ONE of the first things you notice at Ganja Gourmet on South Broadway is an iconic portrait hanging to the right of the bar.
Its a faithful reproduction of Leonardo Da Vincis 16th-century masterpiece, the Mona Lisa the all-knowing eyes, the enigmatic smile, the black veiled costume with a countercultural twist.
Instead of folding her pristine arms, this Mona holds a very large marijuana joint in her right hand. A leafy marijuana plant sprouts in the background, and a brightly hued peace symbol anchors the lower corner.
But this store is neither a head shop (an outlet for drug paraphernalia) nor a clandestine gathering place for recreational users of the substance known as pot, dope, weed, Mary Jane.
Ganja Gourmet is a dispensary a medical marijuana restaurant-dispensary. It is licensed by the State of Colorado to sell weed in both edible and bulk form to individuals suffering from severe pain.
Steve Horwitz opened Ganja Gourmet on Dec. 1, 2009, making it Colorados first medical marijuana dispensary replete with edible forms of cannabis.
Before Horwitz arrives, a Ganja Gourmet employee gives the Intermountain Jewish News a cursory tour of the comfortably small establishment with a tie-dyed theme and colorful posters.
For the majority of people who come in here, its all about the pain, Reno says as he readies the shop for its 11 a.m. opening.
It really is. Read the related blog post
A lot of people are really sick and tired of the side effects of medications they get at the pharmacy. It turns them into zombies. Marijuana relieves their symptoms without making them sicker.
As of March 1 of this year, clients can no longer smoke or eat marijuana inside dispensaries in Denver County.
Reno, who is in his fifties, remembers thinking a long time ago that I will never live to see the day when marijuana is legalized. Although it still isnt legal here, I stand behind the Pot Bar he points to a mirrored area behind him and sell medication to patients.
A list adjacent to the bar outlines the prices: $20 for a gram; $25 for 1.6 grams; $50 for an eighth of an ounce; $100 for a quarter; $180 for a half ; and $330 for an ounce.
Tax is included, he says. We dont nickel and dime our patients.
He then brings out a tray of Baggies individually stuffed with different varieties of marijuana and begins refilling the glass canisters behind the bar.
Among the offerings are Strawberry Kush, Sage, Western Slope Thunder and Tangerine, the overwhelming favorite. Clients choose the high that best controls their problem.
Do you want to feel energized? Do you want to feel so drugged you cant move? Theres something for everyone, says Reno.
This is not about getting all stoned out, he says. Its about getting relief.
Another sign urges clients to adjust their marijuana intake until they establish the perfect level: There is a thin line between not enough, too much, and just right, it reads.
Patients who visit Ganja Gourmet must take a seat in the entrance area until the rigorous authentication process begins. Additional forms provided by the dispensary must be filled out. Photocopies of drivers licenses are matched against the real thing.
No regulatory rock is left unturned.
Ganja is the term for the cannabis sativa plant in India and Jamaica.
BACK in the 1960s and 1970s, sandwich shops on college campuses stayed open late into the night to accommodate patrons with the munchies, a gnawing hunger resulting from marijuana use.
Todays patients can obtain appetite-inducing marijuana at dispensaries to combat nausea related to chemotherapy and placate discomfort caused by a range of debilitating illnesses.
Although a Colorado constitutional amendment legalized medical marijuana in 2000, dispensaries didnt start popping up until a couple of years ago.
Horwitz, a longtime businessman, looked at the potentially booming market and immediately affixed his own visionary stamp: edible marijuana.
Im here! Horwitz announces as he rushes through a side door wearing the trademark Ganja Gourmet tie-dyed t-shirt and blue jeans.
I was passionate about something no one else seemed interested in doing, and that is eating marijuana, he says.
Everyone loves to smoke it. Thats what people have been doing for years. But only a select few eat marijuana.
So instead of selling a stale pot-laced brownie or two, Horwitz created a culinary line that rivals traditional restaurants with one major exception. All Ganja Gourmet edibles contain different strains and strengths of cannabis.
The majority of individuals who smoke marijuana feel the drug almost immediately.
When a person ingests marijuana in food, the effects are generally delayed 20 to 60 minutes but the euphoria lasts significantly longer.
At Ganga Gourmet, edibles are not only prepared to treat specific ailments but also to please the palate.
For starters, every client receives a free brownie and a brown bag containing samples of medicated olive tapenade (Ganjanade) or a slice of pita with hummus or baba ganoush. Then they are invited to peruse the comprehensive menu.
There are four kinds of brownies and five different cheesecakes strawberry, cherry, pineapple, etc. chocolate mousse cake, Amsterdam spice cake (very strong, definitely not for beginners), baklava, chocolate cannoli, chocolate cups, double-dose brownies, Almond Horns (these are in every bakery you go to in New York, New Jersey and Florida, but this is the only place you can get them in Colorado). Cooking is done off site.
Those who prefer hotter, more complex carbohydrates can take home Pot-pot pie, pizza, lasagna, tamales, jambalaya and other items.
We wanted a good-vibe, friendly atmosphere, Horwitz says. And weve accomplished that.
Asked whether his gray hair has always extended well below the ears, he nods affirmatively. My hair has always been long, he says, even before opening this place. And it would be down to here if it would just grow.
HORWITZ, who moved to the Denver area with his wife Beth in 1991, is a proud New Yorker by way of Long Island. The couple has three children ages 15, 12 and 11.
While his appearance the hair, the t-shirt, the lightning-rod smile makes him a good fit for the medical marijuana profession, Horwitz business background secured the deal.
I ran a promotional products concern in this very building for 16 years, he says with a sweeping gesture. I sold magnets to realtors. Any magnet you received in the mail probably came from me.
When the housing market tilted, he started distributing water bottles, pads, everything to doctors offices, hospitals and urgent care centers.
The medical field was supposed to be recession-proof, but it wasnt. One day, after a bad experience, I said, thats done, Im opening a dispensary.
His primary focus breaking into edible medical marijuana actually developed its roots during his youth, when his parents supplied equipment to restaurants in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Although he never intended to open a restaurant, he did own a restaurant magazine for 16 years.
I happen to be a restaurant connoisseur, Horwitz says. You tell me what city youre going to and Ill tell you the best places to eat. I dont mean best as in expensive. Im talking about restaurants the locals patronize.
His wife Beth, the leader of the CHAI Lands Ranch, South Denver Jewish community, wasnt exactly thrilled about her husbands new occupation. Beth was very negative about the idea for Ganja Gourmet at first, Horwitz concedes. But once she realized that all the feedback was positive and cool, she got kind of up about it.
He says their oldest child thinks its fantastic. The younger ones know what Im doing, but they dont hear much about it.
DOCTORS dont hand out medical marijuana cards to just anyone. Stiff regulations ensure that individuals with valid complaints receive permission to indulge.
Brian Vicente, founder of the medical marijuana advocacy group Sensible Colorado, outlined procedures to the IJN.
After consulting with a doctor and obtaining a written recommendation, the patient submits an application, along with the doctors recommendation and a $90 payment, to the medical marijuana registry (MMR), Vicente says.
All materials are sent via certified mail.
If the MMR does not respond within 35 days from the date the application is mailed, the patient is automatically approved. Copies of the patients application and recommendation serve as legal documentation until the patient receives the registry permit.
There is currently an eight-month delay in processing applications, Vicente adds.
Close to 900 doctors across the state of Colorado have signed recommendations.
Sensible Colorado, which Vicente helped establish while he was a DU law student, advocates for medical marijuana patients in the courtroom, at the legislature and the ballot box.
Ten years have elapsed since Colorados constitutional amendment legalized medical marijuana, yet the medical marijuana community continually encounters legal roadblocks, challenges and frustrations.
Horwitz describes the application process involved in opening a dispensary as jumping through a lot of hoops: obtaining the license, going to the zoning department and so many different buildings.
Legalizing an illegal substance, even when limited to medical use, is complicated. Laws and regulations change with the swiftness of a rapidly rotating wheel.
Back in the day, recreational users bought their marijuana illegally from covert dealers or accommodating acquaintances. Transactions were conducted in secrecy, on constant alert for ubiquitous informants.
Now, Horwitz and his fellow dispensary owners obtain marijuana from growers who must also apply for approval and register with the state.
I pay them with a check, Horwitz says, perhaps hinting at the crumpled, soiled $20 bills of the past. Its totally legitimized.
But they cant drive anywhere they want trying to sell the stuff.
Horwitz gets the medicine (the operative word in the trade) from a single grower and warehouse.
As of Sept. 1, dispensary owners will have to supply 70% of their pot, he says. That means either I have to grow it or I have to partner with someone legally licensed to grow it.
He has decided to enter into a partnership.
The remaining 30% can be purchased from other dispensaries.
For many, old attitudes and objectional feelings about marijuana die hard, if at all. There is a tremendous amount of social injustice toward medical marijuana patients that needs to be corrected, says Vicente, who believes available research shows that marijuana is safer than alcohol for both the user and society.
By definition, medical marijuana patients suffer from chronic and debilitating medical conditions and are often societys most vulnerable members, he says.
I hear from hundreds of patients a month who are either facing criminal charges, have lost their jobs, homes or, worse, their children, simply because they seek relief by using doctor-recommended medicine.
Punishing people for being sick is just plain wrong, he says. Empowering them is an act of social justice.
HORWITZ says he avoids asking intrusive questions about his clients health at Ganja Gourmet yet the subject is often unavoidable.
We dont pry, he says, but we do want to understand the intensity of their pain. Is it severe? Do you want to be out of it, or do you want a body high? We dont come right out and say, what are you suffering from. But people feel comfortable here, and they share.
Ganja Gourmet is about five minutes away from opening its doors. Horwitz ensures that everything is in its rightful place.
He refuses to allow media inside during regular hours to protect the privacy of his patrons.
Its shocking, Horwitz says suddenly. Some of these people are the most upbeat, warm, positive individuals youd ever meet smiling, happy, joking and then you find out they are dying.
His frenetic rhythm pauses, just for a moment.
Its really been a learning experience.