Gone to Pot | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 26, 2014 News » Cover Story

Gone to Pot 

A journey across the border to Colorado's weed wonderland

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Utah’s border towns are stocked with vice. For kegs of beer and hard-core pornography, head east to Evanston, Wyo. When the Idaho State Lottery’s payout balloons, the Gem State sees an influx of day-tripping Utahns. Gambling can be had with a drive across the salt flats to Wendover, Nev. But these time-honored border-crossing road trips now sound antiquated compared with what a drive to Colorado has to offer: marijuana.

The drug, which has pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans into jails, and which officials have spent untold billions of dollars to eradicate, is now flat-out legal just 200 miles from Salt Lake City.

In late May, City Weekly reporters Colin Wolf and Colby Frazier, along with photographer Mike Fuchs, traveled to Colorado on a four-day mission to see, smell and experience legal marijuana as well as fulfill our duty as alternative journalists. In interviews with marijuana-dispensary owners and growers across Colorado, it became clear we weren’t the only Utahns who’ve made the trek to the high country. Marijuana workers in towns like Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs, both about 130 miles from the Utah border, say up to 80 percent of their business is from non- Coloradans, many of whom are from Utah.

When Utahns get there, they will find an astounding volume of choices. The pot shops along many of Denver’s main streets number in the dozens. There are small mom & pop dispensaries, and there are corporate-like behemoths.

What follows is a marijuana travel guide of sorts. And it starts right where it should: on the outskirts of Denver in a filthy Super 8 motel room with a door that has recently been smashed in.

A Place to Puff

Despite Colorado being America’s ground zero of marijuana consumption, it’s pretty hard for a tourist to find a place to enjoy weed there. Most hotels don’t allow smoking, let alone pot-smoking.

Though all of us have friends in the Denver area, we opted to stay at least one night in a hotel, just to get the true tourist-y experience. And when planning a weed venture to Colorado, it’s important to do a little research.

Thus, the night before leaving Salt Lake City, Colin turned to AirBNB. For the unfamiliar, AirBNB is essentially a website that lets you book empty rooms in people’s homes—like advanced couch-crashing with strangers. Searching for 4:20-friendly spots in Denver, we found a place with the heading “Step Into the Chill Zone.” The Chill Zone was a fully furnished basement complete with a Murphy bed, a futon, a guitar and a lava lamp; naturally, the room seemed like a good fit. But minutes after booking it, we received an e-mail from the owner, Jesse: “Sorry bros, my girlfriend is staying over this weekend!” I guess he didn’t want a bunch of strange men getting high and lurking around his house looking for snacks.

Since nothing else on AirBNB was available the weekend of our journey, Colin opted for a smoking room at what turned out to be a grimy Super 8 motel on Denver’s sketchy west side.

When we finally arrived in Denver after driving all day—minus a stop in Glenwood Springs to tour a dispensary and pick up a baggie of “DJ Flo,” a sour and skunky strain of sativa—we were exhausted, only to be greeted by the sight of a beat-up motel-room door that had obviously been the recent target of a police battering ram.

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It was as if the room had never experienced the sound of a vacuum. There were grass clumps on the floor. The towels hanging in the bathroom were damp, as if housekeeping had just picked them up off the floor and put them back on the rack.

“This place is fucking disgusting,” Mike announced while not allowing his bags to touch the carpet. “You didn’t research this place at all, did you, Colin?”

He had not; it was simply a semi-cheap hotel that was one of the few in Denver that still offered smoking rooms—though that turned out to be a moot point, as smoking weed isn’t allowed even in smoking rooms.

As of now, there are only a few hotels in Denver that are weed-friendly. The Hilltop Inn, the Warwick Hotel and the Cliff House Lodge all tolerate Mary Jane to some extent, but these places also come with a high price tag. And it’s completely illegal to partake in recreational marijuana in any place other than a private residence or a few lounge-like establishments and private clubs. And yes, it’s just as illegal to eat a pot brownie in a park as it is to spark a joint.

click to enlarge A weed-drying rack at Medicine Man
  • A weed-drying rack at Medicine Man

Back at the Super 8, Colin found an earring under the bed and speculated that a prostitute must have had a fight with a john (perhaps a landscaper, given the grass) that resulted in a call to the cops. He began rolling up a joint. “I think it’s perfect,” he said.

Before settling in, we opted to grab a drink at a nearby spot that was essentially a rundown Mexican karaoke bar. Just down the street from the bar, at the end of a dark alley, was a strip club that over the years has earned some classic Google reviews like: “This place is alright. The strippers are ugly, but if you don’t mind that, you can at least get a decent blow job.”

Mike and Colby decided the motel room—and this entire side of town—was not gonna cut it. After a couple of beers, they dropped Colin off at the Super 8 and drove to Colby’s friend’s house on Denver’s south side, a house that would be our home base for the remainder of our trip.

Colin, being the stubborn warrior he is, spent the night alone in the hotel room, eating Starburst Minis, drinking lime-cucumber Gatorade and watching Backdraft. He claims it was a pleasant experience.

“What We’ve Always Wanted to Do”

The next day, we made plans to check out a few dispensaries, but first, we figured, we should visit a place called iBake, one of only a few places where a tourist can enjoy weed legally.

When we pulled up, we were kind of taken aback at how dilapidated the place appeared from the outside. Raggedy signs hung from the blue two-story building, which was located amid auto shops and a cluster of round, hangar-like buildings.

We walked in the door and were greeted with heavy scents of marijuana. A woman named Little Tree, one of iBake’s owners, greeted us and quickly explained that we needed to purchase a $10 membership to get in. We revealed ourselves as reporters and were granted complimentary memberships.

No weed is sold at iBake, but an assortment of bongs, pipes and other paraphernalia are. The place also offers an impressive snack bar, much like the junk-food shelves in grocery-store checkout lines. “Can I tell you something?” Colin asked Little Tree. “You really should consider carrying Starburst Minis. They’re delicious.”

Four people were sitting around a table in the middle of the room. Little Tree told us to be quiet; they were filming a radio show, Dispatch From the Highlands.

Ryan Skidmore, the show’s host, was holding court, reporting the latest weed-related news and, most importantly, smoking and reviewing various strains of marijuana on air.

click to enlarge Ryan Skidmore
  • Ryan Skidmore

Skidmore asked a guest, Roger, to load up his bong, an anatomical oddity of blown glass that everyone called Big Puss.

“We’re going to get smoked out with the Big Puss today,” Little Tree said into a microphone, laughing. “You gotta love the Big Puss.”

As someone loaded the bong, they passed around a bud of weed—variety Agent Orange—for inspection.

One man remarked that it had “really red hairs.”

“It looks like a mini tree,” said another.

“Orange-oil-peel scent,” a man said.

“It’s very uplifting,” another added.

As soon as the bong flamed out, Skidmore moved on to the next pressing matter for their Friday morning: “Would you guys mind trying to roll a joint with that? I’d like to try that in a joint.”

We hung around for a while and checked out the store’s back lounge area. The only places to sit were an old couch and, on the floor, two car seats that looked like they’d been pulled from someone’s 2002 Ford Windstar. It felt like we were back in college, smoking in a frat house.

Before we left, Skidmore told us how he feels about legalized weed.

“They’re finally letting us do what we’ve always wanted to do—fucking smoking weed, man! That’s all I want to do, man, is smoke weed.”

Where the Green Grass Grows

Apparently, most Colorado locals still get their weed the old-fashioned way—through friends and low-level dealers. It’s a lot cheaper than buying from a dispensary, which were basically created for weed tourists like us.

There’s something about walking into a marijuana dispensary to purchase legal weed for the first time that makes you feel like you’re 21 all over again. You’re nervous, even though you don’t need to be. You’re afraid you’re breaking the law, even though you aren’t. You look over and see a well-dressed businessman sniffing a bud of OG Kush and try not to make eye contact because he sort of looks like your dad.

But in reality, everything is fine. You’re about to buy weed. And it’s totally OK! The worst thing that could possibly go wrong is you saying something stupid like, “One marijuana, please.”

On our way to Denver, we’d stopped in Glenwood Springs, the closest place to Utah along the Interstate 70 corridor to buy recreational weed. While Denver is a free-for-all of weed, some outlying counties and cities have taken a more measured approach to legalization. In Grand Junction, for instance, a moratorium remains in place on recreational-marijuana shops.

click to enlarge Colby Frazier and Colin Wolf after buying their first Colorado weed in Glenwood Springs
  • Colby Frazier and Colin Wolf after buying their first Colorado weed in Glenwood Springs

So, we zeroed in on the Green Dragon dispensary in Glenwood Springs. Located just off I-70, the Green Dragon is housed in what used to be a Coors Brewing distribution warehouse. Now, the warehouse is full of marijuana plants, growing under offensively bright lights that simulate summer all year.

Beverly Johnson, Green Dragon’s office administrator, called the growing operation a “perpetual harvest.”

With a lock on interstate traffic and its prime location as the closest recreational shop to points west like California and Nevada, business at Green Dragon is booming. And most of the business—85 to 90 percent, Johnson said—flows from tourism.

But what we saw at Green Dragon was puny compared to the growing operations of Medicine Man, just outside of Denver.

If Green Dragon is the “New Belgium [Brewing Company] of the western slope,” as a head grower there described it, then Medicine Man is the Coors.

At Medicine Man, an armed man greeted us at the front door. Store clerk Jason Coleman said more weed flows through the door at Medicine Man than any other place on the planet.

click to enlarge A bountiful harvest at Denver’s Medicine Man dispensary
  • A bountiful harvest at Denver’s Medicine Man dispensary

A quick tour of the 20,000-square-foot growing facility bolstered this claim. Along with the thousands of plants in various stages of growth, we saw untold numbers of 5-gallon buckets filled with smoke-ready weed.

Medicine Man, too, is growing. Elan Nelson, who oversees business strategy and development for Medicine Man, says the company will soon employ 70 people, and, with the completion of a $2.5 million expansion, will double production.

Men and women of all ages funneled through the doors at Medicine Man. Ropes like those in airport-security lines were set up to corral customers.

We piled into the car, but before we could leave Medicine Man, Mike heard the twangy sounds of ice cream truck music. Colin flagged the driver down and demanded Mike buy us all snacks. Even the ice cream trucks are benefiting from the weed game.

The High Life

The growth of marijuana can be seen in any business that’s even remotely related to Mary Jane. Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly—similar to City Weekly—has witnessed a massive influx of weed ads.

A June issue of Westword had 15 pages of marijuana-related advertisements. Westword also has a weed column, called Ask a Stoner; in a recent piece, the author, William Breathes, said a Georgia state trooper who became angry when people smoked dope at his daughter’s Colorado wedding was the kind of person who goes on vacation to Mexico and complains that everyone speaks Spanish.

click to enlarge Left: Elan Nelson with one of Medicine Man’s many 5-gallon buckets of bud Right: A Mary Jane display at Euflora
  • Left: Elan Nelson with one of Medicine Man’s many 5-gallon buckets of bud Right: A Mary Jane display at Euflora

But the sheer volume of dispensaries, advertisements and weed-related services brings to mind a bubble of growth and expendable cash that could loudly burst at any moment—especially as other states, eying Colorado’s tax payloads, contemplate legalizing weed (Washington State is set to open recreational-weed shops in July).

In January 2014 alone, the Centennial State collected more than $2 million in taxes. Every city has a different tax on weed. In Glenwood Springs, buying marijuana comes with an 18 percent government shakedown; in Denver, get ready to fork over a heady 30 percent.

To get a real sense of this boom & bust ethos, we stopped by a weed bed & breakfast—er, “bud & breakfast”—called the Adagio to meet with its owner, Joel Schneider, a securities attorney turned venture capitalist who is banking on becoming marijuana’s Warren Buffett. Schneider speaks in a heavy Jersey accent and loves using the word “bro.”

“The lady who owned this place before we bought it was always 4:20-friendly,” he said as we sat together around Adagio’s dining-room table. “We wanted to provide a safe, legal place to enjoy weed, bro.”

The large wooden table featured a spread of fancy snacks: prosciutto pinwheels, cookies, mini cakes garnished with berries, and an assortment of gourmet muffins. Small labels identified which foods were marijuana-infused “edibles” and which weren’t. Schneider took a bite of a cookie and proceeded to rip a large toke from a glass pipe. “Look, I came out here to make money,” he said. “This is Silicon Valley. This is where it all starts, and I put all my chips in.”

Like many transplanted businessmen in the Denver area, Schneider sees no end to Denver’s weed-based economy. The Adagio is just one arm of his umbrella company, Mary Jane Entertainment LLC, which currently oversees a weed-friendly nightclub and a monthly publication called the Mile High Times.

The prospect of other states cashing in on the legal-green rush doesn’t seem to faze him. “Oh, I’ll be there. I’ll be creating lodging,” he said. “I’ll have the Mile High Times in every store. And at the end of the day, I’m going to win. I have no doubt. My plan is to create a premier brand, bro.”

click to enlarge Joel Schneider at the Adagio bud & breakfast in Denver
  • Joel Schneider at the Adagio bud & breakfast in Denver

The Adagio is clearly aimed at the high-end pot tourist. Staying here will run you at least $300 a night—a stark contrast to Colin’s favorite spot, the Super 8. Guests that Friday evening included a bachelor party that had stopped in for the day to enjoy the Adagio’s daily 4:20 happy hour—which is exactly what it sounds like and will run you $25 a person—an older couple probably in their late 60s, and a young couple from Iowa who claimed to be staying in Denver for medicinal purposes.

The young woman, who was hitting a vaporizer at the other end of the table, told us she suffers from thin basement membrane nephropathy disease and that marijuana seems to be the only thing that alleviates her symptoms. “I don’t feel anything when I take it. I feel absolutely nothing,” she said.

Schneider nodded his head as she told her story and turned to us. “See, I love being around this table, man.”

Tourist Trap

After the Adagio, we all went our separate ways Friday night, but coincidentally, all of our evenings involved copious amounts of bars, breweries and whiskey distilleries.

Waking up Saturday morning, it was apparent that everyone was a hot mess, especially Colby.

“Wake the fuck up,” Colin yelled at Colby, whose sweaty, seemingly lifeless corpse was curled into a sleeping bag. “Seriously, wake the fuck up.”

Once he was finally roused, we decided to spend the day experiencing all that Denver has to offer. It’s a beautiful city with a huge variety of brewpubs, shops and restaurants, walkable neighborhoods, and pro baseball and football stadiums right downtown. Whether you’re there for weed or not, there’s plenty of stuff to do.

People in Denver will tell you that literally every place is “Oh, just about 20 minutes away.” Don’t believe this lie. A friend of Colin’s told us that we should check out a farmers market in Louisville that was only 20 minutes away from where we were staying. Hoping to come across some artisanal, handcrafted, marijuana-related goods, we piled in the car.

Forty-five minutes later, we were at the farmers market, and Colby’s mouth was on the verge of filling with vomit like a hungover chipmunk. As soon as we parked, he jumped out of the car and ran off to a nearby library to defile its sanctity. We didn’t see him for more than an hour.

Though it’s hard to believe, there is a place that loves farmers markets even more than Salt Lake City, and it’s called Colorado. The Denver metropolitan area has more than 30 farmers markets that occur on a weekly basis. This one had nothing we were looking for, but we did enjoy some decent coffee and some homemade pretzels. When Colby finally returned, he looked like a new man and was eating a giant carrot he’d acquired somehow; he claimed it would replenish his nutrients.

Our next stop was the 16th Street Mall, an outdoor, pedestrian-only shopping district in downtown. A free shuttle runs its entire 15-block length, which is filled with local restaurants and breweries plus corporate stores like Gap and Lidz.

click to enlarge Colby inspects the goods at Euflora
  • Colby inspects the goods at Euflora

Of course, right in the middle of all this was a weed store called Euflora. We’d heard that this is one of the most popular marijuana stops for tourists so, naturally, we had to go.

The shop was like an Apple store for weed. Unlike Green Dragon and Medicine Man, Euflora isn’t set up like a typical weed store. You walk around with a dry-erase clipboard, browsing nugs that are kept in little plastic jars with holes poked in the top so you can sniff the stank. Next to each jar is a little tablet that explains the history, strain and effects of each product. Once you mark on the clipboard what you would like to purchase, you hand it over to a “weed genius” at a circular white counter in the middle of the store to complete your transaction.

On the wall of Euflora, just as you walk in, is a large map of the world dotted with push pins signifying where customers have traveled from. According to their stats, weed tourists flock from the entire globe. The Midwest and California were crammed with pins, and they’d run out of space for the north quarter of Utah.

Euflora was one of the more impressive weed stores we visited. Besides bud and cool maps, they carry edibles, hash oils (which you can add to coffee, tea or whatever), different flavors of wax, vaporizers, bongs, pipes shaped like everyday objects and secret containers (like hollowed-out soda cans and even a bottle of “multipurpose cleaning solution” called Ultra Duster) to hide your weed.

It might seem a little strange that Colorado weed shops sell secretive smoking accessories. Yes, weed is legal, but in Colorado, marijuana still hasn’t shaken off its stigma of shame. Even though recreational marijuana use has been legalized since January 2013, just about every Colorado city we visited lacks an Amsterdam-like atmosphere, and seasoned smokers usually don’t advertise their lifestyle.

Colby’s friends, our hosts, talked about how their parents still don’t know they smoke, even though they’re currently growing six plants in their basement (which is legal for Colorado residents), and you can’t sit on their furniture without loose shake sticking to your clothes. Even the head grower at Green Dragon, a guy who majored in horticulture at Colorado State University and is making stacks of loot selling pot, doesn’t tell his parents exactly what he does for a living.

We left Euflora with a hefty bag full of Scoobie Snacks, four $10 weed-infused snickerdoodles that had 10 milligrams of weed apiece, and a $35 chunk of chocolate that was only the size of a nickel and contained a whopping 100 milligrams of reefer.

click to enlarge People come from all over to partake of Colorado’s legal weed
  • People come from all over to partake of Colorado’s legal weed

It should come as no surprise that tourists are overdoing it with marijuana edibles. Just recently, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd traveled to Denver, where she ate a chunk of weed chocolate that was supposed to be broken into 16 pieces before consumption and wrote a lengthy essay about curling up in a ball and hallucinating.

Mike, our photographer, pretty much did the same thing, minus the essay.

When we got back to the house, Colin and Mike decided to each eat one snickerdoodle and go to the downtown Denver aquarium. However, after about 45 minutes and a few rounds of Call of Duty, Mike announced, “These snickerdoodles don’t do shit” and secretly ate another one without telling anybody.

click to enlarge One of the snickerdoodles that put Mike to bed
  • One of the snickerdoodles that put Mike to bed

Welp, Mike completely underestimated the power of edibles and went full-on Dowd. Wanting to give Mike a taste of the harsh awakening Colin had dished out that morning, Colby yelled, “Get the fuck up, Mike!” His eyes opened and he smiled. “I just want to give you a hug, man.”

We managed to drag him to Black Sky Brewery, a local metal bar/restaurant just down the street with the tag line “Beer, Pizza, Metal.” Mike barely spoke a word and sat there picking at his calzone like a mute Hodor. Back at the house, the rest of the evening involved Colby and Colin pounding PBRs while Mike woke up occasionally to announce that he was fine and “totally not sleeping.” He slept for at least 14 hours.

The Road Home

Instead of retracing our steps back along I-70, we opted for a slower route home along Highway 40, which cuts through the Rocky Mountains to Steamboat Springs, the weed outpost closest to Vernal.

We stopped off at two of the three marijuana dispensaries in Steamboat. At this point, we were a little burned out on marijuana. And with no place to smoke it and Utah’s border beckoning, we declined to buy any bud.

It should be noted that, tempting as it may be to travel to Colorado and buy caches of weed to transport back to Utah, marijuana possession and consumption remain as illegal here as ever.

But Utah law-enforcement agencies say they haven’t seen a noticeable increase in marijuana-related arrests since Colorado began its grand weed experiment.

Sgt. Todd Royce of the Utah Highway Patrol reminds Utah’s weed tourists that “it’s still illegal in Utah to have it, it’s still illegal in Utah to be under the influence of it driving. The penalties are not going to change.”

Oh, and if your employer drug-tests you (clearly, ours does not), be forewarned that insisting you bought and smoked the weed legally in Colorado will buy you no sympathy in Zion.

So, if you must, go to Colorado and smoke legal weed. But know that your chances of staying out of jail are better if you return to the Beehive State with a trunk full of fine Colorado beer, porno mags and lottery tickets.

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