DENVER, CO (FOX19) - Grow operations in warehouses in Queensgate. Retail shops in Montgomery and Covington. Farms outside Lawrenceburg.
All trading in marijuana without breaking the law.
That's the goal of proponents hoping to follow the lead of Colorado, a state that in January expanded its already legal medicinal marijuana industry to allow anyone 21 or over to buy pot legally, with or without a prescription.
The state is boasting $12.5 million in sales taxes in its first three months and thousands of direct and indirect jobs created.
But there also have been reports of children selling their parents' pot in middle school and adults killing themselves or others after overdosing on edible marijuana.
"I don't think we have enough research about those longer-term consequences," said Mary Haag, who heads the Coalition for a Drug Free Cincinnati.
Ohio Legalization Efforts
The Coalition stands squarely against measures in Ohio to legalize marijuana. House Bill 153 would revise Ohio code to allow "medical use of cannabis" as 20 states have passed into law. House Joint Resolution Number 6 would change the state constitution "to legalize the production, use and sale of marijuana" and set up the mechanisms to regulate and tax it. That's recreational use legal only in Colorado, and come July, in Washington state.
Only three legislators have attached their names to either measure in the Ohio Statehouse giving both virtually no chance of passage.
Ohio Governor John Kasich said he opposes any effort to legalize marijuana despite a Quinnipiac University poll in February that showed Ohio residents overwhelmingly approve of medical marijuana by an 8-1 margin.
Three citizen groups in the state are trying to gather signatures to place the issue on a referendum before the voters, but so far they haven't convinced enough people to sign their names and addresses to take any initiative to the ballot box.
Marijuana industry executives in Colorado say they're not surprised; they encountered the same opposition when their campaign toward legalization began more than two decades ago. Now business is booming. Grow operations are doubling their space and stores are hiring new staff weekly.
Marijuana Tours a la Wine Country
We flew to Colorado and toured several operations in Denver. Pot shops zone in industrial sections and feature non-descript storefronts and converted warehouses with minimal signage. An armed security guard checks every visitor's ID as he or she enters the store.
At Medicine Man the guard asks, "medical or recreational?" as a customer enters. Per the law, the store has separated the two sides of the businesses into opposite wings.
To the right, patients present their prescriptions from doctors before browsing through dozens of canisters full of buds or rolled joints, shelves full of edible chocolates and fruit bars, and glass-front cabinets featuring paraphernalia like pipes.
Customers without prescriptions turn left, where they'll pay double for the same products in counters full of merchandise like medicated pain creams, marijuana in pill form and concentrates to vape as in e-cigarettes. Prices are higher partially because the tax on recreational marijuana is steep at 21.2 percent in Denver.
Medicine Man's business and development strategist Elon Nelson says customers aren't complaining about the jacked-up cost. Business here is so brisk that sales have tripled, the company is on a hiring binge and construction workers are doubling the current 20,000-square-foot grow operation.
"We are, all of us in the industry, having a tough time meeting the demand," she said.
Tourists are traveling to Colorado to take advantage of the new recreational marijuana law. Two of the first buyers January 1, 2014 came from the Tri-State. Tyler Williams and Brandon Harris of Blanchester lined up outside 3D Cannabis Center to make their purchases. They since have moved to Colorado Springs.
And they're not alone.
We spoke to several customers who told us they had moved here from other states so they could partake in their drug of choice -- legally.
However, tourism remains a major revenue stream. Nelson and other pot store owners say at least 50 percent of their sales come from out-of-state buyers. The law forbids visitors from leaving the state with marijuana so many hotels now have begun to cater to this new travel sector, offering package deals including pot tours not unlike those one might find traveling to the wine country in Sonoma.
The Science of Production
Tourists and residents alike are experiencing an industry inventing its operational routine daily, as the profession learns from initial customer data and research. Individual businesses are harnessing science and horticulture to improve and expand their factory-style settings.
We walked a giant warehouse-turned-plantation along a production line the Medicine Man calls "The Green Mile."
It starts in the "Mother Room." Growers breed small plants for various kinds of highs, each plant tagged and chipped for tracking and inventory control. The marijuana spends eight weeks under blue-green lights for 18 to 24 hours a day -- simulating summer and stimulating growth.
Growers then move the plants to another temperature-and-humidity-controlled space called the "Flowering Room," about the size of a basketball court. Red-yellow light for 12 hours a day simulates fall, time to flower or bud.
"You can see this sort of sugar coating, these little crystals all over it." Nelson said while pointing to the hops of the plants. That's the THC, the chemical that gives the high.
After the plants bud, the growers harvest them into long stems that go to the "Trim Room." Here workers sit in a row, many listening to music on headphones as they separate into silver aluminum pans the leaves, which will go to make edibles, from the buds which will sell whole or reduced to concentrate. The buds dry for a week on huge floor-to-ceiling racks then cure in large white plastic buckets for weeks to months before they're ready for sale.
The Business Argument: Costs versus Benefits
"These sales will take place regardless of what the legislators in any state want to admit to or not… Why not regulate and tax it?" Nelson asked. Colorado is using some of the tax revenue for programs to fight drug use in children and enforcement of DUI laws.
Marijuana industry proponents point beyond tourism and tax revenues to job creation, both directly within the industry -- growers, clerks, business office workers and managers -- and indirectly in ancillary jobs that ripple through the economy.
Nelson cites the cooks and bakers.
"The [construction] contractors to build this expansion. The security firms to add more cameras in. The packaging that's done. That's obviously putting more back into our economy with everything we do," she explained.
Commander John Burke of the Greater Warren County Drug Task Force says those arguments don't take into account the costs the industry might bring if marijuana proves to be the gateway to harder drugs.
"I think it's another slippery slope when you start considering, well, we're going to make all this money," he said.
Burke and Haag believe marijuana has no business being legislated by politicians or voters because it's a drug. They say only the Food and Drug Administration should be judging its use.
"Nobody voted for aspirin to be legal or illegal. Nobody decided for penicillin. That's done through scientific research, goes through the FDA process. It's a public safety issue," Haag pointed out.
Burke says he supports medical cannabis if it's FDA approved but he says that's not what the bills in the Ohio legislature are about.
"The whole goal is to do what just happened in Colorado," He said. "Start out with medical marijuana and then go to recreational marijuana."
That's certainly playing out at some Colorado businesses now dumping the medical marijuana side altogether. 3D Cannabis Center decided to go 100 percent recreational as of January 1 and owner Toni Fox says it's paid off.
"In the first three months of recreational sales, we've generated over a million dollars in sales, which was about as much as we did in three years as a medical center," Fox explained.
She says her customers buying varieties like "Juicy Fruit" or "Charlie Sheen" don't represent the stereotypes one might expect.
"The people that are coming in are professional people, people on their way downtown to work, suits, doctors, lawyers. I have more gray-haired customers than any color hair," she said.
Fox is building an acre-sized greenhouse for commercial cultivation and has gone from six employees to 30 in three months.
"The dominoes are falling, and when we can show that this can be regulated in a very smooth environment, there's just so many pluses."
But while Fox and other industry executives hope Colorado serves as a model for other states and countries to follow, opponents in Ohio say they'll work hard to maintain the upper hand. Still, they acknowledge that the Colorado experiment has led to repercussions here.
"The impact that it's already had is that it's changing the norm and perception that it is ok," Haag said.
Check out this guide for the differences in the marijuana laws in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
Current penalties for marijuana possession in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana:
- Less than 3.5 ounces, misdemeanor, jail n/a, max fine $150
- 3.5-7 ounces, misdemeanor, jail 30 days, max fine $250
- 7 ounces and up, felony, jail up to 6 months, $2,500 and up
- Less than 8 ounces (first offense), misdemeanor, jail 45 days, max fine $250
- Less than 8 ounces (subsequent offense), felony, jail 1-5 years, max fine $10,000
- One ounce or less, misdemeanor, jail 1 year, max fine $5,000
- One ounce to 10 pounds, felony, jail 6 months to 3 years, max fine $10,000