As I was about to start writing this story on Denver, I read the news in the Cannabist, an extremely interesting Denver-based online daily. The publication, which evidently spends most of its time reporting on the marijuana market in Colorado, is well researched and accurate and reported that “Denver police on Thursday raided eight Sweet Leaf Marijuana Center locations in Denver and Aurora, and arrested 12 people, as part of a yearlong investigation into illegal marijuana sales.The criminal activities alleged included the sale of cannabis in violation of the 1-ounce-per-person, per-day limits established under Colorado marijuana law.”
When on Saturday, a few days before the arrests, I visited the Euflora dispensary on Denver’s busy 16th Street, one of the first questions I asked was about the quantity of recreational weed one is allowed to buy. The shop, which looked like a fancy perfume boutique, was full of people, but before we were admitted you had to register with the armed security agent. The place was stocked with hundreds of products, displayed in nicely-designed and illuminated tables and shelves, but most of the customers were lining up to be served, and very few were roaming around the shop, searching among the endless variety of cannabis flower, concentrates, cartridges, concentrates, and edibles as I was. Two-thirds of the products were edibles and they come in myriads of flavors and with exotic names. They sell them in the forms of candies, brownies, gummies, chocolates, cherries, drinks, and even patches. Stepping into the basement of Euflora was like stepping into Alice’s Wonderland, if not for the very professional, not smiling, serious and not-at-all-high staff.
A day after we bought some chocolate-flavored Zootbites and gummy-hybrids with the taste of peach, I went down to wonderland again, to talk and take some photos, looking for a story. The man on guard was the same as the day before, perhaps just a bit more annoyed when I greeted him familiarly. He told me that he was working 14 hours a day for three days. Not fun. Though he would not discuss the details, the company he works for has some government connections and hopes to expand its business to other states, including Washington DC.
On that day, behind the selling counter, there was a very funny black guy with his afro dyed a psychedelic yellow. No photos please, he waived to me. I talked to a different saleswoman than the first day. She was very young, she was well informed on the effects of different kind of products, the level of various weed, and the quantity the THC can hit you with. She confirmed that the recommended starting dose is 10mg (which means one candy, one brownie; they are all dosed with 10mg) and then wait for an hour, during which you will then see how you react to the pot and then decide if you want to go further. I was impressed with the precision this short-lived industry of recreational weed products has achieved. When you buy an edible product in a store like Euflora, you can be one hundred percent sure that you are not consuming more than 10mg of THC per candy, chewy, brownie or whatever you choose to buy. It’s not at all like the homemade stuff your friend cooks for you in his basement, when, no matter how good the homemade recipe might be, you cannot control the exact quantity of the butter in the brownies or the impact it may have on you once it enters your system. Everyone has a story of this sort, and once it happened to me that when I was offered a homemade brownie during a picnic party, the substance was so strong that I lost the capacity to communicate, so I sat down like a Buddha in a safe distance from the other people, trying to figure out what was happening. It was the early period of the legalization of recreational weed and the very beginning of the edibles.
A couple of months later, I felt sympathetic toward Maureen Dowd, the New York Times op-ed columnist, when I read a report she wrote on her experience with edible cannabis in Denver. Hers was a scary experience, perhaps precipitated by the volcanic nature of the reporter and her hastiness to get the story done as soon as possible. She bought, in one of the first dispensaries in Denver, a cannabis candy bar and devoured it in her hotel room. Reading Dowd’s writing was fun then and is still now, especially since the dosing of edibles with THC is now absolutely exact, and the guidelines for beginners like Maureen Dowd have been written. The shopkeepers, as I said, now know the rules and they are good at explaining the types of products, from the more passive meditative stuff to the hybrids, which was the kind I preferred to buy on my first day in Denver.
I wanted to explore the city on a lovely sunny day and 10mg seemed to be an appropriate quantity for a safe journey. I did not close myself in the hotel, but instead went with my companion roaming the streets and then going to the Denver Art Museum, an interesting but painfully aggressive building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. By the time we got there, we knew that Denver was full of extreme and bizarre sites, buildings and sculptures. The urban plan, the layout of the city, is dropped into the middle of the desert and is framed by almost eternally snow-capped mountains, sights that feel like they were conceived and made by the hand of Le Corbusier.
It was inside the art museum that I first thought my gummy was hitting me too hard. Walking through the shows like Her Paris (female impressionist painters) and a small show on Ganesha was fine. It was the “Stampede: Animals in Art” that did it. The exhibition was about the animals which captivated artists throughout history, regardless of their form, style, or school of art. I could not follow or understand; there were so many different artworks thrown together just because they all had a visual mention of an animal. Dinosaur or cat, no matter; a little dog on the impressionist painting, or an elephant or giraffe by some naive painter, all relevant. There was so much confused information that it was impossible to absorb it, on edibles. But honestly, what was the idea of the whole show, spread over two floors of the museum? What will be next: the fruit in art? Ah, natura morta, at least.
Perhaps it was not the dope. Soon after I landed in Denver, I felt displaced, amazed. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the whole eastern part of the country was fighting snow storms and a gray winter. In the Mile High City, the sky was huge, open and celestial. The soil on the high plain was brown-reddish and dry, almost like a desert crying for a drop of rain. I thought for some reason that I landed somewhere in Central Asia. Was it Mongolia, or the Tibetan plateau? Did I already feel the lack of oxygen? Was this the natural state of things here, the reason for an irking unpleasantness and disconnection I felt?
It is possible, because the next day when we went hiking to the Red Rock, I felt a bit of nausea when I walked too fast up the hill. It is a symptom and feeling I remember having in high plains like Tibet and Kashgar in Xinjiang, near the Afghanistan border. You have to slow down and breath faster because of the small amount of oxygen in the air; you have to allow your body get used to the altitude. It takes about 48 hours to feel normal, an amount of time Dowd and I did not have.
However, and despite the booming business of recreational marijuana–it amounts to $1.3 billion per year–weed is not the only interesting thing in Denver. Walking in the open space, having the mountains and beautiful landscape surrounding you gives you an enormous amount of pleasure. On weekends, the city is almost empty, so, one really feels as if one’s walking on through the set of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, with its urban and empty scenes. And yet the state’s economy has grown 15.96 percent during the last five years and there are yearly 15,000 people who move to Colorado annually. There are still plenty of jobs available and a high quality of life, as local friends and settlers explain the phenomena. Sure, there is also a lot of cannabis tourism, but you don’t really notice it, despite the hundreds of dispensaries in the city of one million people.
Denver is surely an unusual place, made of pieces that are hard to put together otherwise. This may be because of the cultural mix that comes with a population that in majority overwhelmingly represent naturalized immigrants, foreign and American. Once in Colorado, the inhabitants hardly leave the place, and even those Coloradans who have left the place hope to get back one day. It’s this huge space that allows everyone to be free and indulge in whatever one really wants (most of the time that would be outdoor activities) that makes it so attractive, though there are plenty of guides that suggest more or less stereotypical things to the visitor, as if the locals want you to get out of their way while they keep the best of it for themselves. If you have the patience, you can compare the explainers for tourists and the list of the things the locals like to do, and it will be apparent.
I think the combination of both lists is good, but exploring without any of them is better. The things that are really lovely about Denver are discovered in its ability to surprise you if you let it. Maybe also this crazy conspiracy theory about Denver airport that talks about Freemasons, the nuclear shelter and the new world order that will start in Denver in 2094, is an extreme example of what the city offers (it has been debunked by the Denver Post).
And just to get back where I started: after I consumed one browny and one gummy in two days, each of 10 LHC, I had some leftovers, and since the shop was down the road from my hotel, I went back to ask what should do with my edibles. The stern faces of the shop looked at me as if I was a criminal when I asked them what would happen if I took them on the plane with me. I drilled them, and they became even more serious. I finally understood it was because of the cameras and microphones in the shop that they could not be more direct. So I googled this Coloradan problem and decided to risk it. In the end, the stuff I had was a small amount and I wanted to continue to research the story, which is what I planned to say to the security control when they grilled me for crossing state lines with illegal drugs. They walked the sniffing dog beside me. It was a nice dog, and he couldn’t have cared less about my gummies.