Magazine | June 22, 2015, Issue

The High Way

Along the interstate, a Colorado–Nebraska border war erupts over marijuana

Denver — The Weed Man has emerged from the shadows, he has come out from the seedy backrooms and dank basement apartments, and he is all up in the Chamber of Commerce. The Weed Man has acquired himself a suit, a tie, and a marketing department. Drive down I-70 in Denver and you’ll see those Good Samaritan highway-beautification signs sponsored by Metro Cannabis, along with signs for Green Solutions, “Colorado’s #1 Marijuana Dispensary!” and Grow Big Supply, a purveyor of hydroponic agricultural goods, which is advertising an “industry mixer,” a good old-fashioned vendor-networking, business-card-swapping event for major-league pro potheads, culturally speaking an event one step removed from a Rotary luncheon, even if the evening does have the astrologically inevitable Bob Marley theme: “Grow Big Supply is proud to present Reggae Night, the first Thursday of every month from 6 to 10 p.m. Each month we serve different hand-crafted cocktails, a variety of foods, live music, and, of course, the Grow Big Go-Go girls.” The Weed Man may not have much of an imagination, but your local Masonic temple or Elks lodge probably doesn’t have a squadron of go-go girls, which is why freemasonry and Elkery are moribund but the future of marijuana, weed, hash, Kush, kind, sticky, nugs, cheeba, Cambodian red, fluffy yellow hydroponic blossoms from parts unknown, edibles, Dixie Elixirs Premium Marijuana-Infused Products, cannabis-extraction machines with the heat provided by CO2 instead of butane because we’re all a bit concerned about neural hypoxia, THC-bearing chocolates and caramels and Keef Kat bars and Rasta Reese’s ganja-packed peanut-butter cups, terrifyingly clinical-looking syringes for the sublingual delivery of concentrated cannabis extract, cannabutter and Taboo Confections Lemon Shortbread Tarts (“Keep Out of Reach of Children”) and Baked brand confections and a hundred thousand resplendently sumptuous variations on the theme of “C12H22O11+ C21H30O2” is bright, bright, bright indeed.

Come, come shelter under the sign of the glowing green cross.

Colorado legalized the possession of marijuana for medical purposes in 2000 through Amendment 20, a constitutional referendum. That permitted possession of up to two ounces of marijuana or up to six marijuana plants on the condition that at least three of them be seedlings not yet producing usable weed. There was some tussling over how many patients a caregiver could provide with marijuana — i.e., over when somebody stops being a caregiver and starts being a drug dealer — and in 2010 the state enacted C.R.S. 12-43.3-101 et seq., the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code. Medical marijuana was legal, and it was good. But it was also kind of a load of bunk — sure, marijuana has some therapeutic qualities, but the main attractive quality of marijuana is that it gets you high as a Georgia pine and makes Super Troopers really, really funny. In November 2012, Colorado voters decided to take things one step farther than medical-marijuana states such as California had done — which is to say, they decided to stop pretending — and went ahead and ended marijuana prohibition per se, legalizing its recreational consumption and establishing an expanded regulatory apparatus, the Marijuana Enforcement Division, to oversee commercial activity related to that consumption. The stoners in Colorado rejoiced.

The cops in Nebraska? Not so much.

Get a little ways out of Denver’s self-consciously hipsterish “we were Austin before people remembered they hated freezing their hindquarters off” zone of gluten-free urbanity and you are right back in weird old savage prairie America, endless acres of buffalo grass and purple-flowering skunk weed (not that kind of skunk weed! Polemonium viscosum) with Colorado’s vast empty spaces leading to Nebraska and its collection of vaster emptier spaces, the sort of geography that makes you constantly aware of how much gas you have in the tank. It is the end of May, and the rest of the country is gearing up for Memorial Day weekend, the informal opening days of summer. In Deuel County, Neb., just over the line from Colorado, they’re having a snowstorm.

This has been smuggling country since forever, basically. In the late 1800s, the brutal gunman and dandy Luke Short set up shop in nearby Sidney, where he made his fortune selling whiskey to the Sioux in violation of federal law, shooting customers who became troublesome. In the Deuel County seat, Chappell (“The Extra ‘L’ Is for ‘Living the Good Life,’” according to the billboard at the edge of town), Sheriff Adam Hayward is dealing with a less colorful sort of outlaw: sundry midwestern marijuana aficionados who traverse his state to and from (and it is from that is mostly the problem) the legal-weed promised land of Colorado, illegally bringing sticky green contraband back not only to Nebraska but also to Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and places beyond. He estimates that about every fifth traffic stop now results in the discovery of something that should not be there, and he has to lock up many more people than he ever has in the past.

“Nebraska doesn’t have to arrest them,” one critic says. And that’s true at some level, of course. But the reality is that Nebraska has pretty liberal marijuana laws, and you kind of have to be a bit of a jerk to get locked up for it: First-possession offense with less than an ounce is basically a parking ticket ($300, no possibility of jail time), and you have to be on your third offense before you have the possibility of seeing even a week in jail — and seven days is the maximum sentence, on top of a fine of up to $500. You have to be packing more than a pound of weed through the Cornhusker State before you’ve committed a felony. So, no, Sheriff Hayward doesn’t have to arrest you for an ounce of marijuana — but 110 pounds? Yeah, he kind of has to arrest you at that point.

Sheriff Hayward is a local, a youngish and no-nonsense man whose office is wallpapered with certificates from the likes of the Mid-States Organized Crime Information Center and the Nebraska Law Enforcement Intelligence Network. He is not an admirer of Colorado’s legalization effort: His office is a big piece of the budget in this county of fewer than 2,000, and his incarceration expenses have quadrupled since Colorado’s marijuana dispensaries opened their doors to the public. This in a place that had been so quiet that there is no county jail — it contracts out its jailing to nearby communities. Out of a $290,000 sheriff’s-department budget, some $140,000 goes to incarceration expenses, and the county’s tax revenue has been strained by the burden.

“The interstate brings a lot of trouble,” the sheriff says. “Sometimes, I wish it wasn’t there.”

That trouble does not generally take the form of people driving over the state line with the amount of marijuana that can be sold to them legally in Colorado. Nonresidents are welcome to shop in Colorado’s dispensaries, but they are prohibited from buying more than 7 grams in a single transaction, and transactions are monitored in order to prevent bulk purchases’ being disguised as tiny transactions. Legally, you’d need to make more than 6,000 purchases from one of Colorado’s dispensaries to put together those 100-pound packages the Nebraska authorities are taking out of cars. But in spite of the regulations, those purchases do get made, though probably not from the dispensary operators; Sheriff Hayward theorizes that marijuana is diverted from a few steps up the production chain, at the grow houses. The Drug Enforcement Administration has even claimed (apply DEA-credibility discount here) that far from knocking the Mexican drug cartels out of the marijuana business, high-quality U.S.-grown weed is so profitable that the syndicates are trafficking smoke from the United States into Mexico rather than the other way around. In 2014, a series of federal raids in Colorado were conducted as part of an investigation linking the state’s legal operations to Colombian drug cartels.

But if the jail records in Sheriff Hayward’s office are any indication, you don’t have to be Pablo Escobar to make a killing in exploiting the interstate inconsistency of marijuana prohibition. Not long ago, his department arrested four young men from Minnesota, ages 16 to 17, who were pulled over driving 86 mph in a 75-mph zone on a Sunday afternoon and discovered with a pound or so of marijuana. As it turns out, this was a regular thing for them. “They were coming down every week and buying $2,500 to $3,000 worth of marijuana, which they could sell for $6,000 back home,” Hayward says.  He pauses. “That’s more money than I make. A lot more.”

He mentions that there is a dispensary about 20 minutes away in Sedgwick, Colo. He is not the only person to single out the establishment: Sedgwick has a population of fewer than 200 people, but it is home to a marijuana dispensary as large and well stocked as those you’ll find in Denver. In weed as in real estate: location, location, location.

Funny thing about Sedgwick Alternative Relief (motto: “The First Dispensary in Colorado,” which is a geographical rather than temporal claim), the marijuana retailer nearest the Nebraska border: Among the cars parked out front, there is not a single one with Colorado plates. There are cars from Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, etc., but not one from the state in which the establishment is actually located. There are some Colorado plates in front of the gardening-supply store next door, which, like the dispensary, is marked with the great glowing green-cross sign that has become the universal symbol of legal retail marijuana. It is a little discombobulating: Sure, you expect to see a bar nearby with a sign reading “Coors on Tap” and the Sedgwick Antique Inn, because marijuana tourism is a thing. But to take in the overwhelming vegetal smell of all that high-grade doobage, the Mahatma-brand concentrate products and the “recycler bubble oil rigs” (whatever the hell those are), and to take in the “awesome, dude” vibe of it all within sight of cattle and bales of hay — it’s just weird.

The clientele at Sedgwick Alternative Relief during my visit was almost uniformly old — not even plausibly middle-aged, really, but gray and creaky and not looking exactly what you’d call hale or prosperous. But that’s pretty common in remote small-town farming America, pop-culture romanticism notwithstanding, and it’s hard to disaggregate the effects of lifelong stonerdom from those of simply living the low version of country life. The clients come out of the shop with their brown paper bags of product, get into their cars, and drive toward whatever state boundary it is that they’re really not supposed to be crossing.

Inside, there’s a waiting room with a few unhappy-looking old people in it and a security partition separating the general stoner public from the green gold beyond. A cute and chipper young woman who speaks in the pothead patois that one encounters everywhere in Weed World and that seems to be at least as much a product of culture as of chemistry greets me warmly and instantly cools a degree (or seven) when I tell her I am a reporter and ask whether I can speak to the owner. She does that Japanese-style thing where she makes it clear that that is not going to happen without actually saying “That is not going to happen.” She takes my number in a display of pro forma cooperativeness.

“Did you want to buy some product while you’re here?” The price is $17 a gram. I haven’t had marijuana in a long time that is nonetheless not as long a time as it really should be for a man my age, and the thought of smoking a joint is vaguely repugnant. But the tinctures? The chocolates? The THC lollipops? Television is not all you might hope it would be in the motels of rural Nebraska, and I didn’t sleep well last night, and there’s a moment of . . . but, no.

“Okay! Well, thanks for coming in!”

The thing about the marijuana business: It’s business.

‘There’s that one in, uh, that’s right there at Nebraska, that everybody’s mad at.” Sasha Saghbazarian, a “bud-tender” (which is what they call a salesman) at Pure Medical Dispensary in Denver, is very helpful and a great deal more put together than you might think on first impression, given that she has the spacey affect that is apparently universal in her profession. I ask her whether she means the one in Sedgwick, and she communicates the affirmative.

Pure Medical has an absolutely spectacular showroom, one part mad-scientist’s lair (my bud-tender is very excited to show me the butane-free carbon dioxide–based thingamabob that they use to extract marijuana essence from the plant itself, which apparently is the best-practices way of doing it) and one part high-end boulangerie, spotless display cases packed with many varieties of old-fashioned smokeable marijuana — which turns out to be sort of passé as the offerings go — and a whole lot more in the way of edibles (store brand name: “Incr-edibles”) and concentrates (the dabs and wax and so forth that the old-fashioned gray-bearded weed hounds warn will mess you up, boy) and an assortment of capsules: “The black one is for nighttime,” Sasha says. “It’s a sleep aid. The white one is for during the day. The red one is for pain. The green one is an aphrodisiac, for all that fun stuff.” She giggles. Sleep aid? I think about the flight home. And then I think about dealing with TSA while high on CO2-extracted THC, and that I am really too old to be thinking about this, but, still, there’s a moment of . . . but, no.

For those who aren’t feeling too old, there’s a bunch of candy, which turns out to be sort of problematic from a regulatory point of view.

Sasha is better versed on the rules than almost anybody I talk to, and one of the things she points out is that the Gummi Bear doppelgängers are on their way out: The Man has decided that weed candy that is designed to look like familiar brands of conventional candy (much of it festooned with similar labels and given porn-star-style pun names, e.g., BuddahFinger bars) is a danger to the little ones and shall henceforth be banned. But, as Sasha points out, the non-copycat candies also can be a problem for adults, who sometimes eat the candy like it was candy and get themselves too high, which can be a very uncomfortable experience. Rather than taking the sensible 10-milligram dose and then waiting for a couple of hours to see whether they really want more, she says, consumers sometimes just wolf down waaaay toooo muuuuch.

So that’s one thing. But there is a whole lot more on the regulatory front. Not a Colorado resident? Can’t work in a dispensary. Got convictions? Can’t work in a dispensary. Got unpaid child support? Can’t work in a dispensary. Got bad credit? If your financial situation is bad enough that the Man thinks that you might be tempted to, say, cut a side deal with some shady Colombians, you can’t work in a dispensary. Sasha talks about the “secret shopper” agents dispatched by the Marijuana Enforcement Division, who visit dispensaries unannounced and try to trick the bud-tenders into breaking one of the myriad regulations under which they go about their blissed-out business. They will talk about transporting marijuana across state lines, at which point bud-tenders are expected to give them a stern-faced warning that this is a state and federal no-no.

There are rules to the high life, damn it.

There is, in fact, a whole complicated techno-logistical machine at work keeping track of every bud and brownie: Shipments of marijuana products are RFID-tagged, sales are tracked by weight (in the case of actual marijuana) or units (in the case of capsules, pills, edibles, etc.), and a government database (sorry to harsh your buzz with that terrifying phrase, dude) called “METRC” — pronounced “metric,” the Marijuana Enforcement, Tracking, Reporting, and Compliance system — developed by the supply-chain and logistics-technology company Franwell keeps track of every legal transaction in something close to real time. Sasha utters the name “METRC” with heavy respect; John Hudak of the Brookings Institution calls it “the backbone of Colorado’s regulatory structure governing legalized marijuana.” Nothing’s perfect, of course. “There will always be a few nugs that fall on the floor,” Sasha says. “They’re looking for bulk.”

So how do people end up in Sheriff Hayward’s jurisdiction with pounds and pounds of Colorado weed that they are not supposed to have? “They know how to cheat the system, to grow extra,” the sheriff says. “In a way, it’s ten times worse than it was. The problem used to be one guy with 100 pounds of marijuana. Now it’s 100 guys with one pound of marijuana.” And what does he think about Colorado’s vast regulatory structure? “Nobody’s following the rules over there.”

Regulation is hard work. As Sheriff Hayward points out, his state has 247 different laws to enforce when it comes to alcohol. “In Prohibition, there was just one law: It’s illegal.” And that is how he’d prefer to see marijuana treated. And so would the powers-that-be in his state, along with their counterparts in Oklahoma, who are suing Colorado on the grounds that its marijuana laws are unconstitutional (the theory being that those laws are a state attempt to preempt federal drug laws) and that Colorado’s liberalization has imposed heavy costs on other states. Beyond the instinctive “mind your own damned business” defense, Colorado points to its colonoscopic regulatory machinery as evidence of its good faith and political responsibility. But if there is one thing that is predictable in matters regulatory, it is that the regulators will concentrate their efforts on the parties that are easiest to regulate, which in this case are the dispensaries and their gaggles of earnest bud-tenders, who seem very, very happy to be marijuana professionals. Cartel infiltrators up the supply chain? That’s a different matter. The dispensary operators have an incentive to keep a lid on criminal hijinks for the same reason that big corporate strip-club operators work diligently to keep prostitution out of their businesses and that Las Vegas is the American city in which you will be most rigorously prosecuted for organizing an illegal poker game: The legit business pays so much that crime has little attraction to them — in fact, it represents unwanted competition.

The Colorado marijuana business is in its 1963 Las Vegas–casino period: The vice itself has been legalized, the Chamber of Commerce is deploying in force, and the organized-crime tough guys are about to find out what ruthlessness, iron will, and intense singularity of purpose really mean as the publicly traded multinational corporations take over their rackets and hand them their heads. You think you’re a gangster? Try picking a fight with Walt Disney. It isn’t pretty, but in the end you’d rather be dealing with the Marijuana Enforcement Division and some mutant variation of Monsanto or Johnson & Johnson than with the wild boys from Culiacán or Beltrán-Leyva Inc.

That is the economic theory behind marijuana legalization. But how to resolve the realities, which are that Colorado wants legal weed while Nebraska and Oklahoma do not, and that the presence of black markets in prohibition states ensures the presence of black markets and gray markets in legalization states? The prohibition states are asking for federal action, but if there is anything we’ve learned from our endless and endlessly stupid war on drugs, it is that federal action generally makes things worse. While one can sympathize with the desire of people in the prohibition states to keep drugs out of their communities, it is more difficult to sympathize with their desire to avoid paying the freight for their decisions — especially when their prohibition imposes costs on legalization states just as legalization states impose costs on them. Weed-whacking is an expensive business. In the long run, legal marijuana will probably proceed the way legal gambling and prostitution have: less crime, more-responsible business practices, and the slow, gentle normalization of what once was verboten. The Weed Man is fading — long live the Chamber of Commerce.

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