Marijuana industry sees green after Colorado legalization

  • One of Starbuds’ newest marijuana strains called “Look At Sunshine” (left) grows in the marijuana Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. This Bloom Room holds approximately 460 marijuana plants at one time.  The “Harlequin” marijuana plant (right) growing in the Flowering Room where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo.
  • A refrigerator stocked with edibles (left) at the Starbuds dispensary in Denver, Colo. The showroom of Euflora dispensary (right) in Aurora, Colo.
  • Jamie Perino, the owner of Euflora dispensary (left), counts money at their Aurora, Colo. location. “Bud-tender’ Brendan organizes marijuana jars (right) in the display case at the Starbuds Dispensary in Denver, Colo.
  • Jamie Perino, (left), is the owner of Euflora dispensary in Aurora, Colo. The Fourway marijuana plant (right) growing in the Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. This Bloom Room holds approximately 460 marijuana plants at one time.
  • Wanbli Williams smokes a marijuana joint after work at a an apartment in Denver, Colo.
  • Recreational marijuana use at an apartment in Denver, Colo.
  • Chris Nilsen smokes marijuana in a blunt after work at an apartment in Denver, Colo.
  • Edibles on display at the Euflora dispensary retail store (left) in Aurora, Colo. Warehouse Manager Trevor Hunsicker (right) clips clones from the mother marijuana plants, dips them in CLONEX Rooting Gell and then plants them into the A-OK Rockwoll Starter plugs at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. He has worked for Starbuds for approximately five years and was previously employed at an airport McDonald’s.
  • Billy Rogers smokes a marijuana joint after work at his apartment in Denver, Colo.
  • Nahhah Lieberman (left) sits at a window to check incoming customers’ medical marijuana identification at the Medicine Man recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colo. One of Starbuds’ newest marijuana strains called “Look At Sunshine” (right) grows in the marijuana Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo.
  • A security guard walks through the vegetative room called “The Green Mile” where mother plants are stored in the grow facility at the Medicine Man recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colo.
  • President and founder of Julie’s Baked Goods, Julie Dooley (left), lines baking sheets with cannabis for use in the cannabis brewing/baking process in their kitchen in Denver, Colo. The marijuana Flowering Room (right) – also known as the “Bloom Room” – where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo.
  • President and founder of Julie’s Baked Goods, Julie Dooley (left), packages the “Nuttybite” product containing 50mg of Activated Cannibas per package in Denver, Colo. The Harlequin marijuana plant (right) growing in the Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. This Bloom Room holds approximately 460 marijuana plants at one time.
  • Packaging the “Nuttybite” edible (left) which contains 50mg of activated cannabis per package in the kitchen at Julie’s Baked Goods in Denver, Colo.  Cannabis plants growing in the Flowering Room (right) at the Medicine Man recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colo.
  • Mother marijuana plants stored at a Starbuds warehouse (left) in Denver, Colo. Julie’s Baked Goods executive baker, Angie Corwin (right) mixes cannabis into clarified butter in Denver, Colo.
  • Cannabis plants growing in the Flowering Room(left) at the Medicine Man recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colo. Julie’s Baked Goods executive baker Angie Corwin (right) measures clarified butter used in the brewing process (clarified butter works well for cannabis extraction when baking) in Denver, Colo.
  • The Skywalker marijuana plant growing in the Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. This Bloom Room holds approximately 460 marijuana plants at one time.
  • The Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo.
  • Marijuana is dried on racks in the curing room in the grow facility at the Medicine Man recreational and medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colo.
  • Marijuana plants hang to dry in the office of a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo.
  • One of Starbuds’ newest marijuana strains called “Look At Sunshine” (left) grows in the marijuana Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. A “Keep off the Grass” sign (right) hangs above the marijuana flowering room at the Starbuds warehouse.
  • Warehouse Manager Trevor Hunsicker, 29, loads up jars of trimmed marijuana into the office safe at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. Hunsicker has worked for Starbuds for approximately five years. He previously worked at an airport McDonald’s.
  • Starbuds owner Brian Ruden (left) at his home in Denver, Colo. The Sour Diesel marijuana plant (right) growing in the Flowering Room (also known as the “Bloom Room”) where cannabis plants grow to final cultivation at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo.
  • Marijuana plants (left) sitting in three-gallon pots (three-to-four week stage) in the vegetation room at a Starbuds warehouse in Denver, Colo. Store manager Ray-Lynda DiDonata (right) counts cash at the Euflora dispensary retail store in Aurora, Colo. The store is a cash-only business.

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Colorado’s grand cannabis experiment has captured the imagination of America. After 75 years of marijuana prohibition, the state’s voters amended their constitution and legalized marijuana in all forms. The results have been remarkable. 

Denver has surpassed Amsterdam as the capital of the marijuana world. The city has more than 300 stores, called dispensaries, outnumbering pharmacies, liquor stores, public schools and even Starbucks. Still, the demand for legal marijuana and edible products is outpacing supply. Nearly a year after Colorado legalized marijuana, there is still a supply problem for many strains and edible products. 

For generations, Americans have been told how legalized marijuana would bring madness, decadence and moral decay. But in Colorado, the reality has been shockingly mundane. Crime statistics are down. Motor vehicle incidents are down. Tourism and marijuana tax revenues are up and the state is nearing total employment. The sky has not fallen. Life as we know it goes on. 

The new industry is already becoming normalized as additional cities and towns open up to legal sales. There are roughly 10,000 people who have already become licensed by the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, working as growers, trimmers and budtenders, but also as bakers and chocolatiers and tour guides. These are jobs, plain and simple. 

The biggest challenge for the cannabis industry has been managing all of the cash. All banks are federally regulated, and the U.S. government still says marijuana is illegal. Banks in Colorado can be fined heavily for doing business with “drug traffickers.” That poses a problem at the retail level, where most purchases are in cash, leaving dispensary owners with the question of how to deal with garbage bags full of money.

It would be funny, if it weren’t so dangerous. The cannabis industry projects roughly $750 million in 2014 sales in a state of only 5 million people. Private security firms have stepped in to help transport, store and safeguard marijuana money, but people in the business often say the situation won’t change until someone gets killed.

Another controversy has arisen over the sale and regulation of so-called “edibles”, or marijuana-infused products. They’ve comprised nearly half of total marijuana sales, but have come under fire from opponents for infusing the drug in gummy bears, lemon drops and other products that might appeal to children.

The business media is buzzing with the prospects for the new industry, which analysts project could become a $40-$50 billion dollar national industry. The prevailing wisdom is that many of the early leaders in the game will cash out for many millions, or even billions, when the big money arrives. Whether the investors come from Big Tobacco or Wall Street, industry watchers are confident of the upside potential.

America is watching, too. In the recent 2014 elections, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. voters voted to allow citizens to legally buy and smoke marijuana. Colorado’s grand experiment may soon become the new normal.

Gary Cohen is the Executive Producer, Writer & Narrator of MSNBC’s new series, “Pot Barons of Colorado,” which premieres on Sunday, November 30 at 10 pm ET.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography 

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