With the Colorado state Capitol in the background, partygoers dance and smoke pot on the first day of the annual 4/20 marijuana festival in Denver. / Brennan Linsley, AP
Coloradans are used to hearing jokes from friends across the country about the pot-friendly city of Boulder. Heck, we make those jokes ourselves.
Over the past few months, the national conversation about the entire state has shifted away from our snow-capped mountains highlighted by John Denver's song Rocky Mountain High. It seems all anyone outside our state wants to talk to us about is a different kind of high: the one associated with marijuana.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the latest but will certainly not be the last outsider to mock the state, which has also been the butt of late-night comics. Christie last week pooh-poohed Colorado's efforts to tax and regulate legal marijuana, suggesting there are "head shops popping up on every corner" and people flying in to get stoned. For some of us, such comments are taking a toll.
"We've become the experiment of the nation, and it's ruining our reputation," says Gina Carbone, a spokeswoman for SMART Colorado, a parental group working to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids.
There's no doubt things have changed since legalized marijuana made its debut here Jan. 1. I smell pot far more today walking around Denver than I ever did living in Boulder a few years back. Friends talk openly about eating pot-infused candy for the first time. Adults can buy up to an ounce of marijuana from more than 100 state-licensed stores. It's a surreal experience, especially for people accustomed to buying a baggie of questionably sourced pot from a dealer on the street or a friend of a friend.
But the contrast between the state-regulated stores and the black-market experience highlights a reality that an awful lot of non-Coloradans seem to ignore. According to a Gallup poll last year, 38% of American adults have tried pot. That says to me that even if you've never tried marijuana, your friends and neighbors most certainly have.
The rapid growth of Colorado's marijuana industry is another significant tell. Although there's certainly a "Wild West" feel to the industry, we're actually seeing a long-secret economy surface. And while Christie dismissed the idea of collecting taxes from marijuana, the money is starting to roll in. Colorado has already collected nearly $17 million in marijuana taxes and fees this fiscal year. Before the state started taxing the industry, every penny of that was vanishing into the hands of black-market dealers running sometimes violent, all-cash operations.
That's the scene the pro-pot Marijuana Industry Group (MIG) wants to set for the rest of America. MIG argues that Christie's comments reflect a dated and inaccurate view. Over the next several months, all legal marijuana and pot products sold in Colorado will be tested for quality and strength at state-approved labs.
"Coloradans are choosing control over chaos," says Mike Elliott of MIG.
The taxes and the way public safety is being addressed seem to get lost in the larger conversation. I see it for myself when I talk to friends and colleagues across the country. They laugh about whether the cookie I'm eating is full of marijuana and ask whether my fridge is still full of pot chocolate I bought for a story. (It is.)
How will this all shake out? I don't know. My cop friends worry that Colorado's experiment will lead to a rapid increase in stoned drivers on the road. Carbone's group frets about the effect on kids, potentially setting the stage for increased underage use. And the vast majority of Colorado residents roll their eyes when someone makes yet another joke about Denver really being the Mile High City.
Based in Denver, Trevor Hughes covers the West for USA TODAY.
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