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The convention floor at Denver Airport’s Crowne Plaza on a recent afternoon could have been the trade show for any well-established industry — gray-haired execs in conservative suits mingling with office park dads in polos and fresh-out-of-college types in brand-emblazoned T-shirts. Only this is a new kind of business conference with a special Colorado theme: legal weed.

After Colorado voters legalized marijuana in 2012, more states and cities are considering a similar path for themselves. At the same time, the cannabis market is looking less like a music festival and more like a Silicon Valley confab — upscale, data-driven, and focused on investors.

Vendors and potential financiers at last month’s Marijuana Investor Summit here in the Mile High City say the current market for legal cannabis is more than $3 billion in the 23 states that have already legalized the drug for medicinal or recreational use. Expanding that market, they say, will require not just drug reform legislation, but also a consistent infusion of capital at a time when the marijuana economy still exists in a legal gray area — one where the drug is permitted in some states, but still outlawed at the federal level.

“It’s going to take time, but it’s a great opportunity,” said Chris Rentner of Akouba Credit, a Chicago small-business lender exploring the possibility of working with marijuana businesses. “For people that think everyone is a stoner lying on the sidewalk passed out, it’s going to take time for them to get comfortable with it. But there’s too much money in it. We just need to figure out the risk associated with it, but if we can find a way where it makes sense legally, then why wouldn’t we try to be in this market?”

If Akouba jumps into the marijuana market, the company would be trying to address one of the biggest obstacles to the industry’s growth: access to financial services. Because marijuana is still prohibited under federal law, cannabis grow houses and dispensaries have trouble finding traditional banking partners, leaving much of their business to be conducted in cash.

That not only presents a risk of robbery, it also can limit the industry’s access to the kinds of lending and accounting services that are typically involved in small business development.

Like Akouba, many of the 78 exhibitors and nearly 1,000 attendees at the conference are not in the business of actually harvesting cannabis. Instead, they aim to provide support services for cultivators and distributors.

“The majority of these companies aren’t actually touching the plant,” said John Downs of the Marijuana Investment Company. “There’s a green line: You are either in the ancillary and tertiary services, or you are digging in and growing.”

That term — “touching the plant” — is a term of art that distinguishes businesses that provide support services from those that actually grow cannabis. It’s not a minor semantic difference. “Touching the plant” can bring greater regulatory scrutiny and threats of federal action, thereby putting investors’ capital at risk.

That, though, may start to change. In January, the SEC for the first time allowed a company that deals with marijuana cultivation to sell shares of stock. Meanwhile, the legal situation is becoming clearer in Colorado.

Andreas Nilsson of iComply — a firm that helps marijuana business follow the law — says that while there remains political opposition to weed from leaders like Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, the state’s officials put together “very well-developed and clear” regulations and “decided to go in and create a system that is not designed to fail.”

Is it a perfect system? Hardly. But has the sky fallen, as drug warriors once predicted? No — and it probably will not in other states that follow Colorado’s lead.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. 

Photo: Brett Levin via Flickr

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At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.