Four years ago in Colorado, pot trounced latte in a head-to-head storefront count. Starbucks had 209 franchises in the state. Denver alone had 390 medical marijuana dispensaries operating with no regulations.
Los Angeles once had about 1,000 storefront dispensaries unrecognized by state law. A loose system allowed people to stroll in, tell a doctor they couldn't sleep, and stroll out with bud.
It's little wonder that dispensaries gained a bad name.
In five months, Floridians will vote on a medical marijuana system built around controlled dispensaries. Under a proposed constitutional amendment, no one could grow his own. Smokable pot, infused food and liquids could come only from licensed dispensaries.
This strategy follows the premise that licensed dispensaries are easier to monitor than thousands of backyard plots and that problems with early dispensaries stemmed largely from their operation outside the law.
"We wanted a tightly controlled and regulated system,'' said Ben Pollara, director of United for Care, the amendment's sponsor. "Systems where patients are allowed to grow their own, while something that some patients want and may make it cheaper, ultimately is something you cannot get as good a regulatory hold on.''
Dispensary-based systems are the hot trend. The last 10 states to legalize medical marijuana use them, and states like Oregon and Nevada recently added dispensary regulation.
Many of these systems are not yet up and running, and their track record is thin.
Opponents of Florida's Amendment 2 say the proposed law offers too little information about how the system would work, leaving details up to state regulators and judges who would rule on any constitutional challenges.
For example, the amendment does not specify how many dispensaries would be allowed in Florida or how close they could locate to schools.
Such details should have been included in the amendment so voters would know what they would be getting, said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the Drug Free Florida Campaign.
"Their job is to vote Yes or No on the words presented to them in the ballot box," she said.
Pollara counters by saying that medical marijuana systems require pages and pages of regulations, too many to put on a ballot.
"I trust that Florida officials will do the right thing," he said.
Early medical marijuana states allowed patients or designated caregivers to grow their supply. In some states, this offered quasi legal cover for unofficial storefront dispensaries. A customer could designate someone as a caregiver, and caregivers are allowed to possess, grow and supply.
With weather, insects and disease making cultivation unpredictable, possession amounts could be generous. Oregon patients and caregivers, for example, could possess six mature plants and up to 2 pounds of dried pot.
That meant a dispensary, as caregiver, could grow six plants the size of Christmas trees for each patient, producing much more pot than those patients would ever use. A patient could carry off his 2-pound allotment of dried pot one day and the dispensary could bring in another 2 pounds the next.
At best, these "compassionate care centers'' offered various useful strains and reliable supplies for sick people who could not farm on their own.
At worst, they provided cover for large movements of pot and incentive for black market diversion. Even running a reputable dispensary risked federal trafficking charges, so the operator had to be willing to skirt the law.
Things changed about 2009, when the Justice Department began signaling it would ease off dispensaries if they followed state law.
"The federal government realized it is not in anyone's interest to create a messy program,'' said Karen O'Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project state policy director.
Before dispensaries could follow state law, states had to create them. Regulators began seeing dispensaries as not only manageable, but preferable to backyard cultivation.
Even if Florida passes Amendment 2, state officials have until next summer to implement regulations. Here is a rundown of common restrictions.
• Dispensary numbers: Many states set a limit — like 23 in New Mexico. Massachusetts allows 35 and no more than five per county. Arizona allows one dispensary for each 10 pharmacies.
• Location: Dispensaries are kept away from schools, and in some cases, churches and day care centers. The 1,000 foot from a school rule in Illinois may require tinkering because it left almost no place for a dispensary in Chicago. Nevada and Massachusetts limit cultivation to locked indoor facilities.
• Owners and workers: States often ban people with felony drug convictions or histories of violent crime from owning or working in a dispensary.
• Inventory control: Massachusetts requires ID numbers for each plant and an electronic monitoring system that can track it from seed to sale.
• Product testing: Nevada requires every batch to be tested for chemical content, pesticides and mold. Maine fined a dispensary $18,000 last year for using an unapproved pesticide.
• Enhanced prosecution: Several states have criminal penalties for possession and sale if someone with a dispensary license engages in trafficking.
Regulations often create surprises and change over time. Arizona's system has been operating for about 18 months and already a Phoenix lawsuit revealed that at least one licensed dispensary owner turned over operations to a third party that regulators knew nothing about, said Maricopa County attorney Bill Montgomery.
"There are a number of sham license holders,'' said Montgomery. "These are supposed to be nonprofit ventures, but by selling management contracts, somebody is making a profit.''
Any parts of Florida's system found in the amendment would be lodged in the Constitution and could not be changed without a new amendment.
Regulatory details could be changed by the Legislature. Citizen could try to challenge them in court, but because Amendment 2 foresees "reasonable" regulations, challengers would have to show that the regulations were unreasonable or somehow violated Florida's Constitution.