Walk into the basement showroom of the Colorado Patient Coalition, a marijuana dispensary located in a small medical plaza on the northern outskirts of Denver, and your nostrils fill with the same pungent odor that once stank up your college roommate's underwear drawer. But the visual cues are at odds with the Steppenwolf playing on the sound system: a uniformed security guard leans by the door, while grass is displayed in neatly labeled jars under glass. Along one wall is a large, horizontal one-way window, behind which, one assumes, are eyes sharper and brighter than those of the clerks and customers.
Fourteen U.S. states have voted to allow medical marijuana since California first legalized it in 1996; Colorado voters did so by amending the state constitution in 2000. But with drug possession still a federal offense, it wasn't until the Justice Department said in October it would refrain from prosecuting medical-marijuana cases that dispensaries began to proliferate. In Colorado, particularly, they've found fertile ground: when the first dispensary opened in the capital three years ago, it didn't even have a sign in the window. Today, according to an estimate by the Denver Post, the city has more pot shops than it does Starbucks, and twice as many as it has public schools.
Denver is struggling to rein in its mushrooming number of pot stores. On Jan. 11, the city council passed an ordinance prohibiting on-site consumption of the drug and barring dispensaries from setting up within 1,000 ft. (300 m) of a school.
But getting marijuana off Coloradans' minds might be tougher. The state has a waiting list 20,000 names long for the medical-marijuana cards that users must show at dispensaries. It's difficult to turn on local radio or TV without hearing about pot. Realtors assess how dispensaries affect local property values. Veterans debate pot's usefulness in treating posttraumatic stress disorder. In November, Westword, Denver's alternative weekly newspaper, hired a pot critic.
Ricky Miller, a 50-year-old veteran who lost a foot in a medical mishap, still struggles with pain. "You get up in the morning, you sit on the edge of the bed, and you reach for your medicine. I use a water pipe," he says of his daily routine. "If I try to stand up without my medicine, I won't make it." For Miller, who volunteers at the Colorado Patient Coalition, medical marijuana is as necessary as his hospital bed, scooter, handicapped-access ramp and special lift chairs. And like them, it was recommended by a Veterans Affairs doctor. "Durbin Poison is a nice med. It won't wipe you out," Miller says to a young woman who has just walked in the door, sounding like a clerk in a high-end department store.
"What will wipe you out?" she demands.
"Sour D," Miller replies. "Guaranteed."
Like many in his field, he appears to sincerely believe that every customer is truly ill and will benefit from cannabis' medicinal properties. Yet the encounter puts into focus what many critics of the dispensaries allege: that they are increasingly the destination of choice for healthy folks who just want to get high "18-year-olds breezing in and complaining about headaches," as a patient advocate describes them.
Colorado's legislature is in the process of making things tougher for both customers and dispensaries. The state senate passed a bill that would require 18-to-21-year-olds to get approval from two doctors before allowing them access, and there's legislation afoot to require all dispensaries to be run as nonprofits. As of Feb. 8, Denver requires dispensary owners to undergo background checks, submit security plans and spend $5,000 in licensing and fees. Denver's 484 dispensaries already charge sales tax, which means that financially, anyway the city isn't hurting from their presence. In at least one way, they're even driving business: a dispensary security guard an off-duty cop whose wife uses marijuana to alleviate symptoms of fibromyalgia and who declined to give his name says he is starting a security business that specializes in protecting pot shops. "There's a niche," he says with a shrug.