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I-Team: How Legal Marijuana Has Changed Denver

DENVER, CO (CBS) – What if you suddenly dropped a billion-dollar industry into a state? And what if that billion-dollar industry was legal marijuana? It's what happened in Denver. And if Massachusetts voters approve a ballot initiative in November, it could happen here.

The I-Team traveled to Denver to see how legal pot changed that city.

Denver is known for its mountain views, a bustling downtown and now as the epicenter of a legal marijuana industry.

In the Mile High City, it is not hard to find somewhere to buy marijuana if you are over 21.

Marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colorado (WBZ-TV)

"Every other street corner you find legalized marijuana shops," said one suburban resident.

"They kind of seem like liquor stores," another Denver resident observed.

Whether that is good or bad depends on whom you ask. But neither supporters nor opponents deny adult use recreational marijuana has changed the state.

We took a drive down a stretch of Broadway on Denver's south side. This area used to be known as "Antique Row." There are still antique stores, but now this area is more commonly called "The Green Mile."

Marijuana dispensary
Marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colorado (WBZ-TV)

"Within about five blocks there are probably at least ten," Rusty Staff says of the dispensaries that now fill the neighborhood where he owns a furniture import business.

Staff says many of the antique store owners are up in arms about the change. It doesn't necessarily bother him. He admits the economy is booming. But, the added foot traffic hasn't helped his bottom line.

"The people they're bringing in aren't interested in the things we have for sale," he explains.

The dispensaries aren't confined to the Green Mile. They dot suburban strip malls, downtown streets and you can find them in neighborhoods.

There are more than 2500 marijuana businesses in Colorado. Many are in Denver.

"The sky hasn't fallen. Life continues. People are moving to Denver. Denver as a city is booming," says Norton Arbelaez who owns River Rock Cannabis.

He says once empty warehouses and storefronts are now tax generating marijuana shops.

Related: I-Team - Pot Or Not?

In the post pot world, Denver's economy is strong. State officials don't necessarily attribute that to marijuana, but they say it hasn't hurt.

Housing prices here are through the roof. Many residents we spoke with say it's because of the marijuana industry. People who are making money are choosing to invest it in real estate rather than in banking, because on the federal level, marijuana is still illegal.

"It's no longer affordable for locals to live here that aren't making money in the industry," says Edgewater Resident Vanisi.

The homeless have also multiplied in Denver. Officials speculate some were drawn here by the pot boom and never found work.

Luz Lomeli's North Denver neighborhood has shouldered more than their share of marijuana businesses.

The area is industrial, low income and predominately minority. It is home to dozens of grow facilities. Some just blocks from her daughters' school.

Walking around the neighborhood the smell is pungent, something that bothers this mom to sixth and eighth grade girls.

"If it's really strong and they're in school, I try to have them during lunch not go outside."

The industry sprouted so quickly, the city is now trying to put the brakes on. Denver put a moratorium on new marijuana businesses while it takes a closer look on how the current numbers are impacting neighborhoods.

Luz supported legalizing marijuana hoping the money would fund her daughters' schools. Now, seeing how it has impacted her neighborhood, she is having second thoughts.

Her advice to other communities is "inform yourselves."

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