The Rolling Stone Guide to Legal Pot: Colorado

As the first state to roll out legalized weed, Colorado has a thriving dispensary culture – and the new trend is sustainable products

Tourists from around the world have been coming to Colorado to partake in legal pot since it became available in 2014. Credit: Ryan David Brown/Redux

People in Colorado pride themselves on their tolerance – for high altitudes and marathon ski sessions, sure, but also for high-ABV craft beer and super-potent cannabis.

As the first state to roll out legal recreational weed, Colorado's had nearly five years to explore the culture and industry of adult-use marijuana, which business-minded cultivators and retailers are happy to point out. But the statewide industry is quickly growing – sales were $1.5 billion in 2017, up 15 percent over 2016 – so even with Colorado's stereotypically heady, laidback culture (think John Denver, jam bands and snowboards) there are plenty of new developments for both locals and tourists.

Colorado's overall weed culture still exists somewhere between the flashy, trashy reminders of its black-market past ("Dabbing Granny" billboards, anyone?) and a more evolved, less psychedelic take on the drug. That's led to a steady growth of boutique and private weed events, such as chef-driven dinners, yoga classes and guided sessions on everything from painting to meditation.

From downtown Denver tourist traps to high-country head shops, Red Rocks concerts to Aspen brunches, there's a right and wrong way to do weed in this epicenter of recreational-weed cultures. Here's our statewide guide.

Finding cannabis in Colorado is easy to do, provided you're near a population center.
The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains essentially bisects Colorado into sparse, windy eastern plains and its western high country and Utah-kissing slope. The roughly five million people who live along the Front Range, from the northern Wyoming border to the southern New Mexico line, have the most ready access to the state's green bounty.

Amendment 64, which legalized recreational cannabis beginning in 2014, allows for municipalities to individually regulate the number and location of dispensaries, so not all pot-boom towns are created equal. The state's Marijuana Enforcement Division approved 509 retail dispensary licenses for 2018, and they're in the expected places: cities such as Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs, and well-known mountain towns from Eagle to Vail. Driving into the burgeoning artist colony of Trinidad, on the New Mexico border, reveals a bevy of dispensaries aimed specifically at border-hopping tourists.

However, Kansas and Utah-based seekers of Colorado weed will have to drive a bit further into the state, as there's nothing along their respective eastern and western borders. (Note: It is still illegal to transport marijuana across state lines, so what you buy in Colorado needs to stay in Colorado.)

Watching the green pins drop into place on a store-finder app, such as Weedmaps, Leafly or Where's Weed – all App Store-approved and free – is the simplest way to plot your route. But Colorado-based weed-media, such as The Denver Post's Cannabist website (which, full disclosure, I have written for) offer original strain reviews and relevant news in addition to the address, phone number and user ratings.

Unless you have a doctor's note, make sure the shop you're visiting is for recreational weed.
While pot shops take pains to make it obvious, be sure to check that the one you've selected is retail and not medical, the latter of which requires a prescription and won't let you through the door without it. Just as important is your proof of age – all pot shops only allow 21-and-up adults inside. No kids, no pets, no exceptions.

Once you've established which shops are available to you, decide how far you're willing to travel. Along I-70 east of Denver, for example, dispensaries tempt commuter and airport traffic with glowing green crosses and names like Lightshade, the Green Solution and Fox Street Wellness. Most are happy to welcome prospective customers who want to survey their mix of products, which typically include several different types of flower (smokable buds of various strains), edibles, concentrates and weed-related merchandise heavily emblazoned with the Colorado state logo (a red "C" with a yellow sun inside it, set against a blue-and-white background).

If you're pressed for time, dopedirectory.com offers a comprehensive list of shops along both I-70, the state's main east-west corridor, and I-25, Colorado's north-south interstate where the majority of the shops reside.

Even after you pick a spot, don't be afraid to let another draw you away.
Shopping for weed in Colorado should be a fun, low-pressure experience. There are enough different types of retailers that if you're not digging the vibe or selection at one, walk out; their competitors would be happy to take your business. I've been in dispensaries where the staff doesn't seem to know if they're selling cannabis or tourist trinkets – their fondness for cheap incense and weed-culture cliches (Up in Smoke posters, 1990s gangsta-rap soundtracks) a clear sign that they're doing the bare minimum to cash in on a trend.

Some stores feel sleek and impersonal, like the Apple Store-styled lucite tables and iPad menus at the tourist-angled Euflora, in downtown Denver. Some are intimate and tastefully sparse, such as East Colfax Avenue's GroundSwell. Most have an upbeat, sincere yet serious customer-service aesthetic, so if you visit a store that doesn't seem eager to educate you, or meet you at your level of knowledge, ditch it.

Allow some time for your trip to the dispensary.
If you've never visited a pot shop before, you'll be tempted to ask lots of questions of your budtender, who can tell you about the differences between indica and sativa, the history of different strains and products, and what might be the best fit for your personality and experience level. You may annoy the eager shoppers in line behind you, but don't feel pressured to rush through it and buy something hilariously strong, or more product than you think you need.

Like a liquor store, it'll be there for you to return to tomorrow – or later the same day, as an increasing number of shops are now open until 10 p.m. in the Denver metro area. The extremely weed-friendly cities of Edgewater and Glendale, each just outside Denver, have shops that stay open until midnight.

Deciding what to leave the store with can be intimidating.
Even a modest, one-off dispensary in Colorado usually offers several different types of flower strains, pre-rolled smokables, candy, baked-good edibles and beverages, disposable and reusable vape pens and concentrates (a.k.a. shatter or wax), in addition to gear (pipes, bongs, dab rigs, grinders) and stoney merchandise like T-shirts and hats. Retail chains such as the stylish Native Roots, Starbuds or Green Dragon tend to have a larger selection.

The varying quality of the exact same strain – say, the sativa-dominant Blue Dream hybrid, which is popular and widely available – can vary from shop to shop, given that their selection often includes a mix of in-house grown and manufactured products, and outsourced or jointly produced ones.

Most pot shops will allow you see and – just as important – smell samples of a strain before buying it, usually in a jar or other open-topped container. Let your nose be your guide, as that's often a solid indication of flavor. And no, they don't give out free samples.

Consuming your cannabis shouldn't be hard, provided you don't make a spectacle of it. But mind the local laws.
Residents and visitors can buy up to 28 grams (roughly an ounce) per dispensary, per visit, whereas prior to June 2016, out-of-state visitors could only buy up to seven grams. The calculus gets a bit more complex with different concentrates, but your budtender can tell you which combination of flower, concentrates or edibles eventually adds up to the legally mandated purchase limit.

Adults can legally carry an ounce at a time in Colorado, and incidents of personal-use seizure are rare except in cases of related criminal activity, such as drunken driving or assault. TSA agents find so few travelers trying to sneak through security with pot at Denver International Airport (numbering fewer than 100 annually, compared with 60-plus million passengers) that they haven't even bothered putting out the green "weed amnesty" boxes found at smaller airports in Colorado Springs and Aspen.

Confusingly, there is still no officially legal way to consume cannabis in public, which represents one of the giant holes in the state's otherwise groundbreaking, nationally influential pot laws. Some alternatives are making their way through the state legislature.

In the meantime, mind the local customs for consumption. 
First, don't spark up right outside the dispensary where you bought your cannabis, or ignore the same etiquette you would follow with anything else smokable. In fact, now that cigarette and cigar-smoking is illegal in prominent parks and pedestrian-heavy areas, such as Boulder's Pearl Street Mall and Denver's 16th Street Mall, you'll stand out all the more.

Secondly, It's not just about getting hassled by cops. If you suck down a hog leg on a busy street, cough gobs of skunky smoke into childrens' faces, then stub it out on the side of a building where the wind picks up your flurry of ashes, everyone gets caught in your slipstream of nastiness. I've seen this behavior repeatedly (mostly from white 20-somethings who appear to be out-of-towners) and it gives all stoners a bad name.

Lastly, keep your wits about you by going slow and drinking lots of water to help with the thin, oxygen-light air. Dehydration, headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms of the all-too-common altitude sickness are very real, even if you never leave the Mile High City for steeper climes.

Paranoid about finding a safe way to partake? Colorado has you covered.
Dozens of 420-friendly hotels and B&Bs have popped up in Colorado in recent years, with most rooms starting at under $200 per night. The styles vary from cozy bed 'n' breakfasts to futuristic, design-forward spaces, but overall they offer legal or discreet ways to enjoy your cannabis with likeminded tokers.

If you're smoking flower, go for a balcony, and if it's not a 420-friendly hotel, be sure to watch the neighbors. If you've going the vaporizer or e-nail route – the latter a preferred dabbing method, which eschews the more dangerous open-flame ignition – most anywhere will do. But don't make assumptions about where it's cool to burn and where it's not. Make privacy and discretion your default settings unless, as is often the case at jam-band and EDM concerts, dozens of people around you appear to be doing it without problems.

Tour buses, private-use social clubs and other group activities also offer novel ways to consume, although they are always subject to changing state and federal laws. Be sure to make a phone call or send an email before booking. Too high to drive? Call a ride from Loopr, an Uber or Lyft-like "mobile lounge," or step off your flight and directly into a 420 Airport Pickup car.

Tours, activities and events are collected on sites such as coloradopotguide.com, kushtourism.com and my420tours.com, and some include factory-like grow-room and seed tours, "Buds & Beers" outings and more. A two-hour "Sushi and Joint Rolling" class, for example, costs $80 per person while Loopr's three-hour "Hands-On Seed to Shelf Grow Tour" runs $50. Most tours can be selected in both private and group settings.

Being sustainable is the new wave of Colorado cannabis.
Sustainability is a hot topic in cannabis, and as with food and alcohol, a popular selling point in this crowded market. Colorado's eco-conscious budtenders and growers talk a good game about clean product and cultivation, but fortunately they're also state-regulated and tracked via RFID tags (or radio-frequency identification devices) from the time they're planted to the time they hit shelves.

However, be sure to look for any recent recalls or other news on reputable sites such as The Denver Post and The Cannabist, as the growing number of dispensaries also means that state tracking and enforcement officials need to monitor even more growers for things like pesticides.

If you want to support progressive-values companies, look to someone like Amy Andrle. Her company L'Eagle runs a zero-waste facility and has the only nationally recognized third-party certification for organically cultivated and sustainably grown weed, plus a Certifiably Green Denver recognition from Denver's Department of Environmental Health.

Jon Cooper of ebbu, a local research company, is experimenting with genetically editing cannabis-plant DNA to get more bang for the buck, both in growing larger percentages of rare cannabinoids (which grow in tiny percentages in modern strains) and plants that develop an over-expression of trichomes, the tiny hairs on a marijuana bud. Basically: using less space and energy to grow more and better weed.

And if you're nervous about navigating the murky waters of the vape-oil sea, look for 100 percent solvent-free concentrates like the Clear, a translucent oil that's heavy on THC. You can actually taste the difference, and when it comes to Colorado's diverse, fiercely competitive cannabis industry, there's no reason to settle for anything less than great.