DENVER - Minutes after a group of New Jersey lawmakers entered the stark industrial Medicine Man marijuana cultivation center, an employee in blue scrubs rushed between them, pushing a plastic cart filled with pots containing a dozen leafy, two-foot-tall cannabis plants.
There was a scramble by the legislators and their aides to clear a path, and then chuckles and "wow"s.
"Oh, my God, It's like a celebrity just came through," Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth) quipped - referring to the pot, not the worker.
Led by State Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Union), a municipal prosecutor, four Democratic and two Republican lawmakers spent more than an hour at the sprawling growing center as part of their excellent adventure - or three-day educational experience, as they would describe it - in the Mile-High City. Their mission - to determine if recreational marijuana use should be legalized in New Jersey.
On Tuesday, the lawmakers spent the day viewing thousands of pot plants and inhaling the intense smell, caught glimpses of workers preparing bottles of marijuana soda, and learned that Colorado also sells marijuana-infused products for dogs to relieve anxiety.
But while Colorado allows adults to purchase these products and up to one ounce of marijuana at a time for $100 to $250, it's unclear whether New Jersey will follow the same path.
Most of the contingent said they had not decided whether they would support a bill Scutari plans to reintroduce soon to legalize recreational marijuana. He introduced a similar measure two years ago but it never got enough support to come up for a floor vote.
But times are changing and the momentum seems to have picked up after four states and the District of Columbia took the legalization leap. Five other states will ask voters to decide Nov. 8.
New Jersey lawmakers say they will have to wait until Gov. Christie, an opponent of legalization, ends his term in January 2018. But they want to get the debate started in the Garden State, where only medical marijuana is now sold.
"There's been a lot of talk about legalization in New Jersey and I want to be informed on the successes and pitfalls of it. I'm not necessarily against it but I'm here to learn more and be better informed," said Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R., Burlington).
National polls show a majority favor legalization. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll last year found 58 percent of New Jersey residents would support such a law.
Medicine Man Technologies, the operating arm for the grow center, handles the advertising, licensing, and other business details. Carrie Roberts, who led the tour, said the company also has eight clients in Pennsylvania who want to obtain licenses to open cannabis manufacturing and retail facilities when that state implements its medical marijuana program in the next two years.
She said she could not disclose the clients' names but said the company also worked with lobbyists to get the law passed in Pennsylvania and other states.
In Denver, the Medicine Man grow center, one of the larger facilities in the state, is a 40,000-square-foot, noisy warehouse with 100 employees. It has more than 12,000 cannabis plants that are grown from clones, nurtured under green and red LEDs in different rooms, cooled with fans, and eventually harvested, dried, and put through a tumbler that separates the buds from the rest of the plant.
Then the cannabis is processed and sold. The discarded parts are used to manufacture oils, tinctures, and other cannabis products.
During Tuesday's tour, a worker wearing a green headlamp walked toward one of the flowering rooms. The worker had to check on plants that were sleeping in a dark room; a white headlight would "stress the plants out ... make them think the sun suddenly came up at night," said Matt Best, another tour guide. The lighting and temperature are all controlled to optimize growth, with the electricity bills reaching about $35,000 a month.
The whole process takes five to six months, Best said.
"The plants grow themselves, but these guys care for and maintain them," said Jordan Wellington, an attorney with the Vicente Sederberg firm, which focuses solely on cannabis business clients, and sets up tours for lawmakers and others interested in the billion-dollar cannabis industry in Colorado. The state was the first to legalize marijuana, in 2012. Businesses opened two years later.
"It's a weed," laughed State Sen. Kip Bateman (R., Somerset), marveling at the Medicine Man operation. Earlier he said that he was open-minded about legalization. "As long as the right restrictions are in place it could work in New Jersey," he said.
Bateman, who also is a municipal prosecutor, compared the retail dispensaries to "jewelry stores where everything is kept behind glass cases" and the items are closely monitored.
Best said the plants would naturally grow more than 12 feet tall, but Medicine Man controls the growth and allows them to reach heights of three to four feet. "We maximize the canopy, the sea of green," he said, saying trimming helps produce more buds.
During the tour, Best showed the New Jersey delegation plants that will be used to produce East Coast Sour Diesel, which he said is a popular strain.
"I'm just sucking it all in, no pun intended, but what I mean is, the industrial side of this brings it to a level of sophistication I had not expected," said Assemblyman Jim Kennedy (D., Union), a redevelopment consultant for Burlington City and other towns.
The "Ramblin' Express" white tour bus next took the delegation to the Dixie Elixirs manufacturing operation, which opened inside a former bread-baking plant in Denver two years ago.
There the group saw some of the products - lemonade, watermelon, root beer and other flavored cannabis drinks that are bottled and then sold in special childproof canisters in dispensaries they own.
Chuck Smith, the chief operating officer, said the 8.5-ounce bottles, which contain 10 milligrams of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, sell for about $22 each. The company, which employs 110 workers, also sells cannabis chocolate bars, cannabis mints, and even cannabis dog products to help with a canine's anxiety.