EXIT STRATEGY: A State Set in Stoned: Colorado’s Mellow View on Legal Marijuana


It never fails that I get “the look” when I’m out of state and tell people I’m from Colorado.

It’s not so much the look you would throw me if I were on your porch and asked if you would like to buy some magazines to keep me off the streets or ask to come in and talk about how Jesus can change your life. You know that one, a mix of surprise, fear and quickly darting eyes that makes clear you would chew off your arm to get out of the situation. No, this look is more of a wide smile and a half of a nod. A wink, wink, nudge, nudge thing. The kind of look you’d get if a big bottle of Viagra fell out of your shirt pocket and rolled right over to the bar tender, who had to hand it back to you.

“Ohhhhhhh. Colorado,” they always say. Then they either tell me about who they know that just went there, or they give me their best shot at a pot pun. “So is mile high stadium?”


“I have some friends who just got back from there,” a restaurant manager in Lawrence, Kansas, said a few weeks ago when we were in town. “They wanted to go ski-ing,” he said, leaning into the word “ski-ing,” and then holding the word to judge my expression.

It always takes a couple of seconds for me to catch up to this kind of thing. It’s pretty natural when you’re from “ohhhhhhh — Col-or-ad-doh” for people to come here to “ski.” So you can expect a lot of even odder looks when you chime back to them, “Cool. Where?”

Crickets. The look again. More crickets.

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” I always have to gush. “They came for the dope.”

That immediately brings on the horrified widening of the eyes, the slight lowering of the jaw, and the oh-my-gahd-he-said-dope-out-loud rubber-necking. As if they expected a half-dozen DEA agents to pounce from the shadows and throw us all face down onto the floor.

Despite the fact that the number of states that have gone to the dark side is three and counting, and that Colorado is into year three of the greatest experiment ever — like, ever, dude — the interest in Colorado outside of Colorado is still keen.

If you’re from somewhere other than here, you’ll have to excuse us. Not that we weren’t the first great state to end pot prohibition and take up where we left off the day before recreational pot became legal. But excuse us because we’ve already gotten over it.

It would appear the rest of the world has not. Folks my age are always dying to know what it’s like.

They’re almost always disappointed when I tell them that it’s a lot like it is in Lawrence, Kansas City, Dallas, New York, Phoenix… You get the picture. Folks, it’s not like we invented marijuana in Colorado. We just put it in stores and tax it.

I’m old and I’ve lived here my entire life, so I know a lot of people. Most of my peers gave smoking dope at least a shot or two when we were younger, and a lot of us got pretty good at it. And as we got older and caught up in mortgages, careers and progeny, we traded our leisure bong time for haunting the aisles of Home Depot and Walmart  — a task you would never attempt stoned — or pretending to think with our eyes closed on the couch with a toddler on the end of a leash: “It’s fun! You can pretend that you’re my dog and I’ll pretend I’m lying here thinking of cool names for you with my eyes closed.”

When life happens, stuff like finding the time and inclination to get high simply does not happen. I always tell people who wonder aloud when it is you actually become a grown-up that it happens when you no longer complain about being bored, but actively seek it out.

I pretty much lost interest in buying and smoking pot about the same time metro area police lost interest in penalizing people for smoking it.

It wasn’t until Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000 that most folks I know gave it much thought. Suddenly, the whole state practically collapsed into a giant state of mass medical malady, seeing how you had to have a doctor’s prescription to be a legal consumer of weed back then. Who knew that so many Colorado residents had bad backs and chronic nausea, and that marijuana could cure just about anything?

The pot shops went up. Life went on. Nobody really cared all that much until voters were asked if they wanted to drop the bad-back pretense and go all the way with ending prohibition. It was pretty much a no-brainer. The last 100 years or so made it perfectly clear how easy it was to produce and find pot regardless of whether it was legal. Since so many people were smoking it anyway, why keep putting on a show that it was totally for “medicinal needs” wink, wink, nudge, nudge?

It’s been almost 16 years now, and much hasn’t changed in Colorado. Polling data shows that about 2 in 10 adults smoke it up sometimes or all the time, about what they did before it was legal. National polling shows it’s more like 3 in 10 adults riding the canna-bus at least once a month here in Colorado, not drastically different than what goes on in the rest of the country.

Despite the hand-wringers’ predictions of a Colorado apotcalypse, it appears that society hasn’t broken down into frequent public scenes of reefer madness.

Those most likely to smoke are men, without a college degree and making less rather than more money, according to a pretty groundbreaking report from the Colorado Department of Health last year.

A much bigger surprise came from a recent report this year that showed that despite the frequent hand-wringing by health and law enforcement officials, about the same percentage of underage teenagers are smoking up now as they have for decades. Granted, a larger percentage of Colorado teens smoke pot than most of their national counterparts, but legalizing recreational weed doesn’t seem to have changed any of that.

The number that did go up, a lot, was the number of people who call the state’s poison control hotline all wigged out about being too high. In 2006, 44 people called Poison Control to say that they were way too stoned. It’s moving toward an average of one a day now.

If people outside of Colorado ask me for advice, I tell them to go slow. Smoke it, don’t eat it until you figure it all out. I’ve never heard of anyone being stoned to death, but there’s a huge plague of visitors wolfing down edibles that for hours after wished they’d never heard of the stuff.

It’s a lot like being really, really drunk, only when you’re young and wasted on cheap beer, you don’t know so much at the time how messed up you are. But when you’re too high, you can’t do anything but totally focus on how really messed up you are, and how you’re going to die, and everyone will know you died that way because you’re transmitting your stoner-death-mind signal all over the planet and it’s probably being picked up and rebroadast by Fox or CBS. You can’t move from your prone position because it would cause you to explode like an IED, so you must watch the clock crawl for what seems like months until you’re just way high and cognizant enough to realize that, if you live through this, you’ll never do it again.

But given the right amount and the right circumstances, a pleasant buzz now is no different than what it was like back when. Just like a couple of beers are as good now as they were when you used your own ID instead of your fake one to buy a six-pack in college.
And then you get the other look. The look of disappointment. People from out-of-state are so disappointed when you tell them that legalized recreational marijuana is just not a big deal, despite the fact that pot shops are selling about $100 million worth every month.

There are no lines any more. Ever. There are sales and competition, just like liquor stores. Holidays like 4/20 celebrations in Denver Civic Center Park are now passe. Headline writers like me have run out of pot puns about taking the high road to profitability.

During a recent political confab among conservative Republicans all hoping to run for U.S. Senate, all agreed that the feds should leave Colorado and its commercial cannabis issues alone. The commercial marijuana industry has become — respectable. Of course, a billion dollars or so a year can buy a lot of virtue.

You can tell from the faces of out-of-staters that’s not what they want to hear. They want to hear that it’s freakin’ heaven here, dude. They’ve developed strains that grow hair, result in rapid weight loss, make you look 10 years younger and leave us all dancing in the streets.

Sorry. It’s pretty much just one more thing you have to remember to stop by and pick up when the weatherman predicts a big snow coming. It’s convenient. It’s just about the same as it always was.

And wondering which strain might prompt me to get at pulling all the weeds out of my front-yard field of dreams, I’m outta here.