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Josiah M. Hesse Josiah M. Hesse

For Colorado Stoners, Legal Pot Is Still More Promised Land Than Reality

After the initial high, legalization is helping marijuana users less than it should, says this local reporter and consumer—and the media is one big reason why.

7 Substance

Colorado State flag - Marijuana Leaf

I have been smoking cannabis in Denver, Colorado, for 10 years, and covering it as a journalist for the last two. Since pot became fully legal in January, I’ve been getting calls from friends all over the country wanting to know just how drastically different life is for a pot smoker now.

“Is Denver just like Amsterdam?” they ask.

The short answer is no. Marijuana is still technically illegal in Amsterdam, but that renowned cannabis capital has one thing going for it that we do not: pot coffee shops.

When it comes to politicians, bankers, growers, sellers, police officers, journalists and media-hungry addiction experts, it’s a virtually unrecognizable brave new world. But despite the worldwide press attention and celebratory high-fives from legalization advocates, little has changed in Denver for daily dope smokers. We still cannot legally smoke pot outside a private residence.

If anything, things have become more difficult for us.

The High Price of Legality

I participated in the media circus on January 1 at the “first legal marijuana purchase,” by Iraqi War vet and PTSD survivor Sean Azzariti. For the entire day, jumping from one retail shop to the next, I was crushed between reporters from the BBC, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Vice and a surprising number of German news organizations—all wanting a glimpse of the birth of the world’s first regulated marijuana market. Enthusiasm from the stoners I encountered began to fall, however, once they realized how much they had to pay for their dose of decriminalized dank.

Most of the pot smokers I know in Denver don’t even bother with the new recreational shops, as legal weed is wildly expensive. Due to the gauntlet of bureaucratic paperwork and costly security regulations required of retail shops, two-thirds have not yet been licensed to open, lowering competition and causing prices to soar. Massive taxes on sales and a limited supply of plants don’t help, either.

Despite the worldwide press attention and celebratory high-fives, little has changed in Denver for daily dope smokers. If anything, things have become more difficult for us.

Currently, the average price for an eighth of medical marijuana in Denver is around $30. This has driven black-market prices down to the same level. If you want to switch from the black market to retail marijuana, you’re looking at a 100% markup, paying around $65 or more for an eighth. A visiting friend of mine recently paid $100 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

For the most part, buying pot legally in Colorado is akin to purchasing a beer at a stadium concert: same product, twice the price.

So if you live here and don’t have a doctor-prescribed red card for medical marijuana, the smart thing to do is hold onto the number of your “guy.” Or just buy it from the folks selling dime bags in the park.

The retail shops aren’t hurting for cash, though: Recreational pot sales reached $5 million in the first week of legalization. But it looked to my prying eyes like large portions of these sales were by tourists and local curiosity seekers.

Legalization advocates believe that the high price of retail pot and the thriving black market are just a temporary setback: As the legal market matures, prices will fall and bootleggers will go back to selling whippits at Phish concerts. “It’s absurd for anyone to draw conclusions about the underground market [so soon after] the legal market commencing,” the Marijuana Policy Project’s Mason Tvert told me in a recent interview I did for Westword, a local alt-weekly. “Competition hasn’t even begun, and yet I’m already hearing from business owners who are starting to lower their prices.”

A February budget proposal by the governor estimated that sales of recreational pot could reach $1 billion in the next fiscal year. Yet two months in, prices haven’t dropped lower than $50 for an eighth. And those shops advertising $50 are somewhat of a scam: They’ve left out the 21% state-tax in the menu price, only informing you of it at the register.

Don’t Look at Us

The global attention has lead to an overzealous campaign not by local police but by city officials on the issue of public consumption of marijuana.

Many state lawmakers remain reluctant to publicly support marijuana use, even after voters passed Amendment 64 (the legal pot initiative) in November 2012. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who was anti-64, said, “We don’t know what the unintended consequences [of legalization] are going to be, and we’re going to regulate it every way we can.…[Marijuana] doesn’t make people smarter, doesn’t make people healthier. I don’t think governors should be the position of promoting things that are inherently not good for people.”

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