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Rocky Mountain High: Pot A $200M Industry In Colorado

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Inside the industrial-scale marijuana grow farms that dot Denver's low-rise warehouse districts, it is perpetual summer — 78 degrees, moderate humidity and fields of shoulder-high plants with fat, sticky buds swaying in the breeze.

These unmarked THC factories are easy to miss from the street, except for the casino-style security cameras perched on each corner. But inside the world's only fully regulated, for-profit marijuana market, there are few secrets.

Colorado has approved 739 of these indoor grow farms over the past two-plus years after vetting their owners' finances and requiring the buds be tracked on high-definition video and bar-coded every moment from seed to sale. Local building inspectors have signed off, and cops — city, state and federal — can drop in at any time.

This out-in-the-open marijuana is the best glimpse of the strange new reality coming soon to Washington state.

If Washington, as expected, follows Colorado's experiment, our state regulators will be investigating entrepreneurs' finances for links to organized crime and keeping steady watch over leakage to the black market — even as they allow warehouses of weed.

The challenges are immense. Washington's new marijuana law, approved by voters in November, creates a market for social use — vastly bigger than the medical-marijuana market regulated in Colorado. There is nothing like it anywhere.

In Colorado, regulators had to broker a shotgun marriage between law enforcement and marijuana dealers. Anxious state regulators wrote more rules than they could enforce. The state is now thinning its thick rule book, even as drug cops say Colorado-regulated marijuana has popped up across the Midwest.

Capitalism unleashed, medical marijuana suddenly became a $200 million industry, with retail prices — averaging about $7.50 a gram — among the cheapest in the country.

The federal government — despite its ban on marijuana — has largely been hands-off. Not a single big grow operation has been raided. It's not clear how the Justice Department will react to the massive, voter-approved expansion of social-use markets in Washington and Colorado.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the grandson of a bootlegger, said regulations need to address teen use while acknowledging consumers' "huge appetite" for an increasingly potent drug.

"This is not your father's marijuana," he said.

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