Even with a decent supply of high-grade pot in her walk-in freezer, Jenelise Robinson, 35, can scarcely keep up with demand. The growth of her 16-month-old Denver business, Nancy B’s Edible Medicine, has come with the explosion in the number of Colorado’s medical-marijuana dispensaries, or centers. Coloradans who are recommended by a doctor and approved by the state go to the centers to buy their pot, either in traditional bud form or as an “infused product” like Robinson’s lemon bars, which are 100% organic and laced with a marijuana concentrate.
Robinson’s loyal customers depend on her to “medicate”. Euphemisms like medicine, medicate, caregivers and patients are an important element in the larger movement to bring marijuana use out from the shadows, as advocates say, so it can take its place innocently on Americans’ nearly infinite menu of lifestyle preferences, from yachting to survivalism to macrobiotic cooking. So far, the strategy is working. Colorado and 13 other states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana in the past 14 years. More than a dozen other states are considering the idea. In some parts of California — where marijuana is the biggest cash crop, with total sales of $14 billion annually — medical pot has become such an established part of the commercial base that cities are moving toward taxing it. (See pictures of the legally hazy world of marijuana and its users.)
It’s not clear that even political setbacks discourage, much less stop, the mainstreaming of marijuana. Anti-pot forces cheered on Nov. 2 when voters in four states apparently rejected pro-pot ballot initiatives — including California’s Prop 19, which would have legalized possession of an ounce (28 g) of pot or less. But by Election Day, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state legislature had already rendered Prop 19 moot. A month earlier, he signed a bill that reduced possession of up to an ounce from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction. (See pictures of cannabis conventions around the country.)
Medical marijuana has helped make all this possible. In a short time, pot has gone from being a prohibited substance to one that is, in many places, widely available if you have an ache or a pain and the patience to fuss with a few forms. This did not take place by accident. In fact, medical marijuana’s emergence has many of the attributes of a product rollout. As with any hot commodity, dope is now accorded the same awed regard in some Colorado retail establishments as fine wine, dark chocolate and artisanal cheese. Only now it takes place under the cover of medical care, wellness and pain management. And so what is emerging in many places is a strange, bipolar set of rules: dope is forbidden for everyone but totally O.K. for anyone who is willing to claim a chronic muscle spasm. Does anyone take such farcical distinctions seriously? And can a backlash be far behind?
Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His new book Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College will be published in March by Simon & Schuster
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the Nov. 22, 2010, print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.