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Colorado’s marijuana experiment

In this April 19, 2014 file photo, partygoers dance and smoke pot on the first of two days at the annual 4/20 marijuana festival in Denver.
In this April 19, 2014 file photo, partygoers dance and smoke pot on the first of two days at the annual 4/20 marijuana festival in Denver. AP

Drive around here for a few days, and you can’t shake it: Is the smell real or in my head?

Get within 20 yards of one of the hundreds of marijuana dispensaries or warehouses where the stuff is grown, and there’s nothing imaginary. Heady vapors are sweeping through the Mile High City.

Inside the shops, which outnumber Starbucks, comically named varieties are lined up in glass jars. Green Crack. Super Skunk. AK-47. Golden Goat. Trainwreck. But the action is with cannabis-infused “edibles” — chocolate bars, cookies, sodas and gummy bears that pack a longer, all-over-body buzz.

Baklava, anyone?

Retail stores are popping up everywhere, filling vacant spaces, creating jobs and work for general contractors. Warehouses are nearly impossible to rent. Tourism is up, crime is not. And 10 tons — tons — of weed is being consumed per month.

“This is the new gold rush,” said Jaron Finn, 23, who manages Cannabis Station, a downtown shop.

Nearly 11 months after Coloradans became the first in the country to legally purchase marijuana for recreational use, seeing the rush in action is wild and yet … normal. The city has not collapsed into a hedonistic haze and the stores have blended in with 7-Elevens, Subways and used car lots.

Denver has largely shrugged in acceptance.

“You’ve got suburban housewives. Businessmen coming out of their Mercedes coupes. Young, old. And obviously the stereotypical stoners,” said Matthew Fuerst, who can see the traffic from the brewery he just opened on South Broadway, a street so populated with dispensaries that it’s called The Green Mile or Broadsterdam. “In any case, it’s something that appeals to a wide base of people. The shock value is gone.”

Craig Curtis, 50, can smell the marijuana from his home two blocks away. He voted against recreational use and doubts the economic benefits will be as great as stated but conceded, “So far it doesn’t really seem to have impacted us. You just hope society as a whole knows where it’s headed.”

The Colorado experiment, which is being duplicated in Washington state, serves as a backdrop as voters in other states consider marijuana this election. In Florida, medical use is on the Nov. 4 ballot. In Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., voters will decide whether to expand to recreational use.

While Florida’s initiative looks iffy due to a 60 percent threshold, the other measures are likely to pass, propelling the country down what appears an inevitable path. Public support for legalizing marijuana use is at an all-time high of 54 percent, according to a national Pew poll.

“Of course, it concerns us,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America Foundation, a St. Petersburg-based organization started by the Sembler family. She argues that once a state goes for medical marijuana as Colorado did in 2000, advocates begin plotting full legalization. “This has not occurred without some significant negative side effects, as voiced by the governor.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, locked in a tight re-election campaign, recently said that voters were “reckless” for opening the door to recreational marijuana, available to anyone over 21, including out-of-state visitors. The Democrat cautions other states to see what happens in Colorado before following his state’s lead. Indeed, proponents and detractors can find evidence to support their argument.

For all the whimsy that pot conjures, there have been serious implications. A Denver man has been charged with murder for shooting his wife after eating a pot-infused “Karma Kandy.” A college student died in March after jumping from a Denver hotel balcony; tests showed he had eaten six times the recommended amount of a marijuana cookie. Emergency room visits have increased with people facing adverse reactions, mostly those who have tried the harmless-looking edibles. Kids have accidentally eaten their parents’ stash. Billboards around the city ask parents to inspect Halloween candy.

Advocates scoff at what they view as isolated cases and largely, the alarms that anti-pot advocates sounded have been unrealized. But even some users fret about downsides. “When you’re numbing out the bad, you’re numbing out the good,” said Heather, 39, who did not want her last named used for fear of repercussions at work. She was leaving a shop on Broadway after paying $38 for a quarter ounce of Kushberry. “Any time you make something more accessible and less stigmatized, then people just fall right into that,” Heather said. “You’re giving everyone the option to say, ‘It’s OK.’ ”

The march to this point has been gradual. Colorado approved medial marijuana in 2000 but shops did not open until 2007 due to court wrangling. As acceptance grew and other states permitted medical use or decriminalized possession, advocates began pushing for full legalization. In a savvy move, they pitched Amendment 64 as a way to regulate marijuana — bring it out in the open — and treat it like alcohol. Taxes would help schools and the community, they said. Police would be freed up to focus on more serious crimes. The measured passed with 53 percent of the vote.

Legalization isn’t minting waves of new pot smokers. A Quinnipiac poll from July showed that 51 percent of Colorado voters have tried marijuana but only 16 percent said they used it since it became legal in January. The poll showed slightly less overall support for legal marijuana, which critics say is evidence of buyer’s remorse. Politicians, however, are careful not to go against public opinion. Both the Democrat and Republican in the state’s heated U.S. Senate race kept clear in a recent debate of talk of reversing full legalization.

“The founders intended the states to be laboratories of democracy and Colorado is deep in the heart of the laboratory,” Republican Cory Gardner said in an interview. “We’ve seen some bad things but we’ve seen some good things.” He cited the story of a Missouri man who moved to Colorado so his epileptic daughter could get access to “Charlotte’s Web,” a noneuphoric strain.

The Florida Legislature authorized Charlotte’s Web in the spring, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law, yet most Republicans remain opposed to the ballot measure, which would grant broader use of marijuana without restrictions on THC.

Critics say it could lead to shops on every corner, not unlike Denver, and attack the ease in which people have gotten medical clearance to use the drug. (Left unsaid is that the Legislature would write the regulations, as strict as desired.)

Proponents can point to examples like that of Macie Owens. The demure, curly-haired 24-year-old walked into a Broadway Street dispensary on a rainy Sunday and paid $35 for a type of wax that is laden with THC.

Owens, who lives in Denver and has lupus, said she was once on eight pharmaceuticals. “It took more out of me than the disease itself.” With marijuana, she said her appetite has improved and she’s not in the kind of pain that kept her from working.

Jake Howard also likes it for the pain of repeated falls off his BMX bike. But he doesn’t have a medical card. When he turned 21, one of the first things he did was visit a dispensary.

“After growing up buying marijuana from your buddy down the street … this is amazing,” he said, holding two green plastic containers of bud and a pre-rolled joint. “It was weird at first, but once you go in there a few times, it’s normal. It’s mellowed out Denver a lot.”

Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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