Boulder, Colorado, a small, beautiful city approximately 25 miles from Denver, sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains, about an hour south of the main entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park (where it is illegal to possess or use marijuana since it is federal land). It is home to the University of Colorado and the Naropa Institute, “a Buddhist-inspired, student-centered liberal arts university,” according to the institute’s website. And according to Weedmaps.com, at least 35 shops are now selling recreational marijuana in Boulder since the passage of the Colorado Marijuana Legalization Amendment, also known as Amendment 64, on November 6, 2012. The Terrapin Care Station, the first of these to open, has two shops in different locations. I stood in the Folsom Street shop, not quite sure what to make of it. Not much resembled the alternative sub-cultures “weed” has come to symbolize. It’s not your parents’ weed, man (my apologies to that old, Oldsmobile ad). But I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad.
The Terrapin Care Station, at 1795 Folsom Street, sits on one of the main thoroughfares in the city, close to the main buildings of the university’s campus. It looks like any ordinary shop on a main city thoroughfare. Its parking lot, large enough that a small building could fit into it, is lined with trees and bushes between the lot’s asphalt and the concrete sidewalk running its length. The main entrance opens up onto the parking lot instead of the front sidewalk. When I drove into it, the motorcycles and cars parked in the majority of the spots were all typically mainstream and middle class, like a Lexus, a Prius, a Volvo – not cheap. But neither is the marijuana. Just one pre-rolled joint costs $12 – with tax and fees, $13.
When I first walked into the store, I was greeted by one of the salespeople or clerks in the front room, who was dressed in a standard business attire of tie, white shirt, dark blue pants, and black shoes. He looked like he could be selling appliances at Sears. The other salesperson in the front room was dressed in a red, short-sleeved dress and looked like any employee of a high-end boutique. The first clerk checked customers’ IDs when they first walked into the store, then handed them each a number from the same kind of machine delis and bakeries use for orderly service. The marijuana is all sold in a second, closed room to only a few people at a time. As someone leaves, a number is called and that person gets his or her turn. This may sound odd, but it is a way to prevent any possible thefts or misuse of the “products” being sold.
A steady flow of people of all ages and types drifted in and out of the shop. A couple of young men, probably in their early twenties, who looked like college students with the requisite dirty, torn jeans, t-shirts, moderately long hair and beards (like students looked in my day in the early eighties – some things don’t change), and a number of hippie leftovers, guys in their sixties, wearing ragged jeans, motorcycle boots, t-shirts, long hair with a bandanna, and beard, sat on the couch against the wall. They all looked middle class, even the college students. Several middle aged, middle class women and a young woman dressed casually, but in dressy pants and white blouse, stood around by an ATM machine or a small glass cabinet displaying various bongs, pipes and vaporizers. Most were white, but one woman was African American, and a middle-aged African American man wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants walked into the store, later, as I was leaving. As I walked into the store, I passed a young, thin man, probably in his early 20s, with his arm in a white sling, walking out carrying a small brown bag. The customers all waited patiently in this front room for our numbers to be called.
I stood by the clerks’ desk, which took up all of the space along much of the back wall, feeling a little odd with my number in my hand, eyeing the door to the back room and waiting for it to open and discharge enough people to let me in. I asked the clerks questions. At first, they were happy to talk to me though they declined to give their names. They explained that only a few people are allowed in the back room at one time because “that’s where the product is.” I was left to figure out on my own that they meant it was a precaution against theft. They both bragged a bit about how the company which owns their store, Genetic Locker, LLC, was one of the first companies to produce enough “product” to open a store and keep two stores supplied, as well as supplying a few other local stores. They grow all of their own “product” in “warehouses” in Colorado. They said that the company also supplies some of the other distributors. By Colorado law, merchants selling recreational marijuana must grow at least 70% of their “product” themselves. This is one of many reasons there are more shops selling only medical marijuana in Colorado than selling recreational. The paperwork and regulations are much stricter, and it is more difficult to get a license to sell recreational marijuana. “They [the state legislature] really don’t know what they’re doing, so they made a huge amount of laws for everything,” said shirt-and-tie, the male clerk.
It was unclear whether he and red-dress were just clerks, managers, or more than that. They were hesitant to talk much other than to answer basic questions about the business. They did both admit, though, that the company had plenty of the marijuana plants grown and ready for sale before Amendment 64 was passed; it supplied medical marijuana and owned medical marijuana dispensaries. When the law was first passed in the state, only currently operating medical marijuana businesses were allowed to open recreational marijuana stores until 2016, when others would be allowed into the market. I asked if the people running their company had known Amendment 64 was coming and were prepared earlier than anyone else. “Sure,” shirt-and-tie said, evasively. I was curious how they could have so much “product” ready for sale, even if they did supply medical dispensaries. That’s still a lot of marijuana to have ready on hand. That’s why, when most recreational shops first opened, they were worried about not having enough “product,” and some limited the amount that customers could buy. Many businesses chose to continue selling only medical marijuana since the regulations were simpler.
In fact, selling medical marijuana has other advantages that can make it more profitable than selling it for recreational use. Patients with medical marijuana cards don't pay the extra sales and excise taxes that are included in recreational sales. They can possess up to two ounces of marijuana instead of the one ounce that recreational users are allowed. Plus, people under 21 can buy medical marijuana if it is prescribed by a doctor.
As I talked to shirt-and-tie, red-dress kept tabs on the numbers of people leaving the back room. One by one, each customer’s number was called to enter the inner sanctum as others left. Finally, she called my number. The back room looked just like a bakery shop combined with an old fashioned pharmacy. There were two counters on either side of the room. On shelves, in plastic bins, there were many different varieties of cannabis, each bin labeled with its name, like White Goat, Bio Diesel, Chernobyl #3, and Glass Slipper. One of the counters had three people standing at it, talking to the salesman there. I went to the other counter, which had no customers.
The salesman behind the counter happily discussed some of the choices on the menu in great detail, including names of chemicals and strains of the plants. He explained that different types of marijuana have different levels of THC and other chemicals in different mixes. Consequently, some are better for inflammation or anxiety; others are better at giving a great high. The menu reads like a list of wine reviews in the “Wine Spectator.” For example, it describes Bio Diesel as “an exceptional cannabis hybrid … excels at delivering both intense and balanced effects: an acute, speedy sativa onset gravitates into numbing relaxation. The hybrid effects make this strain a reliable choice for mental and physical relief alike...” Hash Haze is described as “a milder alternative to some of the heavier strains, like Coal Creek Skunk. Still very much on the heavy indica side, the HP hits around 80/20 indica. The Hash Haze's buds are of varying size, anywhere from popcorn to a couple grams, and are a nice green with bright orange hairs and a dusting of trichomes. The Hash Haze smells piny, with a hint of lemon, and has a flavor reminiscent of a lighter sativa, very citrusy. The combination of great tasting buds and heavy indica effects make the Hash Haze great for anyone who finds other indicas too harsh on the intake. Expect heavy occular pressure and a nice combination of cerebral and body highs.” Indica and sativa are the two sub-species of the marijuana plant. Growers also create hybrids of the two.
The guys who sell it all there in that back room are experts on the substances. They can tell you which variety is better for anxiety or other problem, and why, and give even more detail than the menu does. They understand the science of growing the plants as well as the science of using them. The salesman waiting on me explained that people “back in the day” didn’t know they were supposed to smoke the female plant, and the flowers, not the stems. That was one of many reasons why weed was so inferior then, and why it was sometimes full of seeds. I think he was assuming I had used some of that inferior weed “back in the day.” I suppose I am old enough now to qualify as having lived whenever “back in the day” signifies. “Hmm,” I said, noncommittally.
A customer can buy just the marijuana itself, or buy it already rolled into a joint. It can be bought as baked goods or candy. It depends on whether the customer wants to ingest or smoke it, both of which give a different kind of high. The store also sells bongs, pipes and other paraphernalia used to smoke weed. I had read Maureen Dowd’s column about ingesting too much of an “edible,” as pot-laced candy or baked goods are called. I asked the salesman if there were regulations or recommendations about the safe quantity of an “edible.” He admitted there were no specific guidelines or regulations just yet, and if I had never tried any, I should begin cautiously and eat only a few bites, then wait about an hour to see how I reacted to it. The amount of THC in the “edibles” apparently depends on the manufacturer. “That’s probably going to change soon, though,” he said. “The state is talking about regulating them.” Even though I hate the smell of both tobacco and marijuana smoke, I decided to buy a pre-rolled joint, mostly because I was curious as to what it would look like. It was about the length of a regular cigarette, but at least twice as thick. It had a cigarette kind of filter on the end of it, too. “Good choice,” the salesman said, showing it to me.
He then slid the joint into a white, plastic bottle that looked like an over-sized pill bottle. A sticker wrapped around it announced: “The marijuana contained within this package has not been tested for potency, consume with caution. The marijuana contained within this package has not been tested for contaminants. There may be health risks associated with the consumption of this product. This product is intended for use by adults 21 years and older. Keep out of reach of children. This product is unlawful out of the state of Colorado. There may be additional health risks associated with the consumption of this product for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning on becoming pregnant. Do not drive a motor vehicle or operate heavy machinery while using marijuana.” He put the plastic bottle in a small brown bag before handing it to me. In my head I heard Cheech and Chong say, “Is this a joint, man?” This is how they have to package weed in Colorado. As Chong said in “Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie”: “Yeah. It's like the same thing, only different.”
I was already feeling pretty intimidated by the efficiency and professionalism of the store. Ironically, the plastic bottle just added to my anxiety. I handed over my $13 and was now free to carry the bottle and its obvious contents in the open, legally, as long as I didn’t break the seal and try to use it in a public space.
I brought it back to my hotel room, broke the seal on the bottle and stared at the joint laid out on the small table by the bed for awhile. I hate the smell of marijuana smoke. There’s a reason it is often called “skunk funk.” It smells a lot like a skunk. I attended a moderately large, public college in the early eighties; plenty of students smoked it fairly openly on the grounds, especially in the woods that surrounded the campus, so I’m pretty familiar with the smell. Plus, as a teacher, I sometimes smell it on students. I once even walked by several students sharing a joint while standing right next to the main entrance to a college located in the middle of a big city. It is an extremely distinctive smell. I have never understood how anyone could mistake it for anything else, though I know people sometimes mistake any kind of burning incense for it. That’s absurd. The only smell that comes close is a pile of burning weeds from a garden or farm. That is probably the origin of the nickname, “weed”.
So I left it by the TV as part of the tip for the housekeeping crew when I checked out of the hotel. That seemed like the Cheech and Chong thing to do.
Note: "The Washington Post" recently published an article about the still thriving black market and the inequities of the legal side of selling weed: Post article.