After growing up in Colorado and moving away, returning to a Denver with legal pot can be a vexing experience. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)

Rocky Mountain High or Reefer Madness? Legal pot comes with risks (opinion)

A reporter returns to his hometown and confronts the new reality of legalized marijuana.

I walked through clouds of marijuana smoke Friday night to get to the Denver Nuggets basketball game. The sweet smell lingering in the air reminded me less of a family event and more of the time I saw AC/DC on “The Razor’s Edge” tour at the old McNichols Sports Arena.

I grew up in Colorado, but it’s been a while since I lived in the state. When I returned for a recent conference, I found that a place settled by the Gold Rush is now mad about reefer. In 2012, Colorado voters became the first in the nation to approve recreational pot use. The good times rolled out Jan. 1, when stores started selling it.

I’ve never tried pot, but I graduated from the University of Colorado – Boulder, which is famous for its annual 4/20 public pot parties. At CU, you can practically get a contact high walking to class. But I saw more public pot use in my two-day visit to Lower Downtown Denver than in years spent at Boulder.

It’s supposed to be illegal to smoke or consume pot in public. But then the day after the game, while jogging down the Speer Boulevard bike path, I passed a guy lounging under a tree lavishing his affections on a joint.

Anyone over 21 can walk into a dispensary and load up on bud, marijuana baked goods and candy.


Your marijuana questions, answered: Check out our definitive Colorado marijuana guide


The presence of legal pot right outside our hotel made people giddy at the conference I attended — a meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists. At a reception, one woman passed a friend gummy bears infused with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot.

And then there was a friend of mine at the conference — I’ll call him Dude because he shared his story on condition I didn’t name him. He had a bad reaction after eating too many marijuana gummy bears.

There’s a running debate about whether pot should be legal for recreational use, but the Colorado experiment is rapidly unfolding, and it could help determine whether other states follow or shy away. (Washington voters also have approved recreational marijuana, and the state expects to begin licensing retailers in July.)

Two things stand out after my visit.

First, legal pot is attracting new and possibly naïve users — creating risks that some don’t bargain for. Second, the public health system’s desire to protect people may be well-intentioned, but regulation and efforts to track the health effects have a ways to go.

Dude had only smoked pot twice in his life, about 25 years ago, but he got curious and tried some pot gummy bears from a shop called the LoDo Wellness Center. Other than being infused with THC they looked and tasted like ordinary candy. Dude and his buddy paid $20 for a pack of 10.

Dude ate a bear before dinner but felt nothing. So he popped another during the meal. Nada. Ripoff, he assumed. So he ate a few more – five total, he said – but still felt nothing. He fell asleep in his hotel room at 11 p.m.

Two hours later, Dude awoke feeling like he was on a roller coaster. His entire body tingled, and he was light headed. He tried to stand, but his left leg was so numb he couldn’t walk to the bathroom. His pounding heart strained his rib cage as waves of euphoria and anxiety washed over him.

He was terrified.

Was this the high? An overdose? A heart attack? A stroke?


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Totally debilitated, “Dude” thought about calling an ambulance but feared ending up in the E.R. or a police station. So he stayed put, guzzled water, pulled a blanket over his head and clutched a pillow. The symptoms lasted two hours, but it took a full day to feel normal again.

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This story is co-published on ProPublica