Medical Marijuana: Will Colorado's "green rush" last?

Denver, Colo., has more medical pot dispensaries than Starbucks, but the budding business, legal in 17 states, defies federal laws

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The following is a script from "Rocky Mountain High" which aired on Oct. 21, 2012. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. L. Franklin Devine, producer.

When people go to the polls two weeks from now they won't just be voting for candidates, in some states, they'll be passing judgment on social issues. In Oregon, Washington and the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado it's the legalization of marijuana. Part of this has to do with cash-starved governments looking for new things to tax for more revenue. But much of it has to do with the growing acceptance or at least tolerance for a drug that was once considered the devil's weed and a flashpoint for cultural and generational warfare.

Seventeen states have now legalized its medical use for the treatment of things like glaucoma, the effects of chemotherapy, and chronic pain; defying federal laws that still consider marijuana more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine. If you want to know what legalized marijuana might look like, the place to go is Colorado, which has the most developed medical marijuana industry in the country.

In Denver, if you want to find a medical marijuana dispensary, just look for the green cross. You won't have to go far. There are 204 of them in the Mile High City -- that's roughly three times the number of Starbucks and McDonald's combined.

They come in all sizes and shapes. There is the health food store motif and '70s style head shops. There are storefronts pitching low cost weed, and boutiques offering gourmet ganja. No stems and seeds here, just walnut-sized buds freshly harvested in the cultivation room out back.

Matt Cook: When patients arrive, this is where they'll have to show their patient registry card and their driver's license to gain access to the actual marijuana center, itself.

Steve Kroft: You could smell it. (laugh)

This is all private enterprise, licensed and regulated and taxed by the state. It was enshrined in the Colorado constitution after voters approved an amendment allowing the sale of marijuana to people who can demonstrate that they may benefit from its avowed medicinal properties. Matt Cook, a former narcotics officer, wrote the law and served as the state's first director of enforcement.

Matt Cook: If you'll note, video security cameras in the system--in the ceiling.

Steve Kroft: Any reason for that?

Matt Cook: There is. We created a very transparent, regulatory scheme and wanted to ensure that what they said they were doing, they were actually doing.

No state has gone to the lengths to manage medical marijuana that Colorado has. Every licensed dispensary must grow at least 70 percent of its own product indoors so harvesting and sales can be closely monitored. This crop is worth about a quarter of million dollars.

Matt Cook: We track everything from seed to sale. And they have to account for 100 percent of it. We've got a gentleman here that has a live, if you will, software program that does all of the tracking for this commodity.

Each plant has a bar code and is registered to a specific patient. Most dispensaries will cultivate a couple of dozen different strains, some of them proprietary, like ales at a microbrewery -- engineered to have particular characteristics as our budtender, Carrie, explained.

Carrie: This is called Jack Frost, but it's a triple A: alert, awake, and aware. If you needed to medicate in the a.m. before going to work, no one would ever be able to detect that you took any medicine, just as you would any other medicines that you take. So no physical lethargy, is my point.

We should point out that those properties are anecdotal and not based on studies by the FDA or the DEA, a subject we will get to shortly. There is also no correlation between the more popular brand names and the ailments they alleviate. Dopium is a medication available at Denver Relief, owned by Ean Seeb. It's gotten high marks from critics -- yes, there are medical marijuana critics in Colorado, even competitions.

Steve Kroft: You won the Colorado Medical Marijuana Harvest Cup? Couple of years ago?