Legal smoke: a marijuana businessman in a lawmaking thicket

For now, the patients come and go. The future's uncertain.

| Jan 22, 2010


DOCTOR’S ORDERS: Matt Behm of Top Shelf Alternatives on Spruce St. makes up an order for a waiting patient. (Reporter photos)
Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, those who spoke out against marijuana prohibition were considered the absolute fringe players in society. If there ever was such a thing as a “medical marijuana movement” it was characterized by people meeting furtively in basements and as an oddity in the news. Hidden as it may have been, there was in fact a movement.

Now, with nearly half the advertising in the local weeklies devoted to dispensary businesses selling “all the latest strains — plus “hash oil blondies, ice cream and lollipops” — it may just be that the cavalry has arrived for medical marijuana.

Certainly, if there were horses and swords involved, Lee Mangan, 54, spokesperson for Top Shelf Alternatives, a Boulder dispensary located on Spruce St. catty-corner to the Boulder Theater, would lead his “bud tenders” — chopsticks polished, marijuana flags waving — on a direct charge into the enemy territory of legislative bodies still seeking to stop medical marijuana in its tracks.

Sign on front of building at Top Shelf Alternatives

Sign on front of building at Top Shelf Alternatives

“The Denver city council decision was bad, but the law enforcement bill in the legislature is insane.” A Long Island native and former Wallstreeter, Lee has the kind of business sense that can’t be grown hydroponically in Colorado. He’s ready to take on the “big boys,” but is also concerned about the level of stigma and bad policy.

Just a low-profile pharmacy on Spruce St.

Just a low-profile pharmacy on Spruce St.

“We went to Boulder County to get permission to use a licensed commercial kitchen (to make marijuana edibles) and were told “no” — not because there’s a law against it, but because of “policy.” His complaint is more against the stupidity of the decision than the prejudice behind it. If it went to court, by virtue of the medical marijuana initiative passed by Colorado voters in 2004, Amendment 20, he’d stand more than a fair chance of winning. But who wants to go to court for permission to bake brownies?

The average person probably does not know that edibles act differently when ingested as food. As someone occasionally using edibles for sciatic nerve pain, I can certify that. Whereas a puff of good weed can have a dramatic effect mentally, the stuff you eat tends to have more of a bodily influence. When I’ve used it, it has more or less nuked the pain. Watch out big pharma.

“I got a call from a physician who sent us a patient who had converted the doc by explaining how well marijuana was working for his pain,” Lee explains. “Over and over again we see that; people are able to cut their dosage of Vicodin or other man-made medications by 80 percent or even entirely when they try the natural remedy. The other stuff can wreck your kidneys or liver, and this does none of that.”

Lee’s job seems to be, by any reckoning, one part political advocate, one part business manager, and one part witch doctor. Personally, I like the witch doctor part. His recommendation of the dispensary’s “private label” products, “Colorado Cabbage” and “Black Tooth Grin” turn out to be standouts; although, to be honest, my own usage — similar to many who attend Colorado dispensaries — is often for ailments less serious than those listed as approved illness under Colorado law, which explains in part the opposition’s argument, that people just want to get “high,” and the dispensaries are fulfilling that desire, rather than the legitimate needs of people with serious medical conditions.

That said, just because “anxiety’ has not made the list, doesn’t mean that thousands of medical marijuana patients don’t benefit from the provided relief. Lee asks, “What’s wrong with that, anyway – people using marijuana for anxiety?” I agree. Suicides have been attributed to Prozac use; even if the marijuana effect were only to make one momentarily euphoric or “happy,” that experience probably outranks the kind of “leveling” effect of antidepressants for the average marijuana user. Of course, the stigma lingers – if you’re a “good person,” and you live right, you simply don’t need an enhanced mental state. Right? Sure; tell it to everyone drinking beer during the Super Bowl.

Legal uncertainties loom

The current status of Colorado dispensaries is up in the air. Fearless in the face of daunting opposition, Lee and his followers slog forward through the muck and mire of legislative incompetence. “We’ve got a hundred of the top dispensaries ready to put up the funds to lobby and fight every court battle that comes up.” In the meantime, he’s also got 25 employees and several hundred of the best plants money can grow at an undisclosed warehouse location backing him up.

“Who knows? The tobacco companies own the trademark on Acapulco Gold with grow sites ready to go, and Obama — after stopping the DEA’s persecution of marijuana dispensaries — will likely offer a legalization plan to bail the nation out financially. It could put the dispensaries right out of business.”

That last part seems iffy, the kind of statement that might lead one to inquire, “Lee, what are you smoking?” Lee Mangan isn’t saying, but whether it’s “Cronk.” “Jedi Light Stick” or just some traditional “Northern Lights,” he could honestly bill it as the weed that leaves you organized and motivated; a potent outcome, however unexpected in the crazy, nearly anarchic debate surrounding medical marijuana.