes with being the country's cannabis capital.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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