Ganjapreneurs are cashing in on Colorado's booming medical pot business

I knock on the locked door of the nondescript one-story building not far from downtown, willing away my anxiety.

"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.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner

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