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

Denver, Colo., has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks, but the budding business defies federal laws

Boulder County District attorney Stan Garnett says it's virtually impossible to impanel a jury on a marijuana case here, let alone get a conviction.

Stan Garnett: What we deal with is what prosecutors call jury nullification, where juries say, "I know what the law is, but I'm not going to follow it." This community has made it very clear that criminal enforcement of marijuana is not something they want me to spend any time on.

Steve Kroft: It is really an issue here?

Stan Garnett: It's really not an issue.

And that is more or less the position of Justice Department in Washington. Deputy Attorney General James Cole has told U.S. attorneys not to waste resources prosecuting patients or caregivers that are in clear compliance with state medical marijuana laws.

James Cole: Our focus is really on keeping it away from children. Our focus is keeping it out of the hands of organized crime. Our focus is making sure that people aren't, through marijuana dispensaries, using it as a pretext to do large-scale interstate drug dealing. These are the areas where we're really trying to focus.

Steve Kroft: So the message is, if you're licensed in the state of Colorado and you follow the law, then you should be okay.

James Cole: Each case is going to rise and fall on its own unique facts. Any of that is still in violation of the Controlled Substances Act of the federal law. We're not interested in bothering people who are sick and are using it in the recommendation of a doctor. We are concerned with people who are using it as a pretext to become large-scale drug dealers.

Steve Kroft: So it sounds like the federal government is tolerating it.

Sam Kamin: It is tolerating it. And at the same time is below the surface, trying to make it very difficult for these folks. It's doing it through banking regulations. If you talk to dispensary owners, one of the things that they will lament is, no one will do business with us.

The Justice Department has let it be known if financial institutions do business with medical marijuana centers, they could be at risk for civil or criminal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act or federal money laundering statutes. It's made it difficult, if not impossible for dispensaries to get loans, open company bank accounts or process patients' credit cards.

Sam Kamin: It can't stay like this. Either we have to have settled expectations that this is a federal crime, the federal government's not going to tolerate it. Or the federal government is going to let states like Colorado regulate it, tax it, experiment with it. To have it exist in both worlds simultaneously is unsustainable. We can't have a multimillion dollar industry built on criminal conduct.

Just a few weeks ago, the federal government announced that it would allow Colorado to live in its own little world. After the states' voters defied federal law and approved the recreational use of marijuana last November, the Justice Department finally said it would not sue to stop it, nor will it make enforcing marijuana laws a priority in states that legalize and regulate it. Recreational sales in Colorado are scheduled to begin Jan. 1, 2014.