Mardi Grass: Denver's Near-Total Embrace of Marijuana and the Economy Behind It

"I don't get it," my cab driver says, facing the long line of cars on the freeway in front of us. We're a few hours late and a few exits away from the "biggest ticketed marijuana event" in the world, the Denver High Times Cannabis Cup. And we are not alone. The stoner holiday, 4/20, is tomorrow, but Denver has been packed with people for three days, and the cab driver has had constant fares. He'll take it, but he can't quite grok the hoopla. "They already won the war," he says.

"They" are the 1.2 million people who voted in November 2012 to make Colorado the capital of legal marijuana use in North America. Add to that the tens of thousands, possibly 100,000, citizens of other states who descended on the Mile High City this weekend. This — what is now and looks to be in the near future the Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby for stoners — is the victory lap.

Just how big this is depends on whom you ask. To some, cannabis is not just vital. Weed is the economy here. During the Great Recession, it was "cannabis [that] saved Colorado," Denver attorney Robert Corry Jr. declares. "Ask any commercial real estate agent," he continues, growing bolder. "We singlehandedly saved this state."

Coloradans heavily tax their weed. Most bud is priced at double what you'd pay in the Bay Area. This markup goes straight to schools. And the cash is flowing. I hear that Denver Public School classrooms have the new computers and resources they always lacked. That people who struggled to find meaningful work now have good jobs — all associated with marijuana. Meanwhile, real estate has come back. There is talk, familiar to Bay Area denizens but foreign here for a long time, of making millions flipping houses. A walk around Denver's downtown reveals new lofts and apartments going up. "FEELING GREAT DENVER," the letter sign at a tire shop in a gentrifying neighborhood reads. You get the idea that the good feeling is genuine.

Some doubt this will last forever. Eventually, weed will cool down and be like just another industry. Like "craft beer," a young weed-worker guesses, especially once other states legalize it. But for now the good times are rolling: Ads for butane and other tools to make hash and concentrates for dabbing are everywhere. The biggest advertiser at the Cannabis Cup, with its name and banner all over a giant convention center, is a "soils and nutrients" company. In this economy, people are getting rich selling dirt and shit.

Meanwhile, everywhere are reminders that weed is not entirely legal. At the entry to the "Official 4/20 Rally" in front of the state Capitol is a flashing highway sign: "MARIJUANA USE IS ILLEGAL." And at my hotel's front desk, a printed 8x10 sheet explains the rules: Marijuana smoking is illegal in public; smoking in your room risks a $250 fine.

A similar tension shows up in how the pot narrative is spun. Crime since January, when the recreational pot clubs opened up, is down, according to the stats. Yet in the days before the weekend are warnings of tight security at the 4/20 rally, which saw a (still unsolved) shooting last year. And in the headlines on Friday is the tale of a man who ate a pot cookie before he shot and killed his wife (buried deep in the story in the Denver Post is the fact that he also was on prescription painkillers). If this is the city's banner weekend for visitors, the local tourism board plays all this down: 4/20 is a "normal" weekend, not even on par with a convention, an official sniffs to the Post.

The story is different on the streets. Food vendors and bartenders, pedicab operators and strangers encountered in lines and elevators all swear the same thing: The city is chock-full of people. The hotels are sold out. Demand for the tickets to the shopping list of festivities — Slightly Stoopid at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday, Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa on Sunday; Ice Cube and Action Bronson (and his vape pen) opening things up on Friday — are fetching double or triple face value.

"This [as in all of this, the Cup, the hotels, the cloud of smoke] is inspiring for anyone who loves weed," East Bay activist and marijuana edible businessman Mickey Martin says. This is a vital test case that's still only a whiff of weed's full potential: In all of Colorado are fewer people than in the Bay Area. Seeing it work here, and work so well, is "changing the world," he says. That is big talk. Could it be true?

Money, jobs, and economic activity. This is what struggling cities like Oakland and Richmond, Stockton and Redding — everywhere but a San Francisco spoiled by tech riches — would kill for. And this is what California whiffed on in 2010. The same mistake won't be made in 2016. That's our promise. For now, the benefits — and the celebration — are Colorado's.

 
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