Apprehension overtook me inside the Pueblo Police Department headquarters. As I interviewed an officer, the smell from my jacket pocket must have lingered a few feet in every direction.
I was carrying a little less than an eighth of an ounce of Girl Scout Cookies, the southern California strain of marijuana that won first prize in the hybrid category in the 2013 Medical Cannabis Cup. Known for its ability to treat anxiety and depression, the weed's scent was so strong that the Best Western where I stayed tacked a $50 fee on my bill for merely having the dope outside its packaging in my room.
An instinct developed in my teenage years told me to run— immediately and swiftly— from any situation that mixes pot and authorities.
But the sergeant said nothing of the aroma.
Amendment 64, a ballot initiative approved by 55 percent of Colorado voters in late 2012, went into effect on Jan. 1, and effectively put marijuana on a similar legal plane as alcohol.
Licensed shops can now sell it, and certain amounts—an ounce if you're a state resident and a quarter of an ounce if you're not—are legal to purchase, possess and consume in the state. To document this watershed moment, SFR sent me on a mission to find the closest legal weed to Santa Fe.
After crossing state lines north of Raton, I make inquiries in smoke shops and gas stations along I-25 in places like Trinidad. They point me to Pueblo, a steel mill town 250 miles north of Santa Fe with a population of roughly 107,000.
It's a town grappling with legalization of pot, a plant still considered by the federal government as a Schedule 1 drug that's illegal. On Sunday, The Pueblo Chieftain featured both a story about actor Tommy Chong making a cameo at one of the marijuana dispensaries ("This is one small stagger for a stoner and one giant leap for stonerkind," he was quoted as saying) and a helpful column by the managing editor of the paper citing his confusion about cannabis quantities ("Gram of Pot? Ounce of Pot? Equals What?" reads the headline.)
While some residents say the new law won't change much in Pueblo, they agree that legalization is likely to bring in cash. On top of the generous tax revenue the state will see from its sale (it's taxed up to 25 percent) advocates say the state can also bring in tourism dollars like mine.
Travis Guest, a grower and chief husbandry officer for The Greener Side, one of the two medical marijuana collectives in Pueblo County, is on the front lines of the boom. He says the store topped its best sales day ever since it started selling recreational cannabis along with its medicinal pot, reaching more than $15,000, although he wouldn't say how much more.
The Greener Side, located off the aptly named I-25 exit of Stem Beach Road, several miles south the municipality of Pueblo, is the nearest place New Mexicans can now purchase recreational pot. On Saturday, drivers fought low visibility and blizzard conditions to make their way to the lonely exit, where on the west side of the highway I spot a small, one-story residential structure that features a white dinosaur figure on its roof.
When I arrive, I stand in line with about a dozen other people inside the small building, split by a waiting room and a room with the product. A security guard carrying a Glock pistol in his holster checks my ID to make sure I'm over the legal buying age of 21. Medical pot users are shuffled to a separate counter for their product while I and other recreational customers wait. Reggae music plays in the background as the security guard calls people into the purchasing room in pairs.
The waiting room is cramped with young and old, many in awe they can buy weed legally now. On Sunday, an Indiana couple, both 60, say they hadn't bought weed since they were in college 38 years ago. "Really you know this being the only time we're ever here, we just want to stop and see one. And you know we'll get the required quarter ounce, then I can tell all my buddies I did it," says the husband, Bob, who declines to give his last name.
He then laughs.
I wait about 15 minutes to get into the separate room, where jars of bud sit on a counter for anyone to smell and inspect. A sign on the counter advertises the effects of different strains: Sativa strains give more of a mind-dominant high that relieves anxiety and depression, indica strains offer a more body-dominant high that sedates and treats pain. A separate counter for medical patients features two shelves of edible pot products, which aren't yet available for recreational users.
Behind the counter, the "budtender" sells me on the Girl Scout Cookies, a 70 percent indica, 30 percent sativa hybrid. "It's a really popular, really potent strain," he says.
I ask about prices: $64.25 (tax included) for an eighth of an ounce—about $15 higher than street price. I ask for a half-eighth, but the budtender says he can't do that. I fork over the cash for the eighth.
Eventually I head to Pueblo, looking for a place to toke up. The new Colorado law prohibits "open and public use" of marijuana or in a manner that endangers others. I'm not sure what to do next. I land at a bar called the Pour House, where football plays on the TVs. But I spot a sign near the patio that warns smoking and consuming marijuana is prohibited on the premises.
Later, I check in at the Best Western, where a hotel employee tells me to try a place called Cloud Nine Hookah. But an employee there says they only allow smoking pot during special events parties.
I'm presented with a dilemma: The Best Western, like many hotels, does not allow smoking, and I'm not bold enough to ask a Puebloan if I can come to their living room with my stash. I settle on my parked vehicle, which might have technically been illegal.
The joint burns slow because the product is so moist. But an extremely pleasant high settles in about five minutes later. I become more contemplative than giggly and I think about going to the Cracker Barrel next to the hotel. I decide instead to watch a hockey game inside my room. I soon drift to sleep.
The next day, after I checked out of the hotel, I learned that a hotel employee had tacked on the $50 fee after hotel workers "smelled" pot in my room, discovered "evidence" of pot and therefore concluded I smoked in the room. I plea innocent of the latter accusation. (I rolled a respectably thick joint inside my hotel room, but I didn't smoke pot inside my room—nor inside the hotel for that matter.) I'm still appealing the matter with the manager.
A little groggy, I drive to Marisol Theraputics, the other medical marijuana dispensary located in Pueblo West (a separate municipality close to Pueblo). Paul Barnett, 62, was one of the many customers disappointed to see a sign on its door apologizing for being closed on Sunday. Some wondered if the store already ran out of product.
Barnett says he doesn't think legalization will change the town in any fundamental way (anyone, he says, could get it before). "Pueblo is kind of an interesting place because I think it's really very mixed between very conservative and relatively liberal," he says. Barnett himself used to get his pot with a medical marijuana card. Asked why he got the card, he flashes a smile and responds, "recreational."
My next plan for the day was to march into the police department and give away the weed to a cop. I had strict orders from my editor not to transport it across the New Mexico border, where possession becomes illegal, and the prospect of giving a stash of marijuana to an officer of the law amused me. Perhaps, I thought, the cop would take it home and smoke it.
But jitters immediately set in once I interviewed Candie Fletcher, who was waiting in the doorway of the police department with her two children.
She vehemently opposes legalization of pot in her state, saying that it will lead to more crime and more car accidents. (Driving high is a DUI in Colorado.) One of her two boys already asked me about my audio recorder. What if he asks me, or his mother, about the odor? Is he going to learn about dope just because a depraved alt-weekly reporter happened to reek like it inside the lobby of a police station? What would the D.A.R.E. program say about this?
My bravery wanes, and I have a short conversation with Sgt. Ryan about the department's enforcement. Because I'm not licensed by the state, I can't sell the extra product. The store doesn't accept returns. So I ask Ryan if it's ok to give away pot.
"I don't see why not," he says.
"I mean you think of it in terms of alcohol. It'd be like buying a bottle of alcohol. As long as they were legal age I don't see why you couldn't give it away to them."
I drive back to The Greener Side and eventually give the sack to a customer waiting outside, who seemed surprised and confused at the sudden windfall.
There's good pot everywhere in Pueblo—just nowhere to smoke it.