The Department of Revenue puts the number of medical marijuana centers in Colorado at just north of 1,000. To put that in perspective, that's more than twice the number of Starbucks stores in the state.
By sheer volume, the MMJ industry has changed the face of Colorado. Now, will a growing movement change the fate of Colorado medical marijuana itself?
That's the question on the minds of many as the Boulder-based Legalize 2012 movement has started working toward its goal of putting a citizens' initiative on the Colorado ballot 18 months from now. At this stage, it's safe to assume that it would look something like Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational use of marijuana within California, had it passed last November.
Some dispensary owners there worried about fighting their way through a new tangle of regulation, while continuing to supply their customers and patients with the necessary treatments. The Sacramento Bee reported in August 2010 that some owners were actively opposing the legislative effort, with one going so far as to drive around the city in an anti-Proposition 19 truck, a veritable sign on wheels. Meanwhile, others offered up unabashed support, liking a potentially lower arrest rate and the possibility of more tax revenue that could help offset the state's massive deficit.
Already, some of the same arguments — on both sides — are cropping up in Colorado.
Says Nicole Romero, owner of South Nevada Avenue's Apothecare Medicinal Center: "I'm for legalization, when it comes to health care."
Romero says that although full legalization would present its share of challenges to the industry's current business model, she supports the change, should it come, because she feels it would ultimately be the best way to support those who use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Likewise, Bijou Wellness Center owner Jack Myers says he's supportive of legalization, as long as first things come first.
"For me, it's not about the business," he says. "It's about the patients, and I think that there's always going to be a need for MMJ centers who are educated and taking care of their patients."
Further down the spectrum is David Schiller. The All Good Care Center owner says he worries about the potential consequences of legalization and financial repercussions for local businesspeople.
"If they legalize marijuana, it will crush the [medical marijuana] industry," Schiller says. "It would draw possible business away from the city. Right now we are locally driven, and legalization takes away the draw."
But Brian Vicente says so far, Schiller appears to be in the minority among center owners. Vicente's advocacy group, Sensible Colorado, supports legalization, and he says much of the MMJ industry does, too.
"I think dispensaries realize that this would be a positive thing for patients and also for their general business," he says. "We think business will actually flourish for pre-existing dispensaries, in that they could choose to expand their market and sell to healthy people, 21 and older, and also generate considerable tax revenue for their community."
Wanda James of Legalize 2012 says she expects a tough fight, but is confident that a media-centric campaign of public service announcements, led by a cohesive group of grassroots activists from across the state, will sufficiently educate voters on the benefits of legalizing cannabis. And the trends seem to be tipping in her favor: Though California's Prop 19 failed 53 to 46 percent, it did markedly better than an identically named 1972 initiative, which died 66 to 33 percent.
"Once we outgrow our fear, and once doctors and researchers and even the government is able to test and do studies on this drug," James says, "we're going to find amazing things in medical research with marijuana."
Nicole Romero: 'I'm for legalization.'