Colorado's experience with legal pot holds lessons for Washington

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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DENVER — Marijuana may be legal now in Colorado, but I felt like a criminal the first time I visited an adult recreational vendor of the drug. To find a store, I downloaded the Weedmaps app to my phone, and already I was nervous that my cellular carrier might call the cops on me.

The app guided me to Native Roots Apothecary, on the eighth floor of a downtown Denver high-rise. The modern building was filled with accountants, attorneys, and investment advisers. But when I exited the elevator, a heavy, incenselike smell told me I'd come to the right place.

Colorado vs. Washington

On Nov. 6, 2012, Washington and Colorado both voted to allow adults over age 21 to use pot, but they’ve taken different approaches to their new laws. Here are some of the key differences.

Medical marijuana

Colorado: Strict regulation of medical vendors pre-dates legalization. Most recreational stores also sell medical pot.

Washington: Medical outlets remain unlicensed and unregulated. Medical marijuana vendors can convert to recreational, but can’t sell both.

Growing and processing

Colorado: Recreational vendors can grow and process their own plants, or can buy from licensed third parties.

Washington: Recreational vendors cannot grow their own marijuana. They must acquire it from licensed producers and growers.

Stores

Colorado: Unlimited stores allowed as long as state and local rules are followed.

Washington: Strict limits on the number of stores in each community.

(Both states prohibit stores from opening near schools.)

Taxes

Colorado: State tax of approximately $6 for an eighth of an ounce, with additional local taxes in some communities (an extra $8.59 for an eighth of an ounce in Denver).

Washington: State tax capped at $12 per gram retail, which amounts to $42 for an eighth of an ounce.

— Courtney Sherwood

My first surprise: Native Roots Apothecary was clean, well-lit and, despite a high level of security and the big glass jars of marijuana buds behind the counter, felt like a normal store. Absent its high-rise setting, it's the kind of store that may soon become a part of the retail scene in Clark County.

I was in Denver for a journalism conference, and I'd arranged to talk to local people and visit local pot vendors to see what Clark County could learn from Colorado's example. I found bank executives buying the drug — and nervous customers unwilling to share their names. Some locals were worried about the "pothead lifestyle," but there's no evidence of an increase in crime. And high prices for retail marijuana raised questions, still unanswered in Colorado, about how well legal stores can compete with a well-established black market. These same issues will play out in Washington soon, including one that Denver doesn't face: a major metropolitan area just across the state line.

To get inside Native Roots, I stood in front of a camera and rang a bell. The woman who buzzed me in checked my driver's license to be sure that I'm over 21, then sent me through another secured door to view the merchandise: Loose marijuana buds sold for $50 for 1/8 ounce. A pre-rolled joint was $18. A single caramel candy was $15 — the clerk said it contained enough cannabis to get two or three people high.

Those prices, which include taxes, are more than marijuana currently costs in the Vancouver-Portland area, where an eighth of an ounce typically sells for $25 to $40, according to TheWeedBlog.com and other websites. State regulators in Washington are capping taxes at $6 per gram, or $42 in taxes for an eighth of an ounce, suggesting that legal pot could cost as much as twice the current black-market rate when stores open in Vancouver.

Next to me at the marijuana store in Colorado, a 50-something woman with platinum blond hair and an expensive-looking suit peppered the clerk with questions. "I smoke every day," she said. "I'm looking to try something different." After she made her purchase, I asked about her view of marijuana legalization. She did not want to give her name, but said she is an executive at a national bank, and that she is glad she can buy the drug legally now.

While marijuana use is linked in public consciousness to the stoned outrageousness of Cheech and Chong movies, some now see that stereotype as inaccurate.

"One of the biggest surprises to come out of legalization is how normal it's been," Brian Ellwood, a Denver resident who said he does not use marijuana, told me later. "I prefer alcohol myself, but a lot of middle-class professionals have come out of the closet as pot smokers."

And yet I found that even those in the business hold back from personal disclosure.

A Native Roots clerk — or "budtender" — let me take his photo and use his comments, but he declined to give his name. The company's recreational marijuana clients are a mix of out-of-state tourists and downtown Denver business people, he told me. Medical marijuana users from Colorado also shop at the store, and pay much less for the drug because they're exempted from some of the taxes assessed on marijuana sold for recreational use. Riding down the elevator as I left Native Roots, I struck up a conversation with a 40-something woman wearing a name tag that said she's from Longview. Like many pot smokers I talked to in Denver, she did not want her name used. She told me she'd purchased a small pipe and a little loose marijuana to smoke while in town for a conference — and said she was excited to be able to partake while traveling, and not worry about breaking the law.

Marijuana tourism

Later, I visited LoDo Wellness Center, where I met a couple from Chicago who traveled to Denver specifically as marijuana tourists. The husband of the pair told me they hadn't used the drug since the 1970s. "We could have traveled to Seattle," he said, unaware that Washington's recreational marijuana stores have not yet opened their doors. "Denver was just closer and easier."

In Vancouver, such drug-seeking might become a big tourism draw.

Colorado's state boundaries are rural, with no big cities nearby. If people are willing to fly from Chicago to try legal pot, it seems likely that Portlanders and other tourists will be heading to Washington before long. And who knows: maybe tourists visiting Portland will add a stop in Vancouver to their itineraries, even though there's no public place to smoke marijuana in Vancouver and they can't legally transport the drug back to Portland. Or, some could find lodging in Vancouver — some short-term rentals on the Airbnb.com website made mention that the short-term rentals in private homes were marijuana-friendly.

I wanted to hear opinions of people other than those frequenting marijuana retail sites, so I walked to a nearby park to see what people there had to say.

Denver resident Liz Griffith, 25, said concerns about Colorado becoming a magnet for marijuana tourism prompted her to vote against legalization. "I don't want people to identify our state with marijuana," she said. During recent travels outside the U.S., everyone she talked to seemed to identify Colorado with drug legalization.

"That's not all the state has to offer," Griffith told me. "Denver has a great culture, we have the Rocky Mountains. This state is about being in nature. There's a lot more to us than pot."

Her friend Megan Lloyd, 23, said she is also worried about Colorado's reputation, and about the message sent by legalizing recreational use of the drug.

"Medically, I have no problem with it," Lloyd said. "But when it comes to the pothead lifestyle, I don't think it's life-giving or great, and this law could open the door to that (lifestyle)."

A few blocks from the park, Pat Narajka said she's also worried about the consequences of legalization. As a teacher, she fears that legalizing the drug has made marijuana use seem more acceptable to her students — but she loves that marijuana sales tax dollars are going toward education. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper predicts that retail marijuana will raise $125 million in the coming fiscal year, which begins in July. The state has earmarked the first $40 million in marijuana taxes collected each year for school construction and improvements.

Narajka said she believes that a proliferation of legal marijuana stores is hurting redevelopment of some business districts. A number of stores have opened up along one retail-heavy road, and that's keeping other types of businesses away, she said. "I wouldn't say I fear for my safety, but it's not going to be an attractive neighborhood for a long time."

Business district concerns

Washington's restrictions, which will limit the number of recreational marijuana stores in each community, seem likely to prevent such dense marijuana business districts from emerging. State regulators here are only allowing up to 15 stores across Clark County — six in Vancouver, six in unincorporated areas of the county, and one each in Battle Ground, Washougal and Camas. Of those, only the six in Vancouver seem to be moving forward on schedule as the county and some cities are blocking the establishments.

There have been early signs of a Clark County pot business cluster. At least three paraphernalia shops are operating in a small area of Orchards, and three retail marijuana applications have been filed for the area, although a county ban will likely block them from opening.

Denver resident Tim Sponseller, 47, out for a walk with friend John Cray on a warm afternoon, said he feels safer now that retail marijuana sales are legal.

"To me it's comforting that you can have an established place to go," said Sponseller, who told me he uses marijuana. It's better than "trying to find a person in a park somewhere to buy from, not knowing what the quality is."

Sponseller said the marijuana stores he's visited have been in business districts, not residential neighborhoods, and they have felt clean and secure. "I've been in liquor stores in bad parts of town that make me feel more uncomfortable than dispensaries. So far it's been three months, and I haven't heard of any rise in crime."

Cray, 73, said if anything he suspects that crime has gone down now that marijuana is legal — a sentiment that seems to be confirmed by recent research. A study published in March found no correlation between allowing medical marijuana and crime levels, and the mayor of Denver has said that his city has not seen a notable uptick in crime since recreational pot became legal Jan. 1.

"People smoked all the time anyway," said Cray, who said he does not use the drug.

Now buyers know that they are supporting local businesses, instead of criminal organizations, Cray said. "The cartels are injured by this law."

During my time in Denver, I smelled pot on the clothes of people walking down the street, but no more often than when I visit downtown Portland. At one point I saw a young man smoking from a metal pipe outside a trendy restaurant, even though public smoking is still illegal in Colorado, just as it is in Washington and will continue to be even with legalization. I also saw police cars drive unconcerned past stores where marijuana was openly being sold, one of my many double-takes as I tried to adjust to the reality of legalization.

Back in the Pacific Northwest, I opened the Weedmaps app to see what was listed locally. More than 300 licensed medical marijuana businesses pop up in the Vancouver-Portland metro area. I'm aware of some because of the green cross symbols in their windows, but most are as invisible from the street as Denver's Native Roots Apothecary.

Perhaps that's the future for Vancouver as the new law is fully implemented. Legalized marijuana sales could become an almost hidden presence in the community, drawing people who, like the bank executive at Native Roots, are quietly searching for an opportunity to "try something different" without breaking the law.


Courtney Sherwood is a former Columbian business and features editor who now works as a Portland-based freelance reporter.