Pot barons?

English: U.S._Government_Medical_Marijuana_cro...

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On the business interests involved in the push to legalize marijuana in Colorado.

He’s not just blowing smoke when he talks about selling out to the highest bidder. It’s already widely rumored that Philip Morris has leased warehouse space in the area. The company denies it, as do its top-tier competitors, but “I’ve heard a lot of talk about it,” says Keith Burdick, a partner at Xcalibur, one of the biggest independent generic-brand tobacco companies in the country. “You’re going to get cigarette companies in here. I’m sure of it,” says John Wickens, a real-estate agent who has sold or leased acres of commercial space to marijuana growers. Peter Bourne, the drug czar under Jimmy Carter, recently told Newsweek that tobacco executives shared their marijuana contingency plans with him.

The alcohol and tobacco industries traditionally get 80 percent of their profits from heavy users, and there’s every reason to believe that marijuana sellers will need the same ratio. That would mean Colorado’s burgeoning pot business could be the basis for a third huge, blood-sucking vice industry, dependent on converting kids and supporting heavy users. “No way,” says Arbelaez, when I raised this possibility with him. He talked passionately about medicine, and social progress, and it was moving, convincing stuff. “These people have families, and they employ families. They’re about helping people, not hurting people,” he said of his peers.

I want to believe him, but something happened after the board meeting. About eight of us went out for a drink. I found myself not in one of Denver’s dive bars, but the Churchill Bar, a smoking club inside the city’s poshest hotel, the Brown Palace. There, as a Bond-girl waitress delivered round after round of top-shelf conviviality and an electronic joint prototype appeared, it was easy to see my hosts 30 years from now, when legalization is here, sitting in the same woozy affluence—fatter, balder, and famously rich.

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