Dispatch From Denver: What’s Next In The Fight For Pot Legalization?

COLORADO: Halfway through the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in late October, I found myself sitting on a bus among delegates from Japan, Russia and Canada. We had been invited to a “mobile workshop,” involving visits to two of the city’s marijuana businesses.

One year after Colorado passed Amendment 64, a historic ballot measure legalizing marijuana, my Japanese and Russian companions painted grim pictures of their countries’ prospects for improving cannabis policies. The Canadian, on the other hand, was confident that her country will fully legalize as early as 2015—if Justin Trudeau’s opposition Liberal Party wins the next election, as many predict.

As we drove, our tour guide outlined current Colorado law: You can now legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana. You can also grow up to six plants—in an enclosed, locked space—for personal use. Licensed marijuana businesses can now cultivate, manufacture products and sell—to registered medical marijuana patients only for now, but to all other users aged 21 and up from January 1. Public consumption remains prohibited: “If you wanna blaze, it’s your choice, but be aware you might get arrested,” came the advice at the start of an anti-drug war rally up Denver’s 16th Street Mall the previous day.

Both the businesses on our itinerary were gearing up for an anticipated surge in demand once they’re allowed to sell to non-medical users in 2014, which will raise challenges in terms of production and potential expansion. Our first stop was “Good Chemistry,” a café-sized urban dispensary with about a dozen employees. Jars of bud with labels like “Chernobyl” and “Sour Diesel” lined the shelves. Displaying a reverence for the plant and its properties, my tour companions engaged the staff in technical discussions of dosage levels, oil extraction and the effects of different cannabinoids. In the kitchen, pots of infused butter bubbled away, and a staffer detailed the production of medical marijuana edibles. He also pointed out a live-feed video camera in one corner, “so the state can take a peek.”

Next we drove to RiverRock Wellness, a much larger grow-and-dispensary operation. Norton Arbelaez, its founder, has eighty-five employees and two other retail locations. He led us through his complex: a dispensary stocking the tinctures, salves, capsules and transdermal patches that are a booming part of this market, a warehouse divided into brightly lit pods to house plants in different stages of development, and a greenhouse—altogether roughly the size of a large suburban garden center. RiverRock operates under a startling level of technical and security oversight. Each plant bears a unique barcode, indicating not only its exact strain but also the customer for which it is intended. Employees use a fingerprint access system called “BioTrackTHC” before harvesting, transporting or selling any inventory, and no fewer than eighty-four live-feed video cameras are positioned for state-peeking purposes.

Arbelaez has a bullishly capitalist attitude to growing his business and “breaking the black market” via economies of scale. Standing in front of an army of plants, he listed the jobs RiverRock has created for everyone from software engineers to plumbers. “Unleashing market forces has done incredible things for Colorado’s economy,” he declared. “Let’s fight for freedom together.”

That such a scene is possible may seem extraordinary to those more accustomed to the prohibition-only attitude that pervaded US policy until recently. But Colorado—along with Washington State, which passed its own legalization initiative, I-502—sent shock waves around the world last November. The climate has now shifted to one in which wider marijuana legalization is often seen as inevitable, with public support in the United States standing at a record 58 percent and other countries emboldened to move forward with their own reforms. So where better than Denver to hold a three-day international gathering of the drug-policy reforming clans?

Hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, the “Reform” conference is a biennial event, which this year drew well over a thousand delegates from forty-two countries, representing hundreds of organizations, to Denver’s Downtown Sheraton. There I met Steve DeAngelo, a renowned and passionate advocate for medical marijuana (which is currently legal in twenty US states), who has been campaigning for forty years. Instantly recognizable by his braids, his hat and the small dog that accompanies him everywhere, DeAngelo is the executive director of Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, California, that calls itself “the largest pot shop on the planet.”


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