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The United States Of Marijuana - America's "Green Rush" On Pot

In Colorado, meet the nation's first newspaper weed critic.

A happy pothead
A happy pothead
Corine Lesnes

DENVER - Some might call it a dream job: pot critic. Every week, William Breathes samples marijuana for Westword, a magazine based in Denver, Colorado. Just like wine, there are many varieties of weed: Pineapple Express, Purple Passion, White Rhino…

Breathes (a pseudonym) became the first marijuana critic in the U.S. in 2010 after Colorado became one of 18 states to legalize the drug for therapeutic use. Breathes’ job was to smoke pot and give his readers a review.

In one of his first pieces, Breathes confessed having a hard time getting used to being paid to get high and being able to expense his weekly consumption. The job does have its responsibilities that are sometimes difficult to live up to when high. “I still have to write on deadline and answer to my editors,” says Breathes.

For Christmas, the reporter made a list of marijuana gift ideas including a personal vaporizer – styled on the e-cigarette – called “the cloud.”

Medical marijuana was a great success in Colorado; even though the state seems relatively healthier than other U.S. states (obesity rates are among the lowest in the country). More than 107,000 “patients” obtained a card allowing them to buy marijuana. There are now more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks Coffee shops in Denver.

Medical marijuana sales represented an estimated $200 million in 2012 alone - several millions of which went to tax authorities. Producers were smart enough to work closely with the authorities to get rid of the rotten apples. A license costs about $18,000 and helps fund a special law enforcement division.

On Nov. 6, Colorado took the next step and legalized marijuana for recreational use. Amendment 64 passed with a 250,000-vote majority.

Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper signed an “official declaration of the vote,” although he admitted that’s its implementation would be “a complicated process,” also in light of federal law that still says marijuana is an illegal drug.

Bigger fish to fry

The situation has in fact been extremely complicated. The local police said it wasn’t directly in charge of applying federal laws. But in counties that opposed legalization, prosecutors refused to drop charges. Several towns have banned marijuana shops, while allowing residents to grow six cannabis plants in a locked space.

The Obama administration is walking on eggshells. In his only comments on the issue, the President, himself a smoker during his Hawaiian teenage years, didn’t seem in a hurry to go after recreational users of marijuana. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he said. And it seems most Americans agree: 64% of the population believe the federal government shouldn’t get involved in legalization at a local level.

Denver is one step ahead: regulation. According to the law, buyers and users must be 21 years old. Smoking is banned in public spaces, just like tobacco. And just like alcohol, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal. The limit is not specified but a new bill seeks to set a threshold level of 5 nanograms or higher of THC per milliliter of blood.

In January, the Colorado state assembly will start studying how to regulate the market. A THC concentration limit will have to be set and transport will also have to be regulated. Air traffic security has already announced that travelers will be allowed to fly with their personal doses, but only if they’re travelling between Colorado and Washington state.

Legalization has sparked a “green rush” – a new legitimate business with real businessmen and stock market listings.

There is little hippy left in the industry. Like fine wines, varieties have special vintage names like “Reserva Privada;” dispensaries present the weed in transparent jars on neat white-tile counters. In one of those “pot palaces,” which are as much of a relaxation center than they are fine food store, you can get chocolate bars, cereal and hot dogs – all made with marijuana. And even a soda called Dixie Elixirs, which comes in eight flavors, from peach to pomegranate.

The tobacco industry is paying close attention, ready to jump into the market. Philip Morris is said to have rented out warehouses in the region. According to a November Gallup poll, the number of Americans in favor of legalization is up to 46%, a number that has doubled in the past 15 years. The U.S. remains divided on the issue but many believe that the end of the prohibition is near.

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