Reefer Madness

Colorado is the national pioneer of legalized marijuana. In 2014, it became the first state to allow any adult over 21 to buy weed or grow it without fear of prosecution. Since then, eight others and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug, and, with a momentum that feels irreversible, more are heading that direction. Public opinion is rapidly shifting in favor of legalization. Coloradans approved marijuana sales in a referendum, with state leaders musing that it would be a grand experiment and an exercise in federalism that could be instructive for the rest of the country.

Nowhere are the results of this experiment being felt more than in Pueblo, a small city of 108,000 about two hours south of Denver. Pueblo is an old working-class steel town largely left out of the prosperity of Denver and the state’s famous ski resorts. With nearly 200 legal marijuana farms, Pueblo is at the forefront of the state’s rapidly expanding pot industry. Marijuana has become big business. It is creating jobs, harnessing the energies of young entrepreneurs, raising millions in new tax revenues, attracting visitors to town, and giving residents more personal freedom.


In the greenhouses at Los Sueños Farms, marijuana plants are cloned for planting outside when the frosts pass. Los Sueños, the largest outdoor marijuana farm in the country, expects to produce 20 tons of the drug in 2018.

But that’s not the end of the story. Some residents here believe these achievements are coming at too high a cost. Legalization, they say, has attracted vagrants and cartels from out-of-state, contributed to spikes in crime, and endangered the health of a generation of kids raised to believe the drug is harmless. A new study from Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Institute of Cannabis Research portrays the effects of legalization as mixed at best—far from the unqualified success that marijuana boosters like to project.

Get to know your Budtender

It’s a frantic Thursday morning at The 404, a rock-’n’-roll-themed marijuana store located a few blocks north of downtown. Pueblo has eight such “dispensaries,” and everyone is preparing for the following day, April 20, or “4/20” as it is known to marijuana enthusiasts. It is the high holy day for marijuana users. The 404’s manager, Will Swift, says it is “a combination of Black Friday and the Super Bowl.”

Swift is talking about the challenges of running a marijuana business—chiefly, keeping inventory on the shelves—but he keeps getting interrupted as suppliers and customers stream in. Karina, a short-haired young woman, is dropping off a cardboard box filled with “caviar.” But it’s not fish eggs. Rather, caviar here is a highly potent and expensive marijuana delicacy consisting of plant buds soaked in hash oil and dusted with kief, or marijuana-flower resin. Swift excuses himself to “go take care of Shaggy,” an employee’s husband who has just walked in and needs assistance, and leaves one of his experienced sales clerks, Nicole Lucier, to explain how the business runs.


Lucier, 35, says she got her start selling marijuana in 2014 when her children’s father was a security guard at another dispensary in town. She’s what is known as a “budtender,” and as she explains the different strains of marijuana and the dozens upon dozens of cannabis-infused products for sale, it becomes clear that if you believe pot is just pot, you’ve greatly underestimated the ingenuity of American capitalism. Marijuana has come a long way since the days of Cheech & Chong.

The 404 sells about 40 different strains of marijuana buds, or “flower.” The cheapest sell for $6 a gram. Top-shelf buds cost double. With names like Acapulco Gold, Blue Dream, and Critical Skunk, each has a different smell and potency. They fall into three categories: sativas, viewed as better for cerebral daytime highs; indicas, preferable for evening relaxation; and hybrids that combine qualities of both. In recent decades, pot has become strong­er, thanks largely to improved growing methods. Studies have shown that the average level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in marijuana responsible for getting users intoxicated, rose in federally seized cannabis from 4 percent in 1995 to 12 percent in 2014. Dispensaries like The 404 sell buds with THC levels of 20 percent or more.

Customers buy the weed, grind it at home, and roll it into joints or smoke it in a pipe. A gram can usually make three joints. (Colorado law limits purchases to 1 ounce, or about 28 grams, per day.) If grinding and rolling sounds like too much work, stores also sell “pre-rolls.” But that’s not all. The 404 carries a wide range of other marijuana products, Lucier explains. There are cannabis-laced chocolate bars, granola bars, turtle brownies, hard candies, red-velvet cookies, waffle cones, fruit punch, and root beer. There’s cannabis-infused honey and sugar, plus artificial sweeteners for diabetics—all suitable, she says, for putting in coffee or tea. She opens a box of hand-painted cannabis-chocolate truffles. “Aren’t they gorgeous?”

Lucier shows off some multicolored marijuana gummy candies: “These are fun. They’re cool because it’s Americana. They’re shaped like little leaves, and they are red, white, and blue.” The dispensary also sells all manner of topical creams, lotions, and body oils, as well as high-potency oils and extracts that can be smoked. They also sell tinctures, liquid extracts placed directly under the tongue. Some extract products, known as “dabs” or “shatter,” have THC concentrations of more than 80 percent.

Most customers come in for buds. Some swear by marijuana’s curative effects, like those listed alongside a Vitruvian-like “Cannabis Man” poster that hangs on The 404’s wall: “promotes bone growth,” “reduces inflammation,” and “inhibits cell growth in tumors and cancer cells.” Other patrons, like Otello Ganni, 59, are just looking for a high. He shows his ID to the security guard in the store’s entry hall and walks up to Lucier, who greets him enthusiastically.

“I’d just like some of your good stuff,” he says.

Since it’s the middle of the day, she recommends a sativa—so as not to make Ganni sleepy—and brings over two foot-high glass jars filled with buds: Pink Sherbet and Lost Coast OG. He puts his nose to the top of each jar and inhales. He settles on Lost Coast OG, which clocks in at 26.18 percent THC.

“It’s gonna get you uplifted and energized!” Lucier tells him, as she takes his two $5 bills and puts four buds into a vial. She adds that she has logged his purchase into The 404’s loyalty rewards program.

Ganni, who moved to Pueblo from California two years ago to live closer to his grandchildren, has a full-time job as a cook, but also cuts stones and makes jewelry. Sativas, he says, “really get me going.”

The 404 is a “recreational” marijuana dispensary. Colorado licenses and regulates medical marijuana separately from recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana has been available in the state since 2001, and sales have been flat in recent years, even dropping in 2017. The recreational side, though, has boomed. Recreational dispensaries sold $1.1 billion of marijuana in 2017, more than triple the amount sold in 2014. Some Colorado cities don’t allow dispensaries, and others, including Pueblo, cap their numbers. Despite those restrictions, there are now 533 recreational dispensaries in Colorado—about as many as Starbucks and McDonald’s locations combined. Residents also have the option to grow their own marijuana, up to a maximum of 12 plants per household.

Lucier thinks her customers enjoy the camaraderie of the dispensary. They build relationships with her just as they might with a bartender or a hairdresser. “It’s amazing to see all the changes in life that come through here,” she says. “You hear people’s joys in life as well as their sorrows. I had a guy in here who still had the bracelet on his wrist from the hospital, who came in and said, ‘My baby was just born!’ It’s amazing.”



In the greenhouses at Los Sueños Farms, marijuana plants are cloned for planting outside when the frosts pass. Los Sueños, the largest outdoor marijuana farm in the country, expects to produce 20 tons of the drug in 2018.

Scromiting at the ER

Brad Roberts won’t soon forget a 24-hour stretch in late 2017 at Parkview Medical Center, Pueblo’s main hospital. An emergency room physician, he’s used to seeing crazy things. But three patients he saw then reinforced in his mind the dangers of Colorado’s marijuana laws.

The first patient, a woman in her 30s, came in on a stretcher wearing only a bathrobe. Medics had picked her up at the Loaf ’N Jug, a nearby convenience store, with blood on her face and head. She had severed three of the toes on her left foot and had a gash on her hand. She had been to the Parkview ER before—police had found her throwing furniture off an overpass—and tested positive then only for cannabis. On this visit, she tested positive for both cannabis and meth. She wouldn’t reply to Roberts’s questions and just kept repeating the Lord’s Prayer.

The second patient was a teenager brought in by the police. He had cut himself more than 100 times between his right elbow and wrist and required nearly 50 stitches. He stared blankly ahead, never acknowledging Roberts. His urine tested positive only for cannabis.

The third patient, a man in his late 40s or early 50s, came to the ER and said he had smoked pure cannabis oil. He told Roberts he had an out-of-body experience in which he knew the rapture had taken place. He had met the Antichrist, heard the trumpets of Revelation, and believed it was his job to warn everybody, he said.

“I saw them back to back to back,” Roberts recalls. “I said, ‘Holy cow! These are horrible cuts, and you severed off your toes, and you aren’t even responding to me! You’re psychotic!’ ”

Most people know that marijuana has at least some documented medical benefits—such as reducing eye pressure in glaucoma patients, stimulating the appetites of people suffering from AIDS, combatting seizures, and reducing nerve pain. But far less publicized is that marijuana is increasingly being found to have side effects, too. In 2016, when Pueblo voted on whether to allow dispensaries, 237 local physicians signed a statement of opposition.

One of the most dangerous effects, doctors say, is psychosis. Of course, not everybody who uses weed experiences psychotic episodes. But studies suggest that the risk is especially acute among adolescents, whose brains are still developing. Regular marijuana use while young has been linked to schizophrenia.

In 2017, after reviewing the scientific literature, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concluded that “teens who use marijuana regularly may develop serious mental health disorders, including addiction, depression, and psychosis.” Also upending conventional wisdom, the country’s leading organization of pediatricians found that “evidence clearly shows that marijuana is an addictive substance,” with 9 percent of those trying the drug developing an addiction. The consequences of marijuana use, the AAP statement concluded, include “impaired short-term memory and decreased concentration, attention span, and problem-solving skills . . . alterations in motor control, coordination, judgment, reaction time, and tracking ability.” Those effects can contribute to poor and dangerous decisions.

More people under the influence of marijuana are certainly streaming into Colorado’s emergency rooms. An analysis of five years of hospital drug-screening data by a nursing professor at CSU-Pueblo found “unmistakable evidence” of an increase of positive drug tests in ER patients. Similar results were found in a study in Denver of ER visits by adolescents and young adults since 2014.

Marijuana can also be a gateway to other, harder drugs, says Libby Stuyt, a board-certified addiction psychiatrist in Pueblo. In the last few years, she has seen more patients whose primary addiction is to marijuana—though many of them also use meth, cocaine, alcohol, or opiates. With marijuana widely available, she says, it’s harder for clients to complete her 90-day inpatient drug rehab program.

“I have many arguments with patients,” Stuyt says. “I tell them they will have to stay away from everything when they leave here. They say, ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with marijuana. It’s green. It’s natural.’ They really believe there’s nothing wrong with this drug.”

Doctors are also seeing more pregnant women using marijuana, perhaps because they believe it helps with morning sickness and sciatica. The percentage of newborns at Pueblo’s Parkview Hospital testing positive for marijuana has surged since 2014, to nearly 6 percent of all births last year. So has the share of expectant mothers testing positive for marijuana; last year they accounted for nearly 4 percent of Pueblo’s maternity patients. Those increases seem to be aided by the dispensaries, too: A study published last month by the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that nearly 70 percent of 400 Colorado dispensaries surveyed recommended cannabis use for first-trimester morning sickness. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all pregnant women, women contemplating pregnancy, and breastfeeding mothers avoid marijuana. Use during pregnancy has been linked to low birth weights and an increased risk of stillbirths, the organization says.

There are other effects, too. On Colorado’s roads, marijuana-related traffic fatalities have doubled since legalization. The American Lung Association warns that smoking marijuana can lead to bronchitis. Other studies have linked it to depression and suicide.

Doctors in Colorado are also reporting a newer affliction, called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome; it is known colloquially as “scromiting,” because its symptoms consist of simultaneous screaming and vomiting. The condition is little understood but seems to be most prevalent among long-term marijuana users. Roberts estimates he sees a case of it in Pueblo every week.

Proponents of legalization say there’s no irrefutable proof of marijuana’s negative effects, which they say are merely “anecdotal” and more likely linked to other causes. Federal prohibitions on marijuana have restricted the number of scientific studies gauging its benefits and consequences. And, with some justification, proponents note that any effects in Colorado might seem amplified because the state did a poor job of collecting data prior to legalization—a point that even Colorado’s governor acknowledges.

To Roberts and other doctors in Pueblo, though, a lack of scientific certainty should have led Colorado to adopt a more careful approach. Instead, the state implemented regulations and adjusts them as problems arise.

“We’ve taken something that probably has some medical benefit, and instead of doing like we’ve done with any other medicine, we have this free-for-all where now you can have a dispensary on every corner giving medical advice,” Roberts says. “We are building the plane while flying it. We’re just throwing it out there and figuring out after the fact what’s going on.”



Aubree Adams and pictures of her two sons, now in their teens. She sees legalized marijuana as America’s Trojan horse.

A Mother and a Son

Aubree Adams moved to Pueblo 15 years ago. She figured it would be her forever home. Now, she’s planning to get out. She’s tired of the drug dealers and the drifters. The effects of the pervasive marijuana presence have taken a toll on her historic North Side neighborhood—and on her own family.

On a driving tour of the area around her house, she turns onto 19th Street. She points to a small house that she says grew marijuana and sold it out back: “There were people coming in and out of here all night long. They had to gut the whole thing because the smell was so bad.”

Pulling into a nearby alley, she drives past a nicely maintained yard owned by a couple with three young children. Their misfortune is to live across an alleyway from a popular gathering spot for marijuana users: “All the smoke comes into the backyard, and they have to go inside.”

Turning onto 23rd Street, she drives by the spot of a 2016 marijuana deal where a 46-year-old Pueblo man was shot on a Friday morning: “He lay dead right here, right in the driveway right there.”

Driving around Pueblo with Adams, you hear a range of emotions. Sometimes she’s matter-of-fact, pointing out the Sam’s Club where the marijuana smell wafts across the street from a legal greenhouse. Sometimes she’s angry, blaming marijuana-industry profiteers, irresponsible media, and shortsighted politicians. And sometimes, she sounds frustrated that her message of marijuana’s dangers is falling on deaf ears. She has heard legalization called the Trojan horse that’s going to implode America, and she agrees.

Adams, 44, acknowledges some people view her as a scold plucked straight out of Reefer Madness, the overwrought 1936 film that warned of marijuana’s dangers. Pueblo’s local theater troupe presented a staged version of the film in April in part to poke fun at activists like her.

She’s a regular at public meetings, proselytizing about marijuana’s dangers. She cheerfully records interviews with community leaders and drug users for her YouTube channel. Trying to get people to sign an anti-marijuana petition, she says, she’s had hecklers blow pot smoke in her face.

If she sounds like a busybody who is ruining marijuana’s good vibes, it’s because she has experienced the fear and anguish of marijuana’s effects up close.

She and her husband moved to Pueblo with their two young sons in 2005. She took a job as an assistant to a physical therapist. The family’s troubles began in 2014, just after Colorado legalized marijuana, when her older son was in eighth grade.

He started getting in fights at school and skipping class. He’d cut himself. Adams later learned he was experimenting with edibles, marijuana-laced food products that were newly legal for adults. He moved on to more potent forms of marijuana—the concentrates known as “dabs.” Adams calls these “crack weed.” He became increasingly irrational, paranoid, inconsolable, and angry.

One morning in February 2015, Adams walked by his room and smelled vomit. She found her son passed out. He had taken 250 ibuprofen tablets in a suicide attempt. It marked the start of a painful period in which he was in and out of hospitals, drug treatment, and counseling. Nothing worked. He started taking meth and heroin. He disappeared for days at a time, and Adams would drive around town looking for him. Passing the Loaf ’N Jug a few blocks from the hospital, she says, her voice cracking: “I came down here one time. He was begging for food and water, right here. He was standing there with homeless people.”

It is a tragic story, one that is familiar to too many American families. Teen drug addiction has been with us for years, long before Colorado legalized weed, and teens struggle with addiction in all the states where marijuana is still banned. Why blame legalization?


“He wouldn’t have had access to this high-potency crack weed that we have just completely made accessible all throughout our community,” she says. “He wouldn’t have been exposed to all this normalization, glorification, commercialization. . . . I know people don’t give a crap about my kid. It’s all my fault, they say. I’m like, ‘You have no idea how our children are being preyed upon and how impressionable they are.’ ”

The data on teen drug use in Colorado is open to interpretation. A Healthy Kids Colorado survey shows that the number of teens saying they had used marijuana in the last 30 days increased to 21.2 percent in 2015 from 19.7 percent in 2013. Colorado media and state government officials say that’s an increase of 1.5 percentage points, which they characterize as “flat” and “not statistically significant.” Opponents say it is an increase of nearly 8 percent, which might be understated because the survey did not include three of the largest school districts in the state. Both interpretations are valid. And asking teens to self-report their illegal drug use, even anonymously, might be a poor way to track actual behavior changes. In Pueblo, 30 percent of students said they had used marijuana in the last month, the highest rate in the state.

People who work with teens in Pueblo say drug use seems to be up and attitudes more accepting. A 2017 survey of Colorado school-resource officers found that 86 percent believe legalization led to increases in marijuana-related incidents, as did 68 percent of school counselors in a 2015 survey.

“They see it like, ‘If my parents do it and it’s legal, why can’t I?’ ” says police officer Heather Smith, who worked as a resource officer at a Pueblo middle school from 2014 to 2017. “It’s viewed as acceptable now. They feel like there is not harm that could happen to their brain and brain development. . . . It’s hard to tell a kid it’s bad for them when they see their parents doing it.” Most students whom she busted for marijuana at her school had joints or pipes they had taken from their parents, she says. The youngest she caught with the drug was in fourth grade.

Pueblo police discontinued D.A.R.E., the drug education program, in city schools in 2012 to be able to put more officers on the streets. Today, there is little attempt to teach kids about the dangers of drugs, police say. A school spokesman said he had no information about any anti-drug education in Pueblo.

Adams plans to keep talking about marijuana to anyone who will listen. She has traveled to Maryland, Georgia, and Vermont at the invitation of activists working to defeat legalization in their states. “People are like, ‘Oh, you need to keep out of my business.’ I’m not here to tell you what to do, but your personal use is affecting us all,” she says. “Yeah, there will be some kids who experiment and get through it. But what about those who don’t? Those are the ones I stand up for.”



Aubree Adams and pictures of her two sons, now in their teens. She sees legalized marijuana as America’s Trojan horse.

The Marijuana Agri-Boom

Walking through a greenhouse filled with dozens of six-foot-tall marijuana plants, Jarrod Mason says he has always enjoyed trying new things. That’s how he wound up here, at Los Sueños Farms, 15 minutes east of Pueblo. Running the farm, believed to be the nation’s largest legal outdoor marijuana-growing operation, is a daunting task: There’s no instruction manual on how to cultivate marijuana on this scale. The site is licensed for 36,000 plants on nearly 40 acres.

“Every day is a learning experience, trying to figure out how you can grow cannabis in a field this size,” Mason, 27, says. The farm has 50 workers, with 25 to 40 more added seasonally. It doesn’t test them for drugs, but has a strict policy banning drug use at work.

Los Sueños (Spanish for dreams) resembles most any farming operation you might see, with acres of loose dirt, John Deere tractors, and agribusiness magazines in the office lobby—except for the barbed wire. Los Sueños is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence that encircles a taller chain-link fence. It also has some 300 surveillance cameras.

Mason’s connection to marijuana has a personal element. His older brother was a heroin addict. Mason started taking neuroscience courses at CSU-Pueblo to understand addiction. He worked with the professors who were launching CSU-Pueblo’s Institute for Cannabis Studies. After graduating in 2016, Mason landed a job here and rose quickly through the ranks. Today, he is Los Sueños’s director of sales and business development. He’s wearing a blue blazer at work.

Because the last frost hasn’t passed, the plants are inside a series of greenhouses kept between 69 and 80 degrees. This greenhouse is known as the “mother bay,” where the farm grows the original marijuana plants and then clones them for planting outside when the weather turns warmer.

In the far corner of the mother bay are five workers, dressed in T-shirts, caps, and sunglasses. They are talking and laughing as they clip branches of a mother plant, dip the end of each stem in a hormone compound, and place it in soil in a tray. The farm plans to grow 35 strains of marijuana this season, and the one this group is working on is known as Queen Mother Goji. Los Sueños is working deliberately to increase plant yields and make the crop more durable. It recently hired a Ph.D. in molecular biochemistry.

Before the plants can be harvested in September, though, the farm will have to overcome the pests. Two years ago, it brought in more than a million ladybugs to eat aphids and mites. Then it added 8,000 praying mantises as reinforcements. Last year, the farm deployed 100 chickens to combat grasshoppers—“public enemy number one,” Mason says—who like to munch on cannabis leaves. But only about 20 of the chickens survived the season. Hawks grabbed the rest. “It’s nature at work,” he says. This year, Los Sueños is contemplating doubling the number of chickens.

Even if the pests are held at bay, Mason says the marijuana business remains a hassle because of burdensome state regulation. Colorado requires growers to meticulously track each plant and keep detailed records subject to inspection. They must have security cameras rolling 24 hours a day and store the video footage for 45 days. The list goes on and on, with every regulation adding to costs and cutting into profits.

Lauren Davis, a Denver lawyer who specializes in business formation and legal compliance for the cannabis industry, says companies must follow 222 pages of state regulations on top of any local ordinances. She says some, like the security procedures, make sense, but others, like the packaging and labeling rules, are excessive. “The regulations are pretty overwhelming,” she says. And there’s no way Colorado bureaucrats can keep up with the paperwork they’re requiring cannabis companies to generate. “Even the question of who’s an owner and what it means to be an owner would make your head spin,” Davis says.

The marijuana business is further complicated by legal uncertainty. Under federal law, growing and selling marijuana are felonies. The federal government does not generally prosecute cases in which state law permits those activities. But the law grows murkier when it involves federal regulatory agencies and courts. On the one hand, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration are not policing the advertisements and medical claims made by Colorado’s marijuana businesses. On the other, companies can’t trademark their cannabis products, file for bankruptcy protection, or use most banks because of federal prohibitions. Federal tax rules also prohibit marijuana companies from claiming many business deductions, which drives up their taxes.

One local couple, Phillis and Michael Reilly, even sued a Pueblo marijuana farm under federal racketeering laws, which permit private lawsuits against criminal enterprises. According to the suit, the couple owns 105 acres of rolling pastures with a view of Pike’s Peak and uses the land for riding horses and hiking. But a marijuana company called Rocky Mountain Organics, which operates two dispensaries west of Denver, started building a marijuana farm to grow 600 plants on an adjacent lot. “Marijuana plants are highly odorous, and their offensive smell travels long distances,” the complaint says. The suit is making its way through the federal courts.

“The cost of doing business is too unpredictable to make money,” says Bob DeGabrielle, Los Sueños’s managing partner. “I’ve never been in an industry where the rules change every two-and-a-half days.”


Dougal Brownlie

Marijuana wax can have THC concentrations of over 80 percent.

Los Sueños is one of 190 licensed marijuana cultivation facilities in Pueblo County, about a quarter of the state’s total. The area is popular among growers because land is cheap, the weather is favorable, and it is one of the few counties in Colorado that allows outdoor commercial marijuana cultivation. Local leaders have embraced the industry, citing its economic benefits. Driving around Pueblo County, marijuana-growing operations are easy to spot. Just look for a greenhouse or metal building in the middle of an open field surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence.

An economic-impact study by CSU-Pueblo found that the cannabis industry boosted the local economy by $36 million in 2016—a figure expected to double this year. The benefits have trickled down, especially to construction businesses. Statewide, the marijuana industry remains small but fast-growing. It employs an estimated 18,000 people, or less than 1 percent of the Colorado’s total employment, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. It is also creating niche jobs in fields including law, accounting, consulting, media, and advertising, to say nothing of the people in associated fields who create custom glass pipes, design marijuana jewelry, and run shops selling T-shirts with puns (“Rocky Mountain High” and the “Mile High Club” are popular).

State and local governments share in the tax revenues, which are used for a variety of purposes. In 2018, Pueblo County plans to spend $6 million of marijuana tax money on 20 community projects, including college scholarships, road work, and replacing the golf carts at a public course west of town.

Los Sueños is profitable, says DeGabrielle, 69. But he didn’t get into the business just to make money. He was a retired real-estate developer enjoying the good life in North Carolina. He had houses in Florida, Virginia, and the Outer Banks, and he’d go fishing in Costa Rica with buddies every few weeks. After a couple of friends were diagnosed with cancer and told him marijuana helped with their symptoms, he started researching the drug and how it interacts with the human body. His “whole attitude changed,” and he moved to Colorado as legalization was taking off. He built a dispensary in Vail, but then saw the chance to grow marijuana in Pueblo. Los Sueños opened in 2015. Its first harvest yielded 7 tons of marijuana. This year, the farm is hoping for 20 tons.

DeGabrielle believes Pueblo County has a shot to become to marijuana what Napa Valley is to wine and Silicon Valley is to technology. While the arguments of marijuana opponents are “based in fear,” DeGabrielle says Los Sueños offers hope. With his Southern drawl, he can sound like an evangelist for marijuana’s therapeutic benefits: He says it can help with cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, Tourette syndrome, and many other ailments. A review of medical research last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that cannabis can be modestly beneficial in treating chronic pain and seizures and helping reduce nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy but concluded more research is needed on other health effects.



Some of the new arrivals for Pueblo’s ‘Pot Rush’ have ended up homeless in shantytowns.

The Pot Rush

Anne Stattelman has seen the scene play out time and again in recent years: People from other states in loaded-up cars, sometimes with mattresses on top, arriving in Pueblo looking for a new life. They’ll stay at a campground or a by-the-week motel while looking for housing and a job. When they don’t find either one and burn through their meager savings, they wind up in her office seeking help.

“You remember the Gold Rush? We call it the Pot Rush,” says Stattelman, the director of Posada, a nonprofit that provides housing assistance to Pueblo’s homeless. “Not only do people think they’ll be able to smoke marijuana, but people think they can get jobs working in the marijuana fields.”

Those green dreams rarely materialize. Rents are rising as people move to town, and a lot of the new arrivals are unable to pass employer background checks or drug tests. Many wind up in shantytowns filled with tents, tires, and garbage along Fountain Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River that cuts though the middle of town.

In 2013, Posada helped about 2,400 homeless people with housing and other services. In 2016, the number more than tripled, to 7,800. Other Pueblo nonprofits, like the city’s soup kitchen, have experienced similar surges. Last year, Posada changed its approach. It placed a notice on its website discouraging people of limited means from moving to town and adopted a philosophy of helping Pueblo residents first, ahead of newcomers. Posada still steers the most desperate toward help, but it won’t assist out-of-towners in applying for government benefits. Because of that approach, in 2017, the number of those receiving services fell back to pre-legalization numbers.



Stattelman doesn’t know precisely how many come here because of marijuana, but she estimates from interviews that it’s about one-third. “Can you smell that?” she asks, as homeless people start filing into Posada’s downtown case-management center. “I have a nose for it.”

The new crop of homeless is rougher than Stattelman and her case manager, LaTanya Yarbrough, are used to. Stattelman founded Posada 31 years ago. Yarbrough has been there for 20.

“These new people, they’ll fight you,” Yarbrough says. Posada employees have been harassed, shoved, hit, and kicked. Yarbrough, who is black, has been called racist. She reminisces about some of the more bizarre encounters they’ve had in recent years.

“What about the girl who came in with no pants on?” Yarbrough asks.

“Hmm. Memories,” Stattelman replies. She is retiring at the end of June.

Everybody in town acknowledges that the number of homeless has increased. But there is fierce debate, playing out on the letters page of the local newspaper, about whether marijuana is the lure. Skeptics say cities outside Colorado are seeing more homeless, too. The state has also expanded Medicaid benefits, unlike its neighbors to the east. But people who work with the homeless say the connection is clear. “We are observing from talking to people that many people who are homeless came here so that they could get marijuana legally,” Pueblo’s police chief told the local paper. A CSU-Pueblo study, based on interviews with 20 local police officers, found that most believed “the pull of legal marijuana has brought in a new population to the state who then commit property crimes to get money to buy drugs.”

Any link between legalized marijuana and crime is harder to establish. The subject has barely been studied in Colorado or anywhere else. But in Pueblo, violent crime is up about 20 percent since 2013. Property crime overall is about the same as it was before marijuana legalization, though vehicle thefts have more than doubled. Throughout Colorado, the crime rate has also risen since 2013, even as crime has fallen nationally. State officials are reluctant to link that increase to legalized marijuana and say more study is needed.

One of the goals of marijuana legalization is to eliminate the black market for weed by regulating it and bringing it under government control. In Pueblo, police say that has not happened. People are moving to the area, growing marijuana, and either shipping it out of state or selling it on the street locally for less than the price at dispensaries. In the murder a few blocks from Adams’s house, police arrested three men from Oklahoma City who they say had come to Pueblo to buy marijuana. Their purchase turned into a robbery, and Pueblo native Brad Fowler was shot and killed. The three suspects are awaiting trial.

Pueblo police last year investigated 95 code-enforcement cases involving marijuana violations. About 80 percent of those involved people who were growing marijuana outdoors for personal use, in violation of city codes that require personal grows to be indoors. But there were also some examples of outsiders converting existing structures into illegal grow houses. In one case described by police, a group of Cubans paid cash for a house in south Pueblo. They stripped out the inside, redirected air ducts, and installed a new electrical box without a permit. They then put in $10,000 worth of fans, lamps, and heavy-duty electronics. The house racked up $4,600 a month in electrical bills.

In a separate incident in late April, the county sheriff raided a house west of town and found 72 marijuana plants. Deputies charged two people “with ties to Cuba” with felonies and confiscated all but 12 of the plants—the number allowed for personal use under Colorado law. “Before legalization, we didn’t have Cubans coming to grow marijuana in Pueblo,” notes Sgt. Daniel Anderson, who oversees the police department’s narcotics division.

Anderson says that with so much marijuana being grown around town, illegal marijuana sales are thriving. An ounce of marijuana at a dispensary costs around $120, he says. He asks a narcotics officer in a nearby cubicle how much marijuana is going for on the street, and within 30 seconds, the officer has printed out three ads from Craigs­list Pueblo’s “health and beauty” section. They indicate buds are selling for about one-third the price they go for at dispensaries.

“If I want my high, why would I spend $120 if I could get it for $40?” Anderson says.

Asked what he would say to communities considering legalizing marijuana, Anderson says: “Tell people to stop legalizing it. It will do more damage than you can understand.”

Anne Stattelman’s advice is simpler: “Don’t. It’s changed our city. It’s changed everything about our community.”


4/20 and Beyond

The push to legalize marijuana rolls on. It is no longer just a libertarian pipe dream. Politicians from both major parties are increasingly declaring themselves open to legalization as polls indicate a public shift. Gallup last year found that 64 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, back legalizing recreational use of the drug. Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) says he’s working with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to craft a “states’ rights” bill that would offer protections to marijuana companies in states that opt to allow those businesses. Democratic senators calling for more lenient marijuana laws include Chuck Schumer, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders. Former Republican speaker of the House John Boehner joined the board of a cannabis company in April.

Michigan will have a referendum in November that could make it the first Midwestern state to legalize. Connecticut lawmakers are considering a bill that would move their state toward legalization. Recreational sales in Vermont are scheduled to start in July.

Marijuana advocates are anticipating national victory, but in Colorado, they’re already celebrating. No more so than on 4/20 itself. The term “420” is said to have originated in the 1970s from a group of California high school students who would meet after school at a designated time—4:20 p.m.—to smoke pot. The term became synonymous with marijuana and, decades later, led to annual extravaganzas in U.S. cities on April 20.

On that day in Colorado, Pueblo’s dispensaries are all offering 4/20 sales events, and nearby Colorado Springs has a festival. But the real party is in Denver. Celebrations are being held throughout the week and include a cannabis film festival, panel discussions, parties, and concerts headlined by rappers Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne.

It is a festive (if smoky) atmosphere that morning aboard a packed bus on the $49 “Complete Cannabis Tour.” As reggae music blares and the bus hits the road toward a local growing company, most of the 20 passengers pull out joints or pipes. Smoking is encouraged on a bus billed as “420-friendly transportation.”

The group are largely in their 20s and 30s, but from all around the country: New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida. Some offer puffs to those around them and compare notes on marijuana. The tour guide encourages drinking lots of water to “stay level”: “We want you to enjoy your day and smoke up, definitely,” he says.

At the tour of an indoor-grow operation, participants learn about marijuana cultivation and snap photos of the plants and their distinctive leaves. They take turns posing for selfies with a one-pound bag of buds, valued at more than $1,200. They buy goodies at the on-site dispensary and re-board the bus to enjoy their new purchases. One participant has tickets to Snoop Dogg that night. Others are headed to the big Mile High 420 Festival at Civic Center Park. Most are happily smoking as the bus heads back to the city center.

Then there’s Aubree Adams back in Pueblo. Her son, now 18, has been in Houston at an intensive outpatient drug-treatment program since 2016. He’s been sober for 22 months. She says he seems mature, aware of his mistakes. He has a peer-support network there. “I have my son back,” she says joyfully.

There’s no way she’ll bring him back to Colorado, she says. There are too many temptations, too many painful memories. The family is planning to move to Houston this summer.

Adams says she’s heard that pro-legalization forces are active in Texas. She will keep fighting—fighting for her son, her family, her country. She plans to keep spreading the message: “Legalization means promotion. It means more future users. That’s the most uncool thing ever.”

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