On Jan. 1 of this year, we passed the fifth anniversary of the implementation of Colorado’s Amendment 64, which was writ into law by the overwhelming Will Of The People in 2012 and which legalized the recreational possession, use and sale of marijuana, with a long list of regulatory caveats, to say nothing of what amounts to carte blanche on the part of governmental entities to tax the living snot out of the pot industry, which, at that point, would have enthusiastically acceded to eating a big pile of dog dung if that’s what it took to get the weed ban lifted.
That anniversary coincided more-or-less with Michigan becoming the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana — though, because legislative processes typically move as though heavily dosed by a combination of Everclear and Quaaludes, it will be a year or two before folks in the Wolverine State can rip into a bag of Detroit Diesel or Flint Poison or whatever names the various varieties of weed will have bestowed upon them by entrepreneurial Michiganders.
The main thing that bothered me, and has continued to bother me, since Jan. 1, 2014, when those first dispensaries opened in Colorado, was the predictable way legalization — which I fully supported and take advantage of on a near-daily basis — was greeted by the munchied masses. There is no defensible reason why those memories still make me squirm these 1,900-some-odd days later. But they do.
First of all, I should point out that I was not in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014. But I watched the spectacle unfold on TV and within the past few weeks I have scrolled through the visual historic record. Plus, having lived in the High Country for the bulk of my adult life, I pretty much knew how the script would play out: A lot of people in line outside the few dispensaries that opened on Day One, all of which were overwhelmed … queued up like you see outside Apple Stores when the latest iPhone is released. And a lot of people, mostly young, many wearing tie-dyed shirts, acting silly, as young people should, especially when they’re stoned. Off in the corner stood a few stragglers, of my generation, half in the shadows, half in the wan winter sunlight, looking stunned, like they were afraid to actually smile, in case the end to the long nightmare turned out to be nothing more than a pipedream. They looked like they expected at any minute to have the feds swoop down in black helicopters with automatic weapons drawn.
The closest vice-liberation comparison I had personally witnessed occurred 23 years prior. On Oct. 1, 1991, gambling became legal in Colorado in three mountain towns — Cripple Creek, Blackhawk and Central City. The switch was to be thrown at exactly 7 a.m. Photographer Mark Fox, with whom I was then working at the Summit Daily News, and I had driven over to Central City to observe the mayhem. We were not disappointed.
Mark and I stood in front of a brand-new casino located in an historic saloon. There was a big countdown orchestrated by a couple of semi-sadistic Denver radio station DJs who were ensconced on the roof of a two-story building located directly on the other side of Main Street. A sizeable crowd had gathered. As the countdown wound its way backwards 3-2-1, the DJs poured a large sack of quarters from the rooftop onto the sidewalk below. It was like a hail storm of currency. The crowd surged forward in a Black Friday-at-Walmart-like frenzy. Middle Americans lunged toward that pile of coins and dove headfirst into the mound of silver. People were pushing each other out of the way. Invectives were hurled. Fights ensued.
It was horrific watching every iota of human dignity flowing without apparent lament into Central City’s newly upgraded sewage system.
I mean, if you had hands the size of an NBA center, what’s the maximum number of quarters you could possibly hold? I’m guessing you could maybe come out of that writhing pile of ignominy-made-manifest with $40 in quarters, tops. Those people were willing to debase themselves with TV cameras rolling for a few bucks that would soon be lost to the slot machines beeping, pinging, blinking and beckoning on the other side of the swinging faux saloon doors that had been recently installed by the vanguard of organized crime that was already setting up shop within view of the Continental Divide.
The difference between that day and the day five years ago when pot became legalized in Colorado was, on Oct. 1, 1991, there were not scores of people locked up for minor gambling transgressions. Such could not be said about marijuana.
I do not blame people for acting goofy the day weed became legal in Colorado. There have not been a lot of things that were once illegal that have become legal — that’s not usually how America works. It’s usually the other way around. So people can be forgiven for acting a bit weird when the legislative tables are turned. Look back at photographic images of the U.S. on Dec. 5, 1933 — the day the 21st Amendment was passed. There was no somber reflection of the national harm caused by those 13 years of Prohibition insanity. People exclaimed, “Let’s party! In public! Till we puke!” And they did. (I would have, too.)
But, from afar, I was hoping, even as those first legal joints were being lit, for a unified nod to the grievous harm perpetrated on our population over the course of the previous 77 years and especially since June 18, 1971, when soon-to-be-disgraced President Richard Nixon brought the loathsome term “war on drugs” into the mainstream at a press conference. Between 2001 and 2010 alone, the ACLU estimates that, of the 8.2 million people arrested on marijuana-related charges, 7.2 million of those were for simple possession. Even as those tie-dyed revelers were legally toking up on Jan. 1, 2014, thousands of brothers and sisters remained behind bars for doing nothing more than some variation on the exact same damned thing.
I had an admittedly loosely related image in my mind on Jan. 1, 2014. Many years ago, I was joined by a couple of my more ne’er-do-well compadres for an on-foot journey into the depths of Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre that resulted in my first cover story for Backpacker magazine. We took a bus from Ciudad Juarez to Chihuahua City, from where we were to catch a train to the Sierra Madre the next morning. Our cab driver took us to an unlicensed after-hours establishment that served only one type of beverage: Presidente “brandy.” Over the course of the next few hours, we drank prodigious quantities of that vile liquid.
At 4, okay, maybe 5 a.m., we staggered to the train station in hopes of catching some shut-eye before our departure. The station was so brightly lit that sleep, even in our inebriated state, would be impossible, so we hoisted our packs and followed a back street, eventually finding a dark alley. We spread our pads and sleeping bags out on a crumbling, litter-lined sidewalk that smelled of urine in a neighborhood populated primarily by snarling dogs.
As our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we realized we were facing a mammoth wall that was several blocks wide and at least 50 feet tall. It was featureless save one small window way up high. In the window, we could make out the silhouette of a man looking down on us. Turns out we were bivouacking adjacent to the Chihuahua State Penitentiary, a travel destination that has not yet been publicized in any Lonely Planet guidebooks.
There he was in a facility that, judging from its exterior, must have been as horrible as a place can be, eyeballing a trio of drunk, filthy gringos lying atop multi-hundred-dollar sleeping bags in a broken-glass-strewn alley bordering a Third World prison. He probably wondered what convoluted circumstances had led us there. And he probably thought that he would trade his soul to be in our shoes. The look on his face was like “Why am I here while they are there?”
That’s how I envisioned the thousands of people incarcerated for minor drug-related offenses while aging Baby Boomers and young nouveau hippies frolicked in the park with newly procured weed that cost almost as much as cocaine used to. I pictured them staring forlornly out toward Denver, Boulder and Durango, wondering, “Why am I here and they are there?”
What I really wanted to see, but did not really expect to see, on Jan. 1, 2014, was a procession of people, perhaps led by the walking wounded — those who had their lives ruined because of petty possession convictions — making their way to the State Capitol. All dressed in black and carrying photographs of comrades still in jail and prison, on parole and probation. I envisioned something akin to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War March on Washington, D.C., in July 1974. I envisioned some small nod of the head, even if that head housed bloodshot eyeballs and cotton-mouthed tongues, to the victims of crimes that, at least in Colorado on that day, suddenly were no longer crimes.
When I really let my imagination roam unfettered, I fantasized about a massive storming of the Bastille by thousands of irate stoners shouting, “Let my people go!”
Alas, no such thing occurred on the fifth anniversary of the implementation of Amendment 64.
Thankfully, there is hope. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a supporter of legalization who was sworn in with the new year, has indicated, according to an article in Rolling Stone, that she will take steps to release people who are currently behind bars for minor infractions that are now legal, and to clear criminal records of convictions for acts that are no longer criminal. That same dialogue is transpiring in most other states where pot in now legal, though, of course, it is still illegal in many places, mostly where people speak with a drawl, as well as on the federal level.
I guess the storming of our figurative Bastille will come in small steps and those steps will often be disjointed, which is par for this particular course. Not fair, but in a nation wherein incarceration is a well-funded industry that hires scores of lobbyists, wherein people who used to work for the DEA are now taking up executive positions in the burgeoning pot industry as though their previous sins are automatically absolved by a change in career trajectory, where the fledgling pot industry is increasingly controlled by bureaucrats and corporate profiteers, maybe that’s the best we can hope for.
Right up until that day when the torches finally get lit and even people holding bongs and wearing tie-dyed T-shirts gather to rain fire down upon every form of corrupt injustice.
Then the real party will begin.
RFWJ Editor M. John Fayhee is the author of 10 books, two of which were Colorado Book Awards finalists. “Kill the Curmudgeon” appears whenever Fayhee is miffed enough about something to pound his keyboard.