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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"It's way more work than I expected," he says. "Everyone thinks you get rich on the first day. I'm $45,000 in debt." Beyond the waiting room, the medicine sits carefully displayed on a shelf in little vials labeled with venerable names from a distant, less businesslike era: Mowie Wowie, Couchlock, Atomic Haze—more than 20 varieties in all. There are boxes of rolling papers and massed ranks of bongs and vaporizers, a recent innovation that theoretically allows the patient to inhale pot fumes without burning the weed. Pipes made of colorful blown glass have replaced the old metal pipes familiar to an earlier generation of dopers. Marijuana-infused salsa and chips—"they work phenomenally," DiFabio says—are waiting to be washed down with a bottle of Dixie Elixir medicated soda, in your choice of grape, strawberry or orange. Lollipops are in high demand, and gummy bears fly off the shelves. DiFabio's biggest complaints nowadays would warm the heart of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyist. "The regulations," he says, "are just over the top." His application for a dispensary license ran to 1,400 pages, with attachments.

Modern liberalism has always maintained a tension between its libertine and bureaucratic impulses, and in medical marijuana the contradictions collide: the government will let you get as high as you want, but only if you fill out a form first. Would-be patients must obtain a recommendation from a doctor and mail a notarized application and a check for $90 to the state department of health. If they can prove to a budtender that they've applied for a card, they're eligible to buy medicine after 35 days. The card arrives in the mail eventually; the backlog at the health department is nine months and getting longer. For dispensary owners and their suppliers—growers and infused-product makers like Robinson—the regulations seem to never end. Alarmed by the sudden efflorescence of dispensaries and customers, the Colorado legislature this summer placed the industry under the regulatory oversight of an official of the state revenue department. Though he's a former cop who busted pot smokers in the 1980s, Matt Cook says he approaches his work with pristine disinterestedness. "The way I see it," he says, "I regulate widgets. Whatever there is to regulate, that's fine with me."

Cook has prepared 92 pages of proposed regulations modeled on the rules that govern casinos. Dispensary-license fees now run as high as $18,000. Budtenders and owners face strict residency requirements, and anyone with a felony drug conviction is barred from the industry for life. Owners will soon be required to place video cameras throughout their cultivation sites and dispensaries so regulators can log on to the Internet and trace the movement of every marijuana bud from the moment its seeds are planted to the point of sale. The video will be transmitted to a website accessible to regulators round the clock. The regulators dictate where the cameras must be placed and at what angle. DiFabio is particularly irked by a proposal to monitor his marijuana scales by linking them to the Web. "We've paid our fees," he says. "Why do they have to watch us every second?"

Only in a state where marijuana is almost legal can you find so many Obama voters complaining about Big Government.

High? What High?
A few facts in particular drove the legislature to tighten the regs this summer. Even Inspector Clouseau might have begun to suspect there was more to the industry than medicating the terminally ill. No one doubts that medical marijuana has brought relief to the state's cancer patients, AIDS sufferers and MS victims. But these aren't the customers the industry is really serving. At the beginning of this year, Colorado health department records show that only 2% of registered patients had cancer; 1% had HIV/AIDS. There were 94% who suffered "severe pain"—a catchall condition that can be entirely subjective and difficult for a doctor to measure or verify. Statewide, more than 70% of doctor recommendations were written by fewer than 15 physicians. Three out of four patients are men under 40. This patient profile—young males complaining of chronic pain—has been roughly the same in other medical-marijuana states like Montana and California.

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