A Canuck on Cannabis in Colorado

Just to set the scene, a conference brought us for a short visit to Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Springs, as it is called by the locals, is the second-largest city in the state, with a population of more than 400,000 in the city itself and 800,000 in the area. Set in the foothills and on a high plateau on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, the local scenery is spectacular. I shall put up another post or two on that, with some pictures, soon. 

For the locals, The Springs is considered more laid-back than the state capital of Denver. Living costs are cheaper, and it has a reputation of being more conservative. Several decades ago, the government encouraged fundamentalist religious groups from southern California to relocate to the city to help boost the local economy. There is also a large military presence. One estimate is that 50% of the locals have some connection with the military or are retirees from the military. In recent years, the legalization of marijuana has attracted a flood of immigrants, many unable to access medical marijuana in their home states.

The state of Colorado legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 2000. On January 1, 2014, the state also became the first in the Union to legalize the purchase and sale of weed for recreational use. They did so on two conditions. One, that local cities and towns had an option to approve, licence, and then tax under the legalized recreational marijuana regime or not. And, two, that no one could smoke marijuana in public. We were told that 90% of local governments opted to ban the purchase and sale of recreational weed within their jurisdiction. I have not verified the figure. But we do know that the state capital of Denver approved it; The Springs did not.

This past weekend, in both cities, 4/20 Celebrations extended over three days. Placards spanning the freeway warned drivers, “Drive Hi, Get DUI.” (As an aside, I learned that Vancouver had its own 4/20 celebration which drew thousands to smoke pot in Robson Square. I don’t think that this annual festival occurs in Toronto, but I may be wrong.) We saw a lengthy CNN special on weed which aired on Sunday evening and again Monday, probably to coincide with 4/20 Day. The program describes the problems created when marijuana is legalized in some states and not in others and is still banned under US federal law. It profiles many patients with serious medical conditions who have benefitted from using the substance. It also illustrates the research studies now underway to prove (or not) the long-term effects of marijuana on a range of conditions and on the human brain. Although the program attempted to be balanced for a national audience, Colorado experience has been the most extensive, and figures prominently in the show. Since the legalization of marijuana is an issue in our own upcoming federal election, any reruns of this CNN show would be worth watching.

For all its conservatism, Colorado Springs has a remarkably vibrant marijuana scene. The Colorado Springs Independent touts itself as the “largest independently owned newspaper” in the city. Its April 2015 edition, called “ReLeaf,” is said to be “a guide to all things marijuana in the Pikes Peak region.” That it is. It is full of ads from cannabis producers and retailers. There is also a seven-page catalogue listing in alphabetical order 90 cannabis dispensaries in the city which sell cannabis for medical purposes. Each listing gives the address, telephone number, top strain, top edible and unique features. There is a two-page feature with pictures on how to roll a joint under the heading, “Rolling joints can be tough. We tried to take the mystery out of it.”

The Springs is also the home of the cannabis club movement. KC Stark opened Studio A64, believed to be America’s first private cannabis club. He is quoted as saying that “Colorado Springs is the Silicon Valley of cannabis. Denver is the Hollywood — we’re more technical, more conservative.” Griffin Swartzell, writing for the Independent, agrees and adds, “While Denver is testing the public-perception limits… with weed-friendly events like movie screenings, concerts and tour buses, the Springs is exploring new business models.” According to Billie Stanton Anleu, in Sunday’s Gazette (the mainstream paper of The Springs), “Denver has recreational pot stores galore…. Colorado Springs residents can drive a few miles to Manitou Springs and choose their favourite flavors at Emerald Field or Maggie’s Farm retail outlets….” In the Springs itself, “residents wanting to imbibe [sic] away from the children or out of a no-smoking apartment… can find like-minded people at one of several cannabis clubs….”

Griffin Swartzell reviewed the merits of six new cannabis clubs in town for the Independent. “Studio A64 feels like any other corner bar or café. And that’s what is great about it.” “Club History Vape Lounge feels like a quality concert venue and dive bar” with a dance floor, a stage, “infused eats” and, “because the bar serves weed instead of alcohol, expect a mellower crowd.” Speak Easy Vape Lounge “feels nothing like a speakeasy. It’s more like a Midwestern events center — you could host a wedding reception here.” 410 Speakeasy “has style (and) goes from arcade to new restaurant to ’50s diner without blinking….” Mr Nice Guy Private Cannabis Club has “its smoking area… behind a locked door — reception has to buzz visitors in,” but, “It feels like a classy private lounge, with an inviting dab bar, movies… and a dark game lounge… (and) good ventilation.” The Lazy Lion has a “no-frills approach,” “gets most of the details right” but “felt… a little too much like a doctor’s office.”

The clubs are new, unregulated and controversial. To get around the state ban on public consumption and the city ban on the purchase and sale of pot for recreational use, they are structured as private clubs. They say that they don’t sell marijuana, they only serve it. Advocates hail this model as “the way the industry should go,” but would like a licensing regime with some regulation like that for bars and saloons. Opponents argue that they are illegal, “pure and simple,” and call for state and city enforcement of existing laws. Watch for further developments on this ever-changing marijuana scene.

All this is fascinating reading for a Canadian, especially one originally from B.C. At home, the possession and sale of marijuana is still illegal. We make an exception for marijuana used for medical purposes, but our medical marijuana regime is highly regulated, hardly mainstream, and certainly does not command prime time television coverage. In Colorado, the production and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes has flourished into a highly profitable and increasingly sophisticated free enterprise business. In Canada, the federal government has restricted legal producers to a few licensed corporations. Maybe the Colorado model for medical marijuana reflects their free enterprise health care system. What does ours reflect? Health care provided by the state, linked to large pharmaceutical companies, both controlling the market?

For the upcoming federal election, the Liberals have promised to legalize marijuana, and even the Tories are talking about reducing the possession of marijuana to a regulatory offence. Neither particularly wants to promote the use of marijuana. The Tories are primarily interested in reducing the law enforcement costs. The Liberals undoubtedly want to access the lucrative tax revenues that legalization of marijuana would divert from the existing underground economy. In the 1970s, the Canadian Le Dain Commission on marijuana recommended that marijuana should be legalized. Gerald Le Dain was dean of Osgoode Hall Law School and a future justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, hardly a raving pothead. That was over 30 years ago. Are we finally getting serious about the issue?

In the United States, the federal government is funding research projects to ensure that marijuana presents no long-term health hazards. In the meantime, the local Colorado Springs airport has a sign at the front door saying that possession of marijuana in the airport is a federal offence. At the state level, Colorado has moved beyond that. Marijuana for medical use is mainstream. As for pot for recreational purposes, the issues are now around the meaning of “public” for the purposes of the continuing regulation. Where local governments like Colorado Springs have opted to maintain a ban on the purchase and sale of “rec pot,” the debate is around loss of potential tax revenues on one hand and licensing on the other. Is Colorado the wave of the future in the United States? And in Canada? It’s time to inform ourselves everyone. It is a really big issue.

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