Colorado medical marijuana-sellers aim high

Cannabis in Boulder, Colorado Colorado is one of 14 states that allow medical marijuana use

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For Lori Stocker, marijuana is not so much for getting high as getting by.

Suffering from a rare nerve disease with no prospect of a cure, she's in constant pain.

"The pain is always there," she said. "The nerves just keep firing off pain."

Not even the insertion of a spinal cord stimulator could combat the debilitating consequences of her condition.

So Lori turned to medical marijuana for relief. It works, up to a point.

"It certainly doesn't take the pain away," she said, "but it helps... relax you a little bit so that you are not concentrated so much on it."

CANNABIS IN THE US

  • 1937: Marihuana Tax Act makes move towards criminalisation
  • 1951: Boggs Act makes penalties harsher
  • 1956: Daniel Act further stiffens law
  • 1972: Commission recommends decriminalisation of small amounts
  • 1988: Post of "Drug Czar" created
  • 1996: California passes Proposition 215 allowing medical cannabis use
  • 2001: Court decides federal law can stop medical use
  • Today: Fourteen states allow use of medical cannabis

As a resident of Denver, Colorado, Ms Stocker lives in one of 14 US states that currently allow the use of medical marijuana.

She picks up her medication at Denver Relief, one of more than 1,100 dispensaries now operating across the state.

The dispensary, with its small, anonymous waiting area and "bud room" where patients make their selections from a wide array of marijuana products, is part of a wellness centre that also offers acupuncture, massage, yoga and counselling.

In Colorado, taking marijuana for medical purposes is not just a choice, it's a right. The state passed a constitutional amendment legalising its medical use in 2000.

But only in the past two years have dispensaries mushroomed, as more and more people obtain state-issued medical marijuana certificates.

Cannabis in Boulder, Colorado The places that dispense the drug are in rows of ordinary shops

One recent estimate suggested 80,000 Coloradans hold medical marijuana certificates, with new applications pouring in every day.

At a medical marijuana trade fair in Denver last week, doctors offered cut-price consultations amid stalls advertising "Mile High" ice-cream and iPhone applications that can locate nearby dispensaries.

To qualify for a certificate, patients must be diagnosed with one of eight conditions, from specific ailments like glaucoma to general complaints like "severe pain".

Prohibition comparison

"It's a revolution," said Eryn Ruppell of advocacy magazine Post420, who was surveying the busy trade fair.

"It's really going to change history," she said.

"When I was [my kids'] age, I was reading about the prohibition of alcohol. They're going to be reading about this movement."

The comparison with prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s is apt: during its 13 years, alcohol was frequently prescribed by doctors for its supposedly therapeutic qualities.

Jars of cannabis Cannabis is on open sale to those with medical permission

In 1933, the US Congress repealed the 18th amendment to the US constitution and alcohol consumption was once again a matter for states to regulate.

Last March, in an echo of that move, US Attorney General Eric Holder called off federal raids on medical marijuana distributors that comply with state laws.

Another similarity: Mr Holder's move and the prohibition repeal occurred amid severe economic crises and involved industries capable of generating huge revenues.

There is clearly plenty of money to be made regulating and taxing an industry worth as much as $36bn a year, a 2006 estimate that would make it America's largest cash crop.

Complex rules

But the man in charge of drawing up Colorado's regulatory framework says regulation is not merely an effort to raise tax revenue.

"There may be a perception this is a taxation issue," said Matt Cook, senior director of enforcement in Colorado's Department of Revenue.

WHERE IS CANNABIS ALLOWED?

  • Netherlands has longstanding de facto decriminalisation
  • Mexico decriminalised possession of small amounts last year
  • Portugal allowed possession and use of small quantities in 2001
  • Private use and cultivation is allowed in Spain
  • Health authorities in Canada allow medical usage for certain patients
  • In the UK cannabis remains illegal

"It is not. This is about responding to the constitutional amendment... creating some very solid guidelines for the industry."

Mr Cook is developing a complex set of regulations covering every aspect of the trade, from labelling and health standards to video security and advertising.

As the new rules go into effect over the coming months, he expects the industry will "weed itself out", with well-run businesses able to flourish and less reputable operations falling by the wayside.

As a narcotics officer in the 1980s, Mr Cook fought the war on drugs. Now he laughs at the idea that he's a convert.

"I see it as a widget," he says. "I regulate widgets."

'Sour Diesel'

At Top Shelf Alternatives, a dispensary in Boulder, the owners say they welcome the new regulations.

"Working in the grey area for the past year has been difficult, not knowing if we're doing it right," said co-founder Morgan Kier.

Trade fair There are even medical cannabis trade fairs

"A bit of clarity is really good."

Clarity comes in the shape of a thick sheaf of paperwork, including credit records and legal checks, along with some potentially intrusive video surveillance.

"It's something we've been preparing for," said Mr Kier's business partner Alexis Nelson, as she showed a visitor around the company's well-appointed offices.

"It allows us the opportunity to show... this is really about helping people who are sick and need other options."

For all the exotically-named products on display in Top Shelf's bud room - Super Silver Haze, Durban Poison, Sour Diesel - and the sweet smell emanating from the trimming room at the back, the premises look more like a smart doctor's surgery than a pot house.

"Professionalism was always an important goal for us," said Ms Nelson.

Cannabis dispensary Some of the dispensaries do not look like traditional pharmacies

Whether this applies equally to all of Boulder's 130 dispensaries is debatable.

Ask pretty much any young person in this college town why most people smoke marijuana and they don't say it's to cope with their pain.

"Ninety per cent of the users probably do it for recreation," said a grower who identified himself as Steve.

"It's out of control."

But Morgan Kier disagrees.

"Colorado will be the standard that states all over the country will follow," he said of the new laws.

"It's important to get it right first time."

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