03/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

If LA Is Any Measure, Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Are Just the Beginning

If anyone still questions Colorado's position within the pot world, take it from me that we have the attention of the country -- or at least the attention of that segment which has perfected growing, marketing, selling and -- in the old days, smuggling -- the best dope in the world. I was in California last weekend attending the Medical Marijuana Education Expo at the LA Convention Center to gauge where we stood; it's been reported that Denver has surpassed LA as leader in medical marijuana and I wanted to see if it were true from Californians' perspectives. Unlike other attendees, I had no wisdom to impart about the secrets of indoor growing, no legal advice to dispense to dispensaries, no opinion at all about the advantages of LED lights over metal halide lights, and compared to everyone else, no real background whatsoever -- either recreationally or medicinally -- with marijuana. I'm researching a book on this topic, and planned to sit quietly in the background and meet some of the pioneers within the medical marijuana movement.

But when word spread that I was from Colorado, the new Mecca, I proved to be a popular guest, even among those who are rightly considered the godfathers of mainstream marijuana. Considering Colorado's reputation as a pot capital was forged in just the past three or four months, this is no small recognition -- I was quizzed repeatedly about market conditions, the intentions of the Legislature and where might be the best place to open a new dispensary. It was clear that many were weighing the chance to follow the green rush east to the Rockies, while the industry is still embryonic and evolving.

The expo was a hastily arranged affair. The organizers, a gang of old smugglers and kingpins from the 1970s who'd served their time and now formed the first publicly traded company in the dope biz -- Medical Marijuana Inc. -- stayed up late the night before, photocopying the agenda at Kinko's. They'd only started selling tickets (at the price of, yes, $420 each) 10 days before, but managed to lure about 200 attendees from about a half dozen states, including places that still consider marijuana to be the scourge of humanity. It was held in a theater room near where a neighboring bridal show provided a steady stream of giddy women throughout the weekend. Medical marijuana's widespread prevalence in LA was confirmed every time a lost bride-to-be wandered into the room, took a few sniffs and decided she was definitely in the wrong place. None appeared scandalized, and half looked like they weighed the option to stay.

While education was the expo's main component -- the speakers were the rock stars of the weed world, including former NORML director Rich Cowan; "The King of Pot," Bruce Perlowin, the biggest West Coast dope smuggler in U.S. history; Lake County marijuana grower and botanist Rev. Dr. Doug Van Dyke; and convicted pot smuggler Bobby "Tuna" Platshorn, who currently holds the record for longest incarceration for a federal marijuana charge, 29 years -- it was also used to showcase MMI's business plan, which is to take the movement sweeping California and Colorado national. MMI plans to partner with like-minded investors who will act like franchisees to open hundreds of educational centers around the country. They won't sell any medicine, even in states where it's allowed -- considering it's a federal crime and many of the company's principles are largely responsible for every joint smoked in the late 1970s and early 1980s from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, it's not such a good idea. MMI's focus will be ongoing educational seminars featuring growers, advocates and even a former drug smuggler or two.

A man from Austin who looked like he could be a dentist had his eyes on the Colorado market. He smiled at the prospect of handing a check to a group of men who, collectively, served 54 years in federal penitentiaries. Considering the business, though, it was hard to imagine a more qualified group to launch such an ambitious plan. The Texan hadn't yet been to Colorado, however, to see for himself what the market was like. Was the hype true? he asked.
"Yes. You'll be surprised," I told him, thinking of the dispensary that just opened in an underused weight room at my gym in Fort Collins. They put up walls and made it its own space, but you can still smell the weed when you're working out. It's one of more than 100 dispensaries that have applied for sales tax licenses in Fort Collins since October and is located a half a block from two other dispensaries.

As word spread of my home state, I fielded all sorts of questions that I was unqualified to answer, including whether I knew any dispensaries that needed some product from Mendocino County (I don't), whether the Rocky Mountain medicine was any good compared to California's (I'm the last person who'd know) and, oddly, whether Greeley, which banned dispensaries outright, would be a good place for an MMI education center (I said it depended on your point of view, but that there would probably be less controversy opening an ICE office).
It became radically clear to me that the dispensary boom in Colorado was just the beginning of a wave of ganjapreneurial activity that we can expect in coming months. Research and development is already underway at Richard Cowan's Cannabis Science Inc. in Colorado Springs. The owners of the small but popular California dispensary chain The Farmacy plan to open shop in Denver. Tangential California-based businesses all eager to move into the next hot market include vaporizer dealers, mobile advertising firms, security companies and grow light manufacturers, just to name a few.

In light of this cresting wave, the King of Pot's educational centers will probably be the least controversial import -- it will be good to at least have a place where we can go to learn what it was that just hit us.