Rocky Mountain high
Colorado is going to pot. It’s just having a tough time figuring out how.
Although an Election Day referendum legalized marijuana for recreational use, it left questions unanswered. Like: How high can you be behind the wheel of a car? Lawmakers are debating a specific blood level, as with alcohol, above which a motorist is deemed an uneasy rider.
In a restaurant or private club, might the dessert choices someday include an upscale riff on the pot brownie and a double entendre of a pot de creme? One lawyer I spoke with lofted this possibility, but who knows? State officials still have many months to draft regulations for recreational pot’s retail sale, which should begin next January. The new law has already made recreational possession OK.
Certainly, there will be a bigger workload for Denver’s Craig Claiborne of cannabis, who began reviewing Colorado’s medical marijuana dispensaries for the alternative newspaper Westword in 2009. Last month the critic, who writes under the pseudonym William Breathes, added a weekly advice column called “Ask a Stoner.”
For a while now, Colorado has been deeper in the weed than most other states. It permitted medical marijuana in 2000, and at dispensaries, of which there are now hundreds, a person with physician approval can choose among a dozen or more strains of pot, which vary in strength, hue, fragrance. A dispensary named Denver Relief stocks Durban Poison, which promises a fruity aroma “with undertones of milk chocolate,” and ChemDawgD, with its “strong smell of Pine-Sol and jet fuel.”
There are different delivery systems as well. If a patient doesn’t like to smoke, he or she can try marijuana cola, marijuana baklava, marijuana bath salts.
“The baklava is excellent,” said Breathes, who has a stomach condition for which he got a medical marijuana card. (The card has his real name; his nom de plume protects him from exposure when he presents it.)
But the referendum puts Colorado, along with the state of Washington, whose voters also opened the door to bong hits purely for pleasure, on new legal terrain.
“This will be a complicated process,” announced Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper shortly after the referendum passed. “Don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”
These were the words of a man who had inhaled in the past — he admits as much, though he says it was 15 years ago — and seems to know something about the munchies. And they pointed to another interesting wrinkle of the Colorado story: The marijuana muddle will be tackled by a politician who rose to local prominence in the intoxication business, as the owner of popular brew pubs.
When I caught up with him here recently, he volunteered that a paleontologist with whom he’s friendly believes that cannabis and hops, which are flowers used to make beer, have a shared horticultural ancestry.
“If you take hops, and you grind them up in your fingers, they smell just like what I’m told marijuana smells like,” said Hickenlooper, who is 60.
“That was a joke,” he added, meaning the “I’m told” part.
He actually opposed Amendment 64, the measure that legalized recreational pot and didn’t greet its passage with reefer gladness. Although it applies only to adults, he worries that kids will feel emboldened and that frequent marijuana use could hurt them.
I shadowed him for a few days, including to Colorado Springs, where he disappeared into a meeting with a local newspaper’s editorial board. More of the questions he was asked touched on marijuana than on gun control, an aide said.
The next morning I arrived midway through a Q and A that he did with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, and what do you suppose he was discussing? Pot.
The alarm is confusing. For many years in many places, pot has been prevalent and its casual use often overlooked. Enforcement of laws against possession has been uneven, to a point where New York leaders want to move away from small-scale pot arrests.
Presidential candidates have felt free to allude or own up to past marijuana use. So why all the hand wringing over pot’s legalization, when its illegality isn’t always taken seriously? If we have a problem with pot, we sure haven’t behaved that way.
Colorado and Washington aren’t being experimental so much as honest. They’re acknowledging reality, and giving people the same chance with pot as with alcohol: to use it responsibly — or not. They’ll also pick up some tax revenue in the process.
And perhaps Breathes will need a co-critic. Patricia Calhoun, the editor of Westword, told me she gets applications. But, she added, they’re responses to the initial announcement she posted more than three years ago.
“A lot of potheads don’t move very fast,” she said.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.