Reflections on legal weed in Colorado, the evolution of a skeptic
Few things invite the bewilderment and ire of a Coloradan more than the following two statements:
“I love Denver, but I really miss the humidity of Atlanta,” or “I wasn’t a big supporter of adult use marijuana.”
I know this because I’ve said them both.
Coloradans will cautiously forgive anyone for not being a Bronco fan; encourage visitors if they say they don’t ski; even consider some wholly obstinate if they've never been to Casa Bonita. But you won’t be shunned at parties. Offer a slight opposition to marijuana legalization, and reclassification as a traitor is immediate.
My apprehension didn’t stem because I had a moral objection to people exploring the countless benefits of cannabis. I’d already read many studies championing the positives of the plant even before it was legal.
My apprehension stemmed for two different reasons. The first, I was nervous about the inevitable label the rest of the nation would place on Colorado. “We’re going to be a laughing stock,” I would lament. I was worried about industry and tourism. I felt like Colorado would be labeled a giant Cheech and Chong style citizenry, and the rest of the country wouldn’t take us seriously.
In the beginning, that’s what happened.
Late night talk show hosts joked about the state. Memes knocking Colorado as a marijuana-Mecca weren’t very flattering. No one wants to be the first to do something risky, but everyone else will jump on board when the risk is proven to be not so risky after all. And it was.
Colorado-1, The rest of the country-0
But the second reason I was nervous about it was because I thought illegal weed was a safer option than legal weed. Nearly a decade ago, when I went to a year-long rehab to end a crippling alcohol addiction, I was housed with many people who were hard drug users. I got to understand more than anyone should know about how dealers target and hook people on a miserable substance, and I witnessed the path of destruction these substances left in families, on health and in missed opportunities.
My theory was that if the cartels who were making their millions by selling marijuana were suddenly thrown out of business because of state sanctioned cannabis, they’d just start pushing worse drugs, with worse long term effects. More dangerous, more addictive, more destructive.
Ironically, it wasn’t the cartels that became the primary pushers and instigators of the nation’s current opioid crisis, it was the pharmaceutical industry (even though cartels capitalize on it now). Against public opinion, however, Coloradans didn’t suddenly flock to harder drugs because some Hondo at the river was pushing it; rather, we embraced new freedoms and internalized the idea that we, as a collective, had one chance to prove all the naysayers in the rest of the country wrong. We’ve done that.
Colorado-2, The rest of the country-0
This year, at the 10th annual 420 Rally in Denver, I saw the other things that adult use cannabis has done in the state — the things that we might never be given credit for doing in the mad rush to end prohibition across the country.
The rally is one of the largest gatherings in the city, and Coloradans celebrate it with more enthusiasm and fervor than we celebrate even August 1, the day we became a state. (You likely didn’t know that; my point’s made.)
While I sat at my usual table in an unnamed coffee shop downtown, I noticed one significant thing. People were not only happy, but they were interacting with other people whose paths they might never get to cross.
Guys in expensive looking ties were chatting with saggy-pant college students; mean-muggin’, gold chain wearin’ gangsters were in spirited and animated talks with baby boomer moms and police officers. There were laughs, conversations, connections. Unlike other celebrations which champion one ethnicity, political ideology, or a singular historic event, this rally was different. This day, Colorado was one community of many, and we were loving it — even me, the one guy who wasn’t stoned.
The rally traces its roots back a decade. The original smoke-up was a defiant protest that took place in the park saddled between the Colorado State Capitol and the City and County Building of Denver. It was a giant “screw you” to the legislators and lawmakers who were slow to see what it could bring to the state.
When Amendment 64 was passed by referendum on November 6, 2012, lawmakers finally listened to the undebatable fact that Coloradans wanted adult use marijuana legal. We not only wanted it, we deserved it. Although the passage of the law was still in conflict with federal law (and remains so as of this writing), it was a huge move for Colorado. It was a state’s right issue, damn it.
It can’t be put into a historical context because there is absolutely no history for it. A state had never challenged federal law so openly since the Civil War; and no state had ever been successful at it since … ever.
Pundits mused that it was all for naught, it’d never gain traction or even allowance from the feds. We were laughed at. Everyone was skeptical. Colorado’s Attorney General, John Suthers, expressed his “strongly held belief that the ‘legalization’ of marijuana on a state level [was] very bad public policy.” But he promised to defend it anyway.
Governor John Hickenlooper’s infamous statement, “Don’t break out the Cheetos or the goldfish crackers too quickly,” illustrated his skepticism that he’d be able to fully enact the law. He immediately started working with the DOJ to find a solution on how to make it work, anyway.
Colorado politicians’ moral or personal reservations regarding cannabis took a back to seat to their moral and pubic commitments to fight for the will of Colorado voters; qualities lacking in so many national and career politicians then, and now.
Colorado reminded America that change was possible, that government shouldn’t be feared, that a government of the people, for the people, by the people, was what America was really all about. All that tea we dumped into Boston Harbor had to mean something.
We reminded the rest of the nation that significant change could be quick when government and people worked together; when citizens worked cooperatively to find solutions rather than bickering the “what ifs” and the “what abouts.” As a state, we’ve been doing just that.
We haven’t just changed laws, we’ve changed attitudes and firmly held beliefs across the country.
Colorado-3, The rest of the country-0
This is part of our DNA. Colorado was the first state to grant women the right to vote by referendum. Later, the nation followed us. Colorado loosened restrictions on a woman’s right to choose six years before the Supreme Court finally caught up. Colorado was the first and only place to ever reject the Olympics because voters didn’t think we could afford it, and didn’t want to tax our resources. We’ve always listened to voters, it’s what we do.
Colorado-6, The rest of the country-2
Sure, we’ve had hiccups along the way — dispensaries who’ve flouted the law by allowing ‘looping’ (a way to circumvent limits on purchases); the shooting of three people at the imfamous rally two years ago; some unwarranted disruptions in lives for false charges of DUI; warranted disruptions in lives of people for actual DUIs; Colorado’s been sued by those sticks in the mud (Nebraska and Oklahoma) for illegal transport. But by in large we’ve been doing it right.
Colorado’s Executive Director of the Department of Revenue, Barbara Brohl, which managed the Marijuana Enforcement Division, required new training guidelines so agents behaved less like storm-trooping commandos ready to shut-down owners and retailers for the slightest infraction and more like cooperative advisors, helping owners to keep their doors open by working within the legal framework.
She visited the dispensaries, cultivation facilities, and product manufacturers to speak with the owners, one-on-one, eliciting feedback on what could be done to make the execution of the law work for everyone. In an unprecedented policy, all the stakeholders, from PTA groups to police chiefs, had the unobstructed attention of someone who sat on the governor’s cabinet.
Retailers and owners worked with lawmakers to craft more robust laws which protected the consumer, the industry and the general public — laws which gave cannabis sudden and well earned legitimacy on a national scale because of the affectionate concern growers had for the state that took a chance on them. Even introducing the term “Adult use cannabis,” and trying to get it to stick. “Recreational Pot” doesn’t do the seriousness of the benefits any real justice, they argue. Words matter.
Even Colorado's staunch Republican Senator, Cory Gardner, stood up to the Trump administration and his own party to say, “Not today, Satan! In fact, not any day!”
Law enforcement has to be credited for understanding its role as peace officers rather than punishing government agents. While you still aren’t supposed to be lighting up at light rail stops or any public place, for the most part, cops might just tell you to put it out and leave it at that.
I’ve seen it done.
While I’m still feel like the outsider for not exploring or using cannabis like everyone else is; while I never imagined five years ago that my words would someday be in a magazine snuggled up between ads for Sativa or CBD oils; while I’m one of a very small number of people that still doesn’t know what in the hell ‘kush’ is — I’m a Coloradan. I’ve evolved and continue to evolve. I’m part of the community that was celebrating 420 last Friday. My abstinence was hardly noticed because everyone was encouraged to participate in the celebration of our successful defiance and hard work.
This year, on 4/20, like many years previous, it rained. I found it ironic that the two issues I had with Colorado were moisture and marijuana. And on that day, I had too much of both. I wondered why we insisted on having the celebration during the wettest month of the year, always risking bad weather.
Then it donned on me, it was metaphoric perfection. Coloradans always know the risks we take, but it doesn’t scare us. We’re gonna celebrate our freedoms anyway — Uncle Sam or Mother Nature be damned.