Budding industry: Medical marijuana grows in ski country
September 4, 2009
ASPEN – In a tiny, windowless room outfitted with a combination keypad lock on the door, a patient mulls the potency of marijuana strains with names like Sour Diesel, Northern Light and AK-47.
Sealed jars of the pungent, green buds line the sole shelf inside a locked, glass display case, along with cannabis-infused cooking oils, tinctures and granola bars.
The sale of medical marijuana in Aspen is under way.
A new industry has exploded across Colorado, and dispensaries are popping up in mountain towns like ski racks in November. The Roaring Fork Valley has four already, including two in Aspen, and more are expected.
Elsewhere, towns across the Western Slope are grappling with the sudden interest in the legalized sale of marijuana. Just last week, Durango put the brakes on the proliferation of dispensaries (the southwest Colorado town already has four), enacting an emergency moratorium and temporarily suspending the issuance of any more business licenses to marijuana providers until it crafts regulations addressing how and where they can operate.
Meanwhile, plans for a second dispensary in Edwards and Eagle-Vail’s first such establishment also made headlines last week.
Recommended Stories For You
In Summit County, all four municipalities – Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne and Breckenridge – have enacted temporary holds on dispensary business licenses while they figure out where the dispensaries belong, though one license was already being processed in Silverthorne and a dispensary is already running in Frisco.
Basalt, with its first dispensary already operating in the WIN Health Institute, also adopted an emergency moratorium to guard against a flood of applications while it adopts regulations governing the facilities.
For advocates of medical marijuana, access to a local dispensary has been a long time coming. For bemused observers and even some believers among the medical community, the question isn’t so much whether pot has medicinal benefits, but rather, how many dispensaries can we possibly need?
“I can’t imagine that two dispensaries in Aspen, two dispensaries in Basalt, one or two in Carbondale and one or two in Glenwood can make a go of it,” said Dr. Giora Hahn, a pain specialist with Pain Center of the Roaring Fork Valley. “I don’t think it’s going to be viable for as many dispensaries as are opening up, but time will tell, obviously.”
“I think a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon. Some are going to fall by the wayside,” predicted longtime local Quinn Whitten, who recently opened Aspen L.E.A.F. (Local’s Emporium of Alternative Farms) with Aspen native Billy Miller and two other partners.
“Those who are out to make a quick buck, they’re going to fade into the sunset,” agreed Jordan, one of two partners in The Apothecary Aspen (he asked that his last name not be used because he has yet to tell his mother about his latest venture).
But, Jordan said he believes there’s room for the two dispensaries that have already opened in Aspen. The Apothecary recently opened its doors in the new Fat City Plaza on Cooper Avenue, while Aspen L.E.A.F. operates at Spring and Main streets on the edge of the downtown core.
“I think we’ll each find our clientele … and it’s nice for people to have the option. They [L.E.A.F.] might be the right fit for some people and we’re going to be the right fit for others.”
Colorado voters approved a state constitutional amendment recognizing the use of medical marijuana and removing criminal penalties for the use, possession and cultivation of pot by approved patients back in November 2000. The law took effect on June 1, 2001, but it wasn’t until this year that patients began registering by the thousands and dispensaries popped up like, well, weeds.
Aspen attorney Lauren Maytin, who serves on the board of directors of the Colorado branch of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and has been working on the issue for more than a decade, believes the state health board’s rejection last month of a move to limit medical marijuana suppliers had a lot to do with the budding interest in medical marijuana.
“That is definitely what made it a concrete, viable business,” she said. “Prior to that, it was a viable business, but nobody was doing it.”
Colorado’s health department had proposed limiting providers of medical marijuana to supplying no more than five patients at a time. Opponents of the limit argued the board didn’t have a right to meddle in the constitutional amendment approved by voters.
The state is one of 12, primarily in the West, that allow medical marijuana. A 13th state, Maryland, doesn’t exempt medical marijuana users from prosecution but allows medical use to be considered as a mitigating factor, according to NORML’s website.
For The Apothecary’s Jordan, the impetus for going into business now is not only what he calls Colorado’s well-reasoned approach to regulating medical marijuana, but also the Obama administration’s stand on the issue. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the federal government will acknowledge state laws in enforcement activities.
On a personal level, Jordan’s interest in becoming a provider stems from the death of his father after a three-year bout with leukemia. His father died not from the cancer, Jordan said, but from the effects of chemotherapy. Some doctors at the time confirmed marijuana would help, but it was not legally available.
Patients extol marijuana’s ability to relieve the nausea associated with chemotherapy and restore one’s appetite. The drug is most often used medically for relief of chronic pain. Other conditions that afford legal protection in Colorado include chronic nervous system disorders, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.
Thus far, Jordan said most of the patients he has signed up are older – in their 50s – and most are women. They’re working professionals who suffer from serious medical conditions and have access to powerful, prescription painkillers but find marijuana a preferable and effective alternative.
“I’m not saying this is a good option for everybody, but it’s the right option for some people,” he said.
Physicians do not prescribe marijuana, but Colorado patients must have the approval of a doctor in order to register with the state. The law permits patients or their designated caregivers to grow up to six marijuana plants and possess two ounces of usable marijuana. The law doesn’t address dispensaries.
Dr. Hahn anticipates more of his patients will express an interest in medical marijuana, given all the recent media attention to legalized use of the drug. Some patients have already concluded it’s more helpful than other prescribed treatments.
“I would prefer, with some patients, to see them use medical marijuana instead of using large doses of opiates, etc.,” he said. “If that works for them, it works for me.”
Another Aspen physician who recommends medical marijuana for patients, but asked not to be identified, said the active lifestyle of the local populace results in plenty of injuries. Those who seek her out in order to register with the state are legitimate users of medical marijuana.
“I’m surprised because what I’m seeing are people who really do need it for various conditions,” she said. “I have not seen a person yet who didn’t need it.”
One man who sought her out for a consultation had broken nearly every bone in his body at one time or another, she said. That appears to be a theme among some suppliers of medical marijuana.
At Aspen L.E.A.F., Whitten, at age 34, said he has suffered 29 broken bones and has had three knee surgeries.
“I’ve been rough on myself,” he admits.
“Our assumption is, a lot of people are self-medicating and have qualifying conditions,” Whitten said. “You might as well do it legally. This law is here to work for you.”
The dispensary sells marijuana to its members for $100 for a quarter-ounce – comparable to the price on the street.
“I know the black market didn’t quit because we opened a dispensary,” Whitten said, explaining the desire to be competitive. For registered patients, the difference is access to quality products from growers the dispensary works with closely, and the ability to possess the drug legally.
Manny Robles of Glenwood Springs, a patient at Aspen L.E.A.F., said he doesn’t want to take pain pills, but uses marijuana for chronic pain – the result of snowboarding and skateboarding accidents and once being run over by a pickup truck. Robles lists multiple ankle breaks and shoulder separations among his injuries. As an advocate of legalized marijuana, Robles said he jumped at the chance to become a registered user.
The young men behind Colorado Mountain Dispensary, or C.M.D., in Carbondale, tell similar stories. The dispensary was the first to open in the Roaring Fork Valley, in early July, and patients quickly lauded the availability of legal marijuana, according to owner Joey Jones and his associates, Scott Vander Lugt and Dustin Webb.
Jones uses marijuana to ease the pain of degenerative discs in his spine.
“Pain pills will take the pain away at the drop of a hat. I just can’t function [after taking the pills],” he complained.
The dispensary’s client list includes individuals suffering chronic back pain, cancer, arthritis and multiple sclerosis, he said.
Vander Lugt, 28, said he broke two vertebrae in his back at age 17 and subsequently fought an addiction to prescribed pain medication. Webb turns to medical marijuana for irritable bowel syndrome. “If you have it, you understand the pain you have in your gut,” Webb said. “It’s extreme.”
According to the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, which maintains the registry of medical marijuana patients, valid registry cards numbered 8,918 by the end of June, including 42 in Pitkin County. July numbers, when they become available, are expected to show a dramatic spike. Ron Hyman, the state health department registrar who oversees the medical marijuana registry, has predicted 15,000 people will be signed up by the end of the year.
Whether the budding medical marijuana industry leads to a broader decriminalization of pot in Colorado remains to be seen, but such a move will be on the ballot in Breckenridge in November.
Decriminalization is something a number of medical marijuana providers support, though it could impact their current business model. C.M.D.’s Jones would be OK with that.
“If we went out of business tomorrow because marijuana was made legal, I’d know I had something to do with it,” he said. “I’d be very happy about that.”
Meanwhile, in the new business of dispensing medical marijuana in Aspen, both local establishments envision the sale of marijuana products as just one aspect of their operations. Aspen L.E.A.F. is lining up physicians to offer on-site consultations and plans to offer massage (yes, there are topical oils that use cannabis as an ingredient), acupuncture and more. The dispensary also sells cultivation equipment.
By year’s end, The Apothecary intends to offer a host of natural products that the general public can purchase, arrange wellness programs and seminars, and bake its own edible marijuana products in a local commercial kitchen, said Jordan, a recent transplant from the East Coast.
“I don’t really want to sell anything without quality control,” he said. “My goal is to set the bar for that.”
When the hubbub dies down, the dispensaries will be just another component of the business and health-care community, Jordan predicts.
“We’ll look back and say, ‘why was there a lot of fuss about this?'”
Go to http://www.aspentimes.com/weekly for all of the latest edition of the Aspen Times Weekly.