DENVER -- At Leela European Cafe, a quirky, 24-hour coffee shop and bar in the
heart of downtown, a bartender was quick with her thoughts on Colorado's
experience with the legal sale of medical marijuana.
"It's really easy to get," said Cara Wanek, 25, who says she uses it to calm her anxiety, boost her appetite and help her sleep. "And it's delicious."
That's exactly what Illinois is trying to avoid.
While Colorado is not quite the Wild West of medical marijuana, it offers a window into the opportunities and consequences that arise when a state allows the legal sale of a long-banned drug.
The state's therapeutic cannabis industry launched in earnest in late 2009, triggering a "green rush" that boosted the state's economy. Big Marijuana added thousands of new jobs, revitalized aging industrial warehouses and shuttered storefronts, and generated millions of tax dollars for the federal, state and local governments.
At the same time, state officials acknowledge they were unprepared to license, inspect and regulate medical marijuana businesses, leaving millions of fees and taxes uncollected and a significant swath of the industry unchecked. And recently released police data show a modest uptick in certain crimes near marijuana businesses in Denver.
But as the nation's first highly regulated, for-profit market, Colorado has served as a model for other states seeking to get in on the action.
In crafting legislation that would allow for the legal sale of the drug to certain patients beginning in 2014, Illinois lawmakers looked to build upon the experience in Colorado, where pretty much anyone with a long-ago injury can get a doctor's approval to purchase up to 2 ounces of pot at a time _ enough to stuff two small sandwich bags.
Illinois' proposed statute is far more restrictive, placing tighter limits on who can legally purchase the drug and where it can be grown and sold.
The bill, which would allow people with 42 defined conditions to purchase the drug legally over a four-year trial period, was approved by the Senate on May 17. It awaits the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he is "open-minded" about the prospect.
As the governor contemplates a decision, experienced pot entrepreneurs in and around Denver are watching closely with the hope that the time and money they've spent shaping and supporting the Illinois bill will pay off.
"Everyone is looking at Illinois and New York because that's where the population is," said Kayvan Khalatbari, a 29-year-old Nebraska native who was one of the pioneers in the Denver marijuana scene. "The ball is rolling, and with more and more states coming on all the time, we see opportunities everywhere."
If Quinn signs the bill, Illinois would become the 20th state, plus the District of Columbia, to allow the sale of medical marijuana. Dispensaries could open as soon as next year.
In Colorado, legalization of the drug for medicinal purposes was approved by voters in 2000. But because the drug remained illegal at the federal level, most users remained underground, growing as many as six plants each for their own medical needs.
The industry didn't emerge until 2009, after an Obama administration memo
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