"I've got three young kids and a wife. I didn't want to go to jail," Zweitzig said in a recent interview in the Dispensary, which sits in the industrial River North part of Denver. The store is identified from the outside only by its address, 4305 Brighton Blvd., and a pair of green crosses. If it strikes you as ironic that a marijuana seller would move from one state to another rather than leave the trade for his wife's and kids' well being — well, visiting a state where pot is legal just for fun brings a lot to wrap your head around.
The openness is the first thing. Colorado voters in 2012 approved legalizing recreational marijuana sales, and the law went into effect this past January. When I visited recently, I half expected the underground climate of secrecy and surreptitiousness that has grown around marijuana's use since the 1960s to have endured. Even if it is legal, it was hard to picture its distribution as anything but discreet and hushed.
I was wrong. These shops don't just allow picture-taking and interviews, they encourage it.
Zweitzig takes visitors to see the lush pot-growing area in the back through picture windows, where pot plants are being tended by a man in a tie-die shirt and bandanna head scarf. Sales people are proud and eager to describe for prospective buyers their various cannabis delivery goods, how they might affect one and how to get the best bang for your buck. At the Cannabis Peak store in a tony Aspen shopping district, an animated sales woman explained that the Sativa plant variety makes you "up and happy," while Indica makes you sleepy. I pegged her for the Sativa type.
At Zweitzig's store, one of about 75 recreational pot shops in Denver, (there are more of them than Starbucks, people boast) pot comes in gummy candies and chocolate truffles, cookies, elixirs and oils, pain creams, sleep aids and individually rolled joints. Zweitzig, who has a degree from Temple University, explains the options to visitors as if he were discussing types of tea. Jamie Perino owns the recreational marijuana dispensary Euflora in Denver, and says people are changing their minds about the drug, partially because "money talks."
And then there's Euflora, an upscale retailer in downtown Denver, which opened April 2 and looks more like an Apple iPhone store than a weed dispensary. Glass display cases show the dried buds next to iPads keyed up to descriptions of them. The shop's website lists cannabis pastries, lollipops, chocolates and infused drinks, among other products they boast are are cultivated from over 30 of the world's top strains. A colorful above-the-counter display looks like something from a confection shop.
Owner Jamie Perino, 37, was an international sales manager in the building industry, but she was ready to try something different. Legalization brought "a chance to make a lot of money as an owner," she said. Though she samples all her wares, she's not a recreational pot user. Wine is her vice. About 80 percent of Euflora's customers are from out of town, says Perino, describing how suitcases will be lined up by the front door from people who just got off a plane. "I can't tell you how many people come to my store and say, 'We're here just for this,' " she said. She says Colorado was the most popular spring break destination this year, beating out all the warm weather beach resorts. Applications to universities in Colorado are up by a third. Candies and other snacks with marijuana as an ingredient are available at Euflora.
Non-Coloradoans are responsible for much of the state's tax revenues from legal marijuana sales because residents can easily get cards for medical marijuana, which is taxed at a lower rate. Recreational buyers pay a 2.9 percent state sales tax, a 10 percent special marijuana sales tax and any local taxes. Stores also are charged 15 percent retail excise taxes. Perino says her store remits $50,000 to $70,000 in tax revenues a month. She has to pay in cash, as her customers also do. That requires using armed guards to transport the money, because the federal government still bans marijuana. Yet it happily collects taxes from marijuana's legal sale in Colorado and Washington.
Colorado faces a problem in collections because about 40 percent of the marijuana sold in Colorado is either grown for personal use and not taxed — it's legal to grow six plants — or sold illegally. Of the estimated 287,000 pounds expected to be consumed this year, only about 170,000 pounds will come from legal medical or recreational outlets, according to a report commissioned by the state Marijuana Enforcement Division. The $33.5 million the state had expected to collect in marijuana taxes in the fiscal year ending in June ended up being only $12 million.
The Colorado Legislature this year passed a law allowing the marijuana industry to create its own banking cooperative. There are 105 commercial banks in the country doing business with marijuana sellers, but those ties can be broken if the business is found to have violated rules such as selling to minors or across state lines, or laundering money. To enter a pot store in Colorado, or to buy, you have to show proof of being 21 or over. From what I saw, that is strictly enforced.
Perino says you need a lot of business sense to run an operation like hers with all the regulations. Colorado residents are limited to buying an ounce (28 grams). For out-of-towners, it's a quarter of an ounce. The median price for recreational marijuana is about $16 a gram (medical is about $10), according to a 538.com survey. Marijuana is not allowed in Colorado airports.
Another surprise: Perino said the most common shoppers are in the 45 to 55 age group. The Denver Post's Cannabist column reported on a trailer dispensary in a small eastern Colorado town whose first customers were "a retired couple from Iowa who asked if they could get an AARP discount (sorry, no)." Not every Colorado city allows recreational marijuana store. Some Coloradoans are smarting from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's piece this spring about going to Colorado and eating too much of a pot-laced candy bar. She described eight hours of hallucinating, getting paranoid and thinking she was dead.
There have been a few reported incidents of high doses of edibles sickening people. In one tragic incident, a Denver man hallucinated and shot his wife to death. But overall, studies show legalization has not brought major problems. Traffic fatalities are down from last year and down from the 13-year average. Crime, including violent crime, is also down. And though the New York Times reported that marijuana-impaired drivers had about 12.5 percent of all driving citations for the year's first five months, drug tests, unlike alcohol tests, cannot detect a level of intoxication, only for the presence of marijuana metabolites. Those can remain in the body for days or weeks after the drug's effects have worn off.
"You have to use common sense," said Perino, noting people are also not supposed to down an entire six-pack of beer in one go. Her staff advises consumers to start with 10 milligrams of edibles. A 10-milligram cookie is $4.
After an in-depth investigation of Colorado's experience, the New York Times recently concluded the federal government should repeal its 40-year-old marijuana ban and let states decide on legalization for themselves. The newspaper says the evidence is overwhelming that marijuana dependency and addiction are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco.
The Times also says there are no significant health risks for healthy adults, and it is not a gateway to other drugs. The Times also noted the disproportionate impact of marijuana laws on young black men, who are disproportionately arrested for it. The Times' main concern is with marijuana's impact on developing adolescent brains, a concern I share. For starters, manufacturers should do away with the candies, which would certainly entice kids if they ever fell within their reach. Marijuana is an adult drug and should be marketed that way.
In our state, not only is the prospect of recreational marijuana nowhere on the horizon, but even medicinal marijuana is out of reach for most people who need it. Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. So some Iowans with chronic health conditions that could be eased by marijuana have actually moved to Colorado. Iowa lawmakers this year approved the use of non-narcotic cannabis oil to treat chronic epilepsy in response to an appeal from parents of children with epilepsy, including the daughter of West Des Moines' Mayor Steve Gaer, a Republican. But since the oil isn't produced in Iowa, it must be bought from a state that does produce, which requires unlawful interstate transport. Jack Hatch, the Democratic state senator from Des Moines who is running for governor, says Iowa should be looking at licensing dispensaries. A Quinnipiac University poll in March showed 81 percent of Iowa voters support the legalization of prescribed medical marijuana. But some state lawmakers, citing a slippery slope, still oppose marijuana for anything.
Gov. Terry Branstad has been a medical marijuana opponent, though he signed the law legalizing cannabis oil for epilepsy. Asked where the governor stands on expanded medical use, Branstad's spokesman, Jimmy Centers, said he believes the state needs to exercise caution when considering expansion, since cannabis oil has only been legal for weeks. "As is his standing policy, the governor would carefully review legislation on the matter should it pass both chambers of the Iowa Legislature and reach his desk," he wrote in an email. He did not respond to a question about recreational use.
Hatch, who has sponsored medical marijuana legislation, supports extending use of cannabis oil for conditions besides epilepsy. Medical marijuana has successfully treated multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, Parkinson's, tumors and more. Hatch said government should not be picking and choosing among illnesses.
As to recreational marijuana, Hatch isn't pushing it. He thinks Iowans should watch the impact on Colorado before it can develop "a consensus on whether we want to go there." My own view is that Iowans should immediately expand medicinal marijuana use and look at Colorado's experience with recreational marijuana with an open mind. There are legitimate concerns about the impact on young people's brains and habits. Everyone processes it differently, and it can make some people paranoid. Adults can decide whether to take that risk, but children need to be protected. It remains to be seen how successful Colorado and Washington are in keeping it out of young hands.
At the same time, I fear Iowa's lawmakers are too prone to accepting outdated myths and stereotypes about marijuana and the types of people who use it. Those responses may have more to do with a cultural framework that associates pot with the rebellious, anti-war, free-love 1960s than the drug's properties. It is no more inherently immoral than drinking alcohol, and apparently quite a bit safer. From what I saw, life in Colorado is progressing quite normally. People are proud to live in a progressive state that thinks for itself and happy to draw money and tourism from states still locked in a stubborn, static mindset. I also had no Maureen Dowd moments.