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Lessons from a Pot-Friendly Colorado

Tips on availability, prices, edibles and more

Mar. 19, 2014
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In line near midday on a Friday are a guy with a backpack, a suit on a cell phone, three chatty coeds and a middle-aged couple with a camera.

It’s business as usual at LoDo Wellness Center, one of the 54 licensed retail marijuana dispensaries in Denver. Some customers wait to order leafy buds named Sour Diesel, Dragon and Bubba Kush. Fewer just want to price or smell the merchandise.

Friendly clerks—nicknamed “bud tenders” here and elsewhere—advise, weigh, fetch and roll. Shopping happens early because closing time, citywide, is 7 p.m. for these stores.

Cannabis sales for recreational purposes turned legal Jan. 1 in Colorado, but each community decides how and whether business proceeds. Colorado Springs, one hour south of Denver, bans recreational sales. Vail is on the fence, with a moratorium until at least July 31, but a marijuana superstore proposal slowly begins clearing hurdles in Eagle, population 6,400 and 30 miles west.

Colorado’s experience with full legalization is of interest to other states—including Wisconsin—that are considering easing restrictions on the sale of recreational or medical marijuana.

Colorado’s approach to business is far from uniform and not every issue has been addressed. For example, potency of commercially manufactured “edibles”—foods and beverages infused with THC—doesn’t match product labels, according to lab analyses commissioned by The Denver Post.

Entrepreneurs smell opportunity and confront roadblocks, particularly in opening members-only social clubs for pot smoking. 

Dispensaries have multiple personalities. The reception area at LoDo Wellness looks like a homey living room, good for lounging, with a window view of pot plants growing under greenhouse lights. In contrast, the narrowness of Good Chemistry, near Colorado’s State Capitol, provides little room or opportunity for gawking. Healing House, near the University of Denver, displays merchandise like fine jewelry, stretched beneath glass countertops. The 3D Cannabis Center, a warehouse not far from Denver Coliseum, was closed on a weekday afternoon, without explanation.

Tourism offices, for now, take a hands-off approach to pot tourism. That means no comprehensive guides (or vetting process) for pot-friendly lodging, tours or nightlife.

One thing is certain: Colorado collected about $2 million in taxes from $14 million in recreational pot sales during January, and optimists say it’s the birth of a billion-dollar industry. 

“In progressive precincts, pot is becoming a fixture of polite society,” asserts party planner Jane West of Denver’s Edible Events during a recent interview with TV journalist Harry Smith. “We’re changing the face of what a cannabis consumer looks like.”  

Here are a few things mile-high travelers will want to know.


How will I know where pot is being sold?

Consult weedmaps.com, which shows sales outlets throughout the U.S. Only Colorado allows shops for recreational use. That changes this spring, when rec shops open in the state of Washington.


How can I compare prices and get the word on quality?

Check ads and product reviews in alternative weekly newspapers: Westword (westword.com) in Denver, the Boulder Weekly (boulderweekly.com) and Colorado Springs Independent (csindy.com). The Denver Post’s marijuana editor manages thecannabist.com.


Can you buy it in Colorado cafés, as is done in Amsterdam?

No. Only licensed dispensaries sell cannabis products legally, but you can’t light up or snack on edibles there. Similarly, you can’t buy a pot-infused dessert at a restaurant, but sometimes events invite attendees to BYOC (Bring Your Own Cannabis). Edible Events organizes high-end functions.


Must I be a Colorado resident?

No, but how much you can purchase for recreational purposes is dictated by residency. A Colorado resident can buy one ounce. A non-resident’s limit is one-fourth of an ounce.

Sales typically are for one-eighth ounce. Prices are all over the place, depending upon the strain, and can be twice as expensive for rec users vs. medical patients. Ads for a $15 eighth are likely not for tourists.

We saw joints priced at $8 to $15, and online averages of $40 or $45 for an eighth.


Do I need a prescription to buy?  

No, but you must be at least 21 and flash a government-issued photo I.D. to get into rec dispensaries. 

Forget about seeing a medically licensed dispensary unless you can slide a state-issued “red card”—medical marijuana card—through a security window.

When a dispensary is licensed both ways, you’ll only shop in the rec area. Medical patients may possess two ounces of pot—or more, depending on what their docs recommend—and purchases aren’t taxed as high. Being a medical marijuana patient also is the only way for those under 21 to legally buy pot products. Approved conditions for medical marijuana use include cancer, glaucoma, HIV or a chronic/debilitating condition with severe pain, nausea, spasms or seizures.


Must I use cash?

It depends upon the dispensary. Ask before shopping. Some have an ATM.


Where can I smoke? 

Not in public view. Not while driving. Not on ski slopes. Not in most hotel rooms; state law says at least 75% per property must be smoke-free. Some hotels are entirely smoke-free, so check before making assumptions. 

Some music venues, like Quixote’s True Blue in Denver, have a concealed outdoor patio for smoking. Good for Deadheads.


I don’t smoke, so what kind of pot-infused alternatives can I enjoy?  

Packaged brownies, chocolate-dipped pretzels, hard candy, gummies, spiked punches—you name it. The range of products depends upon the dispensary, and it pays to compare prices, but few tip their hand online.

Product potency might be lots higher than you’d expect, especially if you haven’t indulged for decades.

Edibles with 100 mg of THC seem typical, and bud tenders advise starting with one-fourth of whatever you buy, then waiting at least 30 minutes before deciding whether to nibble more.

A single Love’s Oven oatmeal cookie with 100 mg of THC cost $25 (plus tax) at The Healing House, and the same potency in Dr. J’s Flying Aces hard candy cost $18. Good Chemistry’s thumb-wide chocolate-caramel cups from Mountain Medicine sell for $10.


How will I know if what I’m buying is any good?

Talk frankly to a “bud tender”—dispensary sales staffer—about how you define “good.” Much depends upon expectations, and bud tenders should be knowledgeable about their strains of products and effects.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the answers, find another dispensary. There’s no obligation to buy.


Are there any consumer protections? Or regulations?  

This isn’t dark-alley dealing—a sales license is required. Although it’s OK to share small amounts of stash if no money is exchanged, personal sales of marijuana remain illegal. 

Whatever is bought from a dispensary is labeled with great detail. Each product can be traced back to a specific grower and plant. 

To complain, contact the confidential tip line of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division at 855-277-7500 or file online with the state’s Consumer Protection Section (coloradoattorneygeneral.gov).


How are police dealing with stoned drivers? Is it a problem?  

It is illegal to drive under the influence. You can get a DUI with a minimum of five nanograms (five billionths of a gram) of THC per milliliter of blood. That’s “just a few hits off a joint,” concludes weedmaps.com. 

A $1 million television ad campaign, to remind people not drive stoned, began this month after Colorado State Patrol reported 31 of 61 impaired motorists in January were detained because of marijuana.  

“Drive high, get a DUI” is the slogan, and ads use humor to make their point.


Can I drive to Colorado, load up my car with pot, and leave?  

We have no evidence of border patrols, but transporting cannabis or products containing it across state lines is illegal. As a federal offense, maximum punishment is one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.  

Depending on your route home, penalties could be more severe: Get nabbed in Nebraska with more than one pound, for example, and max consequences are five years and $10,000. More details at norml.org.


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