For now, mass cannabis production and scalable business models aren't as vigorous as they could be because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Banks and credit card companies are prohibited from processing pot business transactions, according to federal rules.
But working within state guidelines, scrappy entrepreneurs are moving forward with ambitious cannabis business strategies. They see potential for big sales and profits—especially if more mid-sized businesses can transition to large, national brands.
Wealthy individual investors already are tapping private equity firms for a bite of the potentially lucrative marijuana business.
"Our investors are from the far left and the far right," said Brendan Kennedy, chief executive of Privateer Holdings, a cannabis-focused private equity firm. "There's old money and new money. You put them in a room and they wouldn't agree on anything else but this issue," Kennedy said. Seattle-based Privateer also acquired Leafly.com, which offers online reviews of cannabis strains and dispensaries.
Forget gold rush: A billion-dollar green rush
In a new analysis on the marijuana marketplace, San Francisco-based angel investor network ArcView Group forecasts a 64 percent surge in the legal U.S. cannabis market to $2.34 billion by 2014. The five-year national market could grow to $10.2 billion amid rising demand and potentially new state markets, according to ArcView forecasts.
Supporters of legalized marijuana are pushing for ballot measures in Alaska and California.
"There's been a remarkable evolution in the cannabis industry," said Steve Berg, editor at ArcView Market Research. ArcView offers start-up funds to cannabis businesses. "While certain people do still smoke joints, many other formats used are constituting an increasing portion of the market," Berg said.
New marijuana ingestion methods beyond smoking are helping to drive cannabis' growth. Marijuana concentrates are the fastest growing category of products. Oil extracted from raw cannabis also can offer exact dosing for medicinal purposes, including the treatment of chronic pain. Nonsmoking technologies include vaporization, edibles and capsules.
In the midst of this social experiment to abolish cannabis prohibition, entrepreneurs are jumping into a Wild West-like landscape of marijuana market opportunities. They're hoping for a first-mover advantage. This new gold rush sometimes is referred to as a "green rush," led by "ganjapreneuers."
Beyond actual pot production and sales, more ancillary businesses are emerging, including security, insurance and e-commerce companies that support the legal marijuana supply chain.
(Read more: Colorado's pot economy has growing pains)