Colorado leads legal marijuana experiment with fears, hopes

The move still constitutes one of the largest ever experiments in drug legalization in US history and no one in Denver or elsewhere knows how it will play out

File photo by EPA/Abir Sultan

DENVER, USA – In a squat warehouse, hidden behind a south Denver rail line and a huge pet food factory, master marijuana grower Nick Hice is showing a rare visitor the intoxicating fruits of his labour.

“It’s my dream job,” says the burly, genial father-of-two. “I’ve been working in nurseries since I was 18. But it’s very stressful. Each crop is a six-figure harvest.”

Hice is a partner in one of Denver’s leading medical marijuana dispensaries, and like just about everyone else in this booming industry, he is preparing for January 1, 2014 when Colorado will become, along with Washington state, one of the first two states in the US to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Users, growers and cannabis workers will remain exposed to federal arrest. But the move still constitutes one of the largest ever experiments in drug legalization in US history and no one in Denver or elsewhere knows how it will play out.

Supporters say that the damage done by the failed war on drugs will end – fewer arrests and convictions that scar lives and cost billions. Government coffers will fill with taxes, and the Mexican drug cartels that currently control much of the marijuana trade will be forced out of business.

Opponents say that marijuana remains a more potent drug than ever, and fear its use will expand, especially among kids. Even though marijuana use will be rampant, taxes will not cover the costs of regulation, they argue.

Colorado regulators will add some clarity to the rules when they publish draft regulations on Monday, July 1. But Hice is already dreaming big. As he walks through the rows of pungent plants, he proudly points out some 40 different strains and the expensive equipment needed to grow them under rows of blindingly bright 1,000-watt bulbs.

His eyes sparkling with excitement, Hice, 35, talks about expanding his 1,300-square-meter “grow-op” with sophisticated heated greenhouses, circled with barbed wire fences, electric barriers and guard dogs.

But his partners in the medical marijuana dispensary, Denver Relief, are a lot more circumspect. Sitting in a suite of well- appointed downtown offices, Kayvan Khalatbari and Ean Seeb look like typical young businessmen, managing to squeeze a quick interview into their hectic business schedule. Then they jet off to Connecticut and New York to advise other “ganjapreneurs” about how to comply with state regulations and build thriving canna-businesses.

Downstairs, their dispensary looks like a cross between a bank, a pharmacy and a marijuana lover’s dream. A clerk sits behind a bulletproof screen and kevlar wall, letting in authorized users through a set of two steel doors into a windowless room in which jars of glistening weed are displayed on shelves behind a dark wooden counter. There are also lots of marijuana infused edibles – lollipops, soft drinks, cookies – and high powered concentrates and hashish.

The upscale tone is in marked contrast to many other establishments in Denver. At the Green Man Connection, an office used by staff is littered with used bongs, overflowing ashtrays and scattered nuggets of weed.

With more than 200 dispensaries in Denver – more than the number of either Starbucks or McDonald franchises in the city – serving only 17,000 licensed medical users, competition is fierce. Prices have dropped by 40 per cent or more over the last year or two, and consumers can now buy a gram of good quality weed for just 5 dollars.

With enforcement of the so-called seed-to-sale system notoriously lax, observers say that much of the legally cultivated marijuana is diverted to the black market.

Khalatbari and Seeb say they’re eager for tight enforcement that would limit such violations – and increase the value of operators like them who have experience in legal compliance.

Like canny operators who sold tools and services to millions of miners in the 19th century California gold rush, they see their true opportunity in servicing other businesses in the coming green rush.

“We want to spread our way of doing things,” says Khalatbari, who at the same time rules out plans to expand Denver Relief to other spots, even though it has numerous competitors who boast multiple outlets around the state.

“Consulting mitigates our risk,” says Seeb. “If the Feds are going to bust anyone, they’re going to bust the big boys.”

Anti-marijuana activists are pressuring the Obama administration to enforce federal laws on marijuana. And though an estimated 750,000 people are arrested each year for cannabis possession, they insist that the arguments in favor of legalization are unfounded.

“Our big fear is the mass commercialization of marijuana,” says Diane Carlson from an organization called Smart Colorado. “Everyone will be looking to grow more, which will mean increased consumption.”

She also questions the heralded benefits that a three-tiered tax on marijuana will bring to state and city coffers. “There’s a question whether it will even cover the cost of regulation,” she says. “We are the first place in the world to legalize marijuana, and it’s just a whole new ball game.” –

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