Clearly, Joe Lindsey loves his job.
At the High Country Healing dispensary in Silverthorne, Colorado, he pulls out plastic tubs of pungent marijuana buds, talking about the attributes and aromas of each. He points out the citrus smell of one variety and the notes of bubblegum in another. As the store’s lead “bud tender,” Lindsey has a passion for the product.
“I get paid for this,” he says with an almost manic grin.
It’s a job that could get him arrested in other places around the country, but in Colorado, he’s got a state license. The state amended its constitution in 2012, becoming the first state allowing adults to possess and use marijuana . Since then, the cannabis business has exploded.
It’s now a billion-dollar industry in Colorado, and in 2016 there were a total of 698 pot stores in the state, which was triple the number of Starbucks.
New Jersey could become one of the next states to legalize marijuana. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari has introduced a bill to legalize the retail sale and possession of marijuana. If it is approved, Gov. Phil Murphy has said he would sign it.
Most expect New Jersey, like other states, to follow Colorado’s example on everything from licensing to regulation of marijuana concentrates and edibles. That could mean that, by 2019, customers could walk into a dispensary in Atlantic City or Egg Harbor Township – which already has a medical marijuana dispensary – and buy an one-eighth ounce of heavily taxed, high-potency marijuana or a childproof container of intoxicating cookies.
To get a sense of what legal marijuana sales could look like in New Jersey, we went to Colorado to see firsthand how a regulated pot shop operates.
Welcome to the high country
After years of legal sales in Colorado, marijuana dispensaries have become part of the landscape there. An informal poll of several Colorado residents saw enthusiasm from marijuana users and near indifference from those who abstain.
No one under 21 is allowed in a dispensary. Typically, there’s a lobby area, often with T-shirts and other merchandise for sale. A potential customer must present a photo ID before being allowed into a separate room where the drug is sold.
Just a few customers are allowed in that room at once.
At High Country Healing’s Silverthorne location, Lindsey talks with customers about the attributes of each strain of marijuana. Each smells and looks a little different, and each is said to offer different effects. The jars of buds are color coded and arranged so that the heavier, more intense strains — the ones that will keep you stuck on the couch staring at your hand — are on the left. Varieties promising a more energetic experience are ranged on the right.
The cost at the recreational part of the dispensary is $16.17 a gram, $55.12 for one-eighth ounce, or $355.36 for an ounce. There’s a hefty 28 percent tax on the sale of the recreational product, compared to the regular 7 percent sales tax for those with a medical marijuana card. That option is only open to Colorado residents with a doctor’s recommendation.
In the summer, about 80 percent of the customers in the dispensary are locals, according to store manager Joe Pepe. But in the winter, when the ski resorts of Summit County draw thousands to the area and the dispensary is far busier, that percentage flips with 80 percent of the customers visiting from out of state.
It’s a federal crime to bring marijuana across state lines. A sign inside the dispensary states that if you ask advice on how to smuggle your purchase home, the dispensary will not be able to sell you anything. There are limits on how much you can buy: no more than an ounce at a time or its equivalent in other products.
Another dispensary in the region had its license pulled for overselling, Pepe said. He indicated he keeps his operation to the letter of the law.
“I’m the king of compliance,” he said.
It takes about three months to grow a marijuana plant from a clipping to the point that it’s ready to flower. Within two more months, the plant will be fully mature and the dried buds ready for sale..
The marijuana sold at the Silverthorne facility is all grown in the county, and proprietors have recently installed a grow room at the site, giving customers a look at the plants through a plate glass window in the waiting area.
The dispensary also sells pipes, papers and rolled joints, but Pepe sees his customers moving away from smoking because of health concerns.
“I would say the top growth in the market is in vaping and edibles,” he said. “Those markets are really gaining traction.”
Vaping has grown in popularity over cigarette smoking in recent years, and the same can be said for marijuana. Using a device about the size and shape of a pen — or a larger tabletop version — the user heats the marijuana to an extremely high temperature, literally vaporizing it. The process is also used for marijuana oils and concentrates, such as the extremely potent concentrate known as wax.
This dispensary and others sell a staggering variety of pot-infused products, way beyond those green-tinted brownies your college roommate used to make. Psychoactive ice cream, root beer, olive oil and beef jerky were on display, along with premium chocolate bars, lollipops, tablets, chews and drops.
In the fall, Colorado tightened the rules for marijuana edibles. They must clearly indicate the products contain THC, the chemical that gives users the marijuana high. The edibles cannot be labeled as “candy,” and there can be no cartoon characters or anything else that would seem to attract children.
“So no gummy bears, no Swedish fish” said Pepe.
Individual pieces are to be stamped with a symbol indicating that it contains cannabis.
Without such labeling, it would be easy to confuse these products with their innocent counterparts. A spike in accidental ingestion of marijuana-laced sweets was reported after legalization, and Children’s Hospital Colorado produced a fact sheet on children and marijuana to help parents recognize accidental intoxication.
Pepe showed off a package of caramel waffles that are made with pot. Once he popped open the required child resistant container, an unmistakable smell wafted through the plastic wrapper: cinnamon.
No marijuana aroma was evident, and Pepe said there is almost no trace of marijuana taste in the 10 small pieces, each containing a single adult dose. The label warned against eating too much, saying it could take hours for the effects to be felt.
Pepe said few of the edibles have any detectable marijuana flavor, at least in the recreational side of the business.
“At this point, if you don’t taste good, you might as well get out of the market,” he said.