Where there’s smoke

A million years ago, when I was preparing to leave central Maine for Florida, I wrote my penultimate newspaper column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, detailing some of the story ideas that I’d had on the shelf for the better part of two years that remained unattempted.

The ideas included a lobster roll road test (which fell by the wayside after my first sandwich review, the McDonald’s version) and a potential investigation into haunted sites and paranormal activity in the area, which was quickly put to bed when I realized I’d have freaked out if said ghost hunt ended up at my front door.

While I was interested in all of the ideas on the list individually, there was only one that had an anchoring in real issues facing this country, as opposed to just “something novel I saw one day that I could turn into 15 inches of copy every other Thursday.”

That particular issue was gun control, a hot-button topic if there ever was one, and one that continues to raise its head. Despite carrying some pretty strong opinions on the matter, I didn’t feel qualified to speak on it unless I had first-hand experience, and my various half-hearted attempts to attend a firearm safety course failed miserably, so that one got spiked as well.

Until this very minute, I could have sworn that segment of the aforementioned column wasn’t just about gun control, but “guns and medical marijuana,” but on further review it’s apparent that I’ve never written about the latter.

But whether or not I published my vague intent, it was always in the back of my mind that Maine’s legalized medical marijuana system would make for an interesting column from the perspective of someone whose country has prohibited the drug.

The general idea was that I would have sought out a physician with the authority to grant a medical marijuana card in the state of Maine, documenting the process and looking at how difficult (or not) it to obtain was for someone who didn’t really need it for therapeutic reasons. The concept fell off, partly because I heard it was a $300 investment to see a doctor who was a sure thing, partly because I was afraid of being caught in a lie, and partly because I didn’t really have much need for a medical marijuana card anyway.

Of course, this brings me to my current (and future, and probably forever) city and state of residence. Colorado was, alongside Washington, the first state to pass legislation legalizing the recreational use of pot back in 2012. The law didn’t kick in until January 1, 2014, a couple of weeks after I left Denver for Maine.

But coming back in 2017 was an enormous eye-opener. In the couple of weeks I was driving, before I sold my trusty Subaru, I was consistently blown away by the billboards, print ads and radio commercials advertising deals on ounces, edibles and more at weed dispensaries all around the metro area. Even at work, where the newspaper has its own marijuana vertical, The Cannabist, the frequent discussion of pot-related content — from legislative news to bud reviews — was surreal.

I know that makes me sound incredibly naive, to the point of probable stupidity, because it’s a completely legal commodity, and it’s been part of Colorado’s collective daily existence for more than three years now. But the contrast for someone who came from a place where pot was entirely illegal was somewhat mind-bending.

Obviously it didn’t take long for the incredulity to wear off and the dispensaries I walk by during the course of my week are just like any other storefront, rather than a novelty. It just took me three and a half months to see the inside of one.

…you knew this pre-amble was going to end up taking that natural progression, right? Maybe, maybe not.

For the record, I’m not a big weed guy, nor even a medium weed guy. I’ve smoked here and there at points during my adult life, in jurisdictions I won’t name where it doesn’t have the same legal status it does in Colorado, but being an enormous control freak and without a ton of experience with it, I’ve never been a regular smoker. I know how I’m going to feel after six beers, and that’s good enough for me.

But even in the minutes and hours after it became public that I was relocating to Denver, people began to make references right away to recreational pot. I deflected, mostly out of an inability to say anything that wouldn’t make me sound like a complete dork, but it did fan the flames of curiosity a little bit. As with everything I’ve ever done in my entire life, I started to do some closer research about the legality, the industry in Colorado and the products on offer. Smoking isn’t exactly a delivery system that comes naturally to me, but I became more curious in edibles in the context of a “rainy day off at home on the couch.” I figured it was something I’d eventually feel comfortable taking a shot at, and left it at that.

Actually being here, surrounded by the industry and how widespread and legitimate it is, actually served to make me more nervous about dipping my toe in the water, for some bizarre reason. Everybody I’ve come across is incredibly open about it, and even though it’s not legal to consume in public, you can’t walk five blocks without encountering the smell of someone burning one, or offering some. Two weeks after I arrived was the big 4/20 festival, right across the street from the office, where thousands of smokers congregated to light up to celebrate the unofficial holiday. It’s just a part of life here, really.

A couple of factors finally tipped the scales for me and prompted me to set foot in my first pot shop: my spine and my sleep. I’ve struggled with back pain sporadically for years, and medical treatment was expensive enough for it back home, let alone here. This in turn is an indictment on the health care system, in that I’d rather give a shot at a natural muscle relaxant than try to navigate the murky waters of my insurance companies, but that’s another story for another day that I may already have written.

Sleep is probably the bigger factor. After working night shift for years, and as recently as 2015, I struggle to make my brain shut off before 11 o’clock on any given night. Unfortunately this is a problem when my first weekday alarms ring at 3:45 a.m. I’ve tried going to bed early, but I end up laying in the dark staring at the ceiling. Drinking the “sleepytime” types of tea doesn’t appear to have any real impact, and taking melatonin supplements recommended to me by several people I know just leaves me feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus the next day. And while the other obvious choice is a couple beers or a Scotch before bed, that leaves me feeling even worse the following morning, not to mention the rest of the downsides of it. Napping during the afternoon does re-energize me, but then it keeps me up until midnight. It’s a vicious cycle.

A lot of the new friends I’ve made since I’ve been here have earnestly asked me whether I’d tried just a little weed — a couple puffs, or an edible — as a sleep aid that wouldn’t leave me with a hangover of one sort or another, and again I always deflected, embarrassed to be thought of as someone too uptight or scared to give it a shot. But my out-of-the-ordinary work hours and sleep schedule has changed my body clock so that I’m now stirring way too early on my days off, when I’d rather be getting a little extra shut-eye.

So rather than taking the pharmaceutical option of actual sleeping pills, I decided to take a walk down to the dispensary a few blocks from me instead. I got a good product recommendation from someone I trust immensely, so I set off with the semi-confidence that I wouldn’t end up bumbling it.

I obviously looked how I felt — as a fish out of water — but the guy checking IDs at the front office was friendly and disarming, and once he found out it was my first time, he talked me through the layout of the store and what was where on the extensive menus above the counter, which looked like it could be any sandwich shop anywhere in the western world.

The budtender who called me to the counter explained that they were out of the one I’d been advised to pick out, but she recommended something similar without hesitating, and cashed me out. It was a well-oiled machine: the whole transaction, from proof of identification to walking back out the door headed for home, took less than five minutes.

Talk about surreal — I can’t even acquire a bunch of tacos on my lunch break that quickly.

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