06/08/2011 07:00 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2011

Train Wreck Ahead for Medical Marijuana?

"Isn't it fun growing older in Boulder?" my friend, Sam,* asked at a recent gathering. "Where else can you eat a cookie laced with marijuana and go to the opera? It's legal, and it's free!"

What? Free legal medical marijuana? Until the past week, that's been true in Colorado. But on July 1, the toughest regulations enacted by any state will go into effect. At the same time, U.S. attorneys are threatening to prosecute the state regulators. Why? Because regulation will legitimize the business of medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal laws. Jeff Gard, a marijuana attorney in Boulder, says, "We have two freight trains heading toward each other on the same track, and it's not clear who's going to win."

I'll explain this further in my next post. But first, I want to report what it's been like, living in the people's republic of medical marijuana, and why Attorney General Eric Holder is concerned that this is de-facto legalization.

It is.

Five years ago, I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. If you have now or have had severe pain in the past three years, you can qualify for a license, walk into a dispensary and pick from an astonishing array of products. You'll see 31 flavors of marijuana, pre-rolled joints fat as cigars, cookies, brownies, cheese cake, truffles, peanut butter cups, granola mix, bread, drinks, ice cream made by Glacier, the best ice cream joint in town, candies to suck or chew and butter and olive oil to cook with.

It's the foodie culture meets the drug culture. Can books and TV shows be far behind? The Barefoot Contessa or Skinny Bitch Cooks with Pot?"

Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000, but you never saw a dispensary anywhere until 2009, when state restrictions were loosened and Attorney General Holder announced that the federal government would not make prosecution of marijuana users a high priority, if they're complying with state law.

Overnight, people who'd been growing and selling pot illegally came in from the cold. It seemed there was a dispensary on every corner in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. The pages of local weeklies were covered with ads featuring marijuana leaves -- ads which have been keeping those papers alive.

More than 150,000 Coloradans have registered for a license; 69% are male, the average age is 40 and severe pain accounts for 94% of conditions reported. Boulder, a city of about 100,000, has only three large drugstores like Walgreens and Rite Aid but 200 dispensaries of medical marijuana.

Sam, a biology professor at the University of Colorado, was the first person I knew who obtained a license, in 2009. He'd had a hip replaced and his medical records filled a box.

The first step was getting a health practitioner to review his records, sign and notarize his application. Private doctors were reluctant to do that but clinics sprang up solely for that purpose.

The state lists eight conditions which qualify a person for a license, including cancer, seizures, HIV and severe pain. And who, especially as we get older, hasn't had severe pain -- headaches, knee pain, back pain, pulling a muscle, tennis elbow? I'm told that college students are applying with arthritis.

Sam brought his records to the clinic and as he was filling out forms, a tall, fat man with long gray hear, wearing overalls with "Felix" sewed across the pocket, came rushing through the door, yelling that the state had sent back his documents because they weren't dated correctly. "I paid you a lot and you screwed up," Felix shouted.

Rick, the young man at the front desk, tried to reason with him. "You signed it yourself and wrote the date... See?" But Felix kept shouting and pounding his fist. Rick tried another tack. "Okay, we're going to make it right, don't worry. We'll re-do the papers and because of your inconvenience, here's a coupon for a free gram at the dispensary across the street." Felix took the coupon, closed his mouth and smiled.

"Sam?" a doctor called, opening the door to the exam room. Sam walked in and shook hands with the doctor -- let's call him Dr. Right. Young and athletic with a blond pony tail, Dr. Right said he's an ER doctor and does this on the side. As he flipped through Sam's records, Sam told him that after his hip was replaced, he started having pain in the other hip. "I've had acupuncture and physical therapy, and uh... there's still pain... sometimes."

"Poor guy," Dr. Right said. "You'll probably have to get the other one replaced."

Sam wondered, is this a charade? Does Dr. Right know Sam doesn't want "medicine" for pain but to relax and get high? If he knew that, he wasn't letting on.

After Dr. Right signed the application, Rick notarized it and informed Sam there was a special program for seniors. The license gives you the right to grow six plants, Rick explained. "That's worth a lot to a grower. If you don't want to grow plants yourself and assign your right to a `caregiver,' the caregiver will pay for this exam -- $100 -- and the state filing fee of $90."

"What's the catch?" Sam asked.

"No catch," Rick said. "You can still buy your medicine anywhere and change caregivers any time."

"Sign me up," Sam said, thinking: This is better than the senior discount at the movies.

Rick made a photo copy of the application and handed it to Sam. "The state is running 8 months behind in processing these, so just show this copy and you're good to buy meds."

Sam would soon learn, though, that he could get all the medicine he needed for free.


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* Because of the shifting sands, all names in this piece have been changed but make no mistake, they are real people and real dispensaries.