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Illustration by Michael Byers

One Man’s Complicated 50-Year Relationship With Cannabis

It's been a long, strange trip.

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When I give visiting friends directions from DIA to our house in Granby, I mention three landmarks they’ll encounter along the way. The first is Berthoud Pass, the breathtaking 11,307-foot entrance into Grand County from the I-70 corridor. The second is Winter Park, the ski town they’ll find after descending the pass along U.S. 40. Finally, I mention Igadi, the massive marijuana production facility and dispensary in Tabernash, a community of precisely 417 people.

The Igadi operation is an absurd presence there, as difficult to ignore as a hippo at high tea. Along with the nearby ski resorts and spas, it’s among the largest commercial enterprises in the county. Its general counsel calls it a “destination dispensary,” and its website boasts that it’s home to “the largest observable marijuana grow in the world.”

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Walking into its dim foyer is like entering a sanctified space. Through viewing windows framed by wood salvaged from an 1897 Pueblo County barn, the bright green leaves of plants sway beneath oscillating fans and 600-watt grow lights. Visitors can watch clones mature into plants so heavy with dense buds that the growers use trellis netting to keep the branches from breaking. The windows remind me of the monstrance into which Catholic priests place the consecrated Host for veneration, giving believers a tantalizing peek at the Blessed. Here it is, you faithful! Gaze upon it in wonder!

As fetishistic retail experiences go, it’s a doozy.

Behind the scenes, the operation is a mix of old-fashioned human labor and technology. It features a tidy kitchen for making high-octane edibles, a conference room with a window that frames the rock outcropping known as the Devil’s Thumb, and retail shelves made of beetle-kill pine that are divided neatly into two sections: medical and recreational.

Colorado reached that fork in the road six years ago next month, giving those of us who live here the luxury of using cannabis anytime the mood strikes. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. Just because we can, I’m not convinced we should. I do know that since Igadi opened in May 2015, it has expanded to fill the 13,500-square-foot space previously occupied by a lumber yard and a tool shop—and that the line for Igadi’s recreational counter is always longer than the queue for the medical one.

My relationship with cannabis is probably a lot like yours: long, complicated, and easily broken down by decade. In the 1970s, pot, like the Bee Gees, was an unavoidable presence in my life. The cool kids in high school never invited me into their intriguing world of criminal misbehavior, but my college dormmates welcomed incoming freshmen like me with joints and bong hits behind towel-sealed doors. Pot was as much a social lubricant as soul handshakes.

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My memories from that time are a little foggy. I remember earnestly pursuing the kind of canna-bliss that enthusiasts described, but my most persistent recollections involve nonsensical laughter, wracking coughs, and breath like sock fungus. I also remember lamenting pot’s effect on my girlfriend at the time. For the most part, being with her was like holding a lit sparkler—dazzling, hot, maybe a little dangerous. She had a mischievous smile and bright, playful eyes, at least until she got high. Then her eyes went half-mast and dull and she was about as much fun as the charred wire after a sparkler burns out.

Recreational drug experimentation eventually receded in my hierarchy of needs. During the 1980s, I started a career, met the woman who became my wife, and bought a house. Someone handed me a joint at a party in 1985, and—what the hell?—I took it. But marijuana had changed, or maybe I had. The effect was immediate and distressing. I felt like I was moving through quicksand. I got on my motorcycle and set off on a dry suburban street that felt inexplicably slippery, like riding across a hockey rink. The bike moved beneath me like a rodeo bull.

In what I now consider one of the best decisions of my life, I pulled over and turned off the engine. I have no idea how I got home that night, but I did. The next morning, I dug a crumpled party address from my pocket and used it as my guide. I called a cab and retrieved my steed. By then, all the ice had melted. That’s when I knew my casual acquaintance with marijuana was over.

I took a zero-tolerance approach with our two children when it came to pot, and during their formative years, I never copped to my own use of weed. Why undercut the message? I felt righteous and powerful the day I plucked my teenage son’s seedling plants from the corner of the yard (where he didn’t think we’d notice them) and triumphantly presented them to him as a dying bouquet, along with a lecture. Wasn’t that my job as a parent?

It may not have been the best approach. Both kids eventually became defiant canna-believers, even though it was illegal where we lived at the time and possessing it was a felony in Arizona, where our daughter went to college. I never got comfortable with her heavy eyelids or believed for a minute that our then 18-year-old son needed a medical card for injury-related headaches. (“Tried Advil?” I asked at the time.)

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Over the years, though, I began to soften my view. Too many people have gone to jail for something way more benign than getting blackout drunk. And even if the medical pot industry initially struck me as a haven for budtenders pretending to be doctors, I now appreciate the promise of cannabis for those who suffer from pain and disease.

My wife and I, in fact, paid our first visit to Igadi the summer after it opened because chemotherapy was wracking my sister’s body with nausea. The patch we bought her offered perhaps 24 hours of relief during what was a relentless decline. That one good day was one more than she might otherwise have had, and I’m grateful to the state of Colorado for allowing her that.

We’ve also heard unexpected revelations from friends. One of them, a conservative seventysomething, recently confided that he’d relied on illegal pot while being treated for testicular cancer years ago and said he’d scored a legal stash earlier this year to ease his pain after carpal tunnel surgery. It was like hearing James Dobson sing the praises of Igadi’s Trainwreck sativa.

As for those hard-partying college classmates? A dozen of us gathered for a friend’s wedding celebration about a year ago, and I was delighted when, more than 40 years after we’d all parted ways, they agreed to come visit us, en masse, this past summer.

Life, it turns out, has been both kind and cruel. All of us built honorable careers. Most of us married and raised families. It’s worth noting that the heartiest partyer among us back then became a brigadier general in the U.S. Army and served in Iraq. He’s retired now, as are a few others, and is navigating the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Another friend’s husband struggles with Parkinson’s, too, and they left our reunion long enough to visit Igadi, looking for relief. I’m glad they had that chance, and sincerely hope they found it.

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Then, the week after they all left, our visiting daughter, now 29, announced she had stopped smoking pot. She’d figured out she didn’t really need it to ease anxiety and help her sleep and that she’d rather spend that money on other things. Her younger brother? He may get there someday, as so many grown-ups do, but in the meantime he has turned his passion for pot into a career. Although he has a pricey private-university finance degree and has plans to complete an MBA, he currently works as a consultant in California’s recently legal recreational cannabis industry.

God, I believe, has a wicked sense of humor.

But I also wonder if my son’s relationship with cannabis will end up just as complicated as my own. Will it someday recede in his hierarchy of needs? How will he handle the discussion if his kids come home with half-mast eyes? And I wonder if he’ll forgive me when the cascading aches and indignities of age outpace the curative powers of Advil and I one day ask him to drive me and my codger friends to Tabernash.

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