Story by Jordan Schrader | Photos & Video by Kai-Huei Yau
This stretch of Broadway south of downtown Denver used to be known as a mecca for antiquers.
The past few years, Antique Row has earned some new nicknames. Broadsterdam. The Green Mile.
That last one is not a reference to such garden stores as Birdsall and Co., but to state-licensed, medical marijuana shops that have proliferated and now have begun to open to recreational users.
The neighborhood is changing. Birdsall owner Annie Huston can smell it — literally.
But odor is a minor issue, the garden store owner said, and she expects a quick end to the other problem — the extra competition for parking since Jan. 1, when her neighbor, Evergreen Apothecary, started selling marijuana to any adult. All in all, she regards the store as a good neighbor.
“We have not seen anybody using outside, or even in the alley,” Huston said. “It’s been really organized and the store has been really sensitive to (other) retail stores.”
Mostly gone are the noisy — but never rowdy, Huston says — throngs that lined up in the first week of the year. Instead, there’s a steady stream of customers that at most extends five or six deep outside the door.
Co-owner Tim Cullen said his store sees about 300 to 400 sales a day — in line with industry estimates of shoppers at the more than 50 recreational stores that have gradually opened since the new year began and sold $14 million worth of marijuana in their first month.
Customers tend to be men in their twenties and thirties, Huston said. But she has seen all ages. And after the first few days, Huston said: “Little by little, we saw women.”
Much of the clientele on Feb. 8 when The News Tribune visited were men, but not all. Others included two 50-something women, among them Jeanne Newland, who lives in suburban Littleton and works at a Denver domestic violence shelter.
It was the first time at one of the stores for Newland, a 51-year-old mom in a pink zip-up fleece and white tennis shoes, who bought a pot-infused candy chew. Her experience with street marijuana involves staying awake all night and, as she described it, filing away her thoughts into categories. She wants a more pleasant high.
But there also were blue-collar clients: A 25-year-old restaurant cook, white. A 51-year-old automotive painter, black.
In from the suburbs were another couple of customers: Andrew Ausmus and David Wanner. Ausmus wore a long white beard and Wanner a goatee with some gray hairs of its own.
“I thought I’d go legal in my old age,” said Wanner, 62.
Colorado has freed the weed, but it doesn’t come for free — not even close.
Medicine Man in Denver charged recreational customers $411.81 after taxes for an ounce of marijuana last month, more than twice what many patients pay for medical marijuana.
And that’s at one of the largest stores that can take advantage of economies of scale and a relatively cheap location on the outskirts of town.
Price is important, and not just for customers trying to keep their bong hits on a budget.
Too-high prices could drive people to the black market, leaving legalization to fail in its stated goal of putting the drug cartels out of business. Too-low prices could encourage people to consume it, and not everyone thinks that is a good thing either.
Denver lawyer and legalization advocate Brian Vicente estimated street prices are around $300 to $400 an ounce, similar to recreational marijuana. On the other hand, the website priceofweed.com, which taps anonymous consumers to “crowdsource the street value of marijuana,” and which Washington state consultants used in their estimations, listed lower prices.
High-quality marijuana in both Colorado and Washington is selling on the street for less than $240 an ounce, the website’s contributors reported this month. (Anyone can post, risking the possibility that some of the prices are inaccurate or describe purchases at dispensaries.)
“Really what we’re hoping is that we’re going to pull so many of (the drug cartels’) customers away from them that they become a nonentity,” said Elan Nelson, a consultant for Medicine Man. “And we’re seeing that happening, definitely. We’ve got a line every day at 5 o’clock when people get out of work.”
Arrests by Denver police for illegal distribution of marijuana dropped off in 2009 and 2010, around the time Colorado embarked on its experiment with state-licensed medical marijuana. They rebounded somewhat in 2013, the first year of legalized possession by recreational users.
AT THE COUNTER
At Evergreen Apothecary, six cashiers — known as budtenders in the business — serve customers who file through. A security guard cycled them from the outside, to a small waiting area inside the door, to the counter. Ashley Stanley, dressed in a hoodie covered with a peace sign and other designs, asked the automotive painter how much he wanted.
Maybe a gram, Al Hamilton said tentatively. That would be enough for about two joints.
Stanley told him the smallest purchase is larger, a half-eighth. (That’s half of an eighth of an ounce. For some reason, it’s not called a sixteenth.) It’s common for daily users of marijuana to consume more than a half of an eighth of an ounce per day, according to researchers.
Next is the decision on a strain of pot. The store sells Plush Berry, Hindu Kush and Afghooey, to name just a few.
Hamilton took whiffs from each of four little black containers that in an earlier era would be mistaken for canisters of camera film. Each holds a different strain.
“I think I like the first,” he said, indicating the Herojuana strain.
The clerk poured the half-eighth of buds from the canister into a bowl on a scale. Then they went into a black bag, opaque to keep from drawing the interest of children. To childproof it, the store heat-sealed the bag with the buds inside.
Stanley rang up the Herojuana and a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers: $38.76.
Hamilton paid with cash, as many customers do, even though plastic is accepted here.
The store takes down names and phone numbers of credit-card users. Cash allows anonymity — a benefit not available under Colorado’s medical marijuana system, in which patients must register for cards showing they have been authorized for the drug by a medical professional.
INDUSTRY IN FLUX
A widely reported factoid about marijuana here is that medical dispensaries outnumber McDonalds and Starbucks locations, combined.
Since that statistic first became a staple of news reports, medical-marijuana dispensaries in Colorado have declined to half of their former numbers. Nearly 200 remain in Denver alone and nearly 500 statewide — still enough to make legal pot more pervasive than Egg McMuffins and Frappuccinos.
The stores were culled to that lower level after the state licensed and regulated them — suggesting that many of the people competing for the first-ever state marijuana licenses in Washington might not be in business in a few years.
Starting up any business is a challenge. Many fail. Now add the heavy regulations imposed on Colorado’s medical and recreational marijuana sellers and Washington’s new recreational industry.
“I think some of the people who initially had businesses, they didn’t (pass a background check) or they couldn’t put the money together or they couldn’t prove where the money was coming from,” said Michael Elliott, the executive director of a marijuana trade association in Colorado, the Marijuana Industry Group.
Take just one category of expense, video surveillance. It’s mandatory in both states. A typical Colorado grower and seller probably invested $20,000 to $30,000 in the startup costs of camera systems, Elliott said, with some spending 10 times that amount over the long term.
None of that has scared off hundreds of entrepreneurs from trying to strike gold.
Medicine Man is one of the biggest operations, employing 48 people with plans to have 70 workers after an expansion in April.
The company starts employees at a $10-an-hour probationary wage but declined to say what it pays on average. It offers paid vacation but no health benefits or retirement plan, at least not yet, Nelson said. Sean Norton, two years into his job, sees his employer as pretty fair.
“(I) never thought I could support my family doing something I love like this,” said Norton, a husband and father.
Norton talks as he cleans the glass enclosing the metal-halide lamps that bathe row upon row of plants in a blue-green glow.
This is the Vegetative Room. On one end of the long room are the mother plants. Huge, some reaching almost from floor to lights, they provide clippings that are cloned to make the plants that will be sold.
The blue-green light shines 18 to 24 hours a day to simulate summer and tell the young plants to keep growing.
Plants stretch down the room in various stages of growth. Some have the long, thin leaves of sativa-dominant strains and others the shorter, broader leaves of indica. About 70 strains grow inside Medicine Man.
In this room, or “pod,” each plant is tagged for life in the state-mandated and company tracking systems. At the same time, it’s designated for a spot in either the recreational or medical markets.
The tags will track them as they graduate to another pod, the Flowering Room, where the plants grow buds under red-yellow lights that shine for 12 hours at a time and signal autumn to the plants.
After harvest, they end up in the trim room, and what’s snipped off there is hung up by its stems in the dry-and-cure room. The buds go into a bucket to cure. Nelson said that process targets the right balance between wet and dry that will best bring out their flavor.
A state contractor provides the tags, each with a tiny embedded chip. Scanning them with a mobile device, an inspector can learn how many plants should be in the room.
State regulators target some businesses that are deemed to be at high risk, others randomly, and all of them on a set schedule. Some inspections focus on compliance with packaging rules or some other specific area, said Lewis Koski, director of the state Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.
“What we’re finding is that our licensees are putting in a good faith effort to comply with all of the regulations that are out there,” Koski said.
The state has handed out more than 160 recreational retail licenses. Most of them, more than 100, are in Denver.
Denver’s nearly 200 retail and medical stores are spread throughout the city. Many line Interstates 25 or 70 or the commercial strips like Broadway, Federal Boulevard and Colfax Avenue.
Driving on Colfax after picking her 12-year-old son up from middle school, Rachel O’Bryan watched the green crosses and other telltale markers fly by.
O’Bryan, an advocate for tighter regulations in the recreational system, said all the medical dispensaries send a message that marijuana has gone mainstream.
“I do think that the culture is shifting,” she said. “What we’re seeing is a marijuana magazine attached to the Denver Post, which is our main newspaper in the state. We are seeing a Denver County fair have a Pot Pavilion where they’re going to rate marijuana plants, homemade bongs. They are going to have a joint-rolling competition.
“We are seeing a ton of exposure, and we know that exposure leads to a drop in the perception of risk, and that also is directly tied to an increase in use.”
O’Bryan worries about the effects on kids. She says allowing sweet pot-laced treats sends the wrong message to children.
“We don’t think candy belongs combined with a psychoactive ingredient,” said O’Bryan, who has joined with fellow parents and other advocates in a group called Smart Colorado.
O’Bryan points to a picture of a cream-filled, marijuana-infused cupcake that is sold in some Colorado stores. It looks like a Hostess cupcake, complete with white frosting swirl.
“Childhood favorites,” she said. “And by the way, this may (have) 10 servings of marijuana in it, and a child would eat that whole — and my kid would eat two of them, OK? If he didn’t know that was marijuana.”
As in Washington, each container of food and drink sold in Colorado stores may have up to 10 servings or 100 mg of THC.
Colorado’s regulations prevent infusing marijuana into a brand-name product. The edibles have to be generic, non-trademarked foods, and they can’t cause confusion with a brand name. So rice crispy treats can’t be Rice Krispies treats, and knockoff candies like “Snockers” bars are likely out, as well.
O’Bryan said once they are taken out of the package, they are indistinguishable from typical and brand-name foods.
Tripp Keber, the owner of a major manufacturer, Dixie Elixirs, says it’s enough that Colorado’s edibles must be sold in child-proof, tamper-resistant packaging, and without labels featuring animals or cartoony images, Joe Camel-style.
Sweet flavors don’t automatically market to kids, Keber said. “I would equate it to saying that Pepsi is designed for children because it’s sweet or flavored,” he said.
Dixie’s products are sold in opaque packages. “You’re not going to see anything that screams to a child, come take me off the shelf,” Keber said. “This is (like) a product that you might find at a high-end chocolatier or Neiman Marcus, if you will.”
Parents, too, have a responsibility to keep it away from their children, he said, just as they would alcohol or cigarettes.
Newland, the customer at the retail dispensary, said kids will find marijuana no matter what if they want it, but she doesn’t see much advertising, let alone advertising to kids.
“The reason people like edibles is not everybody likes to smoke,” she said.
Keber said Dixie Elixirs’ sales are 10 times what they were before Jan. 1. He estimates infused products make up half of Colorado’s marijuana market. That’s up from 10 percent or less just four years ago, he said.
That includes not just edibles but also concentrates like hash oil that can be smoked or vaporized.
Dixie Elixirs makes food, drink, pills, concentrates, vaporizers — everything but the traditional buds that most people would picture when they think about marijuana.
All of which begs the question: Will smoking pot become a thing of the past?
It’s not as unlikely as it sounds, according to an expert.
“My guess is oral administration and vaporization are going to wipe out smoking,” predicted Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.
Pot smoke is “pretty harsh,” he said, and the alternatives are becoming safer now that they are available in verifiably measured doses.
“I think breathing smoke, 20 years from now, is going to seem like some kind of weird crap they did back in the 1990s,” said Kleiman, who was hired as a consultant by Washington’s marijuana regulators as they designed a licensing scheme.
Once, there was a major downside to marijuana-infused treats. It was hard to know how strong they would be, or when it might kick in.
The new world of state-regulated marijuana, in which products are tracked, inspected and labeled, encourages the kind of standardized manufacturing that is making them more palatable.
“This is the future of cannabis,” reads the label on an aluminum bottle sold by Dixie Elixirs.
A dial on the label represents the potency of the fizzy drink inside: 75 mg of THC. Below that is the “activation time.” In this case, a drinker can expect to feel the high in 45 minutes.
The nearby nutrition facts look like the ones on ordinary grocery labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration — even though this product is federally illegal.
Consumers should take the numbers on labels with a grain of salt, at least when it comes to potency.
Labs haven’t proven they can nail down the potency of marijuana-infused edibles exactly, said Randy Simmons, a regulator who is deputy director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. But he said the labels should be close, aside from any that intentionally try to fool customers into buying less potent stuff.
‘A TRUE BUSINESS’
A bottle of pot-infused orange drink labeled CannaPunch was the delivery system of choice for Austin Wallace and Donnie Salahdine.
“There’s no shame in drinking a half of this,” the Evergreen Apothecary cashier with a nose ring told them as she rang up the pint bottle containing 100 mg of THC, the most allowed.
Salahdine was skeptical of that notion. He’s not drinking just a half, he confided. “I’m taking it to the face like a boss,” he said. (After they bought two bottles, he reconsidered, offering to split one. No way, said Wallace.)
The cashier explained to the 25-year-old men the difference between sativa and indica.
Many strains of pot are hybrids of the two, but sativa-dominant strains tend to produce a more functional high. Indica is more likely to put a user to sleep.
Salahdine and Wallace settled on a strain of sativa, a vaporizer and two cartridges of hash oil to use in the device.
Salahdine, a local in a sweater and collared shirt who washes cars at a dealership, was eager for other souvenirs of his trip. He snapped up two magnets and a sticker as mementos.
A New Yorker in a backward baseball cap and hoodie, Wallace was exuberant in his first trip to one of the stores. “Amazing,” he dubbed the experience. At one point, he started videotaping a reporter interviewing him.
Now unemployed, Wallace wondered if maybe he could get into this industry.
“It’s a true business,” he said, “in the sense that all the products are sealed up, childproof, business is very secure. It’s definitely beating out the stereotypical things they’re saying about, ‘the dispensary owners are drug pushers.’ ”
Wallace is far from the only visitor from out of state.
A sign on the door of the shop says: “Where are you from?!? Put a pin on the map!!!”
Many hail from Texas or Florida, but the map shows pins all over the country and even in Europe and South America.
Cullen said about 25 to 30 percent of customers are visitors to Colorado. Their share had dropped from the early days this year.
Other retail stores are seeing even more out-of-state shoppers. At Medicine Man, closer to the airport, they make up more than half of all customers.
Coloradoans can buy up to an ounce, but those with out-of-state identifications are limited to a quarter of an ounce.
At Evergreen Apothecary, a couple of half-eighths went to brothers from Lincoln, Neb., in town for the weekend to visit buddies in Boulder.
“It’s pretty sweet, man,” Carson Jones, in a knit cap and sunglasses, said after their shopping. “It should be like that in every state,” brother Jack added.
The brothers had some partying to do and no time to waste. It’s illegal to take pot out of state.
That won’t stop everyone.
A Kansan, Joey, admitted he planned to return home with his purchase. He declined to give his last name because of the legal implications of that choice.
Joey, a customer at Medicine Man, said he needed the medication for his bipolar disorder and anxiety. Kansas has not authorized medical marijuana, and he said the pot allows him to sleep and relax.
Otherwise, he would be taking bigger risks by ordering pot through the mail or getting it indirectly from drug cartels — or he would be taking the pills his nurse prescribed. He’s been on Zoloft, Clonazepam, Abilify and more. “Frankly, I think I was worse with all of those,” he said. What’s more, he said, for the pills he has to spend $300 on a copay.
He found budtender David Marlow wasn’t just an expert on what would get him high. He also was ready to discuss what works best for medical ailments.
Joey left the store with some buds from a strain called Ogre, along with edible treats such as candy straws. The edibles are low in THC, pot’s main psychoactive ingredient, he said, and high in cannabidiol, the compound known as CBD that is seen as having high medicinal value.
Joey planned to share them with his mother, who can use them to calm the arthritic pain in her knee.
Just like in Washington, Colorado’s legalization does not extend to bars, coffee shops or other public places. And unlike cigarettes, you can’t simply step outside to smoke.
Most hotels are not publicly embracing marijuana. A tourist might have better luck finding pot-friendly accommodations on Airbnb or other websites that connect travelers to private home rentals. But a few businesses are tapping into the market.
To find a weed-friendly inn, go west from Denver about 20 miles and drive past jagged cliffs into the town of Morrison, population 430.
The Cliff House Lodge, built by town founder George Morrison in 1864 as his residence, is a short walk from scenic tourist attraction Red Rocks Park. Angela and Daniel Bernhardt have managed the place since 2012 for owners who live in North Carolina.
The husband-and-wife innkeepers weren’t broadcasting a pot-friendly stance, Angela Bernhardt said, until a local reporter called hotels asking about pot policies.
She had used a medical-marijuana card for years, Bernhardt said, and with everybody else saying no, simple supply and demand dictated she say yes. She knows that much, she said, from her years spent earning a bachelor’s degree in economics.
“They should revoke it if I said no,” she said.
The phone has been ringing steadily ever since, she said. “My business has increased over three times.”
Some communities have said no to the green rush.
And the local resistance could scatter Washington and Colorado’s legal marijuana sales to a series of isolated islands.
Colorado’s 2012 pot-legalization measure, Amendment 64, requires businesses to obtain both state and local licenses before opening.
There is no similar requirement in Washington’s Initiative 502. The law doesn’t spell out that cities and counties can ban marijuana sales. But the state attorney general says they can. Pierce County and many other local governments around the state are turning the industry away.
Lawsuits challenging those restrictions are expected.
Eight of the 10 biggest Colorado cities, including Colorado Springs, have either a ban or a moratorium. So do most counties, including the one that contains Colorado Springs, El Paso County.
Colorado Springs is a bastion of conservative, traditional values, home to Christian ministry Focus on the Family, megachurch New Life Church and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Army and Air Force bases ring the city.
But it’s also the home of 85 medical-marijuana dispensaries and a mecca for parents seeking a locally developed strain of marijuana to treat their children’s seizures. What’s more, city voters narrowly endorsed full state legalization of pot.
Some in Colorado Springs worried embracing the industry would threaten local military bases. Soldiers at Fort Carson and airmen at the other nearby bases, after all, are forbidden from using illegal drugs.
“When the troops go out the front door,” said City Councilman Andres “Andy” Pico, who backed the ban, “what is illegal for them is legal every place else.”
The Pentagon doesn’t seem to share the worries about co-existing. A Department of Defense spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, said local laws don’t change how military rules are interpreted. Soldiers and airmen are subject to drug tests.
“It’s the same example as if service members were stationed overseas. Drinking ages are different. Some countries permit the use of marijuana or other drugs,” Crosson said.
City Council President Mary Beth Susman and council members Christopher Herndon and Jeanne Robb said they are not receiving complaints from constituents about the stores or public use of marijuana.
Police didn’t start keeping track of public marijuana use until after Jan. 1, so they can’t compare. They have written a few tickets, but they don’t view it as widespread.
“Living in the city, I’m not seeing people just walking around smoking dope on the streets,” said Sonny Jackson, a spokesman for the Denver police.
“Fortunately, people are being respectful of the law.”
Sentiment in the shops’ backyard varies.
Down the street from the satisfied garden store, a gun dealer is more nervous, carrying his personal firearm more often.
As for the residents of the neighborhood behind the commercial strip? One couple sees no effects; they had just come back from buying pot themselves.
At another house closer to Evergreen Apothecary, Rachel Shoupe and her husband built a fence after moving in more than a year ago. Before it went up, people walked through their yard between the dispensary and their cars.
Then came Jan. 1. “The traffic is unbelievable,” said Shoupe, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter.
But she hasn’t seen any more loitering and public smoking than what comes from the nearby motel. And in some ways, the shop is better than the local bars. It’s not open into the early morning hours, for one.
“It seems like people are behaving themselves,” she said, “and I don’t care — (it’s) bringing people into the Denver economy.”