DENVER — In Colorado, the marijuana business has been booming since January, when the state legalized the sale and recreational use of the drug, despite public health concerns raised by opponents. The legal cannabis industry is expected to generate $500 million in sales and $67 million in taxes each year in Colorado. It already is creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Marijuana's legalization in Colorado has made Mike Paulk, who had been involved for years in the illicit trade of the drug, a legitimate businessman.
“Yeah, it made me stoked because I went to prison for cultivating weed," he said. "It was in 2000. I got caught, busted and now I am free to do it without fear. And it feeds me and clothes me and takes care of me.”
While Paulk is not licensed to sell marijuana, he is permitted to grow it for personal use and he skirts state regulations by giving it away to customers who purchase pipes. And the pipe business is thriving, he said.
Authorized marijuana dispensaries that before legalization could only cater to medical marijuana patients also have seen a major boost in sales.
Elan Nelson with Medicine Man Denver, the largest marijuana dispensary in Colorado, said the company has been growing more plants and hiring more workers to keep up with rising demand.
“Our best day when we were just a medical marijuana dispensary is now our normal day, now that we are medical and recreational,” he said.
Business also is booming for Elyse Gordon and Deloise Vaden, owners of a bakery that sells cookies, pies and candy infused with marijuana for customers who want to get high without smoking.
“We can produce approximately 1,000 pieces every seven to 10 days. And we pushed ourselves this last time and ended up with 2,000 pieces because of the demand,” Vaden said.
Critics say the danger of this intoxicating and addictive drug far outweighs any economic benefit legalization might bring.
Reed Spalding, a recovering drug addict and Denver resident, said, "For me the danger of marijuana was that it took away my motivation. I think it isolated me."
And Dr. Paula Riggs, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, warns marijuana can cause permanent damage to young people.
“In adolescents that regularly use marijuana, that has been associated with a decline of six to eight points in their adult I.Q. Doesn't look like you get that back. That's a very significant public health concern,” she said.
State officials say increased tax revenue from marijuana sales will allow them to properly regulate the industry as they do now with alcohol and tobacco, and also to fund public education and treatment programs.