Dismantling Denver's "Pot Capital" misnomer

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Forget the Mile High City. Denver's has a new name, according to media reports: "Cannabis Capital USA."

The title comes courtesy of the fact that the city's been inundated with sales tax license applications for dispensaries as entrepreneurs try to get in under the wire before Denver institutes new industry-wide regulations. As of yesterday, the city had issued more than 390 dispensary tax licenses, says acting City Treasurer Steve Ellington, with dozens more coming every day.

Those are the sort of numbers that lead reporters to dust off their pocket calculators and whip up nifty comparisons. According to 7News, the city's 390 dispensaries nearly outnumber by two-to-one the total number of Starbucks in the state! Not only that, but the Denver Post points out there are now more per-capita dispensaries with a sales-tax license in Denver than there are in Los Angeles! Take that, stoner Californians!

There's only one problem: There are probably nowhere near 390 dispensaries in Denver.

As Ellington points out, a sales tax license does not necessarily mean a business is up and running. "Typically a business is going to pull their licenses before they start operation." In fact, says Ellington, a business owner can wait as long as ninety days to actually commence operations.

And there's a good chance many of these would-be dispensary owners aren't yet ready to open. With the city's new regulations fast coming down the line, it makes sense for them to get in their paperwork now so they can try to get grandfathered in under the old, unregulated system before they actually open up a storefront.

So how many dispensaries does Denver really have? No one knows for sure, since Ellington's office doesn't do any follow-up to figure out how many sales-tax recipients make good on their plans. But drug-reform advocate Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado, one of the more level-headed medical marijuana guys around, estimates the number's probably between 100 and 150. (Westword's Marijuana Dispensaries Directory lists 139 statewide and 84 in Denver proper, though we have a bit of updating to do.)

The number of city dispensaries will likely increase in the coming weeks as folks make use of their new sales-tax licenses -- but eventually it will even out and possibly subside. For one thing, all dispensaries, even those licensed before new city regulations go into effect, will have to apply for a new license by March 1, a process that will come with background checks and hefty fees. That's sure to weed out some operations, and the give and take of a maturing industry will probably cut down a bunch more.

In other words, all those "Cannabis Capital" headlines were for naught. Los Angeles still has us beat in pot shops -- and Starbucks is still our number-one purveyor of mind-altering substances.

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