BY ED MURRIETA
DENVER — “Did you notice the fragrance?”
We were packed into a clean-emissions shuttle bus traveling along touristy 16th Street Mall.
A young man wearing blond dreadlocks and reeking of his pot-smoking tribe squeezed past two office ladies.
“You smell it everywhere,” one lady said to the other. “It’s the stoner bro smell.”
Welcome to The Mile High City, capital of legal pot in America, where the most radical cultural shift since Prohibition is transpiring, quite literally, under the noses of Colorado citizens, 55 percent of whom voted last year to legalize retail sales and recreational consumption of pot by adults age 21 and up.
This scented scene played out in downtown Denver, flanked by spanking-new steel-and-glass office and housing towers that remind you that pot isn’t the only growth industry in town.
I had just visited six retail pot stores within walking distance. One was tucked in a clothing boutique. One felt like a yoga studio, albeit one with a full view of a growing room filled with pot plants. One store, which also doubles as a medical marijuana dispensary featuring lower prices and better selection on the medical side, was just steps away from a shuttle stop in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, eight stories above 16th Street Mall.
To a tourist visiting from a place where the medical marijuana industry looks and smells remarkably similar to the recreational industry taking root in Colorado’s capital, the retail pot stores I visited felt as much a part of Denver’s cityscape, at once historic and progressive, as the Starbucks and 7-11s dotting downtown, never mind the sales taxes that make $15 joints and cookies sell for $18.51 out the door.
Thousands of pot pilgrims are descending on Denver today for what what will be the first celebration of 4/20 — the official unofficial stoner holiday and time code. It will be the first 4/20 to occur in a state in which pot is legal. Scores of events — from an upscale “Wake and Bake” breakfast to pothead speed dating — will take place today. Bet on more in the future.
In my four days in Denver last month — my first trip here and my first vacation anywhere, from Amsterdam to Vancouver, in which every bud I bought and every toke I took was legal and not just tolerated — I enjoyed a small but pleasurable taste of Denver’s pot culture.
PUFF, PASS & PAINT
Heidi Keyes is a 27-year-old artist who opens her home to locals and tourists for bring-your-own-pot painting parties, a series of twice-monthly events best described as two hours of creativity, conversation and rounds of bong hits.
I arrived at Keyes’ vintage house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood a short bus ride east of downtown just before 7 on a Friday night.
I was the first guest to arrive.
Keyes pulled chocolate chip cookies from the oven.
“There’s no pot in them,” she said.
I took a cookie anyway.
“Do you want something to smoke?”
Keyes pointed to a bong on the kitchen counter, surrounded by a small stash of pot left behind by previous art students/guests to her home.
I took the opportunity, my first legal bong hit in America.
Other guests arrived as I double-checked the bottles of pot to see what I’d just smoked. (Based on its racy high, I suspect it was the Girl Scout Cookies strain, not the Deadhead OG strain.)
When everyone took their coats off and made their way to the kitchen, I met four men and a woman, all in their 40s, all locals, all friends since high school, when they first smoked pot together. They brought their own cooler, containing a six-pack of canned Colorado beer and assorted of pot-infused drinks and confections. They’d all eaten pot-infused gummy candies in the car ride here. They all looked professional. One worked in marketing.
A 60ish mother and her 30something son from South Bend, Ind., arrived. They’d come to Denver for the pot. I asked the son about the quality of pot in Denver vs. the quality of pot in back home near Notre Dame.
“‘bout the same,” he said.
A couple of older women from Wisconsin who were house sitting a dog in Denver arrived. They brought cans of Miller High Life.
Keyes, a pixie-like painter with blunt chestnut bangs, led the class at a large table in her dining room. Everyone had an easel, a canvas, brushes, a palette and all the oil paints they could squeeze from well-used tubes. The Jayhawks Radio played on the alt-rock satellite channel.
Most people in the class followed Keyes’ tutorial, painting Red Rocks, the postcard-perfect natural formation that, at Keyes’ instruction, “starts with a comb-over in mustard.”
The bong was passed. Smoke hung. Conversations ricocheted. Paintings emerged. Laughter flowed. Soon, two hours had passed.
Amy Dannemiller rushed up to me wearing a tight black dress, cropped black hair and tall black heels inside an art gallery in one of Denver’s hipper neighborhoods. I felt like I was meeting Charlotte from Sex in the City, not someone who’d recently been booted from her job as a corporate events planner for vaporizing pot on national television during one of her own event.
Dannemiller, 37, is better known as Jane West, the impresario of Edible Events, monthly parties in upscale locations that combine pot, food, beer, wine, music, art and beautiful people — all the things that make a party a party.
Pot is now just part of Edible Events parties. While earlier events featured food containing pot, the event I attended featured catered appetizers prepared without pot, something Dannemiller said will continue.
With my appetite stimulated from all the Girl Scout Cookies bong hits I’d consumed earlier at Puff, Pass & Paint, I loaded up on seared tuna and grilled chicken, the rarest of beef wrapped around scallions, and veggie inari — sweet, meaty and crunchy bites whose bold flavors matched the floral pot flavors lingering on my tongue.
The crowd was beautiful and dressed to kill — professionals in their 20s, 30s and 40s, nary a visible tattoo. The bar was hosted. A deejay spun beats. People danced.
I chatted with locals who said they’d love to host parties like this in their homes. I chatted with a Chicano couple from Kansas about my age who work in telecom marketing and came to Denver specifically for legal pot.
In one corner, a pot store owner in a tight black dress rolled fat blunts — joints wrapped in tobacco leaf.
Out front, a party bus with a stripper pole and disco beats was parked the wrong way on a one-way street. That’s where partygoers smoked and where I spent a good portion of the evening after gorging on the buffet.
Someone produced a bong, a blow torch and a small amber square of a substance that looked like a thin sheet of Jolly Rancher candy — a concentrated form of pot called shatter that’s popular in Denver.
Using a metal rod, I dabbed some concentrated pot on the heated surface, filling the bong’s main chamber with vapor. I inhaled a bright, clean rush of floral, herbal, citrus and pine — all of the flavors and essences you get when you bury your nose into a jar of expertly grown, properly cured pot.
Best of all, shatter packed a concentrated punch that satisfied me — and kept me socially engaged with the beautiful party party — after just one hit.
Thurlow Weed aims to be the Howard Schultz of smoke-easies, when, one day, IBake is as ubiquitous as Starbucks. For now, IBake exists solely in a ramshackle cinderblock building attached to an automotive repair shop six blocks north of the Denver County line.
IBake is the only private club in the Denver metropolitan area where people can smoke pot. This semi-industrial section of Adams County is certainly not Amsterdam, but it’s good enough when the No. 12 bus from Denver runs right by IBake’s front door.
Part smoke-easy, part head shop and part convenience store, IBake requires membership — a $7 fee that’s a bargain, considering that a free gram of pot (a $20 value at Colorado’s retail rates) comes with every year-long membership.
IBake’s decor is decidedly down-home hippie — tie-dyed couch and wall coverings, pot leafs around the fireplace, t-shirts proclaiming, “Don’t Mind If I Doobie,” and a clientele with more tattoos and fewer teeth than I saw all weekend.
I hung out at IBake for the better part of two afternoons. Coffee was free. Rock ‘n’ roll was classic. Dogs roamed. Much shatter was shared. Bonhomie flowed.
One night, IBake hosted the first round of a cooking competition whose ultimate winner will earn the chance to star in a planned cooking show called “Medicated Chef.” The night’s winner was a local woman named Moonflower, who wowed judges with game hens stuffed with pot-infused cornbread and a chocolate dessert topped with whipped cream dusted with pot.
While local and state tourism officials refuse to touch the topic with a 10-foot temperance pole, pot tourism is a budding cottage industry in Denver, just 4 months and 20 days since Amendment 64, the measure that legalized pot in Colorado, took effect.
“I talk with customers all the time now who come from Georgia and North Carolina and other states where pot is illegal who tell me, ‘We’re here to try the pot,’” said Tom Coohill, chef/owner of Coohills, a French-inspired restaurant located in a redeveloped section of downtown.
“These are people in their 50s and 60s,” Coohill said. “They’re doctors, lawyers, professionals, the same kind of people you might see in wine country or on a craft brewery tour but who come here for pot and maybe get in some skiing.”
While the fragrance of pot is far more publicly prevalent in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where anyone with Prop. 215 paperwork can legally smoke medical marijuana anywhere people can legally smoke cigarettes — a no, no in clean-air Colorado — pot perfumed Denver’s air during my trip.
“I work nearby and come down here on my break,” said a 30something woman who was sharing a mid-afternoon joint with a friend along the Cherry Creek Trail, an urban parkway and waterway on the western periphery of downtown, not far from Coohills’ building, where Gary Hart, the former United States Senator from Colorado, keeps an office.
Pot wafted from warehouses — growing rooms that are squeezing commercial Denver’s real estate market — as I wandered gritty streets searching for trendy restaurants and a taste of foie gras, a delicacy that’s banned where I live.
Pot billowed from hotel balconies, where fellow tourists took advantage of the rare opportunity to smoke in a private setting.
“I need to smoke it here because it’s illegal to smoke it in the room,” a young guy with a mop of blond hair told me while he leaned over the balcony of his fourth-floor room at the Warrick, the only hotel in Denver where all rooms have smoking balconies, a favorite amenity of celebrity pot-smokers like Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg when they’re in Denver.
Pot greeted me unexpectedly at my non-smoking hotel — even though I had a rented a smokeless, odorless vaporizer from Cultivated Travel, a “cannabis concierge” service catering to guests in high-end hotels.
“If you wish to smoke cigarettes or anything else,” a Hyatt Grand desk clerk said, unsolicited, “you may do so 15 feet away from the front door.”
Pot even shouted to me on the sidewalk. Actually, the young man cried, “Need some weed?” before dashing off in the direction of the Homeland Security police I’d passed half a block back.
I should have smelled something in the air right then. Not long after that last encounter, I returned to my hotel for my bags. I placed the rented vaporizer in its postage-paid envelope.
I disposed of the well-used glass pipe I had purchased at a convenience store for $1.99 three days earlier, a throw-away token filled with the residue of my first weekend in Denver.
Before catching the 16th Street Mall shuttle that would take me to a bus that would take me to Denver International Airport, I checked out a Civic Center street vendor selling fragrances in grimy plastic bottles.
TSA screeners pulled me out of line for a security check — first my hands, then my clothes, then my bags, then my body. Eventually, I was sent on my way.
I left Colorado convinced that TSA screeners had noticed the fragrance — cologne from the street vendor labeled “Obama Man Type” that I’d handled hoping to mask any smell of pot on me.
Had the ladies on Denver’s 16th Street Mall shuttle bus turned their noses my way, I might be the stoner bro in a blazer reeking of cheap cologne and a nice weekend in The Mile High City.