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Denver's Pot Culture Gets Down to Business

From grow houses to smoking rooms, the legal marijuana industry in Denver is flourishing but increasingly dangerous.

. Inside the grow house at Medicine Man, a Denver-based dispensary with national ambitions. To deter crime it employs one armed security guard per cash register inside its store, and keeps its rooms of lucrative horticulture under 24-hour casino-style surveillance. Dispensaries in Colorado don’t have access to banking, which makes them flush with two light green criminal magnets: cash and pot. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. Patrons wait to buy pot at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver. The board behind them displays the price of America’s first legally sold recreational marijuana, which is well above the black market street price of pot. One reason: six-figure security costs, including state-mandated cameras, commercial locks and the extraordinary insurance premiums that come with protected a substance banned by Congress. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. Pot smokers "dab" a hashish-like wax in the members-only iBake Smoking Lounge in Denver. To help protect users like these, the money they spend, and the product they enjoy, former Denver city councilman Ed Thomas, a 23-year veteran of the Denver Police Department, has partnered with CSC-USA, a California-based company that touts security gigs during two World Cups, four presidential inaugurations, and 30 Super Bowls. “Security is probably last on the list” for these businesses, says Thomas. “People are kind of lulled to sleep.” Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. Pot-infused “edibles” at the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver. Besides the problem of after-hours burglary and daylight crimes, some dispensary owners report an onslaught of petty theft by customers, who pocket food and pluck grams of pot when the “bud tenders” turn their backs. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. A pot smoker dozes in the members-only iBake Smoking Lounge. As with the criminals who target dispensaries, some of the security guards are less than intimidating. The owner’s elderly (and doze-prone) uncle is the designated watchman inside one Denver dispensary. At another dispensary a guard considers his biceps “the only guns I need.” The customers, meanwhile, are not always ready to “see something, say something.” Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. The outside of Le Conte's Clone Bar & Dispensary, in Denver. Not all the crime at Denver dispensaries is serious. Owners joke about the hapless fellow who zip-lined through an opening in a greenhouse roof, then lacked the oomph to climb his way out. Or the thief who kicked into an apartment above a pot shop, only to be chased off by the apartment’s surprised owner, a member of the Denver Nuggets. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. The clipping room of Medicine Man marijuana dispensary is one of the largest in Denver. Under state law, dispensaries must grow at least 70 percent of the marijuana they sell. A reliable trimmer is crucial to meeting this mandate, and he or she can command $15-an-hour, a flexible schedule, and discounts on the merchandise. All this helps deter another major source of theft in the industry: bad employees. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. Clipping marijuana in The Haven marijuana dispensary in Denver. Since 2010, Colorado dispensaries have been required to install alarms and surveillance cameras, and most secure all cash and retail pot in a floor-bolted safe overnight. That helps limit losses, but the thieves keep coming. One team tore away the locks on a grow house with a set of chains and a Subaru Outback. Another crashed an Audi through a warehouse door. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. Alan Pedersen, 23, was assaulted and $6,000 worth of merchandise was stolen when the New Age Wellness marijuana dispensary was attacked by masked gunmen. Now a Blue Line Protection Group officer stands guard in the Longmont, Colo., business. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. A worker tends to one of his indoor “seas of green” at the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver. It’s always harvest time in one of these rooms. Colorado’s pot business is housed in at least a million square feet—more than all the office space in the city’s tallest skyscraper—and most of it is in a stark industrial zone that rings the city. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. The security room in the River Rock marijuana dispensary in Denver, where owners spent $45,000 installing enough cameras to satisfy state regulations—and more than $100,000 to satisfy their own standards of safety and security. The grow house at River Rock is under 24-hour armed guard. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News

. Former special operations soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq now work for Blue Line Protection Group, which specializes in protection of the marijuana industry in Colorado. They go on money and supply runs for local dispenaries and grow houses in Denver. Ed Kashi / VII for NBC News