Life With Legal Weed

A conversation with middle-aged moms, homeless men, and college kids about post-prohibition in Boulder, Colorado

The most eclectic gathering spot in Boulder, Colorado, is the Pearl Street Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare at the heart of downtown. Alongside its relatively pricey stores and restaurants, there is an outdoor concert venue, a children's play area, and the seat of county government. Activists stand on Pearl Street seeking signatures; street performers treat its sidewalks as a stage; drunk collegians spill from bars to sit drunk on its planters; homeless people sleep nearby. Amid it all I spotted Texas Fred, a 68-year-old on a late-night stroll. A thin man with aviator eyeglasses and shoulder-length gray hair, he wore a floral-print shirt and held a guitar case like it was his most valued possession. It was almost 11 p.m. when I approached asking if I could talk with him about cannabis. Fred wasn’t surprised. “Everything about me screams, ‘He smokes marijuana!’” he said.

For more than a decade, Colorado residents have been able to buy or grow a limited amount of marijuana for medicinal purposes. More recently, the state's voters sanctioned an entire marijuana industry, complete with licensed pot farms, retail stores, and a wave of tourist patrons. Fred was visiting from Chicago. Once a year, his wife lets him go off on the road to scrape by as a bohemian musician. He'd left home three weeks earlier with $100, stopped in St. Louis where he played on the street for tips, and finally made it to Boulder, coasting into town on fumes. By the time I met him, he’d earned enough for several visits to marijuana dispensaries. Before we parted, he helped me understand why legalization matters more than a casual visitor might realize.

Some clues had been easy to ignore when I’d arrived that morning with one big question: How much difference had legalization made in the notoriously laid-back college town 30 miles northwest of Denver? The new law had obviously affected those in the marijuana supply chain whose livelihood was tied to it. And revenue from taxes on recreational sales was filling government coffers. But was the change palpable in a low-crime municipality of 102,000, where median family income was $133,681, the population was 88 percent white, and weed-smoking hippies had always been easy to find?

I soon saw why Boulder is consistently ranked among the best places in the U.S. to live. The summer sun was pleasant, not stifling. The air smelled of coniferous trees. Gorgeous mountain views were visible from many of the city’s walkable blocks. And almost everyone downtown stopped, smiled, and indulged the conversation of a stranger. When I wandered into the Chamber of Commerce, a helpful man at the front desk printed a list of dispensaries for recreational users. Mary Ann Mahoney, executive director of the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau, sat me down on a leather sofa, answered my questions about legalization, and explained that it had changed her job “not at all,” neither enhancing nor degrading Boulder as a destination for serious business travel. As for marijuana’s presence in the city, she added, “I don’t really see it. The retail mix here is so diverse.”

There are, in fact, lots of places to buy marijuana in Boulder: By the time recreational use was legalized this year, Boulder’s medical dispensaries were already serving 9,000 med-card holders. But they’re relatively inconspicuous and unobtrusive. Near my house in Venice, California, the presence of medical weed on a main drag is about as subtle as the exhaled breath in a Snoop Doggy Dogg video.

In Boulder, I figured I would stumble across one of the several recreational dispensaries without having to consult my crumpled sheet of paper. Later, when I consulted, I discovered that I’d walked past both medical and recreational dispensaries without noticing:

What I did learn as I chatted with pedestrians in the business district—shoppers, a lawyer leaving his office, a woman outside a yoga studio—is that Boulder residents had not only overwhelmingly favored marijuana legalization but scarcely worried about getting caught with weed before. Fifty-somethings picnicking at a farmer’s market felt the same way about weed as the beer-drinking 30-somethings at the Mountain Sun Pub and 20-somethings I met on the street.

Take Bridger Sperry, 24, who grew up in Boulder. I interrupted him as he was journaling outside at a cafe that serves iced coffee from conscientiously sourced beans. He told me he had never smoked weed, though he’d been around it often. “The only thing that’s changed in Boulder is that the activism has gone away since it’s become legal,” he said. “Farther down on Pearl Street, where it turns into a walking mall, all kinds of activists would say, ‘Hey, will you sign this petition so we can get weed legalized?’ Now that’s gone.”

“So it’s almost less visible now that it’s legal?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s nice, even though I don’t have a problem with marijuana. I like that people can consume it in their house but not in public. I like that so much tax money is going to the schools. I like that the D.A. said now we can focus on real criminals. I think a lot of good things are on the horizon because of legalization.” I asked him whether the permissive laws would make him hesitate to raise children here. “Boulder is such a special place,” he said. “The unofficial slogan is 9 miles surrounded by reality. It’s easy to get inside the bubble, and once you do, you love it. It’s time for me to get out and start exploring, but I had a wonderful childhood here, and I do see myself coming back.”

A recent high school graduate, working as a barista, told me that she’d smoked weed throughout her adolescence. “It’s always been easier to get marijuana than alcohol,” she said. “I like homegrown organic weed, which really makes me sound like a Boulder hippie. But that’s the culture here. Very laid back, thoughtful, and chill—a lot of really intelligent smokers, engineering students at CU. Would I rather hang out with someone who parties by drinking a lot or by occasionally smoking? I’d much rather hang out with the smoker.”

The only mildly negative comment I encountered that morning came from Alli O’Connor, a psychology student studying outside a Starbucks, who said that Boulder was a great college town with a vibe that’s perfectly suited to its residents, but that wasn’t for her long term, due in part to its weed culture. She planned to leave after concluding her studies and guessed that she’d deliberately settle someplace where marijuana smoking is less common, which ought to be easy: Last year, when ranked the 20 most marijuana-friendly colleges in America, the University of Colorado-Boulder topped the list.

By 10 p.m., I’d heard enough nonchalant reflections on the end of prohibition that I was starting to wonder if legalization, for all the passionate advocacy behind it, had changed everyday life here at all. Before reaching any conclusions, I decided to speak with residents of The Hill, a neighborhood full of university students. That’s where I was headed when I spotted the 68-year-old man whose appearance screamed, “I smoke marijuana!”

VIDEO: Watch a live performance by Texas Fred.

Texas Fred comes from “a long line of teachers and preachers” and has always been comfortable interacting in upper-middle-class society. “I put on a tuxedo or a suit and I stand right, as you do when you’ve been trained to do so properly,” he told me. Yet he has spent much of his life on the fringes. “I told my two kids when they were young, ‘Look, if you’re supposed to be a sandal-maker in a gypsy caravan and you’re a stock analyst making $500,000 a year, you’re unhappy,’” he said. “Be what you’re supposed to be.”

Texas Fred is supposed to be a musician. And while he’s played plenty of paid gigs over the years, he’s also worked plenty of day jobs: as a factory worker, an auto mechanic, a roughneck in the oil fields. “I’ve been an electrician’s helper, a carpenter’s helper, a plumber’s helper—no, that’s a plunger,” he told me. “I was a plumber’s apprentice. But I’m a full-time entertainer.”

And he is supposed to be a marijuana smoker.

He’s known that since his 22nd birthday, when a guy from his army unit approached as he sat playing guitar. “He said, ‘Hey, you wanna smoke a joint?’ I’d never smoked before. So I got high. I had been playing for about an hour before he showed up. And the playing was enhanced. It was more fun.”

So began 46 years as a habitual user. “Over the years, I find that when I run out of marijuana I don’t practice,” he told me. “It’s not that I intentionally don’t practice. I’m just not driven. As soon as I take a couple tokes, I go practice. My thinking clears and my other processes work real well.” With the help of marijuana, he says, he can work obsessively for hours on end: playing music, writing science-fiction stories, or following any other creative pursuit that appeals to him.

Ensconced in mainstream culture, tastes and ambitions, it is easy to forget that America includes people like Texas Fred—functional individuals whose brains and personalities prompt them to pursue happiness in ways many don’t understand. Sans marijuana, Fred guessed his life would have been a failure. “I’m wound up. I-talk-so-fast-people-can’t-even-understand-me,” he explained. “I slow down on marijuana. I can listen to other people. It gave me a productive drive. It’s the only drug that says, ‘There, you’ve had enough. This is where you want to be.’” That’s why visiting a dispensary had been so special. “Here, for the first time, I’m a legal citizen,” he said, adding that it’s difficult in Chicago to get marijuana of the same quality, “the ones that wake you up.”

Yet it was at the end of our conversation that Fred truly showed me a different side of legalization. He wasn’t only in Colorado for the weed, he explained. He was there in Boulder to visit one of his daughters, who lives on the street as a homeless person. “There are extenuating circumstances,” he said. “Everybody who lives on the street has a monkey on his back.” (He declined to specify the particular monkey on his daughter’s back, but it wasn’t marijuana.)

“She’s doing well, though,” he added. “I lived on the streets. I hitchhiked from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. I’d come into a new town and say, ‘Where are the hippies?’ They’d say, ‘There are no hippies in Kansas City.’ They were all in denial. But pretty soon someone would tell me, and I’d find a street right out of San Francisco. One day you realize that no matter where you are, you can find the street people and exist.” He scanned his mental catalog of song lyrics. “Bob Dylan said, ‘You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets.’ Paul Simon said, let’s see, ‘laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go, looking for the places only they would know.’”

He looked at me.

“Have you ever done it?”

I had not. At that moment, I realized I’d spent a whole day walking around a city, frequently passing homeless people but not particularly noticing them—at least not as sources to ask about anything other than homelessness itself. Into the wee hours of that night, and again the next morning, I sought out folks who were down and out in Boulder. For many, I soon learned, legalization had made life noticeably better.

The Atlantic Looks for Legal Marijuana in Aspen

Dennis Lanker has six or seven decades of wrinkles on his weather-beaten face. I met the 53-year-old on the sidewalk near the Boulder University Inn with a cardboard sign in his hands and a bedroll at his feet. It beat sleeping on hard ground, but was less than ideal for his arthritic back. Like many homeless people, who suffer from everything from medical conditions to chronic ennui, Lanker has tried to self-medicate in lots of different ways. Legalization, he said optimistically, “ought to slow the alcohol problem down a little bit. Big time. Because I smoke pot instead of drink. And I’ll never take a drink in my life again as long as they’ve got marijuana legal or something like it.” His neighbors on the street like that plan. “It helps out my attitude,” he explained. “There have been people who have turned around and got me a bag of pot because it helps me with my moods.”

Lanker hopes more of Boulder’s roughly 1,500 homeless people will decide to substitute weed for liquor. “It may not seem like it at first, but if you get to talking to people who live on the streets, they’re all good people, but they’ve got their problems. A lot of it is alcohol,” Lanker said. “And I’d like to turn the alcoholics into potheads. Less angry. A lot less problems. How many people do you know who smoke a joint and then go out and rob somebody?” A homeless woman echoed those sentiments, telling me that when others around her are ingesting weed, as opposed to alcohol or other drugs, she doesn’t worry that they’ll overdose. Her nights are less anxious when she is relieved of responsibility to watch over them and intervene to prevent crises.

(After hearing these anecdotal observations, I looked around for scientific research on the subject. No study I could find has ever examined whether medical weed can help homeless people with alcohol disorders to drink less, but Meenakshi Subbaraman, a researcher at the Public Health Institute, has found that cannabis satisfies six of the seven “previously published criteria for substitute medications for alcohol.” And research on California’s medicinal marijuana system has found that many users do, in fact, decrease their drinking as they substitute marijuana for alcohol.)

Boulder also has a share of what I call “circuit homeless”: a younger, mostly white population that hitchhikes, bums rides, or travels by Greyhound bus to places like Santa Cruz, California; Asheville, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas, where they sometimes sleep on the street. You’ll see them in parks, recreating similar hangouts in different places, sort of like folks who travel each year to, say, Davos, Sundance, and SXSW. Instead of name badges, smartphones, and bottled water—the accessories of wealthier drifters—the circuit homeless have guitars on hand, drumsticks for beating on buckets or cardboard boxes, and docile dogs (often pit bulls, though the group I met near Boulder Creek had a black lab).

One girl who called herself Boots was about to celebrate her 21st birthday. She had a cute face smudged with dirt, raggedy clothing, hair that hadn’t been washed in awhile, and warm, friendly eyes. Originally from Maine, she was hoping to hitchhike to Massachusetts by way of Texas, perhaps with some number of the sunburned men in their late 20s and early 30s who were playing music in a semicircle. All the guys enthusiastically favored legalization. She had mixed feelings.

“I’ve been in Colorado for about a month. I’ve been to Denver and Fort Collins, and I’ve been in Boulder about a week,” she said. “One thing I’ve noticed, something I’ve learned from talking to the people who’ve been around here awhile, is that unless you go to the dispensary it’s getting harder to find weed. I like buying my weed from people. It’s what I’m used to. When I travel, it’s a cool way to meet individual people who live an interesting lifestyle. That part of the culture is changing since legalization.” Indeed, the police aren’t turning a blind eye toward what Boots calls “independent dispensaries”: private individuals who sell the drug on the street (and don’t pay taxes). In May, Boulder police arrested seven people on the suspicion that they were selling marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms in downtown parks.

A vendor sells marijuana-leaf sunglasses across the street from the University of Colorado. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

A majority of the homeless people I spoke to were happy to make that tradeoff. They felt that they were being harassed less often since legalization, and that their relationship with police was much improved, a sentiment that extended to pierced youngsters who hung out on Pearl Street after midnight. One 22-year-old, a recent college graduate who lives in “a ghetto area of Denver” but works in a Boulder marijuana dispensary, described his previous run-ins with the law and his daily relief that they won’t recur in his new home state. Christopher (a fake name I’m using at his request) studied statistics at a college in a Southern state. He first tried marijuana in eighth grade, using a Coke can as a bong. He didn’t start smoking regularly until his freshman year of college.

One day, at age 18, he accidentally left his backpack in a public place. “It had my phone, my calculator, expensive computer equipment and my pipe,” he said. “When I called my phone, a police officer answered and said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got your backpack here.’ I had to go get it. But it was empty except for my phone and my pipe. And he greeted me with my ticket. I had 11 months and 29 days on probation. It cost me like $5,000.” The infraction remains on his permanent record.

“Here, I honestly feel protected and served by the police, because they’re not trying to steal my pot and charge me for it,” he said. “I could call them if someone stole my pot. It’s a huge layer of stress off my chest. I don’t worry about having it in my pocket or my car, or having something that could be considered paraphernalia. People have their lives ruined over it. Just knowing that won’t happen to me here is an almost indescribable feeling.”

When I finally headed toward The Hill, it was my second and final evening in town. I’d spent hours each day speaking with residents in the municipality, but although 25 percent of Boulderites had voted against legalization, I hadn’t hadn’t found anyone who admitted to opposing it. The closest I came was Susy Alkaitis, who had no problem with adults smoking marijuana, but worried about how legalization would affect young people, especially her 12-year-old son.

“I struggle raising a kid in this community and having another thing introduced,” she said. “Kids in his middle school are smoking pot. There’s pot around people’s houses. It’s a little more open. One of his friends took pot from the table of another kid’s parents. Maybe it would’ve been there anyway. I don’t know. It seems as though there’s much more access now, but I’m not sure. I talked to someone from the county who is doing tobacco prevention about what they think will happen, and they were tremendously concerned.” She described the inescapable sight of marijuana ads around Boulder. “We were driving home the other day and there was a flashing sign that said ‘$120 an ounce.’ My son was like, ‘Mom, what’s that about?’ I don’t think he’s quite there yet. He probably is, now that I say it.”

Alkaitis also felt that Colorado's marijuana regulations have an obvious flaw. Before voters passed Amendment 64 last fall, medical-marijuana cards were relatively easy to get. "I had a medical-marijuana facility across the street from my office," she said. "And it wasn’t glaucoma and cancer patients going into that facility." Alkaitis believed that many seemingly healthy patrons were exploiting the state's medical-marijuana policy.

Now that recreational marijuana is legal—but heavily taxed—how many healthy people are continuing to buy from medical dispensaries to get a better price? This is one of many questions Colorado officials are asking as they analyze the effectiveness of current policy. It's also being pondered in states like Pennsylvania, where legislators seem poised to pass the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act. According to a poll published last week, Pennsylvania voters draw a clear distinction between medical and recreational marijuana.

But for many people I met, the question of where to buy marijuana seemed deceptively thorny. A few people I met straightforwardly admitted that they gamed the system to get cheaper weed, but many more wanted to do the right thing without being certain what it was. They explained that they’re using marijuana for the same reason that other people do yoga, take Xanax or Prozac, or drink a glass of red wine after work. They hesitated when I asked them to categorize their marijuana use; some compared it to paying for a therapeutic massage with their Health Savings Account. One man I met told me he uses weed instead of Ambien to reset his circadian rhythm when jet-lagged.

College students call for full legalization at Boulder's annual 4/20 smoke-in in 2012 (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

At The Hill, at least, I knew I would encounter unambiguously recreational smokers. I very quickly found some: a group of college students sitting on the front porch of a house that had seen its share of parties. As I approached, I noticed a bubbler and a worn lighter resting casually on a table. “The first two or three months in this house we’d be ripping a bong right here and I’d see a cop cruise by,” said a young man I’ll call Tex, who is from Houston. “I’d put it down, my heart would start thumping. Later, as I got used to it, I’d hit a four-foot bong with cops driving by. You learn—if you’re on your property, if you’re not being an idiot, you’re fine.”

His friend, an Orange County native I’ll cal SoCal, said she now allocates less of her mind-altering-substance budget to alcohol. “You only have so much money,” she explained. “I always choose pot. I have to have pot. I feel guiltier if I’m using alcohol a lot. There’s no adverse effects after I smoke. Alcohol, I do more stupid things on, I guess. I have more regrets.”

The two students went on to describe their preferred method of cannabis consumption, which was so unfamiliar that I felt old, lost in jargon, and better able to understand how moral panics begin:

SoCal: Dabbing is really popular. It’s basically freebasing pot. You burn some really concentrated oil—

Tex: You vape it, technically. I’ve got a regular bong, right? But then I’ve got a titanium nail that I put with a converter into the bong. I’ll get a torch lighter. And I’ll light it until the nail turns orange. Then you get a little concentrate on a pointed object. You dab it in and it vapes right up. It’s like 90-something percent THC.

SoCal: It’s pretty debilitating.

Tex: It’s like crack for weed.

SoCal: Yeah.

Tex: It’s like crack for weed. But it’s really nice.

Me: Do you stay high for the same amount of time?

SoCal: Longer.

Tex: You stay high for longer.

So-Cal: And it’s more intense at first. Definitely more intense. It couch-logs you.

Tex: Yeah, I’ll take the fattest hit that I can possibly inhale in my lungs with flower, and I’ll be baked for a half-hour but still be able to function. I took like the fattest concentrate rip that I’ve taken my whole life about a month ago. I had to go pass out on my neighbor’s couch for like four hours. All I could do while I was conscious was focus on my breathing.

SoCal: He was gonna throw up. He was so white. He was sweaty.

Tex: No, right. I normally just want to take a pin tip amount, but I got one that was like that long, and just like drained it all. That was a no-no. Now I can say I’ve done it, though. But it’s a no-no.

Dabbing was less expensive on a per-high basis, they explained, and both of them assumed it was healthier for their lungs because it involved smoking so much less to get high.

Nearly every college student I spoke to that evening knew about dabbing. Many fewer had tried it. I mostly found mostly casual marijuana smokers, like some guys playing a variation on beer pong in the front yard of a house with a couple of cases of empty Keystone Light cans littered on the ground and a balcony from a Caitlin Flanagan nightmare:

A quintessential weekday afternoon gathering on The Hill. The guys on the balcony were there before the others on the ground began posing for a photograph. (Conor Friedersdorf)

Unlike “town” Boulder, “gown” Boulder still has a fair number of illegal drug sellers. Jamal, who was most eager to have his picture taken, gave the most succinct explanation. “I’m glad they’re taxing it so heavily that only tourists are going to pay $300 an ounce, when you can get it from a dealer from anywhere from $120 to like $250,” he said. “People I know are getting richer; they’re eating well.” With taxes on recreational marijuana so high, he said, “only the young people are gonna know what’s up” and buy from someone who grows their own product or procures weed from the low-tax medicinal dispensaries and then resells it.

Many students said that campus party culture had changed a bit since legalization. While college students have always smoked a lot of marijuana in Boulder, “it used to be on the hush-hush,” as one student put it, “and now it’s not on the hush-hush anymore. There’s less of a stigma.” That’s saying something, given that before legalization, CU was home to an annual “smoke-in” where students would gather on April 20 and blaze together in public. “In recent years,” local newspaper The Daily Camera reported in February of this year, “campus officials have been trying to extinguish the annual pot smoke-out, which at its height drew some 10,000 tokers to Norlin Quadrangle, by closing the campus to outsiders, spreading fishy smelling fertilizer on the quad and enforcing marijuana laws.”

Still, even students who buy their weed at recreational dispensaries are still getting used to the fact that marijuana is legal. “Hey, I’m writing a magazine story about marijuana in Boulder,” I told a couple guys drinking beer in their front yard. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure,” one said.

“Wait,” said the other, “you’re not an undercover cop, are you?”

“Marijuana is legal,” I reminded him.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Come on up.”

As I drove away from Boulder, I wondered what the long-term effects of legalization would be on the people I’d met. Would more marijuana-smoking visitors like Texas Fred travel to the city? Would homeless people like Dennis Lanker become more laid-back as they traded alcohol for weed? Would longtime users like Christopher be able to parlay what was once a criminal habit into a successful, legal career? I wondered if legalization would make it harder for Susy Alkaitis to keep pot away from her middle schooler and whether Tex and SoCal would experience any adverse effects from vaping super-concentrated cannabis.

One thought I never had was that Boulder would be better off if its marijuana smokers were all imprisoned, or at risk of arrest, or casually breaking the law to facilitate a habit that isn’t going away. After such a brief visit, I can’t claim to have seen every aspect of marijuana culture in Boulder, or to have definitive proof that legalization will be sound public policy. That can’t yet be known. But everything I saw inclines me to agree with a modest conclusion drawn by the Brookings Institution after it completed a more intense study of legalization. “It’s too early to judge the success of Colorado’s policy,” wrote John Hudak, a Brookings fellow in governance studies, “but it is not too early to say that the rollout, or initial implementation, of legal retail marijuana has been largely successful.” If catastrophe looms in this perennially blessed city, it is as yet unseen.

The author invites readers to send him their own observations of how legalization has or hasn’t changed Boulder. Write to him at or share your insights, perspectives, and arguments in the comments section.