Siri, the voice on my Iphone GPS, guided me to a nondescript tan building in one of the many strip malls that blight the outskirts of Pueblo, Colorado. “The destination is your left,” she said, as I pulled into a parking space between SUVs, a BMW sedan and pick up trucks, beneath a sign that read Hashish House.
I pushed open a curtained glass door that led into a room empty save for a counter, and a guy staring at his smart phone. He looked up, and asked to see my ID. He scrutinized it for a minute, then wanted to know if I'd ever been in a place like this. I shook my head. “Well, then, you're in for a very different kind of experience,” he said, a slight smile playing at his lips as he ushered me into a spacious store.
My heart was pounding a little as I absorbed the reality before me: cannabis, arranged for sale like liquor, or any other regulated product. Glass counters holding a wide variety of pipes, papers and inhalers, which are used for smoking a type of processed marijuana known as wax, without all the harsh smoke. Edibles, like hard candy and cookies, in sealed plastic bags. Dozens of jars filled with many varieties of dried buds.
And all of it entirely legal and completely above-board. No threat of cops, busts, arrests. No rip offs. No being forced to take a crappy product, because that's all the seller has. No furtive meet ups. No long waits for the seller to arrive. No questions about quantities or quality. No wads of cash.
Just merchandise being sold by knowledgeable sales clerks to consenting adults. What a concept!
The customers were a mix, ranging from middle-aged men in knit polo shirts to couples attired in tee-shirts and jeans. It was a Sunday, so many were stocking up before the Broncos game, just as thousands of other football fans were on equally legal beer runs.
The budtenders appeared to be mostly in their 30s, and they worked quickly, competently and patiently, explaining the products and their use, weighing buds and placing them into pharmaceutical-style vials that were clearly labeled with the product name and quantity. As they worked, they carefully tallied up totals to ensure that residents didn't buy more than 28 grams (one ounce) and non-residents more than seven grams.
All the transactions were computerized, and though a customer's state of origin was tracked, names were not.
Nobody was smoking inside or out, or lingering around the building. Customers left with their paper bags of merchandise, got into their cars and went home. Just like any other store.
As I stood there in the Hashish House and watched marijuana being sold openly and legally, without the sky falling or society collapsing, I thought, oh my god, why is it taking so long for the rest of the nation to catch on?
And then today I read Darin Mokiki's two-part piece on medical cannabis in The Garden Island and was reminded that Hawaii is still gripped by paranoia and fear — much of it promulgated by law enforcement and people who make money from treating what they classify as “marijuana addictions.”
Even Prosecutor Justin Kollar, who isn't a reefer madness kind of guy, is quoted as saying:
[R]etail marijuana stores, like those in Colorado, where recreational and medical use is legal, “would not be a good fit for our community until and unless sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that marijuana stays out of the hands of children who do not have the maturity to make that kind of decision.”
While one can never guarantee that kids won't get legal marijuana, just as we can't guarantee they won't get legal alcohol and cigarettes, it's quite clear that other states have done the work to impose barriers to acquisition by minors. It's not an impossibility, or even a valid stumbling block.
It's not like Hawaii has to re-invent the wheel. Take medical marijuana dispensaries, for example. Though opponents love to portray them as opium den-like places that cater to the scourges of society and attract crime, my own encounters while traveling were quite different.
In a small town in Arizona, a modest storefront was located right on the main street, a marijuana leaf offering the only clue that it was a medical cannabis dispensary. It was deserted.
In Santa Fe, a dispensary operates as part of an herb shop, discreetly selling its wares in a commercial area that includes a yoga studio, water features for gardens and a trendy bistro. I never saw any shady characters there, just regular people, the same kind who would be going to the CVS pharmacy.
No, marijuana isn't risk free, from either a health or a law enforcement perspective. It can be bootlegged and black marketed, just like Dior bags. It can be purchased by people who misuse it, just like sugar and caffeine. And it can fall unintentionally into the hands of kids, like booze and cigarettes.
But it's not a bogeyman, either. It's used by people of all education levels, and socio-economic backgrounds. Most importantly, other states have figured out how to regulate it and sell it, and their communities haven't gone to rack and ruin in the process.
It's easy to get insular and provincial in Hawaii. But hopefully some of the decision-makers will use their travel budgets to actually visit states where medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational stores are functioning well and thriving.
They might just be surprised to find, as I did, that it's really no big deal to move cannabis into the realm of legal trade. In the process, they'll be helping to stop the real horror of the Mexico drug cartel and lives needlessly damaged by criminal prosecution of marijuana possession.
And they just might be able to generate some revenue to help deal with a drug and an addiction that really is tearing Hawaii apart: ice, crystal meth.