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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Fear and Self-Loathing in Denver (Part 2)

A Literary Homage from the Depraved Center of a Cultural Revolution


Link to Part I



Responsibility, the Marijuana Mile, and a Gathering of Unwashed Buffoons - 20 April, 2015

“Well, there’s always the ‘Marijuana Mile,’” JD tells us, as I pack a bowl. “If you’re looking to hit up a dispensary, Broadway is just weed shop after weed shop.”

It was a pleasant surprise, last night, when we arrived at his home, to be greeted by someone who wasn’t, as I’d expected, asleep or, worse yet, drunk and wild. After a long car journey to an indeterminate destination, where you only know that you are staying with friends of friends, Murphy’s Law dictates that there will either not be enough space for everyone to sleep or your host will be drunk and violent. Or maybe I’m a pessimist. It’s hard to say. I was honestly sort of looking forward to it. I may have just been projecting, as swilling whiskey for the six hours on the way up had certainly put me in a roguish disposition. Perhaps it was the fact that halfway to our destination, we received word that our original intended host was sick, and had to alter our plan. “Surely this will go wrong in some other way. Surely we are headed for the kind of chaotic night of couch-surfing that always yields a good story,” I wailed silently in my own head, as I pretended to nap in the back seat. I did not want to agitate my compatriots. They have a very different attitude than I do about getting into weird adventures with strange people. Give me a drunken hooligan to follow around a strange city, and I’ll have the time of my life. My friends, on the other hand, are the kind of folks who pack an actual bag – and with clothes, at that, as opposed to booze, drug paraphernalia, and note-taking materials – when going on a weekend trip, instead of just loading up their equipment satchel and hitting the road. I mean no judgment in that account, I simply wanted to articulate this difference in our intents for this trip. They were on vacation. I was doing serious work.

As I stumbled out of the car into the darkness, gathering my effects, my friends tried to identify which of the similar, fenceless, unmarked houses we were bound for. JD stepped out of the one we were parked in front of just in time to call out to my stoned comrades before they got so far down the block he’d wake the whole block. An encouraging start. Inside, we were greeted by his roommate, Sam, who immediately offered us beers that had been abandoned in their fridge longer than anyone cared to get into the specifics of. Also wonderful. It wasn’t until I went to the kitchen to input their wireless password into my phone that I realized I was dealing with responsible people. None of the word combination/birthdate nonsense jokers like myself use to secure their internet access, these guys had a 15-digit randomized string of jibberish that spoke directly to the tech-savy of at least one of the residents in the house. A wave of relief washed over me, because as much as I may have been excited about the prospect of partying all weekend with strangers in a strange land, I appreciated the value of a ballast; a person reasonable enough to discourage my more mischievous inclinations, and perhaps even explain the laws surrounding the regulation of my favorite recreational substance.

Also, being in the company of someone who isn’t swinging for the proverbial fences of depravity tends to keep the team a little more on-task. For instance, at the present moment, we are trying to figure out what to do for breakfast. While we’ve been sidetracked several times since the discussion began half an hour ago with two bowls traveling in opposite directions around the room, JS has managed to keep us relatively focused on our eventual goal of nourishment. After all, he has to work today. It is Monday. We’ve merely detoured into a plan to get coffee first… And maybe hit up a dispensary… Maybe we should smoke a joint first. I’m grinding weed for the joint, as JD pontificates on the logistics of doing both in the span of 30 yards, and we all wait for Zenon to get done in the bathroom.

I’m glad to have run into JD. My biggest worry, as I’ve mentioned before, is that this trip will only make me stare in the face of the inadequacies of people my age. I’m afraid that coming out of here, I will have confirmed every ugly stereotype I’ve ever been boiled down to by a person over 40, and – while I’d be perfectly comfortable if that was simply a negative reflection on me – I don’t know if I can tolerate being part of a generation defined by all the least admirable parts of my character. Meeting JD reminds me, fairly early on, that there are many level-headed, responsible – dare I say, even conservative – members of my peer group. This became clear to me earlier this morning when he walked in to the living room in which my troop of miscreants was waking up, dressed for work 5 hours ahead of schedule. “You working soon?” we asked, casually, trying to discern how quickly we needed to vacate the premises.

“No,” he replied, “It’s just a thing I do; get dressed and get ready for the day. I just hate feeling like I wasted a day.”

I marveled at his resolve, “One of my favorite things is wasting entire days.”

Folks like JD give me a lot of hope for what the future will look like. He is a reasonable person. This is something I admire very much in people, as it’s a very rare quality, and one I possess little of myself. He doesn’t seem the type to argue a point he doesn’t feel strongly about, and the things he feels strongly about seem to be informed in a very logical way. He has a decent job that follows a legitimate career path, but despite being put in charge of large groups of young people most weekdays, he hasn’t renounced the carefree attitudes that brought the rest of us up here this weekend. It takes a very balanced person to be able to celebrate 4/20 with his friends, without feeling obligated to completely unplug, as he’s now reminded us several times, “It is Monday…”

“So what do you think,” I ask him, donning my journalist face while holding in a hit and passing the bowl off to Amy, on my left, “About this whole legalization, thing? You live here. I’m sure it’s changed a lot.”

He laughs and considers the loaded, open-ended question for a moment as I eye him bemusedly, waiting to see what direction he’ll take it in. “I mean… It’s great,” he starts, his tone indicating that the overall impact of the change could be viewed as nothing but a net positive, “But they messed up in the rollout. The main thing I have a qualm with is that, at first, they forgot to limit where [dispensaries] could be opened, and when they first came out, they went up everywhere; next to elementary schools, a few blocks from a high school…”

As he finishes the sentence, it’s clear to me that he’s speaking from his professional experience working with teens and pre-teens, and with an intimate understanding of their attitudes toward the substance during that developing, emotionally volatile time. “It’s not even about it being tempting. It’s kind of like putting a “Cash for Gold” place right next to a high school. There’s a type of place I think we should keep ‘clean.’ I don’t even think there should be fast food in those places.” He laughs, realizing the sound business idea he’s stumbled on, “They should put the dispensaries and the McDonalds in the same place.”

A lot of our elders would be surprised, shocked, or even offended to know that this rising, talented teacher – a future leader in the education of the next generation – is a member of my tribe. But to people my age, when we look back on our favorite teachers, it’s intuitive. One of the keys to being an effective educator is an open mind.

As we get ready and pack our stuff back in the car, he relates to me one of his early experiences with legal edible weed. “For a while [knowing your dose] was a problem with the edibles they were selling; they weren’t portioned. You didn’t know how much weed you were consuming. One time I got a chocolate bar that was like 200 mg, but it was super small. How do you portion that? And then it crumbles on you, so you have no idea.”

I smile at him, repeating my mantra for the trip, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

“But that’s not what I wanted. I just wanted to go to sleep, y’know?”

In the long run, as systems of regulation are established and develop, the main advantage to legal pot sales will be a decrease in that kind of ambiguity, and all the other uncomfortable grey areas that surround procuring weed. Everyone has a story about a sketchy situation they’ve been in while trying to score. Generally, it’s nothing particularly dangerous, but we’ve all had that annoyingly vulnerable experience of waiting for a stranger in a parking lot, or having to knock on a door or call a phone number under vague instructions from a friend. Not to mention idiotic passwords and veil-thin ruses that any police could see right through if there was anything left to gain from arresting potheads. The reason pot legalization is such an obvious inevitability is because our whole lives we’ve all always been able to buy pot – that was never the problem – now it’s just more consistent and organized. The criminality was what brought that element of danger and fear of being cheated.

As Amy points out, “A lot of friends’ parents grew it. Everyone could get it,” but when you buy weed on the street – even from your best friend or your uncle – it’s a difficult and unreliable process determining the origins (and, more importantly, growing conditions) of your pot. With legitimacy, things like organic certification, quality control, reporting, and accountability all come into play. Of course, along with those things, also comes a bottom line, and a class of businesspeople that will do anything to ensure that bottom line, regardless of what may need to be compromised in the process. At this point that makes little difference to the culture that has developed among habitual pot smokers over the last half century, but when companies like Walmart or Johnson and Johnson get into the weed business, the entire game will change. Right now, most of the companies involved in the legitimate recreational (and medicinal – many do both) marijuana trade are startups run by people who got into the business because of their initial involvement with the culture. But when the red tape starts to fall away on a national level, and the entities with REAL money get involved, they won’t be just poking around casually, they will be diving in with long-existing five year plans, and looking to corner whatever aspect of the market they are best logistically set up to take over. Consider a future, 20 years from now, where Monsanto is a leading supplier of marijuana seeds, Phillip Morris owns the fields and processing plants, Johnson and Johnson runs the tinctures, oils, and waxes, and Walmart sells the whole lot from their pharmacy. It’s a worst case scenario, but it’s not an impossibility at this point. That’s eventually where we’re headed. But the long road between here and there will be interesting and full of forks. Some of the early comers to the game will carve out a large enough niche for themselves to get bought out by, or even compete with the corporate players – but it will be a bloodbath when the floodgates open, and that time will eventually come. As consumers we will have a role in determining the development of that market, as we always have. Unfortunately a lot of us don’t really pay attention to the ethics behind the businesses we support, especially when they’re legal.

Emerging from the bathroom, Zenon reaches into his pocket and pulls out a $1 bill, reminding us of our planned purpose – he heard most of the conversation about dispensaries through the door. “I’m ready to buy today…” he says, smugly, displaying the bill, “Me and Mr. Benjamin.”

“That’s George,” I reply.

He looks down at the note stretched between his thumbs and index fingers, “… George Benjamin… The first president to fly a kite… On the moon…”


Depending on which direction you go down Broadway from the coffee shop we just walked out of, it’s either 50 or 100 yards before you reach the first pot dispensary – unless you cross the street, in which case it’s more like 20, discounting the distance to the corner and back from it after crossing. The first dispensary we come to has a line out the door, because they are giving away free donuts, and, as we have coffee, and are in no mood for either waiting or donuts, we simply turn around and walk to the next pot shop. If I had to pick my favorite circumstance of Denver’s marijuana boom, it’s that I’ve never had that wide a selection in buying anything.

That said, the choices quickly become overwhelming. I have a confession that may lose me a little bit of credibility in certain circles: I can’t tell the difference between different strains of pot. If it’s obviously different looking or smelling, fine – but I’ve been smoking pot for over a decade in some occasionally obscene quantities, and I have never been able to tell the difference between an Indica and a Sativa, or been able to identify a strain without being told. I’ve held 3 “iterations” of the same strain before (one indoor, one outdoor, and another indoor that was improperly manicured), and as far as I could tell, they were totally different from one another. And the sad fact of the matter is that they were different from one another – in some ways more different than many individual strains are from one another. You see, the way pot is grown, the point in its development at which it’s harvested, the color of the lights used, the way it was cured, handled, and packaged after harvest – all these things have more to do with the potency and characteristics of the high than just the genetics. It’s pretty easy, visually, to determine the difference between “good pot” and “bad pot,” and I suppose it’s trivially interesting to know the tested THC content, but in practical terms, once you get past a certain level of quality – take a breath, sit down, strap in – there’s no fucking difference.

Which is why the dispensaries don’t really impress me. It’s like going to the houses of many street-level dealers I’ve known over the years, who simply present you with 5 or 6 jars of very similar-looking marijuana on a sliding price scale, and you pick one – only with four times as many jars and with a lot more cameras watching. The sales personnel are helpful, I suppose, but aside from giving me specific measurements of THC content on the edibles and vague descriptions of the “high” from the different strains they had, nobody can empirically or even comparatively qualify any of the claims they make.

“These cookies have 10g of THC in each.”

“What does that mean?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How high will that get me?”

“Well that depends on your tolerance.”

“Well, compared to smoking a bowl.”

“That depends on the marijuana.”

Do you see the problem here? It’s the same problem I’ve always had when buying weed, and while state regulations attempt to require some sort of labeling and explanation of potency, none of that information is any more useful to me than knowing the speed at which my car’s airbags will deploy in the event of an accident. So the only difference now is that I’m not buying pot from a friend, I’m dealing with a stranger who’s just as weird as any pot dealer I’ve ever met, but not familiar to me, and so the situation is awkward. They’re wonderful weirdos though.

The “security” guy who took our IDs at the door is hesitant to give me his name, but overjoyed to talk my ear off when I tell him I’m on assignment writing about the weed revolution. He’s been involved in the business, of course, far longer than it’s been legitimate. He tells me about how many of the early dispensaries were opened by former large-scale dealers, but the majority of those were shut down when the state passed a law requiring dispensary owners to have a clean felony record.

“You want to see the biggest difference since all this started?” he explains, “You go out on the street and you check out the cops as they’re rolling by. Three years ago it was all old Crown Vics, and now every one’s driving a brand new Charger or Impala.” I suppose irony is a hallmark of these sort of societal changes.


Now armed with coffee, a smorgasbord of marijuana infused snacks, pre-rolled joints and a few loose grams of local top shelf cannabis (the employees at the dispensary were confused that we brought coffee with us, as though none of them had ever heard of a “hippy speedball”), we part ways with JD and set forth on our quest. It is five minutes to noon, and we have been “getting moving” for the past three hours. We had originally planned to get to the Cannabis Cup early, meet up with some friends, and try to hit as many sample stands as we could before they ran out – for research – but it becomes immediately clear to us after a second joint that we must first consume a hearty breakfast if we expect to last until the eponymous time of today’s celebration.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to me that restaurants modeled after old cowboy hangouts are so conducive to stoner patrons. Swift’s is an old-fashioned diner that, 55 years ago, when it opened, probably catered almost entirely to the redneck stereotypes we all envision John Denver fans to be. Beards, flannel shirts, perhaps an axe or a six-gun in tow… These mountain folk still very much define the state of Colorado, and because the conservative end of the state’s political spectrum is primarily made up of them, it’s easy to see why the state was among the first to push legalization through. Even they – before the racist, scare tactic propaganda of the 1920s and 30s – were once potheads. Hemp had once been an important cash crop in the American West, largely due to its hardiness and resilience even in drought-prone climates. It’s not surprising that, before the alcohol lobby served up marijuana criminalization as a tool for bigoted, white politicians to further terrorize minorities – who used it more prevalently than their constituents – many people of all races and walks of life in this area, which was then much less densely populated, economically well-off, and therefore more open to cultural exchange, smoked pot. So it’s only natural that the strange, kitschy little cowboy diners you find in hip towns in Colorado, California, and the Pacific Northwest are now generally sustained by stoners. The casual atmosphere, low overhead, the wacky menus and décor, and the dense, greasy, salty food are perfect for us. And for all our giggling and nonsense, they seem to love us, too.

Before we parted ways, JD mentioned that a good place to check out might be the lawn of the State Capitol building downtown. Every year since the legalization, crowds have gathered on their lawmakers’ doorstep on April 20th, and indulged, while expressing… well… that part is complicated. You see, this year, a permit was obtained to hold the event over the weekend. For the past two days, the area surrounding the park was roped off, and there were musical performances, vendors, food, drinks, and an entire sanctioned event. However, the permit was not granted for the actual day itself. The powers that be were apparently willing to humor the stoners for a weekend, and let them have their bizarre little gathering, but not on a Monday. I suppose that’s reasonable, but it’s a stupid deal to try to make for a number of reasons, foremost among which is that the decades of criminalizing pot culture has for at least the foreseeable future connected that culture with society’s underbelly.

Potheads wanted to have a party in the park on a specific day. They were told they could have the weekend before that day. Most reasonable potheads said, “Sure, that’s fair,” and attended then. And then the workday after rolled around, and while many of those same reasonable potheads will definitely partake in copious quantities of marijuana today, the more die-hard among us (read: “those with a chip on their shoulder and nothing better to do”) came out to the Capitol lawn again.

As Ty, a ginger teen who just offered me a pipe explains, “It’s basically a peaceful protest.”

“Of what?”

“That we didn’t get to have the permit for 4/20.”

“They just wouldn’t issue it for today?”

“Well… I heard they didn’t get the request in on time, because they didn’t realize 4/20 was on a Monday.”

And so you see, nobody really knows (at least nobody within the 100 yard circle of pot smoke that surrounds me) why this event isn’t officially sanctioned, but everyone knows to do what we’ve always done when we can’t have our way: show up in a big crowd and smoke pot there anyway. Colorado has been having these “weed-ins” on college campuses on this date for years, and I’d wager tidy sums of cash that a vast majority of the kids who attended them credit themselves with pushing the move for legalization by doing so. But looking around me, it just doesn’t add up. All over the country, for the past year, people have been legitimately protesting (and in some cases, violently rioting) in numbers that far exceed this relatively miniscule clutch of teenagers and vagabonds, over the fact that white police keep killing unarmed black civilians. Very little has changed in how our police departments are run, and that’s a way more one-sided and obvious issue than the legal status of a plant. It’s much more likely to me that the economic benefits of pot legalization finally became too obvious for the square community to ignore. It speaks very directly to the primary sickness in our American culture. We could, as a nation, give a flying fuck what happens to individual human lives, until there’s a buck to be turned on it. It also points to the idea that it’s very likely that whoever got the permit for this weekend’s events was doing it solely for the money to be made – money they didn’t expect to make off the crowd gathered today.

The crowd in the park is certainly not a testament to the diversity of the pot-smoking populace. I’ve never seen so many filthy black t-shirts and unwashed pseudo-dreads in one place outside a metal concert. Occasionally a few police ride through on bicycles to ensure that nobody is breaking any laws more serious than smoking pot in a public park. They don’t care about that. They seem more annoyed than anything else. Which is understandable, as every time they try to do their job they are almost instinctively jeered at and heckled by the crowd. I’ve had my share of shitty experiences with power-maddened cops, and I harbor no good will toward the culture they have cultivated in their institutions, but it seems pointless and immature to express when they themselves are being civil. The crowd around me has spent so much time on the other side of the law, that they recognize their enemy immediately by the uniform, without ever considering the person who has to wear it, and the complexities of their humanity.

My friends recognize almost immediately that this is not our crowd, and after a joint with Ty and his friend, we start to make our way back to the car. While I agree with them that this “scene” is a stale cross-section of what most of America imagines potheads look like, I’m worried that it will be closer to what first made me identify with the culture than our next stop, the primary objective of our visit: the High Times Cannabis Cup. The unity these people feel in their disdain for authority is an important part of what made the culture so special to those of us who have been a part of it for the last several decades. Freaks, outcasts, weirdos, and failures of all walks and shapes and sizes found an accepting community among those who shared their love of the funny sort of carelessness you get from a joint. Many of us established our most lasting friendships sitting around and giggling with strangers, when moments before we had felt too awkward to introduce ourselves. Perhaps that’s a large part of why millennials are so fond of the drug; we all have issues with intimacy, and it makes it easier. But while I didn’t necessarily identify with the blind anti-authoritarianism of the gathering we just left, I fear that the gross commercialism I’m about to walk into is going to leave me sincerely distraught about the future of the culture I grew up claiming as my own.

The Cannabis Cup is an Orgy of Capitalism


“So really, to you,” I suggested, “This is just a business expo like any other…”
He smiled congenially and chuckled at the notion. With his clean-cut appearance, polo shirt, and khaki slacks, the man seemed out of place here. In a room full of several thousand red-eyed, baggily clad young ruffians, this slightly overweight security consultant knew as well as I did that he’s the new kid on the scene. In fact, of all the people I talked to this afternoon, he was probably the most honest about his purpose here. “Well, it’s a business expo,” he grinned up at me, “But it’s certainly not like any other.”

This new paradigm of legal recreational marijuana sales has made for some strange bedfellows. Whereas years ago, you’d never find a booth like this (a bunch of clean-cut security professionals selling high powered cameras and monitoring software) at a weed convention, there’s an entire section of vendors here who have nothing to do with the culture of potheads. They came with the industry. They are following the money. As my jolly new friend explained, “Business people are business people, regardless of their line of work.” It’s probably the most American thing I’ve ever heard anyone say.

April 20th is the most important day on the stoner calendar. For the better part of my adolescence it was the only holiday I truly celebrated. In the beginning it wasn’t even so much about getting high. I had a low tolerance, and couldn’t keep up with most habitual stoners. More than the mind-limbering effects of the drug, I appreciated the culture that surrounded it. Simply put, it was the first time I found “my people.”

High Times magazine advertises their symposium of pot as a sort of Disneyland for stoners; a celebration of legalization and the culture’s progress toward legitimacy. I was never under any illusion that it would be this, but I don’t think anything could have truly prepared me for the sheer entrepreneurial depravity of the Cup’s reality. Aside from the omnipresent smoke cloud and the prevalent barrage of bass-heavy reggae beats, the main difference between the Cannabis Cup and any other industry convention is that the end consumers are a large part of the visiting demographic – at $50 a ticket. As a result, the event is less Comic Con, and more Antiques Roadshow. The main purpose of this gathering is marketing.

Of course, as always, when dealing in the legally pubescent realm of marijuana, there is a catch. You see, none of the dispensaries are allowed to sell their product at this convention. So instead of selling, the dispensaries give things away. The mood is what I imagine one would have experienced in a market during the Dark Ages; like a depraved commercial carnival without any of the things that make carnivals fun. One dispensary has a guy walking around on stilts to gain attention, but he is failing, as, not 30 feet away is not a stand, but a stage, advertising Magic Butter with strippers and dancers wearing anthropomorphic neon-green butter heads with googly eyes. One stall has a particularly large crowd gathered around an ostentatious bro, standing above them, pants hanging off his ass, nondescript logo on his sideways-tilted hat, cupping the mic like he’s about to rap battle Eminem, throwing out vape pen kits and encouraging the faded denizens below to “come hang” for 4:20. He makes his living hiring out his services to companies that cannot or will not represent themselves at such events. Like a traveling snake oil salesman in the Old West, he brings nothing new into the world and has no concern for what he’s selling. He just knows he’s good at it and it pays.

Among the stalls for grow supplies, lights, fertilizers, and seeds, the vast majority of vendors are distributing samples of “dabs.” Whether to demonstrate their various portable or complicated rigs, or sample the sundry waxy hash concentrates, most stalls have four or five people perpetually in line to try their wares. The biggest problem with spending an entire day at this event – as anyone who’s ever taken even a single “dab” will tell you – is that this popular new smoking method knocks a hole in your perception so suddenly and firmly that beyond the first few tokes, it’s unlikely you’ll have any idea of what any ensuing hits do for you. Unlike a beer festival or wine tasting, there’s no effective way of consuming hash consistently all day long while retaining any shred of objective perspective.

At 4:19, sitting on a small patch of grass in the gated-in parking lot the event took place in, I look around at the people that surround me, and realize this show has nothing to do with celebrating the culture that developed around habitual marijuana use. As I look around me at the hundreds of faces – joints in mouths, lighters in one hand, phones open to a clock in the other – it is clear that most of them are just shopping. Half are just cheeky tourists, here to “slum it” with the hippies for a day, and tour the strange human zoo their state’s legalization movement bestowed on them. Conventions such as this are the leading edge of American capitalism’s inevitable consumption of all the traditions my friends and I – and those like us across the country – cultivated organically between ourselves. Like the Taco Bell chihuahua, it’s a blatantly commercial mockery of the culture that lies at the heart at some of the dearest friendships I’ve had in my life.

Even the innumerable food trucks are insufficient. Every one perpetually sports a line 15 to 30 people deep, and most will run out of food by 5PM. Looking around at the sweltering parking lot in which the convention is being held, with not a bench to sit on, and only one miniscule, trash-covered patch of grass and trees, in the shadow of a massive grey building, it’s obvious that whoever planned this event knows more about marketing than getting high. They have absolutely no idea what makes marijuana such a wonderful drug in terms of relating to those around you, and are merely attempting to profit off the mass of unwashed freaks that latches onto anything counter-cultural when it becomes “cool.” The High Times Cannabis Cup (and, honestly, the entirety of the magazine’s output) is an attempt at commercializing a culture that has always been defined by its illegitimacy. It is to actual potheads as Hot Topic is to people who listen to rock and roll or Olive Garden to Italians.

After wandering in a circle around the convention grounds for another half hour, we finally find the exit, where we are herded back into school busses by very annoyed-looking security personnel, and ferried back to the parking lots. They are conveniently located about half an hour away, where any traffic accidents will be more difficult to link to the Pot Fair. Like in any commercial venture, once they were done selling us things, we were of no more use to them. But we are responsible people. So we sit in the car a while, until someone feels capable of driving. Zenon rolls a joint. You know, to take the edge off.

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