Legalization of pot heats up stone cold day in Denver

It’s a brave new world out there
The Colorado Statesman

In the gloom before sunrise on January 1, TV trucks were lined up like dominos along Brighton Blvd. just south of I-70 as more than a hundred journalists of every stripe (think Al Jazeera) sipped coffee and munched sticky, warm donuts purchased from an opportunistic food truck situated in the parking lot at Denver’s Discreet Dispensary (DDD). Occasional snowflakes swirled briskly in the air as nearly 200 customers awaited the first retail marijuana sales in Colorado. Those at the front of the line had waited all night, traveling from as far as Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Atlanta for what was repeatedly deemed an historic occasion. Grass was finally legal somewhere in America. (And, “About Time” as one sign noted.) No more sneaking off to Five Points or East Colfax on this New Year’s Day for a joint diluted with oregano. This would be the real stuff — powerful, certified and now regulated like alcohol.

The media feeding frenzy was just this side of a twerking performance by Miley Cyrus. Mason Tvert, who has moved on from his success at the Colorado ballot box with Amendment 64 in 2012 to chair the national Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., appears to have been struggling with the munchies the past fifteen months. Once pudgy, he is now indisputably rotund. Wearing a new suit for the occasion, the jacket’s tail flaps still stitched together, Tvert bragged about the victories he believes lie ahead for decriminalization. First up: Sarah Palin’s Alaska this August, then Oregon, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont. Still leader of the Pack: the Centennial State of Colorado. Ever the showman, the first customer would be one Sean Azzarti, an Iraq war veteran dealing with PTSD, which is not a covered condition under Colorado’s existing medical marijuana program.

Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown, left, and marijuana activist Mason Tvert observe the action at Medicine Man shop on Jan. 1, the first day of sales of legalized recreational marijuana in the state. Fortunately, says Brown, it turned out to be more ‘marijuana milestone’ than ‘cannabis chaos.’

Only camera toting ‘newsies’ were allowed to witness this historic transaction. The owner of the DDD Dispensary, Toni Fox, a 40ish blonde with a great French braid, accepted Azzarti’s cash and handed over his goods. Then a rugby scrum ensued as the national and international press mavens made their own purchases. (Probably the only chance they will ever get to put weed on their expense accounts.) A disconcerted DDD employee was dispatched outside to tell those in the public line they would have to wait for a half hour while the media pursued their consumer compulsions. These may have been Colorado’s first official purchases, but a dispensary in South Denver was so concerned about the length of the line at its store in a residential neighborhood they were reported by City Councilman Charlie Brown to have begun making sales at 4:00 a.m. The Brighton Blvd. crowd, despite a change from snowflakes to driving sleet, was remarkably good-natured about the delay. As one prospective client declared, “I’ve been waiting 40 years for this. Another half hour doesn’t matter.”

Surrounded by cameramen, money passes hands between the buyer Sean Azzariti and seller Toni Fox confirming this first legal sale of marijuana at 3D Medical Marijuana Center in Denver.

Tvert contrasted media reports of Colorado’s retail marijuana “experiment” with the nation’s failed pot prohibition experiment of the past 75 years. There was much bragging about the positive economic impact of our new industry — more jobs, more tax revenues and reduced criminal costs. Of course, the same could be said about a decision to legalize prostitution or cock fighting. Yet, if you subscribe to the theory that the market always makes the right decision, there is no question that demand exists. The line of customers never got shorter. In fact, as more New Year’s revelers crawled out of bed the patient customers standing in line grew to three hundred or more by noon. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Coloradans, apparently were planning to watch the bowl games with more than their usual intensity. Time to buy some Frito-Lay stock on Thursday morning, I think.

Medicine Man’s Elan Thompson chats with Denver City Councilman Chris Nevitt inside the Denver retail store.

The politics of marijuana legalization remain murky. Not a single elected official showed up for the formal kick-off, despite industry claims that a $400 million impact is forecast for 2014, throwing off $40 million in state sales tax revenues to new school construction. At a follow-up press event scheduled for 10:00 a.m. at Medicine Man in Montbello, Denver City Council members Albus Brooks, Chris Nevitt and Charlie Brown attended. Even District 5 Police Commander Les Perry made a brief appearance, though he resisted several opportunities to comment. Brooks acknowledged that most rank and file police officers are opposed to Colorado’s legalization, believing that potheads represent an intrinsically criminal subculture. Those in line probably averaged 28 years in age, although there was a sprinkling of customers from every generation, including Denver’s seniors. They did not appear to constitute a criminal class. To the contrary, most reported being relieved that they no longer had to break the law to get a toke. When asked what he would write about the retail rollout in his council newsletter, Charlie Brown winked and said, “It was going to be ‘Cannabis Chaos,’ but I think it will have to be ‘Marijuana Milestone.’”

3D Cannabis Center employee Kurt stands guard just inside the front door of this retail marijuana outlet at 4305 Brighton Blvd.

For those who have been worried that officially becoming the ‘Mile High City’ may damage tourism and Colorado’s economy, there was considerable evidence that our newfound reputation may have yanked open a cash drawer that will eventually cement public support for legal marijuana. During the run-up to New Year’s in Times Square, Carson Daly and his cohorts began to joke about Colorado’s decision to legalize the demon weed. Daly mentioned that he had told his kids Disneyland was now located in Boulder. “That’s where I’m taking my next vacation!” he hooted. Father and son Darren and Tyler Austin flew in from Georgia and North Carolina, painted their faces green and were standing in line at DDD. Customers at Medicine Man waved American flags. Brandon Harris and Tyler Williams, who previously lived in John Boehner’s Cincinnati Congressional District, pulled up roots and have moved to Denver. They were a little startled at the price of apartment rentals. I informed them that immigrants just like them have driven the vacancy rate down under 2 percent. But, they are here to stay.

A Medicine Man employee tallies up a customer’s order on the opening day of legal retail marijuana sales in Colorado.

Colorado’s ski areas have sanctimoniously declared pot smoking unwelcome. This has to come as a huge surprise to Colorado residents, who have ridden chairlifts through a pungent, blue haze for more than 40 years. Out of state skiers aren’t likely to choose Utah over Colorado when they might get to share a chair and a doobie with a retail smoker. I wouldn’t recommend whitewater rafting while stoned, but that back country hike, that horseback ride, that campfire — well, make your own decisions. None of this will last if marijuana use doesn’t comply with reasonable, adult restrictions. Stay sober behind the wheel, remain sober at work, and don’t share with your kids. Drink and smoke responsibly. That’s our immediate future, perhaps our extended future. There will be a downside, but it won’t include more than ten thousand criminal prosecutions each year.

Marijuana Policy Project Director of Communications Mason Tvert and 3D Cannabis Center proprietor Toni Fox pause for a photo in front of marijuana related retail inventory on display on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales.
Photos by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Adam Hartle of Jacksonville, Florida is a documentary filmmaker who came to town to complete his take on the Amendment 64 campaign. After two years he is toying with a feature title, “The Comeback of Cannabis.” I suspect neither the Governor, nor the Mayor will be featured in his film. Our politicians remain at arm’s length, fearful of a backlash, until either the retail industry develops the economic clout that wins them allies at our chambers of commerce and local tourism boards or polls evidence that voters’ 55 percent endorsement of legalization was no fluke. With the exception of a young woman from Texas, who was afraid her father might see her photo, most customers were willing to provide their names. “Now that it’s legal, why should I worry?” said Jacob Elliott of Leesburg, Virginia. Armed security at the dispensaries didn’t seem to trouble anyone. If anything, it made them feel safer. Most had arrived with cash, worried about using a credit card, even if the dispensary could accept them. As one wag observed, “I don’t care if my bank knows I smoke, but I don’t want the NSA to find out.” It’s a brave new world. And Colorado may be the bravest of all! Direct democracy is the damndest thing.

— Miller Hudson,

See the Jan. 3 print edition for full photo coverage.