06/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Yes We Cannabis': Medical Marijuana is Going Legit

"Yes we cannabis."

That's what it said on the T-shirts on Mickey Handler's Legalized Apparel, who set up a booth in the basement of the St. Regis in Aspen in mid-April as part of the Cannabis Crown convention. The event would crown the best - uh, herbal medicine - in Colorado. It gave Colorado's chronically-ill a chance to sample medicine in a variety of forms, from the traditional bud to candy apples.

It also gave members of the state's booming medical marijuana industry a convention just like any other industry. If there was any doubt that medical marijuana is an industry in the state - and a glance at the list of the hundreds of dispensaries in Colorado should dispel any doubt - this convention would have done away with it altogether.

While state legislators wrestle with new regulations to clamp down on the industry, and some Republican lawmakers want to ask voters to do away with dispensaries altogether, marijuana - medical or not - seems to be getting legit.

For a minute, you could forget that the Cannabis Crown was about marijuana at all. Vendors were touting lighting systems, security systems, and of course T-shirts. The reggae blasting on the sound system and the abundance of shirts and ball caps sporting the familiar leaf were the only giveaways that this wasn't some insurance agent conference.

I ask Handler if he ever thought he'd see this day in Colorado.

"Never in a million years," he said.

The Cannabis Crown was a moment in history. (And not just for Rocky Mountain Medicinals, from Steamboat Springs, whose Candy Kush strain beat out some 90 entries that appeared at the competition.) It was a moment in history for the marijuana legalization movement. Pot has gone from the darkened dorm room to nudge-nudge-wink-wink dispensaries to the convention center.

Dispensaries have blossomed across Colorado since the Obama administration signaled it had better things to do than crack down on Coloradans taking advantage of the state amendment that legalized marijuana for medicinal use.

"It's an opportunity that's out there for people," said Damien Horgan, owner of Aspen's Alternative Medical Solutions and the organizer of the Cannabis Crown, modeled loosely on Amsterdam's Cannabis Cup. "Just like anything else, when you open the floodgates people are going to jump on it. Some people are doing it right. Some people are doing it wrong."

Horgan left behind a job in corporate finance in Denver to come to Aspen, where he opened Alternative Medical Solutions a few months ago. It's one of dozens to open in the Roaring Fork Valley. Denver has some 250. Boulder has another 100. The state has issued more than 66,000 cards to cannabis patients, a surge in demand that has resulted in a six-month waiting period.

The boom is "anything short of amazing," Horgan said. "It's the most viable business going right now. Don't get me wrong. I didn't go out and get a new car or a new house or anything like that. I still face the challenges of any start-up company."

Start-up company? If those words don't exactly have the sterile sound you might expect from a clinician who runs a medical dispensary, they don't sound like the words of a street dealer either.

To be fair, some unknown percentage of Colorado's medical marijuana cardholders really are in it for medicinal value, whether it's to treat pain or nausea or both. But for the rest, let's face it, passing the medical marijuana amendment was just a step toward legalization of their drug of choice.

Hanging out at the Gant over the weekend, where patients from throughout Colorado sported green wristbands that let them buy and consume (but not smoke) medicinals, it felt a little like pot had been fully legalized. Here was a crowd chilling to reggae by the pool, sipping rum punch, eating potato chips and sucking on curious lollipops.

"You have your license. It's safe. It's legal. It's totally worth it. And, you're helping the state," said Britney Hammer, who came with friends from Denver for the cannabis confab.

But don't you feel silly using the word "medicate?" I asked.

She laughed. "I feel ridiculous sometimes," she said.

But that's the state of marijuana in the state of Colorado. If all that typing has given you chronic carpal tunnel, there's a medical marijuana card with your name on it.

That may change. Regulation will come. But in the meantime, the folks at the Cannabis Crown are on the crest of a wave. Marijuana has slipped into Aspen's finest hotels, and into brownies and lollipops, like those Joe Stevens was selling at his HerbMed table.

"We're pioneers," he said.

Contact David Frey via his Web site,