Yes We Cannabis – 420 Weekend in Denver

Esquire, Sept 2014

Welcome to Colorado. Earlier this year, the city of Denver was host to America’s first ever legal marijuana festival, signalling either a new dawn of enlightened drugs policy across the western world or a trippy anomaly in the rocky mountains. Esquire’s Sanjiv Bhattacharya was on site to partake.

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It’s just gone midday on Friday 18th April and a little black bus full of weedheads is pootling through downtown Denver. It’s one of those buses without individual seats or rows, there’s just one continuous bench that runs along the sides with maybe 20 of us on board, all as high as balloons and passing doobies down the line, a carousel of glowing orange tips.

We’re here on vacation with My 420 Tours, America’s first ever marijuana tourism company – also America’s only marijuana tourism company, unless you count the occasional pot-friendly B&B. But these are early days yet. Weed was formally legalized in Colorado on January 1st. My 420 Tours may be the shape of things to come. And so far it does at least feel like proper tourism. They’ve put us in a Crowne Plaza hotel and given us matching green wristbands saying “World Cannabis Week”. And each morning, after the breakfast buffet, we meet in the lobby, where a pretty tour guide called Megan, wearing a “Best Buds” T-shirt, counts us onto a bus.

(I’ve already developed a dopey crush on Megan, a devout Christian who started smoking to alleviate a mysterious stomach pain. It’s the way she smokes all day and yet somehow stays perky. It’s her “hallo campers!” smile as she dishes out spliffs from the front of the bus. Here she is now, a picture of sunny, customer service, reminding us all to stay hydrated on account of the altitude: “You’re in the mile high city now, you guys! You’re already high!”)

Our first stop this morning was a cooking class at a culinary school downtown. We made cannabis granola, cannabis jalapeno poppers and meatballs with a balsamic cannabis reduction. But since edibles take a while to kick in, the group became restless, so as soon as we were back on the bus, we all started skinning up furiously. Now, the smoke’s so thick, it pours through the sunroof in a column and trails behind us like an old steam train. The bus, I’m discovering, is what My 420 Tours is all about.

“Let’s hear it for Weedstock, man!” A large, noisy man is waving a stick around with a G0-Pro Video Camera on the end, rallying the stoners for some kind of YouTube video. He’s just a tourist like us, but the confident kind clearly. “This is the first ever 420 weekend for legal weed in America, man – it’s history, and we’re fucking here! Yeah!”

The response is tepid – a few mild whoops followed by a chorus of coughing. But he’s right, Go-Pro guy. This is historic. In fact, the more I think about it, the more historic it gets.

America’s war on weed began before long before we were born, and it’s been a nasty business from the off. In the last decade alone, there have been 6.5 million arrests, disproportionately targeting poor minorities in order to feed a bloated prison industrial complex etc etc – stop me if you’ve heard this one before. So it’s no small deal that two states, Colorado and Washington, said ‘enough’, and legalized it. This isn’t just decriminalization, which is much more common (16 states and counting) – this isn’t just reducing the category of offence from criminal to civil, knocking it down from prison to a fine. Legalization means full legitimacy – pot becomes a taxable, regulated industry, on a par with alcohol. This has never happened before – the explicit legalization of weed. Even Amsterdam considers pot illegal, it just doesn’t enforce the laws.

And while Washington has proceeded with caution, Colorado has taken the bowl and run with it.

First came Amendment 64 in November 2012 which permitted recreational possession of up to an ounce, and let individual Coloradans grow at home. Then on January 1st 2014, the floodgates were opened – licensed dispensaries were permitted to sell weed to anyone over 21. Today, a few short months later, Denver has more dispensaries than branches of Starbucks; the Denver Post has hired a marijuana editor and two product reviewers; and there’s no busier office at Colorado’s Department of Revenue than the Marijuana Enforcement Unit. Who says weedheads can’t get shit done? Tax revenues from marijuana are projected to reach $134 million for the fiscal year on $1 billion in sales. Violent crime’s down, property crime’s down and tourism’s up. So as other states eye Colorado’s success – green eyed in every sense – it’s likely that as goes Denver, so will go LA, Chicago, New York and on and on until prohibition is over and our prisoners of war will be set free at last, free at last…

So that’s why I flew into Denver this morning, to join the 80-100,000 other smokers who showed up for the first ever legal marijuana festival in America. The Cannabis Cup’s in town. Snoop Dogg’s playing. All over the city there are symposiums, gigs, parties and “weed brunches”. And on Easter Sunday, April 20th, we’re going to gather in the Civic Center park in the middle of town for the first legal 420 smokeout. The revolution starts here.

Yes we cannabis.

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This is a cushy gig, I know. Cushy with a k. While some reporters wade through AIDS in war-torn Africa, I’m skinning up on a bus with Megan. The only challenge is that the more “research” I do, the fuzzier I get on the details – like who said what to whom and what the fuck happened. So I’ve packed a bunch of digital devices to bail me out – if I drift, I just have to press record on either my voice recorder, my camera or phone. They’re all clattering around in my “Dope Sack” tote bag with a tangle of chargers, and a bunch of weed gubbins – two hybrid strains, some pre-rolled cones, a vape pen, grinder, seven lighters and the laced granola from this morning. It’s a mess basically. I can’t find anything.

“Man, look at all your shit!” There’s a woman peering into my bag. She looks all Blaxploitation with her wraparound shades, red jacket and little hat. Pamela’s her name, from Oklahoma. “I could just put my hand in there and steal it!”

And she would too – she says she’s wanted in five states, though she won’t say what for. This “Pamela” is the only one on the bus who, if you pass her a joint, she keeps it.

But, to be fair, I think she’s the only fugitive on the bus. It’s actually quite kumbaya, this crowd, if I can go a bit hippy for a minute – there’s young and old, here, black, brown and white, from all over the country. And everyone’s smoking each other’s gear and chatting away in strangled voices. It’s so mellow that I feel bad for even thinking about hygiene, all those germs getting passed around. “Smoke kills all that,” a guy from Texas tells me. “That’s how we cure meat back home.”

There seem to be three discernible tribes among us. There’s the strictly medicinal types, like Billy, an older engineer from Wisconsin with trembling hands. He’s not here to get high, he’s here for his fibromyalgia. Then there’s the budding ganjapreneurs, like the father and son from Alabama who are trying to get a cannabis networking website off the ground. Megan has seen plenty of investors on her bus lately, looking to buy into the booming cannabis industry. Others are just looking for a job – like the couple who work at Walmart in southern Colorado, and would rather trim plants instead, an entry-level position in the new cannabis economy. Apparently they met a guy who made $10/hr that way, with a smoke break every 90 minutes and a free quarter of weed a week. It could be worse.

The rest of us, however, are on holiday. There’s Candy, a caregiver from Pennsylvania who’s having “too much fun. I think I’m dreaming.” She’s here with her partner, Jesse, a funeral director. Karen’s here from Florida for her 52nd birthday treat, thanks to her daughter Danielle, who’s such a high functioning stoner, she’ll do a full blunt in the morning and then go to work as a trial consultant, briefing lawyers and screening juries. She has even brought her work with her on the bus – a thick yellow folder full of tax forms and spreadsheets.

And then there’s Go-Pro guy, John Strader, a fortysomething radio producer from Albuquerque, who’s so excited to be here, he provides a live commentary of events just in case we missed something, which we often have. His real claim to fame, he says, is shovel racing – a kind of redneck luge that involves sitting on a shovel and hurtling down an icy course. “It’s great for going really fast,” he says, “just not so good at corners.” One day he came flying off, and broke a bunch of bones in his chest and back. So he turned to cannabis for pain relief, and never looked back. “It beats the fuck out of opiates, dude.”

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The bus stops at a hemp fashion warehouse called Hoodlab, something of a landmark in the Denver pot scene – it was once an unofficial smoking lounge, Denver’s first, known as Club 64. We all stumble off, blinking in the sunlight.

“Look at us scatter!” says John. “Can you tell we’ve been to a cooking class? Ha ha!”

I’ve always been wary of edibles. The highs are trippier, you know you’re in the grip of something, and who knows what, because it’s so hard to tell how much you’ve had. When the New York Times columnist Maureen O’Dowd ate some infused chocolate, and descended into paranoid terror, she was rightly lampooned for not reading the label. But if a Kit-Kat can ruin you, the dosing is out of wack.

Needless to say, there were no labels on our jalapeno poppers or meatballs. So the confusion is setting in. Megan leads us into a darkened hall where some mad professor is lecturing a rapt audience about lamps – a wash of babble about “magnetic ballast” and “metal halides”. Suddenly everyone in the room says “smell it” in unison. I head out the back to a shaded lounge where people are rolling up everywhere, and find a couch that looks just blissful in the dappled light. Maybe if I park there for a couple of hours with my mouth open, looking properly gormless…

“Hi sweetie, I’m Chloe, I put on this event. You’re here from Esquire?” This beaming smile sits next to me and lights up a big joint. She’s another of those hyper-functional self-possessed smoker girls, and not unattractive either. Denver’s pretty awesome.

“I started the only approved and licensed Cannabis University in the nation, Cloverleaf University,” she says. “We provide certifications for the industry. I also have one of the biggest consulting groups in the country for marijuana and I helped write some of the laws. So you know, if you’re interested, I can tell you what’s going on out here.”

Hold on a second. I need to press a red button.

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What’s going on out here is revolutionary. Only it’s not the incendiary Che Guevara kind – this revolution has crept up like an edibles high, slowly but surely, citizen by citizen, state by state.

Like gay marriage, weed is a social issue whose time has come, in no small part because a recalcitrant older generation has literally started to die off. It was 2011 when 50% of Americans identified as pro-legalization according to Gallup – gay marriage crossed that Rubikon in 2010 – and in their wake, late as always, have come the public figures who magically “evolve” on issues once poll numbers are undeniable. But weed is a much bigger and more sprawling issue than gay marriage. Smokers far outnumber gays (38% have tried marijuana, whereas 4% identify as LGBTQ); the effects on medicine, the justice system and the economy are huge. So the battle is being fought on many fronts at once, and a distinctive winning strategy has emerged.

First medical marijuana kicks open the doors, brandishing the imprimatur of science and the endorsements of recognized doctors, people like the former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. Then politicians come to realize that a strong stand on “drugs” might entail denying a crippled war veteran his medicine on live television. And eventually, even Republicans start to adapt – the libertarian wing stressing the personal freedom issue, while the country club types focusing on taxation, not only as a way to squeeze stoners, who they’ve never liked, but also to pay for tax cuts for their wealthy base – a win-win. You know change is in the air, when even Pat Robertson is on board – the 81 year old evangelical preacher came out as pro legalization in 2012.

To date, two states have legalized weed, 16 have decriminalized, and 22 permit medical marijuana – so there’s a way to go yet. But these numbers will rise – some this year, in the mid term elections, and many more after the Presidential election in 2016 when young voters tend to come out in greater numbers. And this time, the change could be dramatic. Huge states like California, whose legalization bid stalled in 2014, have plans for 2016, and polls shows 60% support. Arizona has legalization plans for 2016 (polls show 51% support). Massachusetts too. New York currently polls 57% support for legalization, and thanks to Governor, Andrew Cuomo, will become a medical marijuana state soon. The shackles are loosening all over the country – Vermont, DC, Oregon, Hawaii and Delaware are all easing restrictions. And Alaska may even legalize this August, becoming state #3 – there’s a bill on the ballot and polls show 55% support.

One reason why reformers are so optimistic, is because the federal government has promised to stay out of the way for the first time ever. According to federal law, which is stuck in the reefer madness era, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, like heroin and LSD, and is considered more harmful than Schedule 2 drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. So even though Colorado had legalized marijuana, the DEA (a federal agency) conducted sweeping raids on its medical marijuana facilities, as recently as 2013. But in June of this year, the Republican controlled Congress passed a law prohibiting the Department of Justice from hindering state marijuana policy in this way any more. And this is a sea change – another green arrow on the road to full nationwide legalization.

Colorado’s pioneering role has been instrumental. Coastal types often decry the flyover states as conservative and unadventurous, averse to new ideas. And no doubt, California, weed’s spiritual home, was expected to go first. (It tried in 2010, but the bill was poorly written and voters balked.) But Colorado isn’t Kansas – it’s a frontier state, where the west begins, and a Mecca for literal adventurers – the climbers, boarders and rafters of the adventure sports industry who flock to the stunning Colorado River and the Rocky Mountains. Outdoorsy, free-thinking, nature-loving – it has always been something of a hippie haven. A mostly white swing state, with a prosperous, middle class electorate, it’s also small enough to mobilize – with only five million people, most of whom live in two college towns, Denver and Boulder, the latter of which is renown as a “party school”.

What Colorado has proven is that there’s real money here – and money has been the great persuader in this revolution. The Marijuana Industry Group estimates that there are some 10,000 weed jobs in Colorado, and already the state has devoted $40 million of marijuana tax revenue to public schools. Larger states can expect greater windfalls – in California, medical marijuana dispensaries have netted $105 million in taxes. And nationally, the numbers climb to the billions. The legal marijuana trade is estimated to be worth $1.53 billion this year alone, rising to $10.2 billion annually, in five years time. And then there are the costs of prohibition that can be saved on top – according to a 2010 Harvard study the cost to state and federal governments is $17.4 billion a year.

So whomever I ask this question – what’s going on out here – they use the phrase “green rush”. Weed as the new gold, Denver as the new boomtown. Now that the market has caught a whiff of how much green there is in green, everyone wants a toke. It’s like Silicon Valley – that’s the other thing they say – Denver’s not the Las Vegas of weed, it’s the Menlo Park, or Palo Alto, a place of innovation, social revolution and oodles of venture capital. It’s not just bud that’s flowering, it’s capitalism.

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One of the ideas that typifies this brave new world is Dixie Elixir, the alcopop of the weed world – fizzy fruit drinks with a dash of THC. Dixie makes a wide range of infused edibles and oils, and the CEO, Tripp Keber, is a former Reagan staffer, a suit and tie conservative who drives a Hummer and doesn’t even like weed, personally. But cannabis, he says, is growing faster than the smartphone industry, and edibles are at the epicenter because they’re healthier than smoking, and the possibilities are limitless.

At the cooking class, the chef Blaine Alexander, told us about a phone call he took the other day. “Some douchebag VC in Connecticut says, ‘I got $60 million, what dispensaries can you get me?’” he said. “I called my team and they were like – ‘sorry, pal, we got millions too.’ You can’t just buy into the Colorado scene right now, that’s not happening. It’s sealed up. We got this.”

Blaine’s 27, which might explain the triumphant tone, but who can blame him? He started as a chef for a deluxe party house near the Red Rocks amphitheater, where Snoop will be playing on Sunday night. When his clients – including many rock stars – asked for a little something in their snacks, Blaine delivered, and the reputation he built for gourmet edibles has now put him in a position he’d never imagined. His edibles company, Conscious Confections, is aligned with the dispensary, Native Roots Apothecary, and they’ve got their sights set on the healthy, organic market. They’re also in the brokerage business, connecting cannabis business owners to investment. “Trust me, we’re going so next level with this shit,” he says. “I’m talking hotels, high end dinners, with a cannabis sommelier. This is the new hotness, right here.”

Three years ago, he was whipping up brunch for BB King, and now he’s turning down $60 million. And this is a guy who times his plant extractions according to the cycles of the moon. That’s what’s going on in Denver right now – hippies are making bank.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though, especially on the edibles front. There was the student who jumped off a roof in March, post-cookies, and Richard Kirk, a Mormon father of three, who in April, shot his wife after spiraling into darkness and hallucination, a turn that some blame on marijuana candy (although he was also taking prescription painkillers). For legalization’s opponents, these cases join a smattering of other complaints – a study by Northwestern Medicine that shows marijuana’s detrimental effect on a teenage brain, reports of cannabis-impaired drivers, or a rise in trafficking crimes, in which people are buying weed in Colorado and selling it out of state.

“We don’t know what the unintended consequences are going to be,” Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper told other governors in March, who anticipated legalization spreading across the country. “I urge caution.”

But these isolated facts cower before the broader truth – that the hysterical predictions of marijuana’s opponents have crumbled in the face of Colorado’s experience. There has been no explosion in crime, no spike in addictions, no social unrest, no epidemics of any sort. So that defiance of Blaine’s – “we got this” – is common among the young Turks of the cannabis industry in Colorado. Because they feel they’ve done this right, and that this boom didn’t come easy. Dues have been paid. “People struggled to make it in this industry,” says Blaine. “They’re not just going to hand it to some out-of-state billionaire.”

 

Few know the struggle better than Chloe Villano of Cloverleaf University. She came to the cannabis industry when her little brother contracted cancer at 15 – his doctors even suggested it, to calm his pain, and help him sleep in his final months. And Chloe found her calling. She moved to Colorado from Florida, to work as a paralegal helping new dispensaries get off the ground. And the way she tells it, it’s been a rocky road. Growers and dispensary owners have had to navigate sudden, often draconian regulations that have left businesses in the dust, and turned friends against each other.

“People think cannabis is a great way to make fast money,” she says. “But I’ve seen a lot of people lose money here too. What you’re looking at now are the survivors.”

One of the industry’s greatest challenges is that banks won’t deal with marijuana companies so long as it remains against federal law. “So these growers and dispensaries, they’re dealing with cash,” Villano says. “I’m talking bricks of dollar bills, like suitcases of money. Which is a huge security risk.”

So now, a number of heavily armed security firms ferry drugs and money around town, like old school drug dealers – only this time, the men with the guns, weed and cash are security staff, many of them ex-cops.

The future, however, is promising. The federal government has already taken steps to mitigate its obstruction to state marijuana laws – The June law that prevents the federal government from impeding state marijuana policies suggests a willingness to let states decide this issue for themselves – this may lead to an easing of restrictions for banks and online processors like PayPal too.

Certainly, the industry in Colorado continues to move forward at a rate. Thus far, the law has been that dispensaries have to grow 70% of their product – it was a way for the state to track the weed, and ensure that cartels couldn’t get in on the action. But it limited the industry, by requiring growers to be retailers as well. That’s about to change.

“In October, the 70/30 rule’s going to be abandoned in Colorado,” says Chloe. “Denver’s exempt for five years, but everywhere else growers will be independent from retailers, and we’ll have a wholesale market for the first time. We’re going to see the first ever marijuana brands in America! The first cannabis cigarettes, the first cannabis gum. You’re going to see the Coors Light of cannabis.”

It sounds outlandish – a huge marijuana brand with a recognizable logo, sponsoring sports events, available at supermarkets. But if weed is legal, popular and fully marketed, then the question is: why not ?

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Quite where My420Tours fits into all this is hard to say. No doubt ancillary industries like tourism can be a smart choice since they don’t have the same burdens of regulation – anecdotally, there are stores in Denver that supply growers with equipment, lights and soil that are reporting $1 million in revenue per month.

But tourism’s dicey. As America’s kush Babylon, Colorado has a way to go yet – there’s still no smoking in public spaces, or in bars, and no specific marijuana lounges, restaurants or weed-themed hotels. And if legalization rolls out across the country then it will only dilute the state’s cachet as a cannabis destination. Perhaps one day, as Megan says, “there’ll just be a green cross on Expedia, it’ll be a standard option.”

So weed tourism is a tentative sector for now, and it feels that way – a tad basic and low budget, a bit of a punt. But that’s part of the charm of My 420 Tours – the staff are stoned, it’s a bit of a shambles, and that’s OK. Not every part of the weed scene has caught a taste of all that cash that’s flying around. At Hoodlab, for instance, the sofas are cheap and battered, and the snacks are all junk – Twizzlers and Oreos. Similarly, My 420 Tours promised a “weed-friendly hotel” with a “smoking lounge,” but that translates to an inflatable grey cube stuck out on a desolate 4th floor balcony, far from all signs of life. A couple of tatty couches, a table, and that’s it – no drinks menu, no service, and no heating lamps for when it gets cold in the evenings. Even on a marijuana tour, us smokers are banished to a grotty corner.

But no one complains. Weed tourists are the easiest to please, especially now, in the first flush of legalization. We scarf down cheap food and call it delicious. We queue up for ages, never mind that it’s the wrong line. And we speak of our inflatable cube-slash-“lounge” as though it were a wood paneled drawing room, complete with crackling fireplace and Chesterfield sofas. We gather there every night, to crack jokes about the guy who’s passed out on the couch (there’s always a guy passed out on the couch). And we’re back again in the mornings too, pre-gaming before the bus. It’s our campfire.

“It’s true, people are very patient in the cannabis community,” says JJ Walker, 34, the founder and CEO of My 420 Tours. A former grower, he had to shut down his facility overnight when the zoning requirements changed and he almost lost everything, including the $100,000 he’d borrowed from his parents. Now, however, he’s a fully diversified Denverite ganjapreneur. In addition to My 420 Tours, he’s part-owner of a dispensary (LaContes) and an events firm, Collective Events that organizes functions and parties, which is what he spent much of his career doing before weed took over. (A lot of the modern pot industry comes from the music or nightlife industry.) So inevitably, our bus takes us to buy weed at LaContes and then to marvel at his grow operation. The synergy is obvious. And for Walker, this is just the start. “I have the rights to the brand World Cannabis Week,” he says, “so the plan is to turn it into the South by South West of weed, with festivals, events, workshops.”

But there’s a coolness about JJ, a distance. Megan’s the friendly, happy face of weed tourism, while JJ’s a man on his cellphone walking in the opposite direction.

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We smoke together at Hoodlab for 4.20 – it’s his first hit of the day – and in the stoney aftermath, we agree to go to a gig later. “Ride with us, it’ll be awesome,” he says. But then the bus leaves, and so does JJ, and I end up out on the street failing to get a taxi. I’m standing there, eyes closed in the breeze, marveling at how the traffic wooshing past sounds like the sea, I can practically feel the tide wash up over my toes.

By nine that night, I’m passed out on my hotel bed with chicken parmesan on my shirt, and the TV on. Day Two, and I’ve already smoked myself into the Stone Age.

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At the Cannabis cup, the next morning, the lines are so long, it looks like CGI.  They snake around the car park, three deep, then tail off to some vanishing point in Arizona. But we expected this. JJ warned us that the wait time was four hours and that was Saturday. Today is Sunday, April 20th – 420 itself.

So we didn’t wait for the tour bus this morning, we cabbed it nice and early, me and Go-Pro John and the happiest couple in Pennsylvania, Candy and Jesse. There’s no Megan to hold our hands, since it’s also Easter Sunday today, and for Megan, Jesus won. So it falls to me, to try to jump these epic lines, on account of my press credentials. I’m crap at this kind of thing at the best of times, and this is especially nervewracking. It’s not just the biblical lines, it’s that the people at the front are all in wheelchairs. There’s a raspy old woman with a kitten, a Gulf war veteran with one leg… and us, trying to sneak in amongst them.

But incredibly it works. The bouncer just shrugs and says, “sure”. He looks as stoned as us. And when they eventually open the doors at 11, we’re the first ones in. I can hear Go-Pro laughing as we charge into the hall. “You do realize that we ran in front of that woman with the cat!”

The Free Weed signs are everywhere. That’s what the Cannabis Cup is all about – in amongst all the trade fair stuff, the vendor booths for anything remotely weedy, there are all these dispensaries who want to get you high enough to vote for their strain, but not so high that you’ll forget who you are, or what you’re doing there. So it’s like a rug market in Istanbul, with everyone fighting for your attention – only here it’s drugs, not rugs, and the hawkers aren’t bearded Turkish men, but 20 year old promo-babes, offering you things to suck on. Oh go on then.

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As we bumble about giggling, following other stoners around the maze like ants, I learn a few things about the bright new frontiers of weed. Like – it’s not just edibles that are taking over, it’s concentrates too, the high potency oils, waxes and this crystalline resin known as “shatter”. Concentrates are the crack of weed, a fiercer, faster hit, and dabbing – the technique of choice – requires a blowtorch. You blast a little metal surface, place a blob of wax or shatter on it, and suck in the vapor as it melts and boils. It’s like souped-up hot-knifing, the Penny Farthing equivalent from my day.

Another learning: vaporizer (vape) pens are replacing spliffs. It’s a bit Neanderthal to actually burn a plant with an open flame these days. Pens are bijou little objets, pocket size and discreet, and you can charge them through your USB. Chris, the founder of G-Pen (endorsed by Snoop) is doing so well, he’ll be chartering a jet tonight to fly his team from the Coachella music festival straight to the Snoop gig in Denver.

As for me, I end up at a booth for a plant trimming machine, which is about as fascinating as it sounds. But I can’t take my eyes off the model – she’s doing the whole Vanna White bit, but with faker smiles and more ruthless makeup, and she’s signing posters of her scantily clad self for gawping stoners. It’s all so plastic and corporate, it’s a little horrifying.

By some miracle, we leave on time, and get a cab to the park by 4.20pm – who says stoners can’t keep a schedule? And it’s much better here, not nearly so sell-sell. There’s this great throng of happy red-eyed punters milling on the grass on Easter Sunday, gearing up for the big smoke. Some have been here all day, moshing in front of the sound stage, as huge inflatable blunts float around in the air above. And all of it has been sponsored by just one Colorado dispensary. The Frosted Leaf isn’t even the biggest dispensary in Denver, not by some distance.

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[Image by Joe Amon, Denver Post]

That thrill of legality you feel out in Denver, of being able to hold a bag of puff out in the open without fear – it’s all the more acute today. Because this rally is flanked on every side by the apparatus of state – the Supreme Court, the county court, the Revenue Department, and at one end, surveying the scene from up high, the gleaming golden Dome of the State Capitol, winking at us in the sunlight. And yet look at this – everyone’s pulling out their carrots and cones while up on stage, the rapper B.O.B. starts the countdown. As the clock strikes twenty, the smoke rises off the crowd in a purple haze. Coughing and cheering, lighters in the air. And over in the VIP pen, surveying it all, JJ beams.

“This is how it’s meant to be,” he says. “Everyone chilled out, like a regular music festival. And you see that guy?” He points to a man in a blue suit, smoking a cigar – he looks like an old sea dog, a Hemingway type, shaking hands with the organizers. “That’s Mike Dunafon, he’s the mayor of a city here called Glendale. He’s going to be running for governor.”

Dunafon’s an independent. Pro-weed, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. And of course, he won’t win or even get close to the governor’s office. But right now, I don’t want to think about that. I just want to savor the image. Because B.O.B. has summoned some twerkers from the crowd, and now there’s a row of asses gyrating in the general direction of the Capitol Dome, a bouncing crowd of weedheads, and a gubernatorial candidate grinning in the VIP area.

Either something in America has changed, or I’ve been smoking something funny.