In Mile High City, Weed Sparks Up a Counterculture Clash
Medical Marijuana Brands Like ‘AK-47’ Harsh the Mellow of Upscale Potrepreneurs
By STEPHANIE SIMON
Updated March 19, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET
(See Correction & Amplification below .)
DENVER—Attorney Warren Edson would like to throttle the anonymous marijuana breeder who named a potent strain of weed “Green Crack.”
He’s not too fond, either, of those breeders who have given strains names like “Jack the Ripper,” “White Widow,” “AK-47” and “Trainwreck.”
“How can I find them and strangle them?” Mr. Edson asks.
His beef: Mr. Edson is in the vanguard of an aggressive movement to make pot respectable —but decades of stoner culture keep dragging him down.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 15 states for patients suffering certain conditions, including, in Colorado, chronic pain. More than 60,000 Coloradans have doctor recommendations allowing them to buy marijuana; physicians are approving about 400 new patients a day. Pot shops have popped up all over, including at least 230 here in the Mile High City.
Many of the new dispensaries are dingy and cramped, with bars on the windows, psychedelic posters on the walls and a generally furtive feel.
But a growing number of potrepreneurs have gone upscale, investing as much as $100,000 to launch “wellness centers” that look like spas—and just happen to sell weed. This new breed of marijuana “pharmacist” is pushing hard to professionalize the industry.
That means promoting a voluntary code of conduct at odds with the traditional buck-the-system stoner culture. The new pot professionals look down on neon cannabis-leaf signs, wince at tie-dye Bob Marley posters, and cringe at the in-your-face swagger of the names traditionally used to differentiate varieties of marijuana.
The result: a brewing culture clash within the counterculture.
“Some people don’t even want to use words like ‘stoner’ and ‘pothead,’ ” complains Steve Bloom, co-author of “Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language and Life.” He has no patience for that: “We should embrace those terms. This is who we are.”
In 2000, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to let patients seek relief from pain, nausea and other symptoms by working with medical marijuana “caregivers.” For years, all was discreet. Then, last summer, the Board of Health approved a liberal definition of “caregiver,” opening the door to commercial dispensaries. A few months later, President Barack Obama ordered federal narcotics agents to respect state medical-marijuana laws.
The green rush was on.
Self-styled pot experts like Nick Paul, an out-of-work handyman, found that for an investment of a couple thousand dollars, they could rent a small shop, set out a dozen strains of marijuana in glass jars and reinvent themselves as bud-tenders, ringing up $80,000 a month in sales. An industry took root, complete with security consultants, zoning advisers, even crop insurance. Westword, a Denver weekly newspaper, hired a medical marijuana reviewer.
Then came the backlash, as communities statewide moved to restrict dispensaries. The most organized and wealthy of the potrepreneurs formed trade associations to protect their interests; they hired lawyers and lobbyists, pollsters and publicists. They also took a close look at their industry—and, in some cases, recoiled.
Wanda James, a recreational smoker, says some dispensaries have such a disreputable feel, “they put me on edge.”
Determined to show there’s a classier way, Ms. James and her husband run the Apothecary of Colorado in a gentrified building with exposed-brick walls, airy views and unimpeachable fellow tenants—architects, software engineers, wind-energy consultants. The bud bar is lined with live cannabis plants, and a gourmet goodie-shop stocks medicinal banana-nut bread and organic-vegan-gluten-free granola.
A couple blocks away, Shawna Brown creates a similar mood at Lotus Medical, an elegant space with muted lighting, antique furniture, massage tables and a Zen garden. This, she says, is the true face of medical marijuana: dignified care for patients with AIDS, cancer or other chronic illnesses.
“People need to wake up and see this in a different light,” Ms. Brown says. “It’s not about Pink Floyd posters all over the walls.”
But Ms. Brown says it is hard to convey that sober image and stave off a regulatory crackdown when other dispensaries glory in jaunty names (“Dr. Reefer”), goofy slogans (“If you got the pain, I got the strain!”) and cut-rate deals (“Free med grab bag for the first 100 patients”).
“A doctor wouldn’t offer, ‘Buy one Vicodin, get one free,'” she says. “It turns my stomach.”
To which her low-rent rivals respond: Mellow out.
“That’s very fancy-pantsy,” says Angel Macauley, who runs the Little Green Pharmacy, a tiny pot shop with Christmas lights strung through the window grate and an enormous cannabis-leaf sign.
“This is a simple business. Get them in and out, like a gas station,” Ms. Macauley says, nibbling on Doritos. “I just want to make my money.”
Across town at the Denver Marijuana Medical Center, a bare-bones shop with a three-foot-high plastic alien in the window, owner Julian Sanchez is equally dismissive of attempts to pretty up the industry.
“They’re not doctors. They’re people selling marijuana,” he says. “It’s all a money game.”
A customer in a hooded sweatshirt—who calls himself Patrick and says he needs meds like Purple Urkle and Sour Diesel for chronic pain—chimes in. “You want us to sugarcoat it?” he asks. “Why?”
Economics may be behind the culture clash, with upscale joints trying to muscle out the competition, but there’s also a real philosophical debate.
Rob Corry, a lawyer and longtime marijuana activist, sympathizes with those who want a neon pot leaf on every corner. “Part of normalizing this is putting it in peoples’ faces and saying, ‘You’ll get used to it,'” he explains.
Yet Mr. Corry thinks the best way to win acceptance is to be discreet. He’d like to do away with the more violent names for marijuana strains. “Maybe we could come up with holistic names that reflect the wellness idea? Like Harmony,” he says. “I can tell you, ‘Trainwreck’ isn’t a great name for a medicine.”
Mr. Corry considers a moment. “Or maybe it is,” he says. “I’ve heard 75-year-old grandmas say, ‘I need more Trainwreck.’ ”
Correction & Amplification
Medical marijuana is legal in 14 states. This article incorrectly states it was legal in 15 states.