(KTVI)– More than 150 years after the Colorado Gold Rush, Colorado is having a Green Rush.
And nowhere is it bigger than in Denver.
Colorado became the first state in the world to begin the legal sale of recreational marijuana on January 1, 2014.
“A lot of them will stop right at the door as soon as they see this wall (of marijuana products)and start taking pictures or drooling at the mouth,” said bud tender Deb Thornburg.
‘Bud tenders’ is the name given to marijuana sales clerks.
So far there are about 50 stores selling recreational marijuana in Denver with about 100 applications pending.
The city has more pot shops, called dispensaries, than Starbucks.
Don Andrews runs the Lodo Wellness Center. He says half his customers have been coming from out of state.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Andrews said.
Some of those marijuana tourists are coming from Missouri.
According to the flight inquiry tracking website Hopper.com, over the past six weeks, internet searches for flights from St. Louis to Denver have jumped by almost 38 percent, ten percent above the national average.
“It`s like going from Russia to America. You`re free,” said a college student from St. Louis who recently visited Denver’s Green Solution dispensary.
He asked we not use his name.
“People realize this has been a very long time coming and they are being responsible with it as far as I saw.”
Charlie Brown, a Denver City Councilman who opposed legalized recreational marijuana says with the whole world watching Denver, he was worried about the first day of sales.
“I was looking at perhaps cannabis chaos and it wasn`t that thank goodness. It was a marijuana milestone,” Brown said.
But even though Colorado`s marijuana business has been orderly, some worry about pot getting into the hands of children— because it already has.
“We have treated 14 kids over the past two years,” said Dr. George Wang, a toxicologist at Childrens` Hospital of Colorado.
Wang says ever since 2009, which was the beginning of the boom in Colorado’s medical marijuana sales, there has been a spike in the number of little kids being treated for accidentally ingesting packaged food containing marijuana.
Two-year-old Eveylyn Hernadez got sick after eating part of a marijuana cookie she found in the grass.
“We worry when we see these kids,” Wang said. “They are so sedated they are not breathing adequately or getting enough oxygen in their body because they are so sleepy.”
Colorado is dealing with that problem by requiring edibles now be sold in child resistant packaging.
Those who campaigned for legalization know there are still problems to overcome, but they say it is important to look at the big picture.
“What we have done in Colorado is say listen, people are going to use marijuana, let`s tax it, get it out of the hands of cartels, put it behind the counter and make sure no one under 21 buys it,” said attorney Brian Vicente, who co-authored Colorado’s marijuana amendment.
“What we have found is that system is very effective,” he said.
So far the demand seems endless, even though with a 21 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax, the average price for an ounce of recreational marijuana is $400.
Some pot smokers wonder if the high cost might fuel the black market that legalization was supposed to smother.
“You could buy a quarter ounce for $30 to $35 even up to five years ago and today I just got an eighth and paid almost $60,” said pot smoker Julie Miller.
Tom Gorman is the director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. He worries growing even more pot in Colorado will lead to even more pot leaving Colorado.
It’s called leakage, and a recent RMHIDTA study shows where a lot of that leaked Colorado pot has been going.
“What we found was Missouri was number one,” Gorman said. “Thirteen percent of all the seizures were going to Missouri.”
Some argue the way to stop the leakage is to legalize pot everywhere.
Tim Cullen owns Evergreen Apothecary.
“When I was a kid my father used to load the back of our car up with Coors beer and drive up to Minnesota to see the family,” Cullen said. “He doesn`t do that anymore because you can go to the liquor store in Minnesota and buy Coors beer.”
When it comes to pot, Denver has a long history. It was in Denver in 1947 that a man named Samuel Caldwell became the first person to face a federal charge for selling marijuana.
The problem is selling marijuana is still a federal crime, which makes banks leery of doing business with the dispensaries.
In other words, Colorado’s newest multi-million dollar industry is cash only.
‘The lack of banking is a big problem,” Andrews said.
“It is clearly a security issue, it’s a safety issue, and its a how to do day-to-day business issue,” he added.
Despite those issues, a new Quinnipiac poll shows 58 percent of Coloradans approve of legalized marijuana, but 51 percent worry it is damaging their state’s reputation.
“How many conventions have we lost,” asked Brown, who is also on the tourism board.
“We are trying to get the Republican National Convention for 2016. I don`t know if they are coming because of it. They might go to Vegas instead,” Brown said.
But even with all the issues big and small, proponents are confident once all that tax revenue starts rolling in, many of the doubts will go up in smoke.
So could legalized marijuana work in missouri?
“Give (Colorado) 2 to 4 years and then you can make a decision in Missouri based on facts and figures and not rhetoric because that is all you get is a bunch of rhetoric,” Gorman said.
But Cullen says because medical marijuana has been widely available in Colorado since 2009, they have already proven legalized pot can work.
“When medical marijuana came to Colorado people said the sky would fall and it didn`t. When recreational cannabis came to Colorado the sky was going to fall again but it won`t,” Cullen said.
Whatever the truth turns out to be, it is clear Missouri, like a lot of states will be watching Colorado which will be setting the green standard.
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