Paul Thomas Anderson in front of the bus. All photos by Hannah Medoff
Paul Thomas Anderson smiled politely when one of his fans offered him a hit of a joint. "I don't smoke that much weed," said the renowned film director over the din of the reggae and funk tunes blasting from the sound system of the smoke-filled party bus meandering its way through Denver's wintry streets. Undaunted, another Anderson admirer offered up a different option: How about a chocolate-covered banana? "I had one already," replied the director.
Such was the scene on the "hazy" bus tour that accompanied the Colorado release of Anderson's new film, Inherent Vice. Twenty-five lucky winners who'd posted Inherent Vice-themed photos of themselves on social media traveled with Anderson to the local premiere at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Littleton, Colorado, just outside of Denver. The party bus was filled with treats straight out of the film, a druggy noir set in 1970 Los Angeles. There were trays of frozen chocolate bananas, an endless supply of "Tequila Zombie" punch, and, most importantly, massive amounts of pot.
The idea was born months ago, said Steve Bessette, creative director at the Littleton branch of Alamo Drafthouse, a movie chain known for its obsessive approach to films and quirky special events: "[Alamo CEO] Tim League and Paul Thomas Anderson are friends and they were talking about what it would be like if some people got high and watched Inherent Vice."
Colorado was the perfect place to run the experiment. Not only was the state the first place in the world to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana, it's also home to a quirky new cottage industry of marijuana-fueled cultural events. Sure, surreptitiously getting high before a concert or a movie is nothing new, but now Colorado is exploring a whole new world of cannabis-infused culture. What are the best Bach concertos to pair with a heady sativa? Does red or white wine go better with marijuana-infused cheesecake? And how long, exactly, should you hit your vape pen settling into a screening of Inherent Vice?
"As someone who has been involved in cannabis activism for nearly a decade in Colorado, it's been really eye-opening," said Kayvan Khalatbari, co-owner of the Denver Relief dispensary and an affiliated consulting company. Two and a half years ago, Khalatbari began hosting a marijuana-friendly after-hours stand-up comedy show at Sexy Pizza, a Denver restaurant he co-owns. The events were a hit, and the resulting monthly "Sexpot Comedy" comedy shows now occur in a 700-seat Denver theater. (Khalatbari and other event organizers are careful to note that they don't sell or distribute pot. They just allow attendees to bring their own.)
It could be easy to write off all these marijuana-friendly events as marketing gimmicks. After all, roughly a quarter of all those accompanying Anderson on the party bus were reporters. But for some cultural operations, embracing cannabis isn't just a way to court media—it's a way to draw much-needed new patrons.
Like many orchestras around the country, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has seen better days. Last year it announced it couldn't afford the rent on its own symphony hall. As part of its efforts to shake up its programming, last summer the Colorado Symphony announced it would host a series of weed-friendly fundraising shows at a local art gallery.
"It was a very simple calculation on our part," said symphony CEO Jerry Kern at the time. "It's a legal business here in Colorado, so as long as we're doing it legally, we are happy to have the financial support and exposure to this audience." The series also attracted international media attention and was packed with hundreds of attendees, half of whom had no history with the symphony. Now the organization is courting those newbies, hoping to turn them into regulars, despite the fact that no one's going to be able to light up in the symphony's grand performance hall anytime soon.
The marijuana companies sponsoring these events also aim to expand their clientele and normalize pot use. With so many pot shops popping up around Colorado, those who hope to survive need to establish a customer base beyond stereotypical marijuana aficionados. "We've always been women friendly and have a lot of older customers," said Jan Cole, CEO of the Farm, a high-end recreational marijuana store in Boulder, Colorado that helped sponsor the symphony shows. "Being able to approach the mainstream in such a nice and wholesome way? That's how we've always rolled at the farm."
But event organizers planning weed-friendly shindigs large and small in Colorado have to contend with a major roadblock: While adult use of recreational marijuana may be legal in the state, public consumption of it isn't. That means that any marijuana-related event that hints at being open to the public is asking for trouble. "They just haven't figured out what the rules are for these events," said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor. "You have to limit people, e-mail the people you want to attend, which is not the way party people do their thing. It takes all the fun out of it."
The hurdles surrounding marijuana events nearly sunk the Colorado Symphony's marijuana shows. After the City of Denver complained about the events, the organization refunded all ticket sales and made the events invitation only. While the dispute and resulting media attention likely benefited the symphony, the same legal complications derailed Seth Rogan's plan to hotbox a Denver screening of his new film The Interview in early December when city officials forbid any sort of smoking in the theater.
Even one of the state's most prominent cannabis event organizers had to endure numerous headaches thanks to Denver's antiquated public consumption laws. Jane West, Founder of Edible Events Co., garnered headlines all over the world for the ritzy bring-your-own pot parties she throws, but she's also faced criminal charges. On 4/20 last year, a SWAT team barged into a brunch she was hosting at a privately booked bakery and charged her with serving alcohol without a license. "It was bad," she said. "They said we needed a liquor license, but you only need a liquor license if you're having a public event. And if it's a public event, you can't consume cannabis." She eventually pled guilty to the criminal misdemeanor charge. Her six-month probation ends on 4/22.
West has been plagued by other difficulties. Since she can't hold events in bars and restaurants because the city considers them public spaces, even when they're hosting private events. So she has to book halls and rent furniture, sound systems, and everything else she needs at a hefty cost.
"I am so in the red," she said. And while she helped spearhead the cannabis symphony shows, she doesn't plan on partnering with the orchestra again. Since the symphony forbid press at the events from taking photos of concert-goers partaking in pot, most media outlets paired their coverage with stock images from 4/20 rallies—the opposite vibe she was going for. "Having the events happen and not being able to capture it was really frustrating," she said. "I think all of this is putting a giant damper on cannabis business in this state."
For a while, the Inherent Vice "hazy" bus tour seemed in danger of getting bogged down in legal buzzkills. Attendees had to agree to a lengthy list of rules stipulating the only place they could smoke was on the party bus while it was moving. They couldn't partake at the theater during the screening or at the marijuana shop, called the Health Center, where everyone would meet at 6 PM for the start of tour. But after everyone had arrived at the Health Center and purchased goodies from the budtenders, folks stood around aimlessly as the minutes ticked by. There was no indication as to when people would be able to board the waiting bus and light up. And no hint of Anderson.
Finally, close to 7 PM, the call went out for everyone to board the bus. "We need to go pick up a straggler," announced an organizer. Since the director was late for the party, the party would go to him. As the increasingly smoke-filled bus rumbled off towards Anderson's swanky downtown hotel, everything began to turn freewheeling.
Film fans in attendance learned a thing or two about pot. "I don't really smoke pot, and I had never been to a dispensary, but when in Rome, right?" said filmmaker and movie nerd David Mulholland, who split a joint with another contest winner. And pot fans on the bus got a primer on a guy named Paul Thomas Anderson. "I didn't know you could abbreviate his name to PTA," said a local law student who formerly worked at a dispensary. "I was just going in on the fun of, 'Let's get high on a bus and see a movie together.'"
"I think it went really well," concluded Bessette, the Littleton Alamo's creative director, after the event. As far as he knows, no one tried to break the Alamo's famously strict movie-watching rules by toking during the film—possibly because everyone was distracted by the additional Inherent Vice-themed munchies the theater served up during the screening. According to Bessette, "Everyone was too busy eating pancakes."
Chalk the hazy bus tour up as a drug-fueled success and a small step towards the ultimate objective of marijuana activists. As Denver Relief's Khalatbari puts it, "My goal is to have cannabis looked at in the same vein as drinking." That way, public toking before a film screening won't be a media coup, but instead no different than sipping a flute of champagne before a symphony concert or tucking into a tub of movie-theater popcorn."
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