A customer examines the marijuana on sale at  the 3-D Denver Discrete Dispensary

Somewhere in Five Points, Denver, I found a cab. I have no memory of such, and it’s almost impossible to street hail a cab anywhere outside of New York, so it must have been sent by Jesus, I thought. The ticky-tacky little brick shopfronts of Five Points, the old black area close in to town, were wibbling and wobbling a little, shimmering in the heat, except there was no heat. They’ve been painted bright, rainbow colours, and the edges were fusing a little. The cab took me through downtown and out to the northern edge of the central city, about three miles. There was no traffic, and it took about two hours. I kept asking the driver why it was taking so long. He didn’t reply. Somehow, the past kept inhering in the present, I kept thinking people who couldn’t possibly be there were riding in the cab with me. Somehow I managed to change hotels, pick up a bag and check in to a new one. We must have been in that cab all day, it must have been 6 o’clock by the time I paid him off, and then it was only about $15. This poor bastard, that must be $3 an hour. I turned the TV on and watched some old episodes of Designing Women, the funniest sitcom ever made. Then I watched some episodes of Just Shoot Me, the funniest sitcom ever made. Then an infomercial for the Shark Rotator vacuum cleaner, which is the funniest sitcom ever made. It was light outside, must be the next day. Then I looked at the digital clock, which boomed every time a minute flipped over, and some bastard had set the clock wrong, because it said it was four in the afternoon, of Tuesday, which was the day before, two hours after I had taken that six-hour cab ride. Then I fell asleep, and woke up remembering that I had to do a story on Colorado’s new legalised marijuana industry, and I had wasted a whole day. God knows what happened.

God knows indeed, but yes, your correspondent was baked — in Baker, actually, south of Five Points, where I had started in one of the half-dozen so-called “recreational stores” lining South Broadway, or SoBo. Denver, like many cities, is now a series of decomposed neighbourhoods based around junctions or street strips. Denver has SoBo, NoBo, NoDo, and a half-dozen others. The reason? The areas round the junction get gentrified, the blocks between, devoid of shops, buses, amenities, stay as ghost zones, noplaces.

Where was I? This may be a little digressional. Ah yes, Baker, which bucks the trend, principally I suspect so people can say they were baked in Baker and giggle incessantly about it. Where was I? Ah yes, saying where was I. Don’t worry, this won’t be a piece of tiresome stoner writing. I specialise in tiresome drunk writing. This will be a sober assessment of this fundamental change in American life, brought about by a simple public ballot measure voted up in this state in 2012 — that marijuana should not only be available for medical purposes, but fully legal for growth and sale. So legal, in fact, that it should be included in the tax system. The measure sailed through in ’12, the product of a masterful campaign that had been organised not by stoners but by lawyers — public defenders, state-employed, court-appointed lawyers whose de facto job is to manage the plea bargains of the US prisoner class — some 5 million to 10 million people — rotated from poverty to incarceration, overwhelmingly for drug-use offences. For years, people at the front line had tried to mount sentencing reform to little avail — fear, far from all of it unjustified, is such an omnipresent feature of American life that even reliably liberal people will baulk at any changes to the sentencing system. So the campaign decided to cut with the grain of culture in the “New West”, and simply remove the element that landed a lot of people in the prison system.

“The actual culture itself is unobtrusive. The rec stores in suburban areas sometimes look like old head shops, full of glass bongs, or they look like New Agey herb stores, the dozens of strains in huge shining jars on handsome wooden shelves.”

Most of these poor bastards are not criminal masterminds, to say the least. They’re the people you see on that gritty criminological documentary series Cops (“all suspects are innocent until proven guilty”, “don’t want to be arrested — wear a shirt”) — morons pulled over in an unroadworthy vehicle with a bag of weed on the dashboard or in the glovebox, or a joint lodged behind their ears for later. Drug-use offences constitute 51% of the prison population, and marijuana — despite being legal to those with a prescription, for y’know, “glaucoma” in 23 US states — continues to be policed as a Schedule 1 drug. The result has been a worsening of the class split in drug enforcement, since college kids and professionals can all get phoney scripts easily, as can savvy crims, while those who buy it illegally to take the edge off remain exposed — and far more liable to prosecution, in order to keep court quotas up. Remember, prosecutors in the US are elected officials. Everyone is always running for election, a good idea becomes disastrous, making stable institutional government difficult — and also difficult to critique, because failure can always be sheeted home to Hiram C. Peachfuzz IV, whose law degree comes from an online community college in Hawaii.

Where was I? Ah yes, back in Boulder in ‘12, I went to a fundraiser for the legalisation measure, met the folks running it, and was pretty sure it would pass. The leader, a guy named Mason Tvert, was a big man in a business shirt at a stoner pub on a Saturday night in Boulder, Colorado’s college town, uber-hip outcrop. Public defender, first in family to go to college, he looked like the sort of guy who enjoyed one half of one beer at the end of the week, and he and the campaign piloted the measure past the opposition of the cabal of business Republicans, police chiefs (serving — many retired ones endorsed the change), the strong Colorado Christian Right, and much of the Tea Party (some were libertarian enough to overcome their prejudices and support the measure). Tvert now runs an advocacy group out of Colorado, with the aim of getting the measure moving in other states. In Colorado, it’s a done deal. Sale of marijuana products to anyone over the age of 21 with ID became legal on New Year’s Day 2014. Many of the medical dispensaries converted themselves to combined dispensaries/rec stores, and a whole bunch of new rec stores opened.

Local councils can ban them, and a number have — small western Colorado towns and resort areas, mainly. But the licensing requirements are straightforward and the fees modest, where they are legal — about $5000 to $15,000 all in — as befits a measure designed by lawyers. In Washington state, which also legalised marijuana sales in 2012, different drafting has allowed both official opposition and bureaucratic inertia to limit the number of stores, and worse, of their supply — the half-dozen or so places allowed to operate in Seattle have taken to raising a flag whenever they have supplies in, and Soviet-style queues form.

There is none of that in Denver, Boulder or elsewhere, but nor is there an Amsterdam-style coffee shop scene either, and thank god for that. The “rec stores” aren’t hang-outs; there’s nowhere to sit and get a coffee and slowly smoke the day away. Technically, it’s also illegal to smoke the stuff in public, but this would appear to be honoured in the breach, since the smell is everywhere. Everywhere. I walked down a street between two multi-storey car parks, no one around, and the pungent, monkeyshit odour drifted across. From where, from whom? Round the Greyhound station it was like Cheech and Chong night at the old Valhalla. There was steam coming from a grate beside. It was like the city itself was smoking.

Yet, the actual culture itself is unobtrusive. The rec stores in suburban areas sometimes look like old head shops, full of glass bongs, or they look like New Agey herb stores, the dozens of strains in huge shining jars on handsome wooden shelves. In sketchier zones, they look more like liquor stores, with a vestibule you have to be buzzed in through, after you’ve been scrutinised on CCTV. In all cases the culture is different to that which prevails where “weed” — which seems to be the agreed-upon slang term — remains illegal. Apart from the means of delivery — bongs largely yielding to vape cigarettes — there’s little of the paraphernalia in the rec stores, the dumb T-shirts, Bob Marley posters, crystal skulls, etc. Instead there tend to be charts, grids listing the various strains by presence of THC and the half-dozen or so active ingredients of the substance itself.

The info is dizzyingly technical — and indeed this had been a feature of the special measure campaign, the promise that people would be able to know what they were smoking and adjust accordingly. It was a crucial point in overcoming the strongest objection to full legalisation — that the Nth generation, hydroponic weed of the 21st century was devastatingly stronger than that which circulated when the legalisation campaign started in the ’70s. That is especially so for the “edibles” — the numerous brands of THC-infused chocolates, cookies, cakes, gum, etc, etc, on sale, and which seem to be increasingly popular as a means of ingestion. With the glamour of weed removed, much of the ritual of the joint appears to have dissipated, the relative cancer risks become part of the equation, especially for boomers who want a mellow and graduated high.

“It felt strange, in America, to be stoned, totally, legally, out of doors. That may have been why it seemed fine to take another two squares. And that’s when the taxi death ride began, time opening up, and the world slipping through.”

That had had its casualties: one early new opponent of the legalisation was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who flew into Denver, bought a bar of infused chocolate, wolfed it down in one go in her hotel room, and spun out like a Roman candle into your proverbial bad trip. When the article detailing all this came out, the general opinion was that she hadn’t taken heed of the numerous warnings posted everywhere to take it easy and gradually, and had got the result she was rather hoping for. Silly sod, I thought, as I forked over 13 bucks for a Pacific sunrise bar with coconut and honey, and 50mg THC, broke off two pieces of the 12, and felt a pleasant waft upwards after about 30 minutes, and then took another two pieces, and wondered if I were not taking it a bit too easy, and then bam, and some unspecified time later, I was up in the mall, during the zombie crawl, having walked 45 blocks without much of a sense of where I was going.

Damn, this stuff was strong. Thank god, I hadn’t done the full Dowd — I knew these weren’t real zombies, they were MA students and FedEx print store workers with too much time on their hands — but their makeup was running. Was it running? It seemed to be running. Why would it be running? Time was definitely starting to gap, it seemed to take about eight minutes to cross the street. The feeling wasn’t unpleasant, but I wasn’t enjoying it much either. I’ve never much liked marijuana — torpid by nature, my life is a struggle against the temptation to take it easy, I don’t need any help in that department. And the fussiness around it shits me off. Booze has ceaseless variety in itself, in taste, texture, colour, before and beyond the kick, which gives it endless particularity. Weed is a delivery system, and I don’t doubt there are different taste complexions to the stuff, but a lot of the blather around it has the feel of tiresome pseudo-expertise. Perhaps full legalisation breaks that down too, putting the dope priesthood out of business. Still, I thought I had a reasonable tolerance to it. I was still, well, piloting, still outside myself. The bar was in my side pocket, as cops — real cops, not the Resident Evil fakes/freaks — walked past. It felt strange, in America, to be stoned, totally, legally, out of doors. That may have been why it seemed fine to take another two squares. And that’s when the taxi death ride began, time opening up, and the world slipping through.

Yes, yes, squares is the operative word. Perhaps my tolerance is not what it was, and may never have been. But it’s an interesting question, as to what a place will start to look like when it’s legal — and above all straightforward — to get and stay twisted. That is, to a degree, a bogus concern — had weed never been criminalised and booze kept prohibited, we would wonder what it would be like to live in a city where thousands of people could stagger around as pissed as they wanna be (and ha, now we know). No one gets punchy on weed, but there’s not much of an internal regulation system either — i.e. throwing up and passing out — to keep any number of people from staying on it all the time. Does that matter?

The day before, I’d visited the advocacy group set up Mason Tvert and Co to advance full legalisation across the US. I wasn’t stoned then, and neither was anyone else there. Instead, they were furiously busy, helping from afar with votes on medical marijuana legalisation in Florida, and initiatives in other states, and across the world. Was there any downside, I asked Sara, one of the volunteers there? How does full legalisation impact a society where social mobility is a myth that masks the absence of it — 50% of Americans born into the lowest income quintile stay there, compared to 25% of people from northern Europe — and where one of the innumerable slang terms for weed, “chronic”, seems to acknowledge the fact that it is an answer to the hopelessness of poverty in a society with a winner-loser ethic? Could it then have a somatising effect on a country that needs people to start going outward to the world, rather than inward to fantasies and softnesses, at this point in their history? I didn’t put it like that — I wasn’t stoned — but she was still a little evasive. “Well, I think that would be mainly a cultural problem, changing how we consume,” she replied, and then she made her excuses. Ticklish sort of paradox, nowhere appears more square than the eye of the storm of legal weed, spreading across the country.

That may well produce a backlash in time. But for the moment, the legalisation movement has won in Colorado. Conservative politicians pay the ritual obeisances — “I was against legalisation myself”, “I opposed the measure”, but no one is advocating repeal. The move’s greatest opponents remain on the further Left and alt domains of social life, who argue — quite rightly — that the legalisation has drawn weed into a system of control. There is something a little dismal about all those charts listing different effects — though not for cancer and MS sufferers, among many others, for whom medicinal marijuana has proved a liberation. But the drawing in of weed to the tax system has made growers and producers stakeholders with clout — and put traditionally conservative chambers of commerce and business advocates in a tricky position. What are they going to advocate? The destruction of industry by capricious legal changes.

The whole issue is, in a way, a testament to the idea of the “New West”, which became popular a decade or so ago — that Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada now form a social bloc in which simple ideas of conservative and liberal values are being recombined, as the tight conservative movement breaks down into contradiction. That reflects the social changes in those states — Utah, Wyoming and Arizona, with ageing white populations, Mormons and no youth/tech/culture influx to speak of, still form the Old West — but it also indicates a changed relationship to one’s own tradition. Pace John Wayne, the West was never one with conservatism — territories like Wyoming were full of socialist and feminist politics and experiments — and once that fantasy ethos began to crack, new ways of thinking about what was possible on the “frontier” have begun to emerge. I seem to remember thinking all this through in my six-hour/25-minute taxi ride, but when I looked at my notes all I had was this:


… and the memory of the one stray remark by the driver, when I yelled out, “This is my motel!”. “Yeah, man, I know, we were just there. You’ll get where you’re going to.”

You’ll get where you’re going to. I mean deep, man. Five Points to SoBo to where was the motel again? Oh yeah, kid you not, Highland. Deep.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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