Mile High

Denver, Colorado

Due to its approximate altitude, Denver has always been known as the Mile High City. It now has another reason for the moniker.

In November 2012, the citizens of Colorado approved Amendment 64, allowing the cultivation of marijuana for personal recreational use. In May 2013, the state went a step further, as Governor John Hickenlooper Jr signed a number of bills which would legalise commercial growing operations and result in the proliferation of Amsterdam-style cannabis dispensaries.

Across Colorado, shops bearing luminescent green crosses have popped up on street corners, while its economy has seen the emergence of a new breed of so-called ganjapreneurs and opened itself to a new tourism not determined by snow inches. 

And so it was incumbent upon me, the professional that I am, to turn up and investigate the burgeoning weed economy, strictly for journalistic purposes of course.

Flying into Denver – which, by the way, is underrated for its natural beauty, with skyscrapers stark against the Rockies rising from a brown, almost lunar landscape – I began my research immediately, knocking on the door of a commercial grow facility called Medicine Man.

I joined a delegation of Mexican public broadcasters and a motley crew of tourists to witness hydroponically grown, 100 per cent legal marijuana crops in various stages of harvest. A number of the tour participants looked a little overwhelmed as they – red-eyed and dry-mouthed – attempted to keep up with the biology lecture.

We were then herded compliantly onto a smokey bus and taken to various weed-related businesses across the city, including bong-making demonstrations by some very talented glassblowers and various dispensaries, presumably with the intention of us stimulating this new revenue source.

The 30 or so bus patrons could best be described as American stoners of varying shades, shapes and sizes, from dreadlocked Floridians to goateed hillbillies to baby-faced skater kids barely out of high school.

But among them, one stood out: Mark, a bearded South Australian baby boomer on a “study tour” to see if a similar scenario could be implemented back home.

A longstanding advocate of drug reform in Australia, my new friend was a member of the appropriately-named Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) party. Outside of its enclave in the Byron hinterland, the party has struggled to gain much traction in mainstream state or federal politics, but it does play a role influencing the party positions of the Greens, and, with less success, Labor’s Left.

“You know, the problem with the Left is that it is so fragmented and always fighting with itself,” he said. I knew.

Mark will likely paint a rosy view of the Coloradan cannabis game when he presents his findings to his HEMP party comrades, aided by the slightly one-sided polemics of our tour guides.

On face value there seem to be few downsides of the change in law. Cost savings are made through removing the need to criminally prosecute – and possibly even jail – weed offenders, while the rise of ganjapreneurs is seemingly a positive for the state’s finances and job participation numbers.

However, critics have pointed to dramatic rises in homelessness – with some publications pitting the figure at as high as 300% – as overzealous tourists find themselves sleeping rough after alleged marijuana binges.

Walking the streets of Denver, there is no doubt there is a relatively high number of visible vagrants and beggars. Though, in fairness, it was not possible – from a midnight meander anyway – to determine whether the change in drug laws is causally related, or whether Denver (like a number of other western cities like San Francisco) has just historically been home to a lot of bums.

An Ethiopian-born cabbie with obvious disdain for the cannabis economy blames the “devil’s herb”, while all of those involved in the weed businesses tell me the rise in homelessness is merely a natural extension of rises in general population.

Regardless of the pros and cons of legalisation, on a basic political level, Colorado’s experimentation is in some ways a sign of the Constitution working as it was meant to. Recreational cannabis use remains illegal under federal statute. The Coloradan people, across the political spectrum, seem proud of the defiance, and no doubt the founding fathers would approve.

Like the Netherlands, Colorado’s new laws will likely polarise and mystify outsiders – some inspired and others fraught about the crumbling of the moral fabric – while creating ironically less life-altering change for locals apart from creating a few new revenue sources and taking drug deals off the street.

This is an issue that will continue to rear its head. And if South Australia should attempt a ‘Colorado model’ anytime soon, remember, you heard it here first.


100 per cent legal cannabis being harvested at a grow operation in Denver, CO.

Published on 22 November 2015

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