DENVER — In these, the curious, infant days of the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana, of shiny dispensaries and touch-screen ordering and suburban parties where joints are passed like appetizers over granite countertops, no one would notice the duplex. Plain brick, patchy grass behind chain link, it appears weary, resigned to what the tenant calls “the ‘hood” and others might call left-behind Denver, untouched by the frenzy of investment that has returned to downtown.
The front door of the duplex stays closed. Sheer white curtains cover the living room window. A basement filtering system vents air scrubbed of the sweet funky smell of the pot growing in the basement. The tenant keeps his grow operation here small. It’s his home. That’s his grandson upstairs watching TV with strict instructions not to open the door if someone knocks. Should the cops inquire, they’d find a frail-looking, middle-age Latino with diabetes and heart problems, talking about his pension and his Medicaid and waving his medical marijuana registry card.
The red card — part of the state’s legal landscape since 2000 when voters approved the sale of marijuana for medical use — allows the grower to cultivate a doctor-prescribed 16 plants. It does not allow him to do what he typically does next: sell what he does not consume to the underground market. It does not allow him a second grow op in another rented house where he and a partner grew 55 plants until the landlord grew suspicious.
It does not allow him, in other words, to run his own little corner of a black market that still exists in the state with America’s most permissive legal pot sales.
“I try to keep it legal,” he says, “but sometimes it’s illegal.”
Camouflaged amid the legal medicinal and recreational marijuana market, the ever-adaptable underground market thrives. Some in law enforcement and on the street say it may be as strong as it’s ever been, so great is the unmet local and visitor demand.
That the black market bustles in the emerging days of legalization is not unexpected. By some reckonings, it will continue as long as residents of other states look to Colorado — and now Washington state — as the nation’s giant cannabis cookie jar. And, they add, as long as its legal retail competition keeps prices high and is taxed by state and local government at rates surpassing 30 percent.
“I don’t know who is buying for recreational use at dispensaries unless it’s white, middle-class people and out-of-towners,” Rudy Reddog Balles, a longtime community activist and mediator. “Everyone I know still has the guy on the street that they hook up with.”
This black market boom, the state argues, is a temporary situation. As more legal recreational dispensaries and growers enter the market, the market will do what it does with greater competition: adjust. Prices will fall. The illegal market will shrink accordingly.
In any case, these first curious months of the legal recreational market have laid bare a socioeconomic fault line. Resentment bubbles in the neighborhoods where marijuana has always been easy to get.
The resentment goes something like: We Latinos and African Americans from the ‘hood were stigmatized for marijuana use, disdained and disproportionately prosecuted in the war on drugs. We grew up in the culture of marijuana, with grandmothers who made oil from the plants and rubbed it on arthritic hands. We sold it as medicine. We sold it for profit and pleasure.
Now pot is legalized and who benefits? Rich people with their money to invest and their clean criminal records and 800 credit scores. And here we are again: on the outskirts of opportunity. A legion of entrepreneurs with big plans and rewired basements chafes with every monthly state tax revenue report.
Ask someone who buys and sells in the underground market how it has responded to legalization and the question is likely to be tossed back with defiance. “You mean, ‘Who’s been shut out of the legal market?’ ” asks Miguel Lopez, chief community organizer of the state’s 420 Rally, which calls for legalization of marijuana nationally.
“It’s kind of like we made all the sacrifices and they packed it up and are making all the money,” says Cisco Gallardo, a well-known gang outreach worker who once sold drugs as a gang member. For the record, he does not partake. It rattles him a little, he says, to see the young people with whom he works shed their NFL and rapper dreams for the next big thing: their own marijuana dispensary.