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Colorado cannabis: Here's what it's like to legally buy marijuana

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It’s around 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in Edgewater, Colorado and Jack Patterson (not his real name) has just become among the first people in the world to legally purchase recreational marijuana. With his close-cropped beard and skin that looks weathered by outdoor activity, the 34-year-old is the very image of a native Coloradan. I ask him how it feels to buy recreational pot from a retail store.

“It feels like this is something that’s been a long time coming, but at the same time, it feels somewhat scary in a way. Because when you think about it, all this really rests on a memorandum that was issued by the President stating that they’re not going to be [treating recreational marijuana sales] as a high criminal law enforcement priority. So it’s exciting, but at the same time very tenuous, because you don’t know how long it will last.” It’s understandable that he would focus on the turn-a-blind-eye policy that’s allowing Colorado to sell up to an ounce of pot to adults over the age of 21 in spite of it’s flagrant violation of federal drug laws: Patterson is an attorney.

***

There are about 30 people in line at Northern Lights Natural Rx when my friend and I arrive around 8 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2014. Contrary to the assumption that pot was legalized on New Year’s Day, marijuana has actually been legal in Colorado since Dec. 10, 2012, about a month after voters approved America’s first legalization measure via ballot initiative. Jan. 1 is the first day it’s legal to purchase pot at retail stores and about 15 medical marijuana dispensaries in the Denver area have received the necessary licenses to open for recreational sales. When asked about the process of getting things in order for recreational sales, Northern Lights’ owner Mitch Woolhiser sighs and says “I think I’ve worked 14 hours a day for the past month.” From the look on his face, you believe him, but Woolhiser also has a general air of enthusiasm mixed with anxiety that’s common to any small business owner on opening day.

“A lot of hoops to jump through but it’s going to be worth it in the long run,” Woolhiser says.

He’s not kidding about the hoops. From security cameras that are required to capture the customer and employee’s faces with “sufficient clarity to determine identity,” to the elaborate “seed-to-sale” tracking system that mandates radio-frequency tagging on the plants, daily inventory measurements at the store, and batch identification numbers that could, for example, trace pot shipped out of state to the time and point of purchase (with the help of the security cameras), there’s a bevy of (some would say needlessly restrictive) details dispensary owners must adhere to for regulatory compliance. Yet there’s also an admirable and intentional transparency to the regulations that could go a long way toward reducing the whiff of illicitness that clings to marijuana entrepreneurs.

And nothing legitimizes business proprietorship in America quite like taxes. I purchased one gram each of a sativa and indica (more on that in a minute) for a subtotal of $23.62. After five separate taxes are added on, I pay $31.41. By my admittedly shoddy math skills, that’s a tax rate of nearly 25%. We’re in Edgewater, not Denver, so I believe my tax rate may have been even more there. Someone mentions that Boulder (which has yet to finalize municipal regulations for retail stores) is considering city tax that would raise the total tax rate to nearly 50%.

***

By indication of the long crowd of people snaking in front of the other businesses in the newish strip of stores that houses Northern Lights, people will happily pay high taxes in exchange for legal pot. When we arrive around 8 a.m., it looks like there are about 30 people in line. By the time we queue up around 8:30, that number’s grown to probably 45. This is actually a relatively small crowd; the Denver Post reported that the line at one dispensary downtown was 300 deep by 10 a.m.

It could have something to do with it being earlier than 9 o'clock in the morning after New Year’s Eve, but the demographic skews surprisingly old; forty and fifty-somethings outnumber twenty and thirty-somethings by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1. A solid majority are men. Everyone is extremely friendly, if a bit bleary (due to the hour and, perhaps, you know...). The cherubic woman in front of us looks like a school librarian and the man behind us is a 57-year-old plumber. Employees from a Dunkin’ Donuts that serendipitously opened next door less than a week ago pass out donut samples and one of the store’s many exceedingly polite employee’s periodically pops outside and offers customers a marijuana fact sheet with a pot-themed puzzle and a maze on the back.

It takes us 90 minutes to get inside the store, and another 30 before we’re at the counter. Not a single person is overheard complaining about the wait.

***

During our time in line, we learn that our new plumber friend is looking to buy the type of pot that will help with his arthritis, blood pressure, and pain issues. Northern Lights Natural Rx has that kind and many others. Once inside and let through the waiting area, customers have their ID’s checked and are lead behind a door to another type of waiting room, with chairs, sofas, and a dry-erase board advertising their daily wares. These do change daily, we’re told by the friendly 50-ish woman who gave us the fact sheet/ puzzle. With the brisk business they’re doing today, I absolutely believe her.

Numerous employees are available to answer questions about styles, strains, and types of products. The presumptive librarian teaches me a mnemonic about the differences between an indica (“In ‘da couch”) and sativa (“Sativ-UP!”). Flipping through a binder that lists their various strains using descriptors like “mellow,” “euphoria” and “anti-anxiety,” I settle on Grape Ape (“relaxing, anti-depression”) as my indica and Apollo 13 (“creativity, clear-headed”) as my sativa.

Mitch, Northern Lights’ owner, is the guy manning the counter when it’s finally my time to order. “What are you looking for?” he asks. It’s a query I've heard countless times back in the prehistoric days when you had to talk to that one specific friend in order to get weed, and it was always posed in terms of quantity. Hearing it asked in relation to styles, strains, and preferences sends my little heart aflutter.

Turns out Grape Ape isn't available so Mitch suggests Dacono Kush, a hybrid of Bubblegum (which my attorney friend got) and something else with a ridiculous name. Major horticultural advances are being made by the growers cross-pollinating these various strains and these botanical breakthroughs are christened with titles like Spacedawg, Jilly Bean, and Timewreck. It’s one of the ten funniest things about pot.

Because banks are understandably fearful of working with businesses whose legality remains in question, all transactions must be done in cash. Lucky for my friend, he got the last bit of money out of the ATM in the waiting area before it stopped working. I give Mitch $42 and he hands me back $10.59 in change, along with a receipt. At the bottom is an enthusiastic note: “You saved $0.83!”

***

My friend and I receive cheers when we leave the store with our wildly conspicuous opaque bags containing the marijuana we just bought. The huzzahs are partly out of relief that there are two less customers inside the store, but partly because people are only willing to stand in line for two hours to get pot if they view it as being part of history, and maybe even as an act of political defiance. All the lazy pot jokes that have been made at Colorado’s expense in recent weeks undermine the fact that the voter-initiated and approved legalization is a clear and unequivocal repudiation of our now decades-old war on drugs. In an even broader sense, it’s a colossal refutation of so-called “Washington values,” an idea so mainstream it’s become the centerpiece of republican/ tea party talking points since Obama took office. This goes a long way toward explaining how pot got legalized in a state that’s also heavy on right-wing-affiliated religious organizations like Focus on the Family (although Colorado Springs, where many of them are based, has banned retail sales).

Whatever reason for its passage, the events unfolding outside of a strip-mall in Denver on Jan. 1 could have major repercussions for America’s drug policies down the line. It also speaks to even grander notions of a state’s right to fashion laws that don’t conform with broader federal policies, the central issue of the Civil War. In other words, Jack Patterson didn’t show up at 7:45 a.m. on his day off to buy pot because he’s weed-addicted junkie in need of a fix. He did it because, because regardless of your feelings about the drug, this is a monumental occasion for both America and Colorado, one of her finest jewels.

“The political winds seem to shift pretty regularly up in Washington,” Patterson says. “The temporary liberty interests these people have been granted to sell marijuana at the retail level is pretty shaky. But one of the old adages is that ‘states are the laboratory of democracy’ wherein we actually get to try new things, and see if it works. I think we’re uniquely positioned to set an example for the rest of the country.”

***

Finally back at my friend’s house after some kind of race along Colfax delayed our trip home -- and consequently our capacity to get stoned -- for upwards of 12 minutes, we get through the opaque childproof packaging with the help some scissors. We each bought one gram of two strains, with a gram being roughly the equivalent of two average-sized joints. An eighth is about 3.5 grams. A quarter-ounce, which is the most out-of-staters are allowed to buy, is double that. And a full OZ, Colorado’s recreational maximum, is, you guessed it, four times that amount. In visual terms, think of a mason jar filled with nuggets. It’s a lot of pot for being just a little.

My buddy also bought a package of pot-infused gummy bears. If you don’t like to smoke, there are still myriad options to get high, from all different types of edibles, to tinctures and oils, to space-age “vapor” technology that burns only the THC and not the plant mass, making your hit as smooth as a pull from an e-cigarette.

My friend and I are both smokers, although I haven’t hit a bong in years and have never rolled a joint in my life. At this point, I pretty much take one or two hits from my hitter box when I feel like getting stoned. I’ve quit for months at a time and smoked heavily for too many years; now, I feel like I’ve finally found a comfortable level of usage for myself, which, depending on my schedule, fluctuates somewhere between “not really all that much” and “maybe a little bit too often.”

We go halves on a bowl in his pipe, each contributing a bit of our sativas. The description of Apollo 13 is apt; I really do feel clear-headed, not at all sluggish. My friend and I have long discussions about the quiet cynicism of Michael Bloomberg’s policies around cigarettes and large soft drinks, and debate the merits of banning dogs from public places like gas stations and buses. We get gyros for lunch, then catch a matinee of “Anchorman 2.”

The movie is hilarious. The theater is packed.

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