Monday, June 7, 2010

Aspiring marijuana growers look to stake a claim in N.J.'s new industry

With N.J. expected to permit the sale of medicinal marijuana soon, The
Star-Ledger visited Colorado and New Mexico to observe the impact
legalizing the drug for medical reasons has had in those states.

ASPEN, CO. — The line of people spilled outside the door, even while
it rained.

Some 3,000 Colorado medical marijuana patients ventured to this posh
skiers' paradise for one weekend in April, and for the $25 entrance
fee, each received a plastic green bracelet granting them entrance to a
veritable pot flea market.

They lingered over cases of handblown, multicolor glass pipes, ooohed
and ahhed over enhanced confections likes Rice Krispies Treats and
chocolate-covered pretzels, and snapped up tiny bags of pot from dozens
of growers.

But only 130 people — who paid $100 or more — earned themselves
a Willie Wonkaesque Golden Ticket, giving them critic-like status to
decide — from their own home, no smoking on site, please — who
should win the first annual Cannabis Crown for the best weed.

Nicki Gross of Aspen didn't have a golden ticket and wasn't
there for fun. She was there to learn more about the medicine that
reduces her chronic back pain. "I'm in excruciating pain right
now,'' Gross said through clenched teeth. "I wish we could smoke
here. All I take is one hit at a time — the stuff is really

Held at two of Aspen's exclusive hotels, the conference embodied the
best of what the burgeoning medical marijuana industry has to offer: a
recession-defying opportunity with seemingly limitless economic
potential. Equally important to many entrepreneurs, the industry also
satisfies a benevolent urge. Everybody in the industry can rattle off a
string of examples of how marijuana has helped people walk, eat,
function and sleep better while diminishing their reliance on
prescription painkillers and their discomforting side effects.


But for every heartfelt testimonial, dispensary operators can share
insomnia-provoking tales of what it's like to enter an industry
shunned by banks, insurance companies, many elected officials and large
segments of mainstream society. Competition is fierce, and there are few
tested models of success to emulate.

That uncertainty hasn't stopped an expanding group of aspiring
growers and dispensary owners from making their own pitch to get in on
the ground floor in New Jersey, where nary a detail about New
Jersey's medical marijuana program has been disclosed, and the
governor is delaying the launch of the program until as late as next

But even with the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country,
New Jersey will gain jobs and revenue, said Gus Escamilla, founder and
CEO of Greenway University, which helped open 230 dispensaries in
California and Colorado.

Medical marijuana "helped the economy in Denver in so many ways.
Security companies, CPAs, attorneys, physicians — their practices
are booming. We are about to see something similar occur'' in New
Jersey, Escamilla said. Greenway hosted a seminar in Paterson yesterday
and was scheduled to hold another today to teach people the business.


There are no authoritative economic studies of the medical marijuana
industry in the 14 states where it has been legalized.

In Denver alone, 279 storefronts that were vacant less than a year ago
are now occupied by licensed medical marijuana dispensaries that each
paid the city $5,000 for a license, according to state Treasury and
Economic Development statistics. In Colorado, 199 shop owners paid
$631,000 in sales tax from February, and 201 more registered with the
state have yet to pay any sales tax, said Mark Couch, spokesman for the
Colorado Department of Revenue. Colorado also charges $90 for every
person who applies to be a patient, and there are 80,000 of them.


No one working in Colorado's medical marijuana industry would call
this an easy way of life.

Jesse Lafayette, his wife Holly Bockenthien, and two partners took a
vacant gas station in downtown touristy Glenwood Springs and opened
Peaceful Warrior dispensary and grow operation in September.

Since then, they said, two banks they had been doing business with
dropped them in fear the federal government might question any
involvement with what is still an illegal substance. And the couple
works all the time because they've been robbed by some of the
employees they hired, they said. "We can't trust anybody,''
Bockenthien said.

But Lafayette, 33, who holds degrees in horticulture, and Bockenthien,
26, a cattle owner, say they are committed to their patients — a
steady roster of 350 people, like Noel, a mother of three recovering
from a brain tumor. She stopped in on a Sunday afternoon in April for
marijuana for her pain — instead of morphine.

Bradley Mann of Monroe and some partners have already formed a nonprofit
entity, the Compassion Associates Inc., to be among the first in line
when the state chooses the dispensary operators. The organization plans
to start an assistance fund for low-income patients, and a launch a
website that will inform the public about the program, said Mann, a
42-year-old father of four who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"Whether we get a license or not, we have a few different things we are
doing to reach our goal of supporting patients.''


Medical Marijuana for sale: A sample of edible and smokable menu items
sold in Colorodo, which will undoubtedly make their way to New Jersey.

Sellers say they strive to charge less than the illegal dealers, but
many comply with state law and charge sales tax.

• 1 gram of marijuana: $20

• 1/8 ounce of marijuana: about $50

• 2 ounces of marijuana (the monthly limit for N.J. patients): $560
and up

• Pot-laced ice cream cups: $8 - $10 each

• Keef Cola: $8 per bottle

• Hard candies: $3

• Rice Krispie Treat: $5 - 10

• Brownies: $5 - 10

• Tinctures: (marijuana-infused drops for tea and other drinks and
foods) $30 per ounce

• Hand-blown glass pipes: starting at $15

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