The booming new marijuana industry has an image problem. Not with government officials and the public — but with other businesses.
From crime fears to smell complaints, new marijuana retailers and growers face suspicion and sometimes open antagonism from their commercial neighbors, especially in Denver, which now has 200 marijuana retailers and dozens of pot growing and manufacturing facilities.
The strife went public last week along a once-forlorn stretch of highway south of downtown Denver now sprinkled with marijuana shops.
About two dozen pot shops along this stretch of Broadway, often dubbed "Broadsterdam," had a marketing idea for the upcoming holiday shopping season. Why not join forces with neighboring antique shops to market the whole area as "The Green Mile"?
The pot shops called a meeting, expecting an enthusiastic response from neighboring businesses that have seen boarded-up storefronts replaced with bustling pot shops with lines out the door. Instead, the suggestion unleashed a torrent of anger from the antique shops.
"We don't want to work with you," said James Neisler, owner of Heidelberg Antiques. "Your customers, they're the long-haired stinky types. They go around touching everything and they don't buy anything."
The meeting went downhill from there. Despite the support of some neighbors — one quipped that stoned shoppers carrying lots of cash have been great for business — the proposal exposed simmering antagonism. The pot shops feel they've revitalized a blighted neighborhood. Some tenants say pot has ruined a neighborhood lined with storefronts that date to the 1940s.
It's a clash that is playing out in other communities in Colorado and Washington that allow marijuana businesses — and could stretch to other states now that Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have all legalized recreational pot.
The central-Colorado city of Manitou Springs voted last week on whether to kick out recreational pot shops. The ballot measure was proposed by other business owners who complained a dispensary was harming the tourist town's family-friendly reputation. The ballot measure failed.
Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, said his 30 or so members frequently clash with other businesses. In fact, his group was formed when existing chambers of commerce rejected cannabis-related members.
"They should accept us and embrace us for what we've done, the jobs we've created and the tourists we bring," Warf said. "And yet some mainstream business organizations are still demonizing cannabis."
Warf said he spends much of his time negotiating smell complaints and other gripes between his members and their neighbors.
"Until cannabis is accepted nationwide, this is going to keep happening," said Warf, whose group began in 2009. "We would love to work ourselves out of a job, but I think that's a long time coming."
Denver officials say marijuana is to blame for J.C. Penney's decision in 2012 not to reopen a store on a downtown pedestrian mall. The retailer sought assurances it wouldn't have to share entrance areas with marijuana dispensaries in a mixed-use development, a guarantee the city couldn't make.
Jeremy Nemeth, chair of the Department of Planning and Design at the University of Colorado Denver, helped craft Colorado land-use regulations for the marijuana industry. He said it's too soon for reliable data on whether marijuana shops depress property values. But preliminary studies indicate they don't attract crime.
Nemeth said local zoning regulations frequently force pot shops to already-depressed parts of town, where they join the likes of firearms dealers and pornography shops.
"Some might talk about these shops as a blight on our neighborhood, and others might say, 'Really? They're worse than the empty doughnut shop and the vacuum repair shop?'" Nemeth said. "Are these new businesses really a bad idea? Or is it just a knee-jerk reaction? It's too soon to say."
There are some signs of a thaw in the business community. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce now has a handful of cannabis-related members.
And marijuana's oldest arch-rival — alcohol — is showing interest. Last summer the Wine & Spirits Daily Summit met in Denver, and the group of several hundred invited an edible pot manufacturer and the leader of the marijuana-legalization campaign to speak.
"I never thought I'd be here," said Mason Tvert, now spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, before his remarks.
Back at the "Green Mile" meeting, dispensary owner Tim Cullen told his neighbors that pot isn't going anywhere.
"We're all in business on the same street together. Our goals are similar," Cullen said.
The two sides planned to meet again to come up with a plan to live together.
"Pot shops are legal. We're going to have to co-exist," said Robert Crayne, owner of The Antique Exchange. "Things are changing and we're trying to change with it. It's just hard to strike that balance."