Elan Nelson, a cannabis industry consultant, looks over Medicine Man's cannabis inventory in anticipation of a high-volume sales day.
Weed has already been legal in Colorado and Washington state for more than a year, only there's exactly nowhere to legally buy it, unless you're an approved medical marijuana patient. Tomorrow, however, that's going to change, dramatically, when America's first retail marijuana stores open their doors to anyone 21-and-over, no matter where you live, and without a note from your doctor.
This slow rollout of legal pot began back in November 2012, when voters heartily approved two separate ballot initiatives that immediately ended criminal penalties for adult marijuana possession, while mandating the creation of statewide regulations governing commercial cultivation and distribution. Now, after a long and often contentious political process, Colorado has at last fully licensed 136 marijuana retailers, 178 cultivation facilities, 31 infused-product manufacturers (who make everything from cannabis chocolates to BHO), and three laboratories charged with testing all of these intoxicants for potency and potential contamination.
The first of these stores will open in less than 24 hours, and naturally I'll be there, cash in hand, and most likely a tear in my eye. Even if it means standing in line for hours in the freezing cold. Because after more than a decade spent reporting on cannabis from the front lines, I desperately want to witness the beginning of the end of America's longest, stupidest war. Though I also know I'll look back some day and find myself filled with nostalgia for the outlaw days of yore. Before big business and corporate cannabis ever muscled in on our turf.
The author, inside Medicine Man's “green mile”grow room.
Countdown to Burn Down
Marijuana is not anti-establishment because it’s illegal. It’s illegal because it’s anti-establishment. Or so I've believed ever since taking my first illicit toke as a teenager. But what if a certain willingness to question authority, long associated with smoking herb, comes to us not from any of the plant's inherent properties, but from its prohibition?
I know I first started seriously questioning authority based on the vast discrepancy between my own adolescent high times and the anti-pot propaganda ads on television. Looking back now, in fact, I have my own competing gateway theory. I believe that, for myself and many others, marijuana serves as the gateway social justice issue of our time. A form of arbitrary oppression so egregious and ubiquitous that even a white, suburban teenager can experience the violence inherent in the system firsthand.
In Larry “Ratso” Sloman's book Reefer Madness (1998), for example, beat poet laureate Allen Ginsberg related his own personal gateway experience, a life-altering epiphany that took place the very first time he got baked.
When I smoked grass I suddenly realized how amazing it was that on the evidence of my own senses, which I did not doubt, here was a very mild stimulator of perception that led me into all sorts of awes and cosmic vibrations and appreciations of Cezanne and Renaissance paintings and color and tastes. And here was this great big government plot to suppress it and make it seem as if it were something diabolic, satanic, full of hatred and fiendishness and madness… It was the very first time I ever had solid evidence in my own body that there was a difference between reality as I saw it myself and reality as it was described officially by the state, the government, the police and the media. From then on I realized that marijuana was going to be an enormous political catalyst, because anybody who got high would immediately see through the official hallucination that had been laid down and would begin questioning, “What is this War? What is the military budget?”
Ginsberg went on to form the first pro-marijuana lobbying and activism organization in America, an effort duly noted in his Federal Bureau of Narcotics file.
On December 27, 1964, GINSBERG and _____ marched in front of the Department of Welfare Building… with signs reading “Smoke Pot, It’s Cheaper and Healthier Than Liquor,” and “Pot Is a Reality Kick.” These individuals are members of an organization called LEMAR (Legalize Marijuana) and their names appear in the files of Interpol.
Nearly 50 years later, those first green shoots of organized resistance have finally cracked through the pavement, for all the world to see. To celebrate, I spent a day in Denver touring the (sigh) Mile High City's retail cannabis stores and cultivation facilities as they prepare to make history.
Back when I first started working this beat, pot reporters wore blindfolds on the way to a “stash house” or a “grow operation,” or better yet we rode in the trunk of the car, so as not to compromise the safety our sources, but nowadays, I'm far more likely to meet the head of a marijuana private equity firm for drinks at an upscale hotel bar. I'll let you guess which scenario makes for a more enjoyable afternoon.
Julie Berliner, proprietress of Sweet Grass Kitchen, prepares a batch of pot-infused brownies.
Wake and Bakery
First stop on the pot tour: Sweet Grass Kitchen, a Denver-based edibles bakery, where owner and operator Julie Berliner greets me with a plate of pot-less pot cookies, so I can sample her merchandise for breakfast without missing my next three appointments.
Julie started up the company way back in the “wild west” days of 2008, when supplying medical marijuana patients with cannabis-infused food required little more than a home kitchen and the nerve to do it. Now she operates a licensed commercial kitchen that employs two full-time bakers, with plans to expand into cultivation as well, so she can produce enough cannabis in-house to supply her growing business.
Sweet Grass won't be selling their THC-laden cookies, brownies, and pies in any of the retail pot stores when they open tomorrow, however. Mostly because Colorado's exploding dab scene makes sourcing enough marijuana trim to make enough cannabutter to supply 75 medical marijuana centers an ongoing challenge, never mind expanding into the recreational market. Hence the 40-light grow room currently under construction. All part of the $300,000 investment she's made in the business since serious regulations kicked in three years ago.
So does Julie miss the carefree days before pot fell fully under the government's thumb?
“In ways, yes,” She admits. “But back then I was always incredibly anxious. We could have lost everything in a crackdown. And meanwhile, I would wake up some mornings to discover I was breaking a new law that just passed.”
Medicine Man's budtenders prepare to start selling their wares over the counter.
Twenty construction workers hammer and saw around the clock at one of just a dozen or so retail marijuana stores fully licensed to open tomorrow in Denver. It's like some dumb reality show where they remodel a restaurant in 24 hours, only we're talking converting a medical marijuana center into a “dual-use facility” that also sells recreational pot. So perhaps we should call it an altered-reality show.
Elan Nelson, a leading cannabis industry consultant, takes me on a tour of Medicine Man's 20,000 square-foot facility, including a fully stocked sales counter and a massive grow operation in the back. Elan describes herself as a “once-a-year” herb smoker, who entered the pot industry seeking an exciting career path with serious upside potential.
Then she learned it's a lot more.
“At one of my first jobs, a customer came in to buy medical marijuana legally and told me he'd just gotten out of jail after serving several years on a pot charge. That made me realize just how much people have suffered for this, something I never experienced directly.”
Meanwhile, ever since they were among the first to announce a January 1 opening for recreational sales, Medicine Man has been inundated with reporters. So as we stop to chat with the dozens of diligent employees that make this place hum along like a hash-oiled machine, Elan takes care to inform them that I actually know a thing or two about getting high—as apparently the vast majority of my colleagues in the media haven't got a clue.
At our last tour stop, one of Medicine Man's top budtenders sets off my jaydar as a guy who got into this thing of ours sometime before selling lots and lots of marijuana was quite so legal. So I ask if he ever fondly recalls the black market?
“Working here is way more uplifting and way less stressful,” my source asserts while setting out huge jars of top-shelf herb for me to sniff. “I don't have to worry about who's following me home. Or doing business with the kind of people I'd really rather not know.”
Toni Fox, of 3D Cannabis Center, gazes into the bright future of legal marijuana.
“What's 'an eighth?'”
Toni Fox suppresses a wry smile before explaining to a German reporter that one eighth of an ounce serves as a standard unit of measure in the underground ganja world. And so, in order to undercut that very same black market, her 3D Cannabis Center will offer a wide variety of high-quality eighths at prices ranging from $35 to $50 pre-taxes. Sixty different strains in all are grown on-site. Customers can even check out 3D's 14,000 square-foot cultivation operation in the back through a specially designed viewing window.
Toni then informs me that she doesn't harbor any nostalgia whatsoever for the outlaw days of marijuana. Nor does her brother, who spent ten years in prison over probably less pot than her store will sell tomorrow.
Between now and then, the shop's closed for final preparations. Including making arrangements to deal with the hundreds of eager cannabis enthusiasts from around the world expected to start lining up outside hours before the big grand opening.
After all, wild rumors have been flying around town about immediate supply shortages, and I'd surely hate to miss out. Toni assures me she's got enough product on hand to make it to the end of the week at the very least, and hopefully well into February, without having to dramatically raise prices or take other drastic measures.
But why take the risk of showing up late to the greatest pot party of all time?
Can't make it to Colorado? Check VICE.com tomorrow for further adventures in search of legal weed.