Budding idea in Colorado as marijuana legalised

Use of up to an ounce of marijuana is now allowed in the second US state to make the move


Songs from Toni Fox’s preferred Rhonda Byrne CD flowed from her silver Saturn Vue as she sped past breathtaking mountain views during her twice-weekly 2½-hour commute from home in Salida, Colorado, to her workplace in Globeville, a traditionally industrial neighbourhood in the state’s capital, Denver.

Fox’s office is a far cry from your typical open plan desk space: she owns and runs a medical marijuana dispensary, one of the many that now line Denver’s streets. A recent report by the American news programme 60 Minutes claimed that Denver currently boasts more medical pot dispensaries than it does Starbucks. And if plans for the implementation of Amendment 64 (which legalised marijuana for recreational use in the state last November) are anything to go by, many more Denver doors could embrace this so-called “green rush”.

“We will be one of the first centres to go recreational, January 1st, 2014,” Fox smiles excitedly. Standing in the large lobby of her dispensary, decorated in ski-lodge-meets-American-ranch style, Fox adds how her business, the 3D Cannabis Center, has the capacity to expand tenfold once recreational marijuana sales kick off.

“We have a licence for 1,800 plants, but we’re maxed on power and space, so we have 1,000 now,” Fox says, stepping toward the back of the lobby and into a long, dark corridor whose only source of light seeped through a glass wall on the right-hand side. Fox gestures past the glass toward the dozens and dozens of large marijuana plants on the other side.

“This is the first and only cannabis cultivation viewing corridor in the world, visitors can come here and see how we’re organic in our processing,” she says, adding how 3D Cannabis currently uses a soil-based cultivation with homemade fertiliser teas.

“We see 30 people and have about $1,000 a day in sales, but once we have the cannabis to sell, it’s more like, the sky’s the limit!”

Amendment 64 legalised use and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 and older in Colorado. It allows marijuana to be sold in specially licensed stores set to open at the start of 2014. Voters approved the amendment last November with 55 per cent support. Since Colorado governor John Hickenlooper passed the bill, his specially appointed Marijuana Task Force has issued recommendations (iti.ms/17EdfMT) for the regulation of this budding new industry.

“I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m apprehensive, but it looks like the federal government is going to let us open,” Fox says. “This is a world-changing industry, for the better – physically, economically, socially, and medically.”

Fox credits marijuana for curing chronic back pain she developed after years of running a landscaping business with her husband, before opening 3D Cannabis almost three years ago.

“The world would be a better place if more people consumed cannabis and taught their children the truth about cannabis,” she says.

It is over these two key points though |– marijuana’s medicinal benefits and educating the youth about cannabis – that those against recreational marijuana use disagree with Fox and other die-hard proponents of amendment 64.

The FDA does not classify marijuana as a pharmaceutical. It is technically a schedule I controlled substance (iti.ms/17EdveD), in other words, an illegal narcotic. Eighteen states allow the consumption of medical marijuana while only two, Colorado and Washington, have legally embraced recreational marijuana use.

“The amazing thing about medical marijuana is that it has escaped all our normal rates of testing,” says Dr Margaret Haney from the Substance Use Research Center at Columbia University. Dr Haney is among a very small group of researchers licensed by federal authorities to use herbal marijuana in laboratory studies. She recently conducted one of the very few studies testing marijuana’s medical benefits by comparing the pain-relieving effects of Marinol – “synthetic pot” – and herbal marijuana.

Asked about her take on Colorado’s legalisation of recreational marijuana use, Haney says: “My concern is that we know drug use, and drug dependence, is a function of availability. Medically speaking, the only thing we know for a fact is that cannabis reduces nausea and improves appetite. I’m not saying it’s not beneficial, and it’s a very exciting are to study, but it just hasn’t been tested. It’s a very political drug.”

In Colorado’s politics of cannabis, even those groups who are sceptical or against amendment 64 have recognised that it is a fast-approaching reality.

“We need more authority. The people at the table, on the task force, the majority are industry people, so self-regulation is a problem,” Rachel O’Bryan, a member of the Denver-based advocacy group Smart Colorado (iti.ms/1732H7c) tells The Irish Times. According to its logo, Smart Colorado “puts the public’s interests ahead of the interests of the marijuana industry”.

O’Bryan sat on one of Hickenlooper’s marijuana task force subcommittees. She says that as a mother of an adolescent, her main concern is education, “education and regulation of marijuana-based products that can appeal to kids, like soda pops and baked goods. I would like to see rigorous enforcement of rules by the Department of Revenue and more science behind pop-culture thinking about marijuana.”