Recreational use of pot is legal in Colorado, but since it’s not legal at the federal level, that means it’s “cash only” for tourists looking to get high in the Mile High City.
A hot spot for nature lovers and winter sports enthusiasts alike, Colorado has always had its fair share of tourists. But since 2013, the state has been annually breaking its own tourism records, and it’s not just due to the tourism board’s “Come to Life” campaign that started in 2012. Since the Centennial State legalized pot for recreational purposes in November 2012 and allowed it to be officially sold at specialty stores starting in 2014, Colorado seems to have become a destination spot even for non-nature lovers, at least the ones who prefer the kind of plants they can smoke.
As a Midwesterner who grew up in the ’90s, when the thought of legalized marijuana was as far-fetched an idea as legalized alcohol must have been in 1925 (the height of Prohibition), a recent visit to Colorado forced me to take a peek inside the equivalent of one of the first legit speakeasies.
At Helping Hands Herbals, a marijuana dispensary just off Boulder’s famous Pearl Street, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After walking down a long hallway, past the medicinal marijuana department, I ascended the stairs into a small room with only an ATM and a driver’s license scanner. I was a bit taken aback when a cheerful sales clerk (I later learned they’re referred to as “budistas”) came out to greet me and request my driver’s license to ensure I was over 21.
I then entered what felt like a mini Whole Foods, complete with one of the customers munching on some organic cherries as he quizzed the budista on the best THC-infused dark chocolate. (THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering ingredient found in marijuana plants.)
Words and phrases such as “cellular regeneration,” “preventative” and “antioxidant” were being uttered all around me, as the line of customers grew, eager to “buy local.”
The sales clerks were experts in their products, which range from the herb in its raw form, to lotions, chocolates, gummy bears and even tea bags. I learned that cannabis newbies favor the edibles (candy-covered pot), but the budista told me she always recommends initiates start off smoking the herb, so that they don’t ingest too many milligrams their first time (apparently they rarely heed this advice).
The only part of the scene that alluded to the controversial nature of the shop’s business was a worker behind the counter counting $5, $10 and $20 bills as he put them into plastic bags. Customers, who were easily spending at least a hundred bucks each on their purchases, were pulling wads of cash out of their wallets and stuffing the change into the tip jars next to the registers.
The solitary 21st century payment option I saw on the counter was a small card reader that operates as a cashless ATM, allowing the customer to insert or swipe a debit card and enter his or her PIN in return for the cash they need for their stash.
Since marijuana is still considered a Schedule I substance at the federal level (meaning it can’t be manufactured or sold because it has a high potential for abuse), banks, which are federally regulated, won’t assume the risk of allowing credit cards to be used at dispensaries — at least not yet. According to Colorado’s 2015 tax data, there was almost $1 billion dollars of marijuana, both medical and recreational, sold in the state.
While the cash-only policy didn’t seem to stem the flow of eager customers, it is clearly cramping the style of the shops, which have to keep security tight to not be targets of theft. Marijuana businesses still lack basic banking and card-processing services.
Cannabis tourists heading in the direction of the state’s dispensaries should also keep a lookout as thieves in the know could seriously dampen the buzz of buying weed legally.
At least until new federal legislation is passed preventing federal banking regulators from sanctioning banks that deal with legitimate marijuana businesses, purchasing a legal high still carries a little of the edge of a street deal.