Longform

Medical marijuana has become a growth industry in Colorado

See photos of 12 strains of Cannabis Therapeutics' supply at westword.com/slideshow

Behind a locked, unmarked door in a Colorado Springs strip mall, the state's largest marijuana dispensary is open for business.

The operation's aromatic showroom is packed floor to ceiling with pot and anything and everything related to it. "Welcome to Cannabis Therapeutics. Intended for prescribed medical use only!" announces a large sign on the wall.

Glass cases display Baggie upon Baggie of pot — 35 varieties in all. Those looking for cheap medicine can go for the $250-an-ounce, bargain-basement Holland's Hope or upgrade to $300-an-ounce Thunderstruck or $400-an-ounce Purple Haze. Big spenders can opt for top-shelf meds such as a crop of Chocolate Chunk priced at $500 an ounce. It's all available to buy loose or ready to smoke in pre-rolled blunts. And, for green thumbs, cloned marijuana seedlings sit in a bubbling tray of water, waiting for the right buyer.

Today an older woman is here buying some Silver Skunk to help ease lingering pain from a shattered right femur she suffered in a car accident, as well as recurring migraines and fibromyalgia. "I don't like marijuana, but I have no choice," she says as she pays part of her $136 bill in cash and puts the rest on a debit card.

A mother in a track suit leaves her teenage daughter pouting in the lobby while she shops; a younger fellow in baggy jeans and a hoodie samples some Mexican True Blue.

A staffer is ready to help newbies who've just coughed up their $25 annual membership fee establish what mixture of sativa and indica, the two core strains of medical marijuana, is appropriate for their particular illness. For multiple sclerosis, it's best to go with a cross breed that's at least 65 percent indica, known for its relaxing physical high. Sufferers of debilitating stress, on the other hand, typically opt for sativa, which provides more of a mental high.

To administer the medicine, there is a smorgasbord of colorful glass pipes and bongs available, courtesy of a Manitou Springs glass blower. For those who don't want to smoke their determined dosage, there are vaporizers to help clients inhale it, as well as THC pills, THC oils, THC butter, THC fudge, ice cream, bubble gum, hot chocolate mix, cheese, fountain drinks, roll-on pain relievers and bubble bath. Stashed away in a cabinet are jars filled with marijuana marinating in Don Julio and Cazadores tequila.

"It's not about getting high," says Michael Lee, the owner of Cannabis Therapeutics. "It's about getting medicated." Lee founded the operation three years ago under the auspices of Colorado's Amendment 20. The constitutional amendment — approved by voters in 2000 — allows people with cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, muscle spasms, severe pain, severe nausea and other medical conditions to use marijuana.

With a recommendation from a licensed Colorado doctor, patients can obtain a state-issued Medical Marijuana Registry identification card to show to police — though it does nothing to change the fact that the federal government still considers marijuana illegal. Patients may cultivate their own medicine or designate a primary caregiver to provide it for them. Lee and his colleagues at Cannabis Therapeutics, for example, are designated caregivers to more than 600 patients around the state.

This arrangement has proved lucrative: Lee, 44, says his dispensary earns about $105,000 a month, $75,000 of which he says goes back out the door for more monthly product. This onetime owner of a Colorado Springs flooring company insists, however, that his current occupation is more than a business.

"I clinically died. I can't lie. I won't lie," he declares, gesturing to a faded news clipping on the wall. It describes a car crash years ago in Santa Barbara, California, in which a young passenger was killed, and notes that "the driver, Michael Lee, 19, suffered head and internal injuries, and his condition is listed as critical."

After being clinically dead for 41 minutes and spending eleven days in a coma, he turned to marijuana for healing. Years later, lingering pain and muscle spasms led Lee, who is also a member of local mega-churches New Life and Radiant, to become one of Colorado's first certified medical marijuana patients, and he soon found himself helping other people who used marijuana for pain and illness. Now there's no more established operation around for getting medicated.

Lee has signed contracts with seven Colorado growers — all legal under Amendment 20, he promises, because they're registered caregivers for some of his patients. Each grower provides him with roughly a pound and a half of dried marijuana per month. Cannabis Therapeutics is also insured, says Lee, who convinced his insurance agency to design a dispensary policy just for him.

He also has a good relationship with the Colorado Springs police, having invited them in for a tour in 2006 after the cops caught wind of the operation.

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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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