A glimpse of the future

Washington is entering uncharted territory as state government hands out its first licenses to produce and sell a once-forbidden substance.

Make that: nearly uncharted. Sales of marijuana to recreational users started January 1 in Colorado.

To see what a state-licensed system looks like, I spent five days in Colorado during the state's second month of sales to recreational users. It was a glimpse of the future for Washington and potentially other states, as support for legalisation gains momentum.

This stretch of Broadway south of downtown used to be known as a mecca for antiquers.

The past few years, Antique Row has earned some new nicknames. Broadsterdam. The Green Mile.

That last one is not a reference to such garden stores as Birdsall and Co., but to state-licensed, medical marijuana shops that have proliferated and now have begun to open to recreational users.

The neighbourhood is changing. Birdsall owner Annie Huston can smell it - literally.

But odor is a minor issue, the garden store owner said, and she expects a quick end to the other problem - the extra competition for parking since January 1, when her neighbour, Evergreen Apothecary, started selling marijuana to any adult. All in all, she regards the store as a good neighbour.

"We have not seen anybody using outside, or even in the alley," Huston said. "It's been really organised and the store has been really sensitive to (other) retail stores."

Mostly gone are the noisy - but never rowdy, Huston says - throngs that lined up in the first week of the year. Evergreen no longer has to hand out numbers, fire up heaters or truck in coffee and doughnuts for people waiting in the building next door.

Instead, there's a steady stream of customers that at most extends five or six deep outside the door.

Co-owner Tim Cullen said his store sees about 300 to 400 customers a day - in line with industry estimates of shoppers at the more than 50 recreational stores that have gradually opened since the new year began and sold $14 million worth of marijuana in their first month.

Customers tend to be men in their 20s and 30s, Huston said. But she has seen all ages. And after the first few days, Huston said: "Little by little, we saw women."

Much of the clientele at Evergreen on February 8 when I visited were men, but not all. Customers also included two 50-something women, among them Jeanne Newland, who lives in suburban Littleton and works at a Denver domestic violence shelter.

It was the first time at one of the stores for Newland, a 51-year-old mom in a pink zip-up fleece and white tennis shoes, who bought a pot-infused candy chew. Her experience with street marijuana involves staying awake all night and, as she described it, filing away her thoughts into categories. She wants a more pleasant high.

But there also were blue-collar clients: A 25-year-old restaurant cook, white. A 51-year-old automotive painter, black.

In from the suburbs were another couple of customers: Andrew Ausmus and David Wanner. Ausmus wore a long white beard and Wanner a goatee with some gray hairs of its own.

"I thought I'd go legal in my old age," said Wanner, 62.

Six cashiers - known as budtenders in the business - serve customers who file through. A security guard cycled them from the outside, to a small waiting area inside the door, to the counter. Ashley Stanley, dressed in a hoodie covered with a peace sign and other designs, asked the automotive painter how much he wanted.

Maybe a gram, Al Hamilton said tentatively. That would be enough for about two joints.

Stanley told him the smallest purchase is larger, a half-eighth. (That's half of an eighth of an ounce. For some reason, it's not called a sixteenth.) It's common for daily users of marijuana to consume more than a half of an eighth of an ounce per day, according to researchers.

Next is the decision on a strain of pot. The store sells Plush Berry, Hindu Kush and Afghooey, to name just a few.

Hamilton took whiffs from each of four little black containers that in an earlier era would be mistaken for canisters of camera film. Each holds a different strain.

"I think I like the first," he said, indicating the Herojuana strain.

The clerk poured the half-eighth of buds from the canister into a bowl on a scale. Then they went into a black bag, opaque to keep from drawing the interest of children. To childproof it, the store heat-sealed the bag with the buds inside.

Stanley rang up the Herojuana and a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers: $38.76.

Hamilton paid with cash, as many customers do, even though plastic is accepted here.

The store takes down names and phone numbers of credit card users. Cash allows anonymity - a benefit not available under Colorado's medical marijuana system, in which patients must register for cards showing they have been authorised for the drug by a medical professional.

Fewer than 75 of Cullen's daily customers are patients carrying "red cards," he said.

The state has handed out more than 160 retail licenses. Most of them, more than 100, are in Denver.

Including those that are still medical-only - but might yet convert to recreational sales - there are nearly 500 licensed stores statewide and nearly 200 in Denver alone.

A dozen or so of the medical dispensaries are visible from the street along just a few miles of Denver's Colfax Avenue.

Driving on Colfax after picking her son up from middle school, Rachel O'Bryan watched the green crosses and other telltale markers fly by.

O'Bryan, an advocate for tighter regulations in the recreational system, said the proliferation of medical dispensaries has sent a message that marijuana has gone mainstream.

"I do think that the culture is shifting," she said. "What we're seeing is a marijuana magazine attached to the Denver Post, which is our main newspaper in the state. We are seeing a Denver County Fair have a Pot Pavilion where they're going to rate marijuana plants, homemade bongs. They are going to have a joint-rolling competition.

"We are seeing a ton of exposure, and we know that exposure leads to a drop in the perception of risk, and that also is directly tied to an increase in use."

The retail and medical stores are spread throughout Denver. Many line Interstates 25 or 70 or the commercial strips such as Broadway, Federal Boulevard and Colfax.

Mass-transit corridors like those tend to have poorer residents, O'Bryan said. The explosion of stores there surely will cause more use among low-income populations, she said.

The president of the Denver City Council, Mary Beth Susman, sees it differently. Commercial sites along Broadway, Federal and the like, once unattractive to tenants, are now occupied, she said. Marijuana dispensaries have been driving up rents in those locations, she said, keeping landlords happy.

A sign on the shop's door says: "Where are you from?!? Put a pin on the map!!!"

Many visitors to Evergreen Apothecary hail from Texas or Florida, but the map shows pins all over the country and even in Europe and South America.

While recreational marijuana costs roughly twice as much as the medical variety, the upside for customers is it can be purchased by those from out of state.

On this day, a couple of half-eighths went to brothers in town for the weekend to visit buddies in Boulder.

"It's pretty sweet, man," Carson Jones, in a knit cap and sunglasses, said after their shopping. "It should be like that in every state," brother Jack added.

The brothers had some partying to do and no time to waste. It's illegal to take pot out of state.

Coloradoans can buy up to an ounce, but those with out-of-state identifications are limited to a quarter of an ounce.

A young man from New York towered over much of the line.

In a backward baseball cap and hoodie, Austin Wallace was exuberant in his first trip to one of the stores. "Amazing," he dubbed the experience. At one point, he started videotaping a reporter interviewing him.

Wallace's friend Donnie Salahdine, a local in a sweater and collared shirt who washes cars at a dealership, was also eager for souvenirs of his trip. He snapped up two magnets and a sticker as mementos.

Now unemployed, Wallace wondered if maybe he could get into this industry.

"It's a true business," he said, "in the sense that all the products are sealed up, childproof, business is very secure. It's definitely beating out the stereotypical things they're saying about, " 'the dispensary owners are drug pushers.' "

At the counter, a cashier with a nose ring explained to the 25-year-old men the difference between sativa and indica.

Many strains of pot are hybrids of the two, but sativa-dominant strains tend to produce a more functional high. Indica is more likely to put a user to sleep.

Salahdine and Wallace settled on a strain of sativa and a device that vaporises, rather than burns, their weed. They picked up two cartridges of hash oil for the vaporizer.

From a fridge near the cash register, Salahdine grabbed a bottle of pot-infused orange drink labeled CannaPunch.

Wallace eyed it. Make that two bottles.

"There's no shame in drinking a half of this," the cashier told them as she rang up the pint bottle containing 100 mg of THC, the most allowed.

Salahdine was skeptical of that notion. He's not drinking just a half, he confided. "I'm taking it to the face like a boss," he said. After they paid in cash, he reconsidered, offering to split one. No way, said Wallace.

The profusion of out-of-state IDs on this day was no fluke. Cullen said about 25 to 30 percent of customers are visitors to Colorado. Their share had dropped from the early days this year.

Other retail stores are seeing even more out-of-state shoppers. At a dispensary closer to the airport, Medicine Man, they make up more than half of all customers.

On February 7 that included a Kansan who admitted he planned to return home with his purchase.

The customer, Joey, declined to give his last name because of the legal implications, but he said he needed the medication for his bipolar disorder and anxiety. Kansas has not authorised medical marijuana, and he said the pot allows him to sleep and relax.

Otherwise, he would be taking bigger risks by ordering pot through the mail or getting it indirectly from drug cartels - or he would be taking the pills his nurse prescribed. He's been on Zoloft, Clonazepam, Abilify and more. "Frankly, I think I was worse with all of those," he said. What's more, he said, for the pills he has to spend $300 on a co-pay.

Medicine Man still has a counter for the medicinal patients who still make up a third of the 250 to 300 customers each day, and who pay lower prices. As a visitor to the state, Joey was directed to the recreational counter.

Yet he found budtender David Marlow wasn't just an expert on what would get him high. He also was ready to discuss what works best for medical ailments.

Joey left the store with some buds from a strain called Ogre, along with edible treats such as candy straws.

The edibles are low in THC, pot's main psychoactive ingredient, he said, and high in cannabidiol, the compound known as CBD that is seen as having high medicinal value.

Joey planned to share them with his mother, who can use them to calm the arthritic pain in her knee.

"It's like a gift from heaven, man," Joey said.