Denver is magical at dawn. Along the western horizon, the snow-capped mountains are bathed in pink from the glow of the rising sun. The sky is turning purest blue. The air is crisp and clear, and you can see forever.
What a great place to get stoned. Which I intend to do, as soon as possible.
In Colorado, recreational marijuana was legalized on Jan. 1, 2014. Denver now has more pot stores than it has Starbucks. Anyone over the age of 21 can walk into a store and choose from hundreds of varieties of flowers, nibbles, marijuana-infused drinks, oils, ointments and pain patches, as well as a growing array of wax and other supercharged hard-core products. There's even a sex lube for women, which promises to deliver the most mind-blowing experience of your life.
The sky has not fallen. The revenues are flowing in. Most Coloradans – 58 per cent – favour keeping pot legal, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Meanwhile, in Canada, prohibition is a bust. Pot is available everywhere, and we are among the biggest consumers in the world: According to Health Canada's 2012 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, 41.5 per cent of Canadians 15 years and older have used marijuana at some point during their lifetime. Polls say that two-thirds of Canadians favour relaxation of the law or outright legalization. Hardly anyone thinks we should criminalize people for having a couple of joints. Even Canada's police chiefs have voted overwhelmingly for drug-law reform, and want the option to issue a tickets or warnings instead of making arrests. Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed with the chiefs that the law isn't working.
Is there any reason for us not to do what Colorado has done?
I know nothing about modern cannabis. My personal experiences with weed are around 40 years out of date. I need a quick lesson to get me au courant. So the first thing I do is drop in on Jake Browne, the amiable pot critic for The Cannabist, an online newspaper that's owned by The Denver Post. He says he has sampled just about every strain of weed known to humankind. He is the Robert Parker of the marijuana world.
Jake, who's 32, works out of his home, a ramshackle place with a yard full of crabgrass. His living room is a blast from the past: a classic stoner's den, with fifth-hand couches, a skateboard leaning up against the wall, and a blinking Christmas tree (this is March) in the corner. I feel as though I'm back in 1974. He keeps his stash – actually, they are samples waiting for review – in a brown paper bag under the debris-strewn coffee table.
In the bag are a dozen or more samples of lovingly tended, hand-harvested, carefully cured weed, each with its own distinctive properties. Each sample comes in a plastic pharmacy bottle labelled with the name of the strain and its provenance. The flowers are plump and grayish-green and glistening with THC. They bear no resemblance to the seed– and twig-infested ditchweed I remember smoking in my youth.
The first bottle he opens is labelled Godfather OG. "Growers love this because it breeds well," he explains. "It's good to use before bedtime." He shows me how to analyze the nose. "Give the flower a squeeze to release the cannabinoids. This has rubber and pine tree notes."
I give the flower a squeeze. Sure enough, I can smell rubber pine tree.
Next is Purple Dream. The flowers are the size of ping-pong balls, with pretty streaks of blue. "This can be a good mid-afternoon to happy hour kind of smoke," he says. It smells luscious, like blackberry.
Not every strain is so divine. He pops open something called Strawberry Snow. It smells like a stale armpit. "Bad strains can smell flat, green, like an old bale of hay," he explains.
Jake takes me through the basics. The two main types of weed are indica and sativa. Indica relaxes you and makes you kind of sleepy. Sativa energizes you and makes you feel alert. He recommends pairing an experience with a strain. "Say it's movie night," he says. "There's a strain for that. If you're going to work out or clean the house, there's a strain for that. Or maybe you have trouble eating because you're going through chemo. There's a strain for that. Cannabis is more of a Swiss army knife than a hammer."
I ask Jake what he'd recommend for me: an inexperienced consumer who needs to stay awake long enough to take notes. He makes a couple of suggestions, and recommends a dispensary called Good Chemistry, where the budtenders are knowledgeable. "Whatever you do, stay away from the Durban Poison," he warns.
On the way out, he introduces me to his mother, who's visiting for a while from Iowa. His line of work doesn't bother her at all. She's thrilled that he's a writer.
Prohibition is dead
In the U.S., the landscape is changing rapidly. Washington, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., have all legalized, and dozens of other states have referendums in the works for 2016. In California, you can get a medical prescription just for the asking. Pot remains illegal under U.S. federal law, but the will to enforce that will wane if enough states legalize it. Legislators are flocking to Colorado from across the nation to find out how it's done.
They're high on the smell of money. Last year, Colorado collected $76-million in pot taxes, licences and fees; this year it will be more.
Everyone I spoke with believes that widespread legalization is just a matter of time.
In Canada, the gap between the law and reality is getting wider every day. In Vancouver, anyone can get a medical licence on the spot, which allows them to shop in dozens of unregulated dispensaries to their heart's content. You can even buy weed from vending machines. Law enforcement across the country has become so uneven that whether you're arrested for smoking on the street pretty much depends on where you live. It also depends on your socio-economic status. Middle-class citizens tend to get a pass, while those in bad neighbourhoods do not.
Around 60,000 people are arrested every year in Canada for possession, according to a report from Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). First-time offenders can get a maximum sentence of a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. At least half a million Canadians have a criminal record for possession. Enforcing the cannabis laws costs more than a billion dollars a year. Yet there's no evidence that these penalties act as a deterrent.
In recent years, the case for prohibition has pretty much collapsed. Marijuana is not a monster gateway drug. For casual adult users, it's simply not a problem.
In Colorado, the referendum campaign turned on a simple, persuasive slogan. "Marijuana: No violence, no hangovers, no carbs!" So why not just decriminalize the stuff and leave it at that?
Where all the budtenders are cheery
Good Chemistry is located on a semi-seedy street a few blocks from the state capitol building. Pot stores are called "dispensaries," a holdover from the days when they sold only to medical patients. Most of them have a large green cross to indicate how healthful they are. The industry is eager to shed its shady past and position its products as healing, pure and scientific.
Good Chemistry's slogan is "science, access, dignity, compassion." There are security bars on the frosted-glass door, and you have to show your ID to prove your age. Dispensaries need security guards to protect the inventory, and also the cash. (Because of federal banking regulations, the marijuana industry remains a cash-only business.) A long marble-top counter separates the customers from the goods, which are tidily arrayed in clear glass jars. Everything is clean and spare, almost antiseptic. A display of gleaming glass lab beakers accentuates the scientific note.
My budtender is Halley, a cheery young woman with a braid. All the budtenders are cheery. Halley says she pretty much uses pot all day long. She moved to Colorado from Illinois, where, she says, "I was constantly being prosecuted." She loves living here. She has turned her dad on to marijuana cookies.
Halley takes me through the indicas and sativas, and I settle on an eighth of Master Kush ($30, plus 29 per cent tax). I also buy a couple of peanut-butter cookies, a pack of Awakening Mints and a vape pen. Vape pens don't emit smoke, only vapour, so you can use them anywhere, if you're discreet. They are also good for portion control. You can take a drag or two from time to time and stay enhanced for hours. My vape pen is pink and has a little vial of hash oil that's inserted in it. It comes with a battery recharging cord, which plugs into your computer.
It's a long way from the days when I tried to roll a doobie and all the stuff spilled out on my lap.
I rush back to my hotel room and decide to start with the cookie. I want to be super-careful, because marijuana these days is about four times stronger than the stuff I used to smoke. Last fall Maureen Dowd, the New York Times writer, came to Denver, overdosed on a cookie, and wrote a column about it. Everybody here is mad at her. They think she did it on purpose.
I wait for the cookie to kick in, but before it does I fall asleep.
'We don't want Wild West legislation here'
Leading policy experts in both Canada and the United States now believe that marijuana should be decriminalized. But they also warn that rampant commercialization is incompatible with public health objectives. They argue that marijuana production, distribution, sales and marketing should be tightly controlled – that is, that it should not just be decriminalized but made legal, and brought under the regulatory authority of governments.
Simple decriminalization does not address the problem of the criminal gangs who sell and profit from it. But most of all, ending prohibition is crucial for minimizing the harm marijuana is already doing.
For heavy users, marijuana can do a lot of damage: In February, a CAMH study reported that 1.3 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and up (380,000 people) "could be considered to be dependent on or to misuse cannabis" and estimated that "between 76,000 and 95,000 people receive treatment each year for cannabis-related problems."
"If we pull this drug from the underworld into the legal realm, we will have a chance to regulate, influence its usage, and try to prevent a lot of the harms we are concerned about," says Benedikt Fischer, senior scientist at CAMH and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. "We don't want Wild West legalization here," he adds. "That's not in the interest of public health."
But in some ways we've already started down that road, he points out. In Canada, the medical marijuana market is already commercialized. Major players are scrambling to gain a toehold because they're betting that legalization for recreational use will come next, just as it has in Colorado and Washington.
Last fall CAMH, which supports legalization, came up with a set of guidelines, advocating for a state monopoly of the market. Products would be priced high enough to curb demand, but low enough to discourage the black market. Store hours and locations would be limited. Product lines would also be restricted, and higher-potency pot would be curtailed. Marketing, advertising and sponsorship would be prohibited. There would be plenty of public education to discourage misuse and cannabis-impaired driving.
"It is critical that legal reform of cannabis control be conducted with public health as its primary objective and that the resulting regulatory framework be carefully protected from commercial and fiscal interests," the report says.
How effective this would be is unknowable.
In Colorado, Wild West legalization is the way things seem to be going. Although it operates under heavy marketing restrictions, the entire industry is private. Legal marijuana will one day be hugely profitable. And people who want to make money – like those running the cigarette or booze industries – are not primarily interested in public health. They're interested in maximizing profits and building market share, inducing as many people as possible to buy their products. As with booze and cigarettes, their biggest profits come from addicts. Both alcohol and marijuana show similar consumption patterns: Around 20 per cent of the users account for 80 per cent of the use.
The branding exercise
As marijuana goes mainstream, its marketing and public relations have become increasingly sophisticated. The new pot dealers are people like Meg Sanders, chief executive officer of Mindful, a mini-chain of dispensaries, who appeared in an upbeat 60 Minutes piece on legalization earlier this year. Ms. Sanders is blonde, wears a Patagonia jacket, and looks like a soccer mom. Her message is that marijuana isn't really about getting high.
"There are so many healthy benefits to this plant," she enthuses. "And there are so many opportunities to treat various ailments and conditions or potentially prevent them. There are children now using this for seizures. I have people who take this because cancer runs in their family, and they are using this product hoping not to get that."
The Mindful store is calm and restful. It reminds me of a yoga studio. "Our goal is to create a safe and enjoyable experience to purchase cannabis," she says. In marketing jargon, her company's goal is to occupy the wellness space, and its strategy is to rebrand pot as health food.
"I liken this much more to the supplements market than to alcohol or tobacco," she tells me. "For some people it allows you to focus. Or it enhances your experience on a hike or enhances your yoga experience. There's a huge benefit for women in general, especially for women in their 40s and 50s when you're not sleeping that well. And it's much safer than a lot of the other alternatives out there."
It's so safe, Ms. Sanders tells me, that her mother uses it. In fact, according to the industry executives I met, all their mothers use it. "My mom takes it for her arthritis," Ms. Sanders says.
She's clearly doing something right: Mindful's dispensaries are grossing $18-million a year.
In fact, the health benefits of cannabis are largely unknown. There's no doubt that it alleviates certain types of pain, and it's excellent for relaxation and stress relief. But until there is a lot more research, all other health claims – and they are extravagant – should be treated with the utmost skepticism.
In the back room
For now, only a minority of users are soccer moms who are interested in healthy mindfulness. They are far outnumbered by young men in their 20s who are are interested in getting as wasted as humanly possible. Some of them are out to set new records for how much THC a single human being can consume, and live to boast about it.
My guide to their world is a woman named Susan Squibb, also known as the Cannabis Maven.
Ms. Squibb's day job is operations manager for a testing lab which analyzes the purity, pesticide content and THC levels of legal marijuana. Her other job is to write a column for The Cannabist. There she answers readers' questions on anything from law and employment issues to the latest products and social trends.
"I'll take you to a place where we can smoke with other people," she says. "It will give you some idea of cannabis culture." She gives me an address and tells me to bring my kush and my vape pen.
In Colorado, using cannabis in public is illegal. Pot cafés are not allowed (yet). But there are pot speakeasies. And this is one, located in the back room of a store that sells cannabis paraphernalia. I recognize Susan right away because she's dressed like a person who has an office job, and is twice as old as everybody else.
A friendly red-haired kid is at the door to greet us. He gives us a six-page waiver to sign that absolves the store of all responsibility for whatever is about to happen to us. This is our application for membership to the "club." A pungent haze fills the back room, which has grungy furniture and a blaring sound system. The tables are strewn with rigs, ashes, bits of metal equipment. Two dozen guys in their 20s are gathered round the tables. They're dressed alike, in baseball caps, tattoos and scraggly facial hair, and they're firing away with serious-looking blowtorches.
"Most of these guys are dabbing," Susan tells me. When people tell you how harmless marijuana is, they don't mention dabbing. Dabbers prefer heavy-duty products such as waxes, shatters, nug runs, and all manner of high-potency concentrates – to 90 per cent THC – which they put in a rig and blast with heat to make it vaporize. Then they inhale the fumes. People say it feels like being shot through outer space at warp speed.
Dabbing is a thriving subculture, with customs and rituals and specialized gear. You can buy elaborate glass pipes – works of art, really. One dabber I met showed me a picture of the pipe he craved. It was a metre-long glass sculpture shaped like a machine gun, and the price was $12,000.
Susan and I make our way through the dabbing room and find a low couch and table where we can pull out our stashes. She gives me a disposable cardboard pipe to use, and shows me how to shave some flower and tamp it down into the little metal bowl. We light up. I inhale, and break out into a coughing fit.
"What do you think?"
I choke, with tears in my eyes. She tries it out and agrees that it's a little rough.
I inhale again, gingerly. After two or three draws, my cough subsides and I feel relaxed and happy. My entire body seems lighter. The effect is like three or four glasses of chardonnay, but without the heavy, woozy feel. It's nothing like the stoned sensation I remember, when all I wanted to do was curl up into a fetal position and eat jelly doughnuts.
I ask Susan how she got to be the Cannabis Maven. Before she can answer, a guy in a ball cap stumbles by. He seems seriously wasted. Susan offers him some weed, and he gratefully accepts. That's one nice thing about marijuana culture. They believe in sharing.
My normal mood state is somewhere between wound up and tightly wound up. (Ask anyone.) But after a little weed, I feel benign good will toward the entire world. My encrusted layers of inhibition and anxiety are gently dissolving. I am serene, yet focused. It strikes me that this is the state one hopes to achieve through meditation.
"I feel like a much nicer person," I blurt. "Thank you so, so much." It's probably the most intimate confession I have ever made to a total stranger.
This is your developing brain on pot
Marijuana causes less human wreckage than alcohol. It makes millions of people happy and relieves suffering. So what's the downside?
Dr. Paula Riggs is director of the Division of Substance Dependence in the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She is an expert on the effects of marijuana on the developing brain.
Let's start in utero. Most women who use marijuana are of childbearing age. Some pregnant women use it to treat nausea.
Bad idea. "Three longitudinal studies show that babies exposed regularly to cannabis in utero had problems from infancy," she says. "They have irregular sleep cycles, and they're irritable and harder to calm. In preschool they have cognitive deficits and reasoning problems. By middle school they show problems with abstract reasoning, memory, communication, verbal skills and decision making. The bottom line is poor academic performance."
In other words, women who are pregnant should not consume this product.
Then there are the kids who get really sick from eating pot-infused cookies and candies that adults leave lying around.
But the biggest problem is among adolescents and young adults: 43 per cent of Canada's heavy pot users – the ones described by StatsCan as dependent or prone to misuse – are males 15 to 24. It's quite clear that cannabis is neurotoxic to brain development, which continues through adolescence and into your 20s, Dr. Riggs says.
"THC can disrupt development of the prefontal cortex," she explains. "Adolescents who start regularly using marijuana before the age of 17 have neurocognitive deficits that may not be fully reversible with abstinence." Several studies also suggest that cannabis use before the age of 18 increases the risk of developing schizophrenia.
The trends in adolescent use are mostly bad. More and more kids believe that marijuana is safe. Researchers say that one in six adolescents who smoke marijuana regularly will progress to dependence, meaning daily or near-daily use. (That compares to one in 11 adults.) "We have 10 to 15 per cent of adolescents who would qualify as abusers," Dr. Riggs estimates. Heavy cannabis use has also spiked among males in their 20s – the kind of guys who were dabbing at the club. The heaviest users of marijuana are not hipster professionals who consume it like fine wine; they are men in their 20s through early 40s who didn't make it to university.
The U.S. beer industry does $100-billion a year in sales. Pot entrepreneurs aim to be the new beer industry.
"Billion-dollar brands will be established in this industry," Tripp Keber tells me, and he hopes his will be one of them. Mr. Keber is the CEO of Dixie Edibles & Elixirs, the company that made my peanut-butter cookie. His real goal is not to satisfy your sweet tooth. His goal is to come up with new delivery systems for cannabis.
"The future of cannabis is not the smoke-able kind," he says. He shows me the prototype of a new container for his line of marijuana drinks. "You can buy an ounce of weed everywhere. But in very few places can you reach out and grab this 8.5-ounce brushed aluminum bottle that offers 75 milligrams of active THC."
Edibles are popular because you can consume them anywhere. You don't have to inhale. Also, they offer the option of a lower dose. But quality control in the edibles field has been erratic. Two identical cookies can have vastly different levels of THC. Dixie wants to dominate the market by offering the highest standards. "From balms and bath soaks to tinctures and truffles, each of our products offers premium, consistent and reliable results you can trust," its promotional literature promises.
Its latest product, called Toasted Rooster, is a chocolate bar with pepita seeds and artisanal chocolate. It's billed as "cannabis for the ganja gourmet." It's not on the market yet so I can't tell you how it tastes, but it looks scrumptious.
I ask if he's worried that the big guys will come along and eat his lunch. "No!" he says. "They are going to absorb my company. Big alcohol and big tobacco will be in this space. And every morning I go into my office and put a little lipstick on because I want to look good for them."
Andy Williams, the CEO of Medicine Man, has mapped a different road to riches. First he's going to expand his dispensaries across the state. Then, as other states open up, he'll expand across the country. "I want to be the Costco of marijuana," he says.
Mr. Williams is an exuberant, bear-like character in raggedy jeans and a Medicine Man T-shirt. He's impossible not to like. He says his dispensaries are insanely profitable, but he's plowing it all back into the business.
"The key is vertical integration," he tells me. Most of his products come from his own grow-op, which occupies a 40,000-square-foot warehouse near the airport and produces 6,500 tons of pot a year. The state tracks every plant. "As soon as we take a cutting, we add an audio frequency identification tag that follows the plant through its life."
Medicine Man currently grows 57 strains of weed. One of the more unlikely ones is Cat Piss Romulan. It's named after its aroma – and an alien race in Star Trek.
"The genetics are pretty incredible now," he says, as we stick our noses into buckets of freshly harvested pot. It occurs to me that if market forces really get a grip, Medicine Man will not be the Costco of marijuana. Costco will be the Costco of marijuana.
Despite the exotic-sounding strains, cannabis is destined to become a commodity business with commodity prices. Currently, a pound of wholesale weed goes for around $1,500. Mr. Williams figures he can push the cost down to $800 or less. Beau Kilmer, a marijuana policy expert with the Rand Corporation, thinks that, when mass industrialization takes hold, the cost could go down to $40.
Here's where public policy and capitalism clash again. To minimize consumption, you want to keep the price up. But if you're interested in profits, you want to keep the price down and grow the market. On the other hand, pot is incredibly cheap to produce, so if the price is set too high, the black market will flourish.
Don't let anybody tell you marijuana policy is easy.
You can smoke on the bus
On my last day in Denver, I board the Cannabis Express. It is a sleek, 50-foot-long black bus with tinted windows. For $99, it will take you and 29 fellow stoners on a five-hour tour of two dispensaries, a grow-op and a glass shop that sells a boggling array of hand-blown artisanal pipes and rigs. You get discounts. Best of all, you can smoke on the bus. All you want.
The bus is still sitting in the parking lot, and already people are in a merry mood, breaking out their stashes and passing them around. A guy wearing a backward baseball cap offers me a joint. I ask him why he's here and find out that he's doing research, too. He grows a lot of weed and wants to see how the big guys do it. He tells me he can detect a hundred different strains just by their smell.
"Don't forget to hydrate!" says our tour guide, a perky young woman in her 20s. She gives us paper wristbands so that we won't get lost. People tend to wander off sometimes.
It turns out that half the people on the bus want to get into the marijuana business. "I almost have my business plan together but I can't talk about it yet," confides a man named Traves. He says he moved his family here from Texas so that he could get medical marijuana for his chronic back pain. He swears that he's completely functional when he's high. "I take conference calls. It's not a problem."
Two women are here from Nebraska. They're sisters. I ask why they came on the tour. They think the question is unbelievably dumb. "Nebraska is boring," says one.
I notice that Traves is ingesting more weed than I thought possible. Eventually he slumps in his seat, incoherent. Everyone else is beaming with delight. They agree that this is the best tour they've ever taken. The bus heads back to the hotel, where they will gather for a final celebratory toke on the roof of the parking garage. (Legally it's a private space, so that's okay).
I, alas, must head to the airport. I have a bag of stash I can't take home. I ask our tour guide for advice. "Sometimes people give it to the homeless," she suggests. I end up giving it to Traves.
Marijuana attained mass popularity as a counterculture drug. It was a statement against capitalism and the Man. But if capitalism has its way, it will become medication for the masses, just the thing to keep them relaxed and happy. For many reasons, legalization is the least-bad option. And capitalism will probably be the biggest winner.