“Marijuana is not a drug. It’s a leaf.”– Arnold Schwarzenegger

Does Colorado’s transition apply in Ohio?

By Ben Tomkins

Photo:  Legally-purchased recreational marijuana from a Colorado dispensary ; photo: Ben Tomkins

My first two thoughts about writing a piece on the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado were, first, “I suck at taking pictures and I’m going to ruin this,” followed immediately by, “I’m buying weed.” I figured that was a good starting place.

In one fell swoop, I could illustrate the sunny, cheerful side of the newly-legalized marijuana retailer and I’d be hanging out in a room full of stoners providing all the photographic opportunities I could dream of – be they animal, vegetable, animals with vegetables, or most assuredly, individuals who were both.

Of course, one doesn’t just buy weed anywhere. I downloaded a mobile app called Weedmaps, and selected the most reputable of the hundred or so nearby retailers.

Weedmaps indicated Sacred Seed had removed all health references from its signage since legalization because it didn’t want to pigeonhole itself as a clinic. What I didn’t expect was there was no external evidence Sacred Seed sold marijuana at all. In fact, without Weedmaps, I would have written it off as a quack holistic healing store – they even had the word “wellness” tattooed conspicuously on their sign. This anomaly would prove to be symptomatic of a whole host of inverted paradigms.

The entrance could not have been further removed from my preconceptions. Instead of a sparkling new Walgreens, it was a darkened broom closet with two doors and a movie theater ticket window from behind which I was asked for an ID or medical card. The ID buzzed me through the recreational door.

Of all the things that occurred in Sacred Seed, the only one that met expectations was me leaving with a little green bottle that smelled like good hops and botanicals. The rest ranged from the bizarre to the downright suspicious.

I will stress again the sale of recreational marijuana in Colorado is unimpeachably legal. I’ve read every extant piece of legislation, and as near as I can tell, recreational sale is no different from owning a liquor store. However, from entrance to exit, I have never patronized an establishment that went to such incredible lengths to suggest otherwise.

Right away it started. I explained to the people working the door I was writing a story, and could I please ask them some questions. It was like talking to Amway headquarters. I was politely informed they weren’t allowed to answer any questions, call back later and “maybe” someone would get back to me. Then they handed me a queue number and sent me to what looked like a waiting room for a brothel.

Sitting on the black pleather wraparound sofa were five of the most non-stereotypical customers I could have imagined. No college students, no dreadlocks or tie-dyed shirts – nothing. They were all around 45-60, some in business suits, some in jeans and all casually chatting about politics or the weather.

It is also noteworthy there was a new customer about every thirty seconds, but all of them went in the medical door. This made no sense to me at all. If you ask anyone – anyone – who has a medical card, after eighteen seconds of BS about a back problem they admit they just got it to smoke.

When my number was called, I was informed there was to be no use of phones, iPads, pictures or recordings of any kind, and then was escorted back to the counter. Crap. There goes my portfolio. The girl behind the counter figured out after about three seconds I was a noob, and thinly veiled her contempt by giving me three options and telling me it was cash only.

That sent my alarm bells blaring. Sure, I didn’t know what to expect, but in 2014 you can run a business with an iPhone and Square, and I don’t carry cash. Apparently, this wasn’t a problem though. They told me if I had a debit card they had a system whereby I could swipe it through their “virtual ATM” and get a voucher I could use to pay.

I’m no idiot, and I know a scam when I see one. I have never in my life heard of this system before, and after three failed attempts to get them to tell me how it worked and why the hell they did it like that, I was told, “just go with it, it’s cool.”

“Just go with it, it’s cool …” Now I am scared. I’ve agreed to write a piece for the Dayton City Paper about the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, and of the 2,000 words they requested on the subject, I was going to be able to give them six.

Later that day, I called Sacred Seed to see if I could get in touch with the owner, and they gave me a generic email address and flatly refused to tell me his name. Furthermore, if I wanted any hope of a response, I should explain as precisely as possible what I wanted to know and why. I hung up the phone and did what anyone would do. I called the police.

Police Information Officer Sonny Jackson was surprisingly even-keeled about legalization. His response to the most obvious questions about any influx of new smokers and effects on crime was that virtually nothing had changed. Because medical marijuana had already been in Denver since 2001, the local clientele was the same. Additionally, until April, only previously licensed medical marijuana establishments could apply to sell recreationally, so there were no new businesses. Crime neither increased nor decreased, and furthermore, they never really cared about marijuana use before legalization anyway – unless a neighbor complained.

Three days and about ten inquiry rejections from various dispensaries later, I went downtown to visit Headrush Smoke Shop. They specialize in glassware and other smoking accessories. Frankly, my hopes were low and I fully expected to get the silent treatment again. So far, I had no information, no story and nothing more than a few bad snapshots of my legally-purchased weed.

To my amazement, the owner was not only helpful, but delighted to let me take pictures of everything he had. Besides his impressive display of glassware, he also showed me how the new vaporizers for THC resin concentrate worked. Oddly enough, it was these new resins that had drawn me to Sacred Seed in the first place. Their website says they are leading the industry in manufacturing and standards for resin production, and one would think they would be advertising it on billboards the size of boxcars. As he was signing the release, I asked him why I couldn’t get any answers from the dispensaries. He shrugged. “I think it’s got something to do with the government.”

At this point, the best I thought I could do for DCP would be some kind of commentary on the cultural impact of marijuana use in a community – and when one does that in Colorado, one goes to Boulder.

Boulder is infested with college students and whackjobs. It’s Colorado’s ground zero for the vaccine/autism farce, idiotic alternative medicine trends, raw food apostles, rich kids pretending to be hippies and, yes, marijuana legalization, which they got right for the wrong reasons. Every time I go there it annoys the shit out of me.

I allotted myself five minutes to walk the Pearl Street Mall, figuring if I couldn’t find evidence of social impact in that timeframe the case was lost. It took three.

The impromptu silent disco was enough to send me packing. Argue all you want, but marijuana has social side effects that cannot be tolerated in a civil society. Mercifully, conceal-carry laws in Denver seem to be holding them in check.

With a week to go before deadline, I sat down with Shawn Coleman, a colleague who also happens to be a big-time lobbyist for marijuana legalization. I explained everything I’d been through, and asked him why I hadn’t got a single answer from dispensaries.

He laughed.

“You won’t,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with the banks that handle their money. Because marijuana is legal in Colorado but not federally, banks are worried they could get into trouble. Currently, [President] Obama has stated the federal government won’t pursue marijuana prosecution in states that have legalized it, but nevertheless, if a new administration comes in and changes the policy, the banks could be in serious trouble.

“As a result,” he continued, “even though it’s perfectly legal, dispensaries have found it’s best to keep their business off the books as much as possible so banks don’t have a reason to treat them differently than any other small business.”

“You must have been thrilled when it passed,” I said.

“For me, legalization was a non-issue,” Coleman responded. “Everybody in Colorado already had a medical card, and 50 percent of recreation sales are out-of-state. That means three of the people buying with you were from Kansas and you were never going back, so there were only two locals. There were probably 20 times as many going to get ‘medical’ marijuana because the taxes are so much lower. Why change?

“Regardless, prohibition never works anyway. When alcohol was illegal, people still drank. You’re never going to stop people from doing something they want to do.”

“What about crime?” I asked.

“What about it?” He retorted. “You’ve got to understand there’s a difference between marijuana and alcohol prohibition. In the ’20s, gangsters were shooting innocent bystanders in the streets and blowing up cars. The effects of prohibition were splattered all over the newspapers. With marijuana, its presence is invisible. People buy from their friends or get their ‘permission slip’ from a doctor, so Joe Public never sees it going on. Most smokers are baby boomers unwinding on their back porch at night, so the anti-legalization movement didn’t have the slightest clue how many people were actually doing it.”

“So it’s about an unfounded fear of exploding vice?” I asked.

“Strangely, no,” Coleman said. “The bulk of the issue was legalization would result in thousands of new applicants for business and medical licenses, huge new state departments would have to be created to regulate and prosecute the industry, and it would cost Colorado millions of dollars.

Not realizing everyone who wanted to smoke already was, they charged $125 for medical licenses and even more for dispensaries to cover potential expenses. Here’s the problem: if, for example, you get a driver’s license, state law says the government can only charge you as much as it costs to create the license. However, in expectation of a huge bureaucracy, they grossly overcharged. Now, the same people who were freaking out have an $11 million dollar surplus they have to get rid of. They dropped the price to $15, but realistically it should probably be $1. Ironically, in order to balance the budget, they’ll probably have to give taxpayers in Colorado a check for $10 apiece to sort it all out. It’s pretty hilarious, really. Most of the resistance these days is about trying to save face.”

Shawn and I only talked for ten minutes before he had to run off, but those ten minutes clarified everything. It was remarkably simple; the police don’t care, my retail experience was explained and the only change to the marijuana culture was tourism. Therefore, I will leave you, the citizens of Dayton, with the following thoughts:

Look around. Your business partners, neighbors, family-members – many of them casually smoke and you have no idea. They aren’t causing problems, you’ve probably never suspected it and somehow the world continues to spin. If you legalized marijuana tomorrow, nothing would change except Ohio would receive a 25 percent tax on every sale. Marijuana is already in your community, happily smoldering away behind closed doors, and the police would rather spend their time dealing with real criminals.

The only reason Ohio smokers differ from Colorado smokers is because of a word: “illegal.”

That’s not an argument. It’s an ink stroke worthy of reconsideration.


Reach DCP freelance writer Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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