The Mile High City

Billboard on Broadway in Denver
Is Denver the New Amsterdam?

When I quit being a hardcore, wake-and-bake, fully saturated marijuana junkie, when I tapered down to the occasional toke, when I hung my Hawaiian shirts in the hall closet, and started wearing big boy pants, the biggest difference for me was that I no longer flinched when the cops showed up in my rear-view mirror.

On January 1st, Colorado gave counties the option to make recreational pot legal. A week later, I bought some pot at a dispensary in Denver.

You probably think you know something about legal pot. You’ve probably heard of it in places like Amsterdam, or British Colombia. But Amsterdam doesn’t have legal pot, and neither does Canada. What they have is laws they don’t enforce. Which kind of makes a mockery of the whole justice system.

There are lots of reasons to not smoke marijuana. Marijuana makes you a glazed-eyed, slack-jawed, drooling, mouth-breather, but so does television. By far, the worst consequences of smoking pot are the legal consequences.

Recreational pot wasn’t that easy to find in Denver. I asked a waitress where I could find some, and she told me to look for a store with people lined up outside of it. She said she just got pot from her friends.

“I don’t really smoke that much,” she said.

I found an old website for a gourmet medical marijuana restaurant that claimed South Broadway was Little Amsterdam, or Broadsterdam. I started walking down Broadway.

Broadway is a glamorous old whore of a street, trying to be respectable. It’s brick storefronts and plate glass windows full of decorating accessories and antiques. It’s fast food and dive bars, and a little sketchy at night.

I walked a ways before I stopped at a bar. I had a couple, to take the edge off, and started walking again. I bluffed my way past security at an office park to pee. The smell of curry wafted from an Indian food truck parked outside.

The fringes of the Arctic Vortex had dumped snow on Denver. The thaw had come, but packed snow still left icy patches on the sidewalk. Sometimes I’d slip, and my face would flush from the adrenaline rush.

The Line for Recreational Pot
The line at Evergreen Apothecary. I told everyone that didn’t want to be recognized to turn around.

There was a line outside of Evergreen Apothecary. Evergreen Apothecary is next to the Red Pine Motel, which is next to Herman’s Hideaway, where the Red Elvises played once. I guess you could make a pretty good couple of days out of staying at the Red Pine Motel, conveniently located between the Evergreen Apothecary and Herman’s Hideaway.

Even though recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, buying it isn’t like shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. An overweight Chicano manned the door, checking i.d.’s and deterring crime. This guy was strapped with an open carry Springfield XD just forward of his hip.

Because recreational marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, some dispensaries don’t use banks, so they’re stuck with lots of cash. They hire friendly guys with guns to man the doors.

He checked my Texas driver’s license, and told me to stand over there. He showed me a form and asked me to sign it. I got processed through a computer. I guess I’m a registered recreational pot buyer somewhere, but all that information is probably tucked away on some private computer, where the government can never get to it. Right?

When my turn came, they called my name, and a twenty-something girl behind a counter asked me what I was looking for.

In Denver, the marijuana is branded by strain. Strains are varieties, often cloned from a single plant, or its clones, or clones’ clones. Strains are like brands, with distinctive tastes and effects. The strains have sexy names like exotic dancers: Sour Diesel, or Bio Jesus, or Bubba Kush.

The gourmet strains are hybrids of the two families of marijuana: indica, and sativa. The sativa buzz is usually described as light and energetic, and indica is more like getting hit with a wet blanket.

I opted for Ice, which the clerk described as 80 percent sativa, and 20 percent indica.

They shuffled me off to another room, where I paid for my goods, and then back towards the front door, where they sealed my purchase in a heavy-duty black plastic bag.

Back on the street, I was confronted with a new problem. Possession was legal, but smoking wasn’t. It’s legal to smoke on private property, but my hotel room, like every hotel room in the U.S., probably, was No Smoking. I didn’t really have access to private property.

So I did what potheads have been doing for almost a hundred years. I smoked illegally, walking through the deserted streets of a residential neighborhood, surreptitiously toking my new pipe.

Whether or not recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado is up to each county. Denver County green-lighted the plant, but El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs and the headquarters of Focus on the Family, opted to stay the course, and keep throwing potheads in jail.

Most of the illicit, unregulated, marijuana in Denver is medicinal. Medicinal marijuana enters the marketplace one of two ways: Medical marijuana users might sell some of their stash to their friends. Or illegal growers might set up grow operations using seedlings purchased legally. As it stands right now in Colorado, both medical and recreational users can grow a limited number of their own plants, and dispensaries sell seedlings, so growing your own for fun and profit might seem like a reasonable thing to do, especially if you’ve got a red card, the i.d. given to medical marijuana users in Colorado.

Medical marijuana is stronger than recreational pot. Perversely, it’s cheaper, too. Recreational pot can be no stronger than 17% THC, and might cost $32 for a sixteenth of an ounce. (That’s what I paid for my dose of Ice.) Medical marijuana can sell for as little as $100 an ounce. I suppose that the price of black market weed falls somewhere between recreational and medicinal.

The goods
My recreational pot came in a purple plastic pill bottle.

And really, 17% is plenty strong. I was in Denver three days, and I ended up tipping a bartender a fat bud, and flushing the rest down the toilet.

On the morning of the day I left, I went to the Bar Bar to ask a bartender there some pointed questions about recreational pot.

Zack has a red card. He was one of the first to get the medicinal marijuana i.d. in Colorado. His card number is 7.

“Do the medical marijuana users resent the intrusion of recreational pot users?” I asked.

The bar was crowded and noisy at 8:30 in the morning, and I had to almost yell.

“I haven’t heard of that,” Zack said.

“You like to smoke pot?” the guy two barstools down jumped up and asked me. If he’d been a bird dog, he would have been on point. “I’ll give you some pot.”

We walked outside, and stood on the sidewalk in the morning sun. He pulled out a joint that looked like a toothpick wrapped in paper.

“This is some Hammer,” he said.

I took a hit, then another, and then I was thinking so hard I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t get my voice in front of my words. It took too much effort, and my mouth couldn’t keep up.

I slouched out of the bar, through downtown Denver to my hotel.


  1. I don’t understand why, if you’d toke on some else’s stash, you’d flush your own.

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