The 'high' world of pot

Published: Monday | December 30, 2013 Comments 0
Tyler, no last name given, inspects plants as they mature at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver. - ap photos
Tyler, no last name given, inspects plants as they mature at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver. - ap photos
Elle Beau, an employee of The Clinic, a Denver-based dispensary with several outlets, reaches into a display case for marijuana while helping a customer, in Denver. The clinic is among the roughly 150 medical marijuana dispensaries hoping to begin selling to recreational users when it becomes legal to sell on January 1, 2014.
Elle Beau, an employee of The Clinic, a Denver-based dispensary with several outlets, reaches into a display case for marijuana while helping a customer, in Denver. The clinic is among the roughly 150 medical marijuana dispensaries hoping to begin selling to recreational users when it becomes legal to sell on January 1, 2014.

While Jamaica is still grappling with the issue of decriminalising marijuana, and Professor Henry Lowe has launched Jamaica's first medical ganja company, MediCanja, in the United States where medical marijuana is legal, the industry seems to be booming.

DENVER (AP):

A gleaming white Apple store of weed is how Andy Williams sees his new Denver marijuana dispensary.

Two floors of pot-growing rooms will have windows showing the shopping public how the mind-altering plant is grown. Shoppers will be able to peruse drying marijuana buds and see pot trimmers at work separating the valuable flowers from the less-prized stems and leaves.

"It's going to be all white and beautiful," the 45-year-old ex-industrial engineer explains, excitedly gesturing around what just a few weeks ago was an empty warehouse space that will eventually house 40,000 square feet of cannabis strains.

As Colorado prepares to be the first in the nation to allow recreational pot sales, opening January 1, hopeful retailers like Williams are investing their fortunes into the legal recreational pot world - all for a chance to build even bigger ones in a fledgling industry that faces an uncertain future.

Officials in Colorado and Washington, the other state where recreational pot goes on sale in mid-2014, as well as activists, policymakers and governments from around the United States and across the world will not be the only ones watching the experiment unfold.

So too will the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which for now is not fighting to shut down the industries.

"We are building an impressive showcase for the world, to show them this is an industry," Williams says, as the scent of marijuana competes with the smell of sawdust and wet paint in the cavernous store where he hopes to sell pot just like a bottle of wine.

Will it be a showcase for a safe, regulated pot industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year and saves money on locking up drug criminals, or one that will prove, once and for all, that the federal government has been right to ban pot since 1937?

Cannabis was grown legally in the US for centuries, even by George Washington. After Prohibition's end in the 1930s, federal authorities turned their sights on pot. The 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness warned the public about a plant capable of turning people into mindless criminals.

first big victory

Over the years, pot activists and state governments managed to chip away at the ban, their first big victory coming in 1996 when California allowed medical marijuana. Today, 19 other states, including Colorado and Washington, and the District of Columbia, have similar laws.

Those in the business were nervous, fearing that federal agents would raid their shops.

"It was scary," recalls Williams, who along with his brother borrowed some $630,000 from parents and relatives to open Medicine Man in 2009. "I literally had dreams multiple times a week where I was in prison and couldn't see my wife or my child. Lot of sleepless nights."

In Colorado, the industry took off. Shops advertised on billboards and radio. Pot-growing warehouses along Interstate 70 in Denver grew so big that motorists started calling one stretch the 'Green Zone' for its frequent skunky odour of pot.

The city at one point had more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks coffee shops, with some neighbourhoods crowded with dispensary sign-wavers and banners offering free joints for new customers. Local officials have since ratcheted back such in-your-face ads.

But the marijuana movement didn't stop. Voters in Colorado and Washington approved recreational pot in 2012, sold in part on spending less to lock up drug criminals and the potential for new tax dollars to fund state programmes.

The votes raised new questions about whether the federal government would sue to block laws flouting federal drug law. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper famously warned residents not to "break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly," and activists predicated a legal showdown.

That didn't happen. In August, the DOJ said it wouldn't sue so long as the states met an eight-point standard that includes keeping pot out of other states and away from children, criminal cartels and federal property.

restrictions

Colorado law allows adults 21 and older to buy pot at state-sanctioned pot retail stories, and state regulations forbid businesses from advertising in places where children are likely see their pitches.

Only existing medical dispensaries were allowed to apply for licences, an effort to prevent another proliferation of pot shops. Only a few dozen shops statewide are expected to be open for recreational sales on New Year's Day.

Legal pot's potential has spawned businesses beyond retail shops. Marijuana-testing companies have popped up, checking regulated weed for potency and screening for harmful molds. Gardening courses charge hundreds to show people how to grow weed at home.

Tourism companies take curious tourists to glass-blowing shops where elaborate smoking pipes are made. One has clients willing to spend up to $10,000 for a week in a luxury ski resort and a private concierge to show them the state's pot industry.

Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, maker of pot-infused foods and drinks, is making new labels for the recreational market and expanding production on everything from crispy rice treats to fruit lozenges.

"The genie is out of the bottle," says company president Tripp Keber. "I think it's going to be an exciting time over the next 24 to 48 months."

The challenges, activists and regulators say, are daunting in Colorado and Washington.

One of the biggest questions is whether they have built an industry that will not only draw in tens of millions of dollars in revenue but also make a significant dent in the illegal market. Another is whether the regulatory system is up to the task of controlling a drug that's never been regulated.

There are public-health and law-enforcement concerns, including whether wide availability of a drug with a generations-old stigma of ruining lives will lead to more underage drug use, more cases of driving while high and more crime.

To stop the drug from getting smuggled out of state, regulators in both states are using a radio-frequency surveillance system developed to track pot from the greenhouses to the stores and have set low purchasing limits for non-residents.

Officials concede that there's little they can do to prevent marijuana from ending up in suitcases on the next flight out. The sheriff in the Colorado county, where Aspen is located, has suggested placing an "amnesty box" at the city's small airport to encourage visitors to drop off their extra bud.

To prevent the criminal element from getting a foothold, regulators have enacted residency requirements for business owners, banned out-of-state investment and run background checks on every applicant for a licence to sell or grow the plant.

Whether the systems are enough is anyone's guess.

For now, all the focus is on 2014. This being Colorado, there will be more than a few joints lit up on New Year's Eve. Pot fans plan to don 1920s-era attire for a "Prohibition Is Over!" party and take turns using concentrated pot inside the "dab bus".

Williams says he's done everything he can, including hiring seven additional staffers to handle customers. All he has to do is open the doors.

"Are we ready to go? Yes," he says. "What's going to happen? I don't know."



 

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