The United States of Amerijuana

Don't call it pot; it's "medicine" now. Dealers are caregivers, and buyers are patients ...

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Jeff Riedel for TIME

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The euphemisms are an important element in the larger movement to bring marijuana use out from the shadows, as advocates say, so it can take its place innocently on Americans' nearly infinite menu of lifestyle preferences, from yachting to survivalism to macrobiotic cooking. So far, the strategy is working. Colorado and 13 other states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana in the past 14 years. More than a dozen other states are considering the idea. Overnight, dispensaries have sprung up in hundreds of towns and cities; billboards touting one outlet's pot over its rivals' are plastered all over Los Angeles. In some parts of California—where marijuana is the biggest cash crop, with total sales of $14 billion annually—medical pot has become such an established part of the commercial base that cities are moving toward taxing it.

It's not clear that even political setbacks discourage, much less stop, the mainstreaming of marijuana. Anti-pot forces cheered on Nov. 2 when voters in four states apparently rejected pro-pot ballot initiatives—including California's Prop 19, which would have legalized possession of an ounce (28 g) of pot or less. But by Election Day, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state legislature had already rendered Prop 19 moot. A month earlier, he signed a bill that reduced possession of up to an ounce from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction. By Jan. 1, 2011, jaywalkers may have more to fear from California cops than potheads do.

Medical marijuana has helped make all this possible. In a short time, pot has gone from being a prohibited substance to one that is, in many places, widely available if you have an ache or a pain and the patience to fuss with a few forms. This did not take place by accident. In fact, medical marijuana's emergence has many of the attributes of a product rollout. As with any hot commodity, dope is now accorded the same awed regard in some Colorado retail establishments as fine wine, dark chocolate and artisanal cheese. Only now it takes place under the cover of medical care, wellness and pain management. And so what is emerging in many places is a strange, bipolar set of rules: dope is forbidden for everyone but totally O.K. for anyone who is willing to claim a chronic muscle spasm. Does anyone take such farcical distinctions seriously? And can a backlash be far behind?

Legalization via the Clinic Door
George Soros, the jillionaire currency trader and patron of countless liberal organizations, began funding pro-legalization groups in the early 1990s, with instructions that they redirect their energies toward "winnable" issues like medical marijuana. It was a savvy tactic. Even when polls showed strong resistance to making pot legal, large majorities of Americans supported making it available to patients for pain relief. "If we get medical access, we're going to get legalization eventually," activist Richard Cowan said in 1993. "The cat will be out of the bag." Colorado is a good test of whether that seemingly inexorable trajectory will remain plausible or prove a pipe dream.

Along the regulatory spectrum that stretches from distinctly mellow L.A. to schoolmarmish New Mexico, Colorado sits somewhere near the middle. In 2000, Colorado voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to legalize the possession of marijuana for patients suffering from "debilitating medical conditions": cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis, along with more nebulous symptoms like "severe nausea" and "severe pain." Voters supported Amendment 20, 54% to 46%.

The implementation was based on what is called a caregiver model. Each patient, on the recommendation of a doctor, could designate a friend or neighbor to grow up to six plants for the patient's use, and each of these caregivers could provide for no more than five patients. Both patient and caregiver would register with the state. The idea was to prevent profiteering, and from 2000 to 2007, roughly 2,000 patients signed up. "The system worked pretty well," says Don Quick, state district attorney for two counties in central Colorado. "Nobody really had a problem with it."

But in 2007, a pro-pot group called Sensible Colorado sued the state health department, and a state court ruled the five-patient limit unconstitutional. "That opened the floodgates," says Brian Vicente, the group's executive director. "A caregiver could have 50 patients if they wanted. And if you had 50 patients, why not open a shop?" Over the next two years, more than 1,000 dispensaries sprang up to serve the more than 100,000 Coloradans who had suddenly discovered their need for medicinal marijuana and applied for a patient card. As Jon Stewart noted, what had been considered the healthiest state in the country rapidly became one of the sickest.

And the economics changed overnight. Patients might spend $500 a year growing six plants on their own. By contrast, dispensaries routinely charge $350 to $500 for 1 oz. of pot. With patients limited by law to possession of no more than 2 oz., they could easily drop $5,000 a year on treatment. "A good-size dispensary will have a few hundred regular customers," Quick says. "You can do the math."

One who did the math was Joe DiFabio, who fits the mold of the hardy American entrepreneur—if the hardy American entrepreneur sold pot for a living. Now in his late 20s, DiFabio ran a construction company and worked in sales before a friend suggested he open a dispensary. He is also a patient, for back pain—nearly everyone who works in the industry medicates—and he had become disenchanted with the dispensaries he'd seen: stoned budtenders, sloppy service, subpar medicine. "They just weren't well kept up," he says. "Kind of dirty."

His business plan was to offer an alternative for the well-heeled professionals in northern Colorado Springs. "I wanted to have the very best medicine at the lowest prices in town," he says, in "a safe, discreet, professional environment." Briargate Wellness Center opened earlier this year, and the plan seems to be working. On a recent weekday afternoon, the three cars in Briargate's parking lot were a Jaguar, a Mercedes and a BMW. DiFabio greets customers in a pressed oxford shirt, trim khakis and polished loafers. The place is painted in pale pastels, and back issues of Golf Digest are fanned out on a slate table. The flat-screen TV plays the A&E channel.

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