- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - When Michelle Mitnik walks into her church for Sunday services, few there know her business. Literally.

It’s not something the 52-year-old Colorado Springs woman talks about with her church friends for fear of social stigma, but when she opens up, it’s like listening to your grandmother tell a nice bedtime story - a story of how she spends a good portion of her time in the back of a limo assuring that her joint-smoking clients are having a good time.

A 15-year veteran of the banking industry, Mitnik owns and operates Mountain High Treks, a marijuana tourism company that offers high-end dispensary tours, cannabis-friendly dude ranch vacations and, in the near future, marijuana-themed weddings.

She employs two tour guides and has several more on-call. She spends her profits in the area, and orders all of her promotional materials from local businesses.

Never mind that there are no recreational marijuana outlets in El Paso County. The area’s medical marijuana industry, coupled with legal recreational possession and use, have been enough to spawn a number of ancillary businesses like Mitnik’s, which ripple into other areas of the local economy.

For every marijuana dispensary or grow operation in Colorado Springs, somebody had to design and manufacture the signs in their windows and storefronts. Somebody had to wire the lights, keep the books and make sure the place is up to legal code.

“The whole marijuana industry is just trickle-down economics,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

Along with Mitnik’s business, Colorado Springs has a growing cottage industry that includes a marijuana lounge, a grow-your-own consultancy and manufacturers of edibles and vaporizers. There are many more in the Denver area, all nurtured by the state’s pioneering role in cannabis sales.

From 2009 through April of this year, Colorado Springs medical marijuana dispensaries generated more than $4.2 million in city sales and use taxes, according to the city’s finance department. But those numbers don’t include the taxes that businesses like Mitnik’s pay, or the money from the contracts they sign with other companies, said Michael Elliot, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Denver-based trade and lobbying association.

It’s impossible to put a dollar figure on the economic impact from the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana and the other businesses that have grown up around it, he said, but he estimates it to be in the hundreds of millions statewide.

For starters, marijuana businesses - like any new enterprises - demand a variety of services and products, creating an economic boost across sectors, said Phyllis Resnick, lead economist at the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. Manufacturing and real estate are two areas that have been particularly affected, she said. The manufacturing of edible products and equipment for grow operation will generate business for related companies, creating a multiplier effect across the state.

Marijuana businesses have also been filling storefront and warehouse vacancies left by the recession, she said.

But not everybody thinks the burgeoning industry is good for business. Statewide legalization of recreational use “continues to be a challenge for our businesses,” said Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. Some are struggling to find employees who can pass drug tests, he said.

Raso said he’s not aware of companies that haven’t come to Colorado Springs specifically because of legalized marijuana, but added that it can be a factor in business leaders’ decisions.

“Any time there’s an uncertainty in the market, it creates a higher concern for companies that are making those decisions,” he said.

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