Letters on 'Life With Legal Weed' in Colorado

How has Boulder changed—or not—since the end of prohibition? And is it really the right city to explore the shift? Readers share their views.
Andres Stapff/Reuters

After reading "Life With Legal Weed," my feature about Boulder, Colorado, as it adjusts to sanctioned marijuana, a number of locals and interested outsiders sent correspondence with additional perspectives. Some of their lightly edited letters are below.

A 44-year resident offered context for the place that Boulder has become. Her nostalgia for what the city was like in less moneyed times is powerful:

I've lived in Boulder since 1970. Like so many others, we came in a VW bus and a VW squareback, along with five cats and no jobs. We weren't the complete hippies, though. We chose Boulder because it had grad school for me and jobs in the physical sciences and engineering for my husband. Moving here was intentional both for the more open social environment and the out of doors. What appealed the most was the still-present and now utterly gone western feel of the place. It was casual and unpretentious and not all that far removed from the mining and ranching eras while at the same time it had the university.

From a consumer point of view there were very few restaurants and almost nothing that approached trendy consumption. Mountaineering stores sold camping and mountaineering goods plus down jackets. There were no stores that pretended to be outdoor gear places but that were really expensive clothing stores.

There was an emphasis on doing it yourself. So our first house was a cabin in the mountains without running water. The second had a water tap in the kitchen and a well. Eventually we added a septic system and an indoor toilet and tub. I say all this because I want you to know how utterly different Boulder was back then. You didn't have to live like that—but you could. The cabin we bought cost $12,000 and some people told us we overpaid. The sense of community was powerful and of course there was dope—plenty of it. Not as strong as today's weed but quantity outweighed quality back then. Marijuana and hallucinogens were a constant at parties. No one worried about getting busted except for those who imported or sold large quantities. Many local businesses were founded by people who started as dealers, including the people who started [a successful chain in an unrelated industry].

Fast forward through the years.

For a lot of us, having jobs and having kids meant a lot less dope smoking or giving it up altogether. The end of my usage came in a Maureen Dowd moment with some brownies imported from Hawaii by a friend's brother. When I shared that event with my doctor, she told me she had a similar experience. For a lot of us, marijuana was just there in the background—something we didn't give much thought to. We knew people who grew it and sold it, but fewer of my friends used it. And, unfortunately, some of those who did still use it really weren't helped by it. Gradually, those whose lives were more conventionally productive spent less time with those who were still using.

Boulder also changed—and that's what your article triggered for me. Boulder in 1970 had a mind your business and I'll mind mine vibe. Not entirely, but by the mid '70s it was a pretty peaceful place, and the old straights and old hippies reached a truce and became a single community. They agreed to disagree on some things but both the left and the right had a certain libertarian feel to them. In the mountains, it was sometimes hard to tell them apart. But there was another trend—the busybody trend, the NIMBY trend—which went hand in hand with a growing consumerism and the beginning of Boulder as a place where rich people didn't keep that fact to themselves. In the attempt to keep what so many valued—the beauty, the open space, the sense of the community as a place physically apart—what made the place feel so different from the places we had left, we recreated Bethesda or La Jolla or any other uptight well to do American suburb.

So it's hard for me to say how legal marijuana has changed or will change Boulder. The rich are so entrenched now that the only young people who buy in Boulder are either very successful techies or trust fund bunnies. The house that my husband and I bought in 1978 after moving down from the mountains (with a lot of agony about qualifying) for $83,000 was recently sold for almost $1.4 million to a young couple whose parents bought it for them—all cash. Sure, it's changed and been remodeled but at its heart it's still a 1964 raised ranch at the mouth of one of the canyons. It's a different world and the changes that have occurred are so much more drastic than the change from illegal to medical to recreational marijuana.

There are some remnants of that old hippie culture left in the mountains or in little pockets outside town and it might be there that the greatest changes will occur for marijuana production and sales. That's where there are small scale grow operations (indoors) that supply a local clientele. They neither have the money or the interest in becoming large scale businesses with a lot of government oversight. The places that might have led you to some more interesting conversations are all outside Boulder—you could have gone to Lyons or Ward or Nederland, but chances are that if you showed up and started asking around without someone to introduce you, you wouldn't have heard much at all. Their lives are the tail end of an era and they will soon be gone. Marijuana is now a big-time industry and the quirky and adventurous and illegal part is gone or will be gone soon.

My husband and I now live 10 miles away on a small ranch with sheep and border collies. We still love the mountains and a lifetime of friends and some family are here, but the changes are so much greater than we ever imagined. Our children live in Madison and Portland. The one who moved to Madison did so in hopes of having the kind of life we had in Boulder when she was small—one that she can't imagine in today's Boulder. It's not the marijuana but the sense that she is surrounded by people her own age who are so different than the ones she grew up with—all of whom have left for other, different communities than the one Boulder has become. And she too has outgrown any interest in marijuana. I hope that this gives you a little more to think about in this latest edition of the evolution of marijuana legalization.

"Life With Legal Weed" caused a reader who believes marijuana is destructive to muse on what that implies, if anything:

Your views and those expressed by those you talked to are of real interest: They changed my outlook, but not in ways you might expect. Being a traditionalist, I don't go along with marijuana, legal or illegal, because I consider it destructive. But if people are already inclined to be destructive, it helps many. Pot smoking apparently leads to less harm being done than alcohol.

There are many ways to relax, and that is reasonable; there are many ways to deal with difficult reality. People so inclined are going to self destroy if allowed to do so. That's a libertarian reason to support legalization: They should not be harassed for doing what they want to do, as long as they do no harm.

I do worry about those who are impressionable–who will say, "Hey it's legal, so why not?" Then everyone does it. Some say that about alcohol, and we know where that has led.

So make alcohol illegal?

What this piece tells me is that a large number of young folks are bound and determined to self destroy. Maybe a more complex culture makes that more true than previously, maybe availability does. But what SHOULD be done to keep people from self destroying? Should "government" protect them from themselves?

This next reader found my observations accurate—to his dismay in the case of transient youth:

You pretty well nailed the non-change that has gone on around here, especially for us non-smoking residents. Like other 50-somethings you spoke with, I've never had issues with others smoking where I don't have to smell it, and voted for legalization to send the message that the war-on-drugs is the very definition of "abject failure." With the exception of "edibles" regulations to keep kids from munching THC-laced candy with outrageous dosages, the new industry and state regulators have done a great job doing what no one had tried. Problems are identified, carefully considered and fixed as they arise.

The only negative result I've seen to date is a larger summer population of the "circuit homeless," as you call them, mostly able-bodied with some minor addiction issues, living off handouts by choice. When you see a sign on the corner saying "Hungry" I'm fine passing on some snacks I keep in the car for that, but when I see a healthy 20-something on a corner holding up a sign that says "Need Cash," I shake my head and think, "Mow a lawn and pay for your own damn pot ..."

A Denver resident assumed I must have missed some of the smoke she's seeing in her city:

As a 28-year-old who lives in Denver and has used MJ recreationally for some time, legal or not, I found your profile on Boulder particularly fluffy. I was wondering why you chose Boulder, and not another town in Colorado (not necessarily Denver), and how you chose the people you profiled. Was this just a quick and easy article where you plopped down on Pearl Street? Did you have a greater ambition for this article to be more investigatory? Perhaps the headline is just misleading. I liked your perspective on whether legal weed changed college life—a lot of people are concerned about that and more information and research into a comparative study would be interesting and helpful.

Having moved to Denver a month before marijuana became was legal, I have come to think of it as San Francisco circa 1969. People smoking weed are literally everywhere. I smell it walking from my job downtown to the light rail, from my car on the highway, on my back patio and when I am over at a friend's house. If anything that has changed, it has been the openness with which people smoke in public. It is more prevalent than cigarettes. If you didn't notice that in Boulder then you couldn't have been here longer than two days. I suggest you make a greater effort to understand the changing culture of places that have legalized weed and connect with local journalists who write regularly on this marijuana before cataloging the public's impressions.

A short reporting trip certainly has its limits. But on one point I am confident: A typical Boulder resident doesn't live daily life constantly seeing marijuana smoked in public, and neither do they smell it as frequently as in the Denver scene above. While I don't doubt smelling weed is more common than tobacco for many, neither is the odor ubiquitous, for reasons another reader amusingly conveys:

What has struck me most about Boulder, post-legalization, is how little things have changed. Or, at least, how little things have changed in obvious ways. Boulder obviously has this reputation in the rest of the country, and it's hard to argue that reputation is wrong. But to the extent that it implies day-to-day life here revolves around marijuana, it's clearly quite a bit overheated. I've never smoked and never felt reluctance about moving and staying here. You have a map in your article that marks the locations of downtown dispensaries. I'm on Pearl just about every night, and I had no idea those places existed. I know where there's a paraphernalia shop, but if an out-of-town friend asked me to show him a dispensary, I'd have no idea where to point him.

You smell marijuana more than you see it. Part of that is undoubtedly because public smoking is still illegal in the state. But there is, as I'm sure you noticed, a health and wellness ethos here that is obviously not well-served by large clouds of smoke clogging up the Mall. This is the town, after all, that runs ads before movies urging people to ask smokers who are legally smoking outside to put out the cigarettes if the smoke is bothering "you, your family or your pets." Which is probably the most Boulder thing ever, really: "Excuse me, could you put out your cigarette? It's bothering my corgi."

Same old, same old, says a doctor:

Boulder hasn't changed AT ALL since legalization—which is pretty much my stock commentary when people in my home state start miming smoking to me on visits home when discussing my city of residence. The honest truth: the one thing I notice is people drive a little slower ... and hopefully that's unrelated. As a doctor with friends in ERs, I will say very few emergencies have to do with smoking, though there were initially a few cases where elderly people had eaten too many brownies or children had gotten into a box of marijuana candies. I guess people are putting them on higher shelves now.

Our final letter is from a reader who enjoyed the portrait of Boulder, but urged an inquiry into pot attitudes elsewhere:

You went to obvious areas of successful integration of the new laws. Now, you need to focus on the cities that will be unsettled by legal marijuana; those cities where marijuana bumps into people who have had less previous exposure to open marijuana consumption and where the majority of people were not aware of how much marijuana was being consumed in their midsts.

I know you want to reflect the reality of the situation rather than become a spokesman. Therefore, travel back to Colorado and Seattle too, but go to Greeley rather than Boulder, go next door to Colorado into western Nebraska. Go to cities like Olympia, Washington, which will have a successful integration of marijuana—but cities like Pullman may not, as Pullman has a long, strong, loud binge-drinking tradition of alcohol consumption and the student body has been almost anti-marijuana at times. Then, find out what cities like Moscow and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, are doing to cope with increased marijuana availability. Statistic analysis of the Pullman-Moscow highway arrests and accidents data for the last 40 years may be an interesting barometer of changing patterns of college-age recreational activity over the years.

Then, for another story just stay home; but go into a bunch of your local bars and find barflies of either sex. Ask them why they continue to drink alcohol when marijuana would now be a good substitute. That is where you will find the anti-marijuana zeitgeist and the archetypes of a way of life that had not previously included marijuana or has outright and intensely rejected marijuana.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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