DENVER – The store has a television lounge and a pool table, and snacks and acupuncture are free for customers who drop up to $130 an ounce on 16 varieties of marijuana. But a reviewer of the business warns the decor looks a little cliche, what with the Grateful Dead posters on the wall and the Mexican-blanket tablecloths.
The medical marijuana review business is booming as states like Colorado and California have seen an explosion in the number of pot shops.
The United States considers marijuana an illegal drug, but some states have legalized it for medicinal purposes.
The growth of the medical marijuana business has created clashes with local, state and federal authorities, prompting the U.S. Attorney General to issue guidelines this week telling federal prosecutors that targeting people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state laws was not a good use of their time.
A Denver alternative newspaper recently posted an ad for what some consider the sweetest job in journalism — a reviewer of the state's marijuana dispensaries and their products.
Medical marijuana users can also look to dozens of review Web sites, even mainstream rating sites such as Yelp or Citysearch, to find their high. At least five iPhone applications allow weed fans to find the closest place to legally buy bud in the 14 U.S. states that allow some sort of medical marijuana.
The Denver paper, Westword, has already has gotten more than 120 applicants, many of them offering to do the reviews for free. When the newspaper settles on a permanent critic for its new "Mile Highs and Lows" column, industry watchers say, it will be the first professional newspaper critic of medical marijuana in the United States.
There's one condition: The critic has to have a medical ailment that allows them to legally enter a dispensary, and buy and use marijuana.
"More and more people are having the opportunity to use marijuana for whatever illness they have. So we want to be a place they can come to find out which place is the best, the cleanest, the closest, that kind of stuff," said Joe Tone, Web editor at Westword.
Most current reviews focus on dispensaries in California, the first state in the nation to approve medical marijuana in 1996. Los Angeles now has an estimated 800 medical pot shops, up from only four in 2005. Colorado has more than 100, including one across the street from the state Capitol.
Sites such as marijuanareviews.com and weedmaps.com boast thousands of users who dish on the merits of various strains, from "White Widow" to "Afghan Gold Seal," which is cheap but one critic warns "delivers a very heavy stone with the same degree of munchies to go along with it."
The pot review sites say they're getting dozens of new users a day as people acquire permission to use medical marijuana but aren't sure where to go or what kind of pot to use.
"People are really desperate for this kind of information," said Justin Hartfield, manager of weedmaps.com, a Laguna Hills, California-based Web site that now has five employees and is planning new sites for Colorado. "There are so many places to go that users are really looking for honest reviews."
The idea for Westword's column came from a writer who doesn't use marijuana.
Features writer Joel Warner has been covering Colorado's medical marijuana industry for years, and he noticed a wide disparity in the places selling pot.
"Some really looked like your college drug dealer's dorm room. You know, Bob Marley posters on the wall and big marijuana leaf posters," Warner said. "But then some were so fancy, like dentist's offices. They had bubbling aquariums in the lobby and were so clean. I thought, somebody needs to review these. Somebody needs to tell people what these places are like."
So Warner started the column. A back injury made him eligible for the medical card needed to enter Colorado dispensaries. But because Warner doesn't use marijuana and fears legal trouble if he gives it away, Warner suggested the professional critic who would review both the dispensaries and the products they sell.
The newspaper hasn't yet settled on a freelance fee for the reviews; it's currently running an essay contest and sharing excerpts of potential critics talking about what marijuana means to them. "Marijuana isn't just important to me, it is my life," gushed one hopeful.
On one recent visit, Warner stopped in the dispensary across the street from the Colorado state Capitol to pick up some cannabis-infused candy. The office was nondescript, a couple couches and a sleek modern glass receptionist's desk in front of a flat-screen TV.
You'd have no idea what the Capitol Hill Medicine Shoppe was if not for a pervasive marijuana smell and a few small marijuana plants plopped on the front desk.
Another shop is located in a charming Victorian with exposed brick walls, cushy leather couches and a coffee counter serves lattes and herbal teas. The drinks, of course, are spiked with cannabis-infused honey tincture that a reviewer says is "guaranteed to give you more than just a caffeine buzz."
Reviewers say there is plenty of room for more critics.
Photographers are cashing in, too, with new Web sites popping up that look like lush food photography sites — except the pictures feature marijuana instead of fancy desserts. Hartfield just started a new advertising-supported weed photo site called nugporn.com and says there is plenty of work for photographers and even stylists for the pot shots.
"This is professional stuff," he said.
Laura Kriho, spokeswoman for the Colorado-based Cannabis Therapy Institute, a pro-marijuana legalization group, said it's natural that the review industry is growing like, well, weeds.
"This is such a new industry. Just like anything else, the market is going to decide which places survive," she said. "It's going to be a battle, and patients want to do their research just like for any other medicine."