A Year After Marijuana Legalization, Just How High Is the State of Colorado?

On January 1, recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado. So what does the Rocky Mountain State look like nearly a year later?

The LoDo Wellness Center is located on a busy tourist street in the heart of downtown Denver, near Union Station. Customers get buzzed in at street level, and walk down a steep flight of stairs, where an employee at a small desk greets them, verifies their ID, and directs them to a spacious room, at the center of which is a large table displaying several labeled glass jars filled with shiny, fragrant marijuana nuggets ready to be doled out with oversized chopsticks. A budtender is available to answer questions about the products and services offered by the dispensary. In addition to the “raw” marijuana, there are more than a half dozen varieties of gummy candy, five kinds of cannabis lotion, health food bars, every type of rolling paper imaginable, pipes, weed grinders, T-shirts, jewelry, and baked goods (including gluten-free options.) Customers pick their product, pay for it in cash, and walk out the door. In Colorado, for the recreational weed smoker, it’s that easy.

Product for purchase at Medicine Man.

On November 6, 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, a state constitutional amendment legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana. According to the federal government, weed is one of the most dangerous controlled substances on the market. The Drug Enforcement Agency includes cannabis on its list of Schedule I narcotics, alongside heroin, acid, peyote, and ecstasy, due to its “high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” Despite marijuana’s scary federal status, Amendment 64 received 53,281 more votes in the state than Barack Obama did during the last presidential election. After the vote, the president told ABC’s Barbara Walters that his administration would not seek to prosecute Colorado or Washington, the other state to legalize rec sales in 2012, because he had “bigger fish to fry.”

And so, on January 1, 2014, with the president’s half-baked blessing, Colorado became the first U.S. state to open recreational pot dispensaries. It was a landmark event that attracted tourists from all over the world; not surprisingly, legalization has also drawn its share of critics, both in Colorado and across the country. So, a year later, what’s life like in the Rocky Mountains? In that time, has Colorado gone completely off the rails? Have public schools replaced the Pledge of Allegiance with the recitation of Wiz Khalifa lyrics? Has productivity dropped sharply as people quit their jobs to focus on sleeping later, eating more Cap’n Crunch, and deepening the ass craters in their couches? I flew to Colorado to see the effects of that recently legalized recreational Rocky Mountain high for myself.

My first stop is the state capitol building in Denver, where I meet Colorado House District 11 representative Jonathan Singer, a former social worker who endorsed and campaigned for Amendment 64 early on. Since January, he’s been defending his legalization stance against opponents like New York Times writer David Brooks, who earlier this year wrote an op-ed in which he claimed that “stoned people do stupid things.” Using a RAND study, Brooks argued that by legalizing weed Colorado is creating a situation in which “usage is bound to increase.”

Jonathan Singer.

“The truth is, we don’t know all the answers,” Singer says. “We don’t know whether it’s going to make things better, worse, indifferent, or just change things. It frustrates me when either side tries to use information to justify their opinion without looking at the whole picture.”

Colorado is truly in uncharted territory. With no previous regulatory framework to build on, the state has had to develop its legal weed system entirely on its own. Everything from the tax structure to the licensing to the law enforcement has been developed from scratch. In essence, lawmakers are learning on the job, basically making it up as they go along.

Of course, to the casual observer, the picture is relatively simple. There are more than 100 dispensaries in the greater Denver area alone; it feels like there is one on every corner. It’s easier to get cannabis-infused Swedish Fish in Denver than it is to get good barbecue in New York.

Which, again, is part of the great unknown in Colorado’s little experiment. For those who don’t want to smoke, or who want to circumvent laws against public smoking, consumable Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element found in the marijuana plant, has proved tremendously popular. During the first month of sales, manufacturers had difficulty keeping up with the demand. But edibles, which vary greatly in the dosage they deliver, can be dangerous.

In March, 19-year-old Wyoming college student Levi Thamba Pongi ate an edible cookie with 65 milligrams of THC while visiting Denver during spring break. Friends said he started acting erratically, pulling things down from the walls of their motel room, and exhibiting hostile behavior. Eventually Pongi threw himself off of the motel balcony and died. The Associated Press reported that the autopsy tested for over 250 different substances, but only THC was found in Pongi’s system. Marijuana intoxication was a “significant contributing factor” to his death, the medical examiner ruled.

In April, Denver resident Richard Kirk, 47, shot and killed his wife with a handgun after consuming edibles. The incident prompted the Denver Police Chief Robert C. White to hold a press conference during which he said he would “absolutely” consider marijuana a factor in the case. And in June, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote an op-ed about her unfortunate experience eating a weed candy bar and getting so fucked up she couldn’t leave her hotel room. “What could go wrong with a bite or two?” she asked. “Everything, as it turned out.”

"We don’t know whether [legalizing recreational marijuana] is going to make things better, worse, indifferent, or just change things.”
—Rep. Jonathan Singer

These cases were public relations nightmares in Colorado, and fixing the problem isn’t going to be easy. “We want the industry and the regulators to produce equivalences for consumers to understand, when you concentrate marijuana or THC, this amount is the equivalent of this many grams or ounces,” says Colorado state senator Pat Steadman, another pro-marijuana legislator. “But they’re putting THC in so many different things—ice cream, cheesecakes, pizza sauces, and things that there’s no way to mark. It’s about educating the consumer and requiring certain responsibilities from the producer. Right now with the edibles that are out there you’ve got cookies that have 100 milligrams in one cookie.”

I happen to have a THC-laced Sweet Grass Kitchen chocolate chip cookie in my purse. We examine the fine print on the packaging and discover that the single cookie contains 65 milligrams of THC, or six and a half servings’ worth. “To me, that’s not responsible,” says Steadman. “Who eats one-sixth of a cookie? Nobody does. I don’t. I’d like a glass of milk and I’ll have three or four cookies.” Later that evening, I eat a little more than half of my cookie and end up with a body high so intense that it nearly leaves me paralyzed in my hotel room. Representative Singer likes to call this “Dowding.”

The University of Colorado at Boulder is consistently on High Times’ list of the top 10 cannabis colleges. The campus and surrounding area seem like good places to determine whether the legalization of recreational weed has changed things for young people, increasing usage and creating a generation of idiots, as Brooks claimed it would.

“I lived here prior to the legalization and after and I don’t see any difference,” says Caleb Nelson, 27, a non-smoker who I encounter riding his BMX bike. “The friends who smoked before still smoke, the friends who didn’t smoke still don’t. I don’t see any difference other than seeing buildings with weed leaves on the front way more often than usual.”

A receipt from Lodo Wellness Center.

“The majority of drugs I run into are ’shrooms, cocaine, and molly,” says Tonii Kazami, a 20-something aspiring recording artist I meet at a small campus flea market. “Weed, too. I mean, weed is automatic. Everybody has that on deck.” His friend Blake Velarde, a visibly stoned “street artist” who also goes by the name “Cloudy Monk,” confirms the unchanging ubiquity: “I always got herb from friends. That’s how it’ll probably always be.”

Weed, it seems, is no more or less prevalent in the lives of young people than it was prior to legalization. As for weed dumbing down the youth, one could argue that Velarde proves Brooks’ point when he tries to explain the fear of marijuana by linking the “certain wavelengths that your brain will go into on marijuana” to how “TV manipulates your brainwaves...allowing the media to program you with suggestive ideas.”

As Trevor Robinson, Nelson’s 23-year-old fellow rider, reminds me, too much of anything is a bad thing. “Everything has to be done in moderation,” he says. “If you smoke weed every day, same thing as if you drink every day, you’re gonna mess your brain up.”

When Amendment 64 hit the ballot, Colorado State Governor John Hickenlooper opposed legalization, saying in a statement, “Colorado is known for many great things—marijuana should not be one of them.” Marijuana is a danger to children, he warned, and in an effort to prevent kids from smoking reefer, Hickenlooper launched the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” initiative, which installed human-size rat cages all over the state.

In Denver, I spot one outside the central branch of the public library downtown. It looks like a bad public art project, and doesn’t appear to be a particularly effective anti-drug tool. One sign on the cage reads: “Subject needed. Must be a teenager. Must smoke weed. Must have 8 IQ points to spare.” Another warns: “Studies have shown that weed could shrink the teenage brain, lead to schizophrenia, cause long-term memory loss and reduce IQ. Anyone up for more testing?” A concerned citizen vandalized the cage with graffiti asking why crack, heroin, and alcohol weren’t also being warned against.

The real message of the cages, State Senator Steadman argues, is that kids who smoke marijuana should be behind bars. “We are impoverishing whole generations of people,” he says. “You have single-parent families because the other parent is in prison, or they’re impoverished because they have a criminal record because of a drug offense and an employer doesn’t want to hire them. They can’t get scholarships and go to school and get housing. There are so many collateral consequences for something as silly as making a bad choice when you’re young, and it sets you up for failure for the rest of your life.”

Pat Steadman.

In an interview with Katie Couric during this year’s Aspen Institute summit, Governor Hickenlooper stated that he no longer opposes legalization and told audiences that he is determined to make sure Colorado’s system works. The governor declined to be interviewed for this article, but there are several factors that may explain his positional change.

In 2013, Colorado had the country’s second highest rate of prescription drug abuse. According to the Colorado Plan to Reduce Prescription Drug Abuse report, “more than 255,000 Coloradans misuse prescription drugs, and consequent deaths related to misuse nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2011.” A quick visit to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website, on the other hand, reveals that it is “virtually impossible” to overdose on marijuana. People are dying from drug use in Colorado, but the drug that’s killing them is not pot.

Whether you support or oppose Amendment 64, the legalization of weed is a true example of the democratic process at work. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 19.8 percent of Colorado’s adult population smokes pot, which means that many people who don’t smoke weed voted to pass 64 even though their governor campaigned against it.

The most likely explanation for Hickenlooper’s turnaround is money. Colorado’s Proposition AA, passed two months before legalization, requires that recreational marijuana be subjected to a 15 percent excise tax, a levy imposed on goods such as gas, alcohol, and tobacco, in addition to a 10 percent state sales tax. During the first fiscal year the state pulled in just under $14 million in marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. It’s not the $31 million that was expected, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

The money is going to build schools, support drug prevention and intervention programs, fund the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, and yes, some of it is being funneled into the Governor’s office to pay people like Andrew Freedman, the newly appointed Director of Marijuana Coordination.

Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and D.C. have legalized marijuana. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is a major political force in Washington. New businesses centered on the cannabis market are started every day.

Weed Maps, founded in 2008, is the Yelp for pot lovers. CannaSys, Inc. is a rewards-based membership program and mobile app offering the “world’s first cannabis gift card.” There’s also Leafly, an online directory specializing in strains and education, and Hemp Box, which is the Birchbox for people who want hemp products delivered to them each month. In Denver alone there are high-end marijuana tours (Cultivated Travel, Colorado Green Tours), marijuana-focused cooking classes (My 420 Workshops), weed-centric yoga events (Women Grow), art classes under the influence (Puff, Paint & Pass), and benefit concerts where guests smoke dank and listen to Mozart (Classically Cannabis). Cannabis tourism is a cash cow, and investors and entrepreneurs are taking notice.

Joel Schneider, an attorney from Long Island, moved to Denver with his wife Lisa in February to open Bud + Breakfast at The Adagio, a cozy mom-and-pop operation offering next-level wake-and-bake services. “This is my dream,” he says. “It’s my passion. I took over a public company with the purpose of buying businesses in the marijuana space, to be a part of the beginning.”

Like others in marijuana-related businesses, Schneider wants to make it rain, but there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way. Since the feds still consider cannabis a controlled substance, banks have refused to provide business owners in the cannabis industry with basic checking, savings, and loan privileges. Consequently, most weed transactions in the state are cash only. This is a problem for Schneider, who has thousands of dollars stashed away because he can’t safeguard it in a bank.

“The only people who can legally accept our money without legal retribution are the state, the feds, and the city,” says Sally Vander Veer, co-owner of Medicine Man, one of the largest dispensaries in the state. The cash-only model is particularly tough on large-scale dispensary owners like her; they wind up sitting on a lot of cash and weed (in 2015 Medicine Man’s 40,000-square-foot warehouse is expected to produce more than 3,600 pounds of herb). It’s a serious safety issue, which is why Medicine Man has a security guard packing heat at the door. Additionally, Vander Veer has to hire armed vehicles to transport hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in order to pay state and local taxes.

Crime in Denver is down by about 4 percent from 2013, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, but with so much marijuana and cash lying around, it’s hard to imagine that burglary and muggings won’t become a problem. Still, Vander Veer and Schneider maintain that crime is less of an issue than figuring out how to remain compliant with Colorado’s ever-changing weed regulations, and getting the feds to respond to the banking crisis. “Hopefully it will be resolved soon,” says Vander Veer. “I think as banks see the marijuana industry as a group and not just individually as customers, that they will say, ‘Hey that’s a lot of money that we can be taking in.’ It will be worth it for them to do their due diligence.”

That will only happen if the drug is downgraded from Schedule I. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the attorney general has the power to do that, but in April, then-attorney general Eric Holder effectively punted the issue to Congress, saying “It is something that ultimately Congress would have to change, and I think that our administration would be glad to work with Congress if such a proposal were made.” Given that a) Holder has since resigned, and b) the Obama Administration and the current Congress haven’t been “glad” to work with each other since, well, never, this seems like a longshot in the near future.

A Medicine Man employee at work.
Labels are used to track the progress of every plant. Photograph by Andy Hur

“I don’t see any difference other than seeing buildings with weed leaves on the front way more often than usual.”

—Caleb Nelson

If Colorado fails to make its ambitious legalization plan work in the long term, it will be remembered as another Icarus story: You get too high, you get burned. If it succeeds, the state’s recreational marijuana system will likely be emulated by others across the country, and force Washington to reconsider the drug’s Schedule I status. States all over the country are rethinking their marijuana policies, and a Pew Research study done earlier this year showed that 75 percent of Americans believe pot will eventually be legalized nationwide.

What would happen if the feds decided to crack down on legalized recreational marijuana now? For one, Colorado would have to say goodbye to all of its cold, hard, marijuana-scented cash, and the black market, which is still a problem in the state, would return in full force. The black market, as it exists under Amendment 64, consists of street sales, and a network of growers, sellers, and consumers who are bucking the system and avoiding the state’s exorbitant recreational marijuana taxes by taking advantage of its 2000 medical marijuana law (which explains why the state failed to pull in its estimated $31 million tax dollars).

The curing process.

Medical marijuana patients only pay a 2.9 percent tax on weed. Furthermore, there are no restrictions regarding the number of plants medical marijuana caregivers are allowed to grow for their patients, and there are minimal guidelines regarding who gets to become a medical marijuana caregiver. According to the Department of Public Health and Environment, there were over 113,000 medical marijuana patients in Colorado (out of a statewide population of 5.3 million) as of June 2014. To qualify as a patient, one simply needs to obtain a “red card” from a doctor.

“People who have red cards in our state don’t all have AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, or epilepsy,” says State Senator Steadman, who advocated both for marijuana legalization and its taxation. “Most of them have ‘chronic pain.’ That is the umbrella term and there are a lot of doctors out there making recommendations for people to get their card based upon chronic pain. I have friends who have medical marijuana cards and are perfectly healthy, but they went to the doctor and said that they had chronic pain.”

There is no difference between medical and recreational marijuana; it is the same product sold at dramatically different prices. A return to the pre-legalization status quo—with marijuana users forced to claim “chronic pain” and the state’s coffers considerably less full—would seem to benefit no one except unscrupulous black market dealers.

Photograph by Andy Hur

Before I leave Denver, Schneider gives me a T-shirt with the Bud + Breakfast logo on it. It’s got a green plus sign reminiscent of the symbol for hospitals, and it features silhouettes of a coffee cup and a bong, their steam and smoke mingling. It’s stylish, as brand swag goes. I wear it to the airport on my return flight back to New York and, under the influence of some Blue Dream I procured at Medicine Man, am feeling stoked until I notice the weird looks people give me in the terminal. Is it my shirt? It would seem that even in a state where 1.3 million people voted to legalize pot, a cheeky weed tee will still catch a little shade.

Even if they don’t play Cypress Hill at the grocery store and hacky sack hasn’t become a Division I sport, not everyone in Colorado is ready to fully embrace the state’s legalization policy. The grass isn’t necessarily greener, just because it’s legal. But maybe, like those edibles, it just takes a little while to kick in.