DENVER - We were four female independent journalists of a certain age. Let's say circling above and below 50. We were vodka-martini type of women, white wine chilled, maybe in extremis a whiskey on the rocks. We bonded while attending the Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Denver, between meetings on the epidemic of allergic reactions among children, the health dangers of fracking, and a seminar on the effort to map the brain. But while we hustled from meeting to meeting, our reporters' instincts drew us to the big story literally at our doorstep: Marijuana was now legal in Colorado.
Speaking for myself, I was intrigued. And apparently, since the legalization of marijuana went into effect on Jan. 1, I wasn't the only one. According to the travel site Hopper.com, search demand for flights to Denver has risen by 6 percent since Dec. 1, while demand was up 14 percent by Jan. 14. Last year, the study notes, search demand for flights to Denver during the same period "tracked at or below the national average."
The last time I came in contact with marijuana was probably about seven years ago, when a friendly bystander passed me a joint at a Rolling Stones concert. And before that, let's say many, many years ago, possibly back in graduate school, where a ganja-obsessed classmate threw giant pig-roast parties on an Iowa farm that he had rented out in the country. While I had inhaled, I was not a druggie, by any means. And yet the idea of doing it legally held a certain appeal.
So on a warmish Denver afternoon, between a session on the gut microbiome and a conference cocktail party, the four of us embarked on a mission possible - a trip to a recreational marijuana dispensary. It wasn't difficult to find one: We simply asked the concierge.
On the cab ride to a much sketchier neighborhood than where we were bunking at the Denver Grand Hyatt, we joked nervously about our destination. We knew there were two kinds of dispensaries: the medical sort, marked with a green cross, and the recreational sort, marked, in this case, by a large psychedelic mural painted on one wall of the building outside. We disembarked and walked a block, some of us debating the wisdom of our decision but rationalizing it in the spirit of inquiry.
Opening a heavy door, we stumbled inside, where we were left to cool our heels outside the actual recreational dispensary in a whitewashed anteroom that reminded me of a laundromat. Ahead of us lounged several more predictable-looking patrons, youngish men with ponytails and jeans. Yet to their credit, no one gave us the fish-eye, although we were still clad in our conference finery.
A sign next to the inner door announced the rules: You had to be 21 to enter, you needed an ID before admittance would be granted, and anyone coming from out of state couldn't buy more than about a quarter-ounce of weed. (Coloradans can leave with up to an ounce.) Purchase was required; gawkers were not welcome. And no photographs were allowed. The entire atmosphere was rather formal and a little antiseptic, befitting a dispensary.
After about a 10-minute wait for the earlier patrons to finish their transactions, we were finally permitted inside. The dispensary, like the hallway, was a very bare-bones affair. The same whitewashed walls, a few T-shirts hanging on the wall advertising the dispensary, and a no-nonsense pot navigator who walked us through the displays.
Smoking weed was out of the question. Although you do get a whiff or two of reefer as you walk down Denver's 16th Street Mall, smoking is banned in public and we were all staying in nonsmoking rooms. So we concentrated on the edibles, gummy bears and various candy bars. The main difference seemed to be that you could have doses that were portioned out, such as in the gummies, or products that let you determined the dose on your own by how much you swallowed.
After a little back-and-forth, we decided on a bottle of gummies that came prepackaged, 25 for about $30. We could have bought a candy bar, but with the bars you had to portion the amount yourself, and we were after a buzz, not an accidental binge.
We listened as the pierced and soft-spoken salesperson very professionally explained the deal. It would take 45 minutes for a single bear to take effect, followed by a high that could last five to six hours.
And then, before we could fully digest what we had just done - bought pot legally - our crew drew a mighty sigh, pocketed our stash, and landed back on the sidewalk.
After all of our nervousness, pot shopping turned out to be surprisingly simple and no more exotic than buying eggs or milk. It almost seemed too easy, too simple, too clean. For a second I longed for the old days, when buying pot was a stealthy affair, when you had to know someone who knew someone who knew a guy. All of the romance was gone.
Returning to the conference, we attended a cocktail party, a little alcoholic buzz accompanying our actions even before we touched the bears. Then we went off to dinner, at a lovely restaurant called Red Square, which offered a hundred types of vodka along with Russian specialties. It was after dinner and the after-dinner drinks that one of the women pulled out the gummies.
"Now?" she asked.
The moment had come.
You aren't supposed to down pot in public places, but stealthily we embarked on sharing a single orange bear. Given the five- to six-hour high, we decided to split the little bear, and each of us wrestled with a section: a head, a foot, an ear. Despite its claim to be "candy" the taste was rather foul, sour and grainy. Also, the consistency was off and it proved difficult to divide.
Well, it was just as you might expect. We giggled our way out of the restaurant into a candy store next door that was stocked with old-fashioned Fruit Stripe gum, actual gummy bears, and striped saltwater taffies. Then we poured into a taxi for the ride back, during which everything, and I mean everything, seemed pretty hilarious.
Although one member of our group was pretty worried that we were going to destroy our professional reputations - actual pot paranoia! - our driver seemed completely oblivious to our condition, or completely inured by this time to the tourist trade. He dumped the lot of us back at the hotel, where, despite having eaten a huge meal, we ended up back at the bar to drink Diet Pepsis and iced teas (cotton mouth - how had I forgotten that?) and munch a huge serving of french fries.
By now the only question on our minds was what to do with the pot that was left - 24 pristine bears. Taking drugs out of state was illegal. I hit on a brilliant solution; I pulled aside our waiter and asked him if he might be willing to take our stash off our hands. Without blinking, he agreed. In exchange he told us a tale of Snoop Dogg arriving at the Grand Hyatt, where there is a fine of $250 per room for smoking. Snoop apparently had plans, and set down a $2,500 check for 10 rooms at registration, saying, "I guess you know what I've come to do."
Was this story apocryphal? Maybe, or maybe not. But it fits the mood of Colorado at the present, people arriving in the new Wild West and feeling as though they're getting away with something when, in point of fact, they aren't.