DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alumna sees the green with marijuana dispensary

There’s a new gold rush going on in Colorado — only these nuggets are grown, not mined.

Empowered by a 2000 amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Colorado and emboldened by a liberal new presidential administration, entrepreneurs are opening medical-marijuana dispensaries at a record rate across the Front Range.

One of the first to cash in on the craze was Jill Leigh (MBA ’99), who owns and operates Boulder County Caregivers, the first major dispensary in Boulder. The business started when Leigh’s husband, who has a degenerative spine disease, was approved for medical marijuana. He started growing it, and he ended up with extra product to sell. The couple opened their first retail location in June 2008; they just signed a lease for a second location and are closing funding on two more outlets that will open in less than a year.

Leigh, who grew up outside of Chicago and moved to Colorado to attend DU, was no stranger to running a small business; after earning her MBA she served as a contract administrator for several small businesses, handling accounting, finance and insurance so the owners could focus on the bigger picture.

“I liked that you got to see your impact on the business immediately — that you knew you were an integral part of its failure or success,” she says. “However, working with entrepreneurs can be frustrating when you’re trying to get them to focus on an issue and they’re at million miles an hour.”

That frustration is gone now that Leigh is in charge of her own business. It would have been legal to open Boulder County Caregivers back in 2001, but it only recently became practical to do so.

“There wasn’t a change in the law, particularly — there was a change in the political climate when Obama was elected,” says Leigh, who lives in unincorporated Boulder County with her husband and two children. “It is still a federal crime to do this, but it’s legal under state law. The change in the federal administration kind of led the movement and the industry to pick up a bit in Colorado.”

“Pick up a bit” is an understatement. According to a recent Denver Post study, at least 100 dispensaries have opened in Colorado (one of the 14 states where medical marijuana is legal) since 2001, with more opening every month. The state health department estimates it receives 400 applications for medical-marijuana cards each day.

Brian Vicente (JD ’04), founder and executive director of nonprofit medical marijuana advocacy group Sensible Colorado, says several factors have led to the recent proliferation of dispensaries in Colorado, including a Colorado board of health ruling that allows caregivers to provide for more patients and a U.S. Justice Department directive that encourages federal prosecutors in states where medical marijuana is legal not to go after dispensaries or their patients.

“The final factor is just the economy and the fact that many people are turning to alternative medicine because they can’t afford health care,” Vicente says. “Medical marijuana does have real efficacy for people with certain conditions, and more and more people are opening their eyes to that.”

The law itself — passed by voters in 2000 — is fairly straightforward. A doctor must verify a patient has a condition that makes them eligible to use medical marijuana. The patient then applies to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for a medical marijuana card. Once they have the card, they may purchase medical marijuana from a licensed “caregiver” — in most cases a dispensary like Boulder County Caregivers, which is allowed to grow a certain amount of cannabis per patient. It’s a plan that allows for some abuses, but Leigh says dispensaries like hers are there to provide legitimate relief to people in pain.

“The doctor verifies the condition; I don’t,” Leigh says. “There’s obviously some abuse of the system, but that’s the doctors’ responsibility. Once someone has a card they are legal to possess and purchase it.”

And at Boulder County Caregivers, patients can purchase much more than plain marijuana. There are marijuana-infused capsules, suppositories, baked goods, oils, butters and tinctures, plus pipes, vaporizers, T-shirts, books, magazines and other accessories. The company also offers complementary massage and mental health therapy.

“It’s anything your normal Vitamin Cottage would have,” Leigh says, “but we’re just focusing on one herb.”

It seems that medical marijuana has been in the news almost daily over the past few months. The latest wrinkle came Oct. 29, when the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Longmont grower Stacy Clendenin, ruling that a person designated as a caregiver must do more than just supply marijuana to patients — she must actually know the patients who use it.

It’s an interpretation Vicente disagrees with.

“The main job of a caregiver is to provide medicine in the same way a pharmacy provides medicine,” he says. “We don’t expect the pharmacist to come make us sandwiches or drive us to our doctors’ appointments.”

But as the courtroom battles wage on, it seems marijuana dispensaries are going to be around for a while, ranging from facilities like Leigh’s, which is housed in a nondescript medical building in Boulder, to gaudy shops on Denver’s South Broadway with neon pot leafs and catchy names like “Dr. Ganja.” The latter stores, Leigh says, only hurt the cause.

“I don’t like that,” she says. “People who are already somewhat pessimistic, it just verifies their feelings. It doesn’t help legitimize [marijuana] as medicine, and it is medicine and it is good medicine and it works and should be treated as such.”

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