By Marc Ramirez The Dallas Morning News.
DENVER - Here in America's Amsterdam, even locals are still getting used to the idea that they can be open about purchases once made in secret.
But with Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana use and regulated retail operations, cannabis business is smoking: Dispensaries statewide have seen sales explode, Huffington Post reported first-week sales of $5 million, dwarfing the medical transactions legal since 2009.
Much of that interest has come from Texas, and North Texans in particular, who've long invaded the Centennial State for skiing, snowboarding and, in the days before it became widely available, even Coors beer.
The law that took effect Jan. 1 has given Lone Star leisure-seekers another reason to visit, and unleashed a booming new economy enticing out-of-state entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the green rush.
They're tracing the footsteps of those who already have moved, or plan to move, to Colorado for medical reasons.
"This is the new cash crop," said Lindsey Bartlett, a "bud-tender" at downtown Denver dispensary MMJ America, one of more than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver that applied to add retail sales operations, according to the Denver Business Journal. "It's, like, the new tourism."
Retail purchases are taxed at 25 percent, including a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax.
And with state officials predicting almost $600 million in annual sales, travel companies have arisen to offer excursions to plant-growing facilities and arrange lodging at "smoker-friendly" hotels.
"We've had quite a few Texans come to Colorado to check out our new freedoms," said Peter Johnson of Colorado Green Tours, a travel outfit "serving cannabis enthusiasts from around the world."
Not that they necessarily want it known. At dispensary DANK Colorado, a customer who'd driven in that day from Texas refused to give her name, saying she'd called in sick to her job in Coppell.
And outside Mile High Cannabis near the Denver Broncos' home field, an older couple who'd presented Texas IDs hurried away with their purchase, refusing to talk to a reporter.
"He looked like somebody important," the doorman quipped.
At Northern Lights Natural Rx in nearby Edgewater, receptionist Ben Davis said he had seen about 10 Texans the day before. The shop, in a tidy strip plaza next to a Dunkin' Donuts, had a bright, salonlike vibe in contrast to some other dispensaries, fronted by doormen with more of a dive-bar feel.
Maps on Northern Lights' wall told the story in pushpins: So far, the shop's out-of-state visitors had come mostly from Dallas, Austin, Minneapolis, Chicago and the eastern seaboard.
A group came in one day from Corpus Christi. The day before that, Houston. But patrons have come from beyond the U.S., too, from nations like Latvia, Denmark, Greece and Burkina Faso.
"We had someone from Taiwan. She was very excited," Davis said. He pointed at a spot on the map. "I was here when this guy from Salvador (Brazil) came in."
Dallas chef David Anthony Temple was among a stream of customers queued up to peruse the weedy wares of Northern Lights' back room.
Inside, buds lined shelves like mini-asteroids in glass crocks, each strain labeled with its fanciful name: Space Dawg. Cannatonic. Medicine Man. Chernobyl.
Strains are either cannabis sativa, cannabis indica or a hybrid. Sativas are known for boosting energy and offering more of a head buzz, while the relaxing indicas are more of a bedtime strain.
"One woman told me: 'I can't write without my sativas!' " said shop co-owner Eva Woolhiser.
Prices ranged from about $18.50 for a gram to nearly $260 for a half-ounce.
"What's all this stuff in the little jars?" Temple asked, eyeing the packaged items behind the counter.
Bud-tender Amber Peters approached. "Those are gummies," she said, among the shop's assortment of marijuana-laced edibles like peppermint patties and dark chocolate truffles.
It was the edibles that intrigued Temple, in town to explore expansion opportunities for the "underground dinners" he conducts in Dallas.
His meals often feature experimental ingredients like tree bark and sauces enhanced with gin or absinthe.
When in Rome, he figured; so here he was. "This is like a cool side attraction," he said. And possibly something to keep on his radar should he start doing dinners in Colorado.
"If this keeps going as a trend, will this start affecting food?" the 30-year-old wondered. "Is that something I'm going to have to learn how to do?"
An animated New Orleans native, Temple used to smoke weed when he was younger and supports legalization. He doesn't use it anymore, he said, finding that it sapped stamina he preferred to focus on his enterprise.
"I've had employees who smoke, and they'd show up stoned and late," he said. "As an employer, it's like having them walk in after a couple of shots. I was like, 'Go home.' "
Still, he thinks the drug, used responsibly, poses no more danger than alcohol. "I'd feel safer if my employees went home after work and smoked a bit than if they went out drinking," he said.
Peters let Temple examine some of the jarred buds with a pair of tongs. "The Cheesecake is really cheesy," she said as he sniffed.
Another jar on the shelf piqued his interest. "Dairy Queen?" Temple asked.
"That one's more for medical use, but if you'd like to take a look, I can let you," Peters said. "It kind of smells like Dairy Queen when you walk in there."
She opened another jar. "This is Grape Ape, one of my favorites," Peters said. "It's good for pain, or after a long day."
Temple finally decided on a $20 jar of peach/banana gummies, made from a sativa-indica hybrid.
He reflected a clientele far beyond stereotypes. At dispensaries around the Denver area, customers included clean-cut young professionals, husky blue-collars in work boots and caps, culinary students, middle-age suburbanites and professorial types with glasses perched at nose's edge.
At Northern Lights, a pair of retirement-age men exited, brown-bagged buy in hand. "What a thrill!" one said, not ironically. "People think this is just a bunch of druggies selling to their buddies, and it's really not," said Griffin Lott, a former Travis County (Texas) senior sheriff's deputy.
Lott left law enforcement several years ago to get into Colorado's cannabis industry. He now lives in suburban Golden and runs a secure courier service, delivering money and product for a major dispensary operation.
Banks are still unwilling to deal with businesses whose goods remain illegal at the federal level, "so there's a lot of cash hanging around," Lott said. "But mostly what I do is secure product storage and delivery."
In the meantime, marijuana operations either hire similar courier services or bank for as long as possible under nondescript names, he said.
While Texans are well represented in Colorado, he said, it's not such an easy business to get into.
"A lot of people move here thinking marijuana's easy (to grow), but they find out how hard it is," Lott said. "It's like being a farmer and botanist and chemist rolled into one. It's not just watering plants in a warehouse."
At Mile High Cannabis, shop manager Niko Yamaguchi had moved from Denton, Texas, two years ago to take a job in the industry's medical side.
"It's a great career choice," he said. "We're hoping that in five or six years it will be legal around the country. And the revenue coming in could really fix the economy."
Per law, all cannabis has to be consumed in private.
"You still have to hide it a little bit," Yamaguchi said. "Employers still have policies. But cops can't come into your house and arrest you."
Outside the store on a pleasant Saturday morning, doorman Deshaun Young jovially checked IDs, the familiar cannabis scent wafting from within every time he let a new patron in.