In the shadow of Colorado’s state capitol Dustin Avery is blissfully puffing away on a cannabis pipe. “It’s great, you can smoke a bong, the cops can ride by, and you just wave at them,” he says. “I can’t believe it. In Florida I got 10 days in jail just for having a pipe and no drugs.”Mr Avery, 20, is standing in a civic square in central Denver, in a fog of smoke, and he is far from alone. At least half a dozen people nearby are openly taking their own drugs, and appear to be in various states of impairment as they revel in Colorado’s new-found status as the “Amsterdam of America.”
It is just a few days since the people of the Centennial state voted, by a majority of 53-47, to legalise cannabis for recreational use and put a sales tax on it. Along with Washington state they were the first in the US to do so.
Colorado also went further than both Washington and Amsterdam, allowing its citizens to cultivate up to six cannabis plants in their homes. “I’ll be growing all six, and possibly some more,” Mr Avery added.
It is no coincidence that, a few blocks from where he stood, the 2012 National Marijuana Business Conference was taking place. The event attracted entrepreneurs, some in sharp suits and ties and clutching iPhones, looking to be part of an anticipated “green rush.” As they networked lawyers, bankers, accountants, insurance agents, lobbyists and potential investors discussed not their favourite types of “bud,” but issues such as how to get funds for cannabis start ups, taxation, and listing businesses on iPad applications.
Tripp Keber, managing director of Dixie Elixers and Edibles, which already supplies items like cannabis-infused sodas and mints to hundreds of medical cannabis dispensaries in Colorado, said: “On Nov 6 there were 105,000 registered medical patients in Colorado. From Nov 7 we’re talking about an addressable market of one million plus customers. This is explosive, hockey stick growth, a watershed moment. It’s also a boon for taxes and jobs, and the US economy needs tax dollars.
“I don’t have a crystal ball but I think in the next two years we’ll probably have initiatives like this in five other states.”
Another cannabis entrepreneur, Vicki Garland, 61, owner of Lotus Heart Apothecary, began her business making soothing lotions and sprays. Several years ago she started infusing them with the drug and selling to registered medical patients.
She said: “It’s changed my life. It’s been so rewarding to help cancer patients. Now there’s a big boom to come, and we’re reeling to think what effect this is going to have.
“We just hope that President Obama gets the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) to leave us alone. It’s time.”
Her daughter Charity Garland, 26, is a stellar example of the rising class of cannabis entrepreneur. In December Miss Garland finishes her chemistry degree at Berkeley. Instead of pursuing her initial goal of becoming a Nasa scientist, she will bake and sell cannabis products like croissants, brioche and gingerbread cupcakes.
“It’s all chemistry,” she explained. “I decided to do something a little different and creative.”
The medical cannabis boom has already seen hundreds of dispensaries sprout up in Colorado, surpassing the number of Starbucks outlets.
In an area known as the “Green Mile,” Allie Priestley, 24, a professional “budtender,” was surrounded by jars of produce with names like “Sugarberry Sativa” and “Golden Goat.” Her dizzying array of cannabis-infused products included chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter and jelly cups, and gluten free granola bars.
“Our most popular product is pink kush,” she said enthusiastically. “It’s perfect for daytime use for people with anxiety. It doesn’t put you out of it, so you can function at work.
“We also have these great new mint chocolate bars. You can’t taste the marijuana at all. They’re perfect if you can’t smoke during the day because you have kids.”
The morning after the legalisation vote Mr Brodeur had 30 calls in an hour from people in states like Texas, New York and Massachusetts “wanting to make vacation plans.” He said: “I’ve been waiting for this my whole adult life and it’s not about the business.”
Whether Colorado does in fact implement the legalisation of cannabis is somewhat of a moot point. Its stance has set up a potential head-on collision with the federal US government. Under federal law the possession and sale of the drug remains illegal.
The Department of Justice could go to court and torpedo the state’s plans, or there could be raids by the DEA. A spokesman for the US Attorney’s office said: “Enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.” But in the absence of imminent federal action the election day referendum is expected to be certified by Governor John Hickenlooper in 30 days time.
Mr Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had been a vocal opponent of legalisation but says he will “respect the will” of the voters.
That will make possession of an ounce of the drug, and plant growing, legal. In January state politicians will begin working towards licensing shops 12 months later. The shops will be able to sell up to an ounce, and it is expected they will pay millions of dollars in state tax.
At one Denver outlet Mike Brodeur, 48, offers cannabis butter and olive oil, healing pistachio pudding, pumpkin pie high tea, bath salts and massage oil. His biggest seller is candied apples. “They’re just awesome,” he said.
“They actually have an apple in there which is cool.”
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