Jennifer DeFalco, co-owner of Denver's Cannabrand advertising firm, came under fire this year after criticizing what she considered to be stereotypical stoner culture as marketers worked to give marijuana a respectable shine and reach potential new consumers. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Denver ‘is not a stoner town,’ but cultural attitudes on pot are evolving

Melissa Vitale had never considered a career in marijuana when she moved her family to Colorado from Austin, Texas, a little over a year ago.

An accountant and former fifth-grade teacher, she long thought marijuana should be legalized but had no designs on working in the industry.

“When you’re a mom, it’s not the easiest thing to manage in your life,” the 41-year-old said of her occasional cannabis use. “I do not and would not smoke in front of my children.”

It wasn’t until she met Amy Dannemiller, another mom at South Denver’s Slavens Elementary School, that working in marijuana even seemed like an option.

“I would see her at school and went to a couple parties at her house. And the more we got to talking, the more I started expressing interest.”

Now Vitale does the books for Dannemiller — better known in the industry as Jane West — and her company Edible Events, which produces marijuana-centric parties. She also works for the Preferred Organic Therapy dispensary and is a member of Dannemiller’s cannabis networking group Women Grow.

“I come from a really conservative background, but my attitude’s definitely evolved a lot since we moved here,” Vitale said.

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Changing the way people think about and use marijuana has not simply been a side effect of legalization in Colorado, which went into effect Jan. 1 after the passage of Amendment 64.

It’s an evolution that has played out on the streets and in living rooms across the state.

“I smoke just as much as I ever have, and I still get it from the black market because it’s cheaper,” said Elliott Woolsey, 32, a Denver stand-up comedian and regular at Comedy Works. “For me the difference is that people have become more brazen, smoking on patios at bars and things like that. Nobody’s afraid of the cops anymore.”

People also feel more comfortable admitting their cannabis use to those in their inner circles.

“I typically vape daily,” said Lauren Gibbs, a social media trainer and founder of Rise Above Social Strategies. “As a result, my migraines are more controlled than they have been in the eight years since my diagnosis of chronic migraine,” a condition for which she has been hospitalized twice and formerly took 17 pills a day to treat.

Gibbs, 34, moved to Colorado a little more than two years ago from Washington, D.C., but only in the past few months has she “come out” to her parents as a marijuana user.

“It’s become a pretty significant part of my business now, and I felt like there was no reason to hide it,” said Gibbs, also a member of Women Grow.

“My parents being OK with it is something I couldn’t have imagined a year ago. But it’s like gay marriage: having a personal connection to someone who’s gay changes more peoples’ minds than any amount of legislation or public opinion polls. And it’s the same with marijuana.”

Different factions also fought for the soul of cannabis culture this year, as marketing firms tried to give marijuana a respectable shine and, in turn, reach out to potential new consumers by changing the drug’s stigma.

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It didn’t always go as planned.

“Those were terrible quotes. I don’t even know where they came from,” said Jennifer DeFalco, 25, co-owner of the Denver-based advertising company Cannabrand. “I don’t think it really reflected what we were trying to say.”

Nonetheless, DeFalco’s words — which were included in an October New York Times story and which compared some Colorado dispensaries to “underground abortion clinics” — exposed a deep divide in marijuana culture over how the industry should present itself.

Cannabrand lost at least one client, the dispensary group Mindful, after the article was published, as well as alienating marijuana activists.

However, DeFalco said her business, which she co-owns with Olivia Mannix, has rebounded to include a half-dozen clients. Next year, Cannabrand will launch the national marketing campaign “Destigmatize to Legalize,” which seeks to change skeptics’ minds about the value of marijuana and show that business professionals and parents can be pot users, too.

“There’s a whole range of casual consumers,” DeFalco said. “There isn’t one single cannabis culture. And baby boomers, women and moms are changing their minds because they’re experimenting with it on their own and realizing it’s not as harmful as the stigma has portrayed it to be for so long.”

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra also challenged the image of a stereotypical stoner — lazy, sloppy, usually male — with its “Classically Cannabis” events in the summer. The three private fundraisers and one public concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 13 drew sponsors from in and outside the weed world, raising a total of $150,000 for the cash-strapped nonprofit.

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“We lost a few donors over it, but it was less than 1 percent,” said Jerry Kern, executive director of the CSO, who also noted the international press the orchestra received. “There was no huge pushback because everybody understood it was a legitimate business in this state, and we were an organization that needed the support of everyone.”

The CSO’s first event, May 23 at Santa Fe Drive’s Space Gallery, mostly resembled a quiet chamber music show — minus the fact that more than a dozen attendees slipped onto the private patio to toke from joints, glass pipes and vaporizers.

“Look around; this is not stoner town,” Evan Lasky, executive vice president of the CSO, told The Denver Post at the time. “We have to build new audiences because the old people are dying off. We have to fight this perception of elitism.”

Older women in elegant evening gowns and jewels mingled with younger patrons who, despite their piercings and tattoos, still dressed the formal part.

This was a marked contrast to the image many detractors had of marijuana users, who have been variously (and derisively) labeled as freeloaders, hippies and thugs.

Stereotypical “stoner” events that pander to existing pot culture were not difficult to find in Colorado this year. The Gypsy Jane Krunkyard Jubilee, an October music festival at the Denver Mart, sold itself with “hot cars and hot women,” hip-hop from Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Tyga, and a considerable slate of quirky sideshow entertainment — all tied together with a blinged-out logo and omnipresent pot-leaf imagery.

Despite being legal statewide, pot’s image problem extends beyond the Front Range. High country towns such as Breckenridge and Granby have voted to minimize or ban pot shops and medical dispensaries altogether.

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“Whether you’re pro-marijuana or against marijuana, you have to be concerned about how tourists react to seeing it,” Breckenridge retiree Bob Gordman, who voted to move the town’s lone dispensary off main street, told The Associated Press.

A recent state-produced report showed out-of-state visitors make 90 percent of recreational marijuana purchases in mountain towns.

Leaders in the Eastern Plains town of Brush also voted down a proposal to turn a former prison there into a marijuana grow operation, which would have added 31 jobs and $500,000 in tax revenue, according to Nicholas Erker, who bought the facility.

“I am disappointed in some of the council members for not taking the time to educate themselves for the betterment of the community,” Erker told 7News in August.

Some Colorado businesses are less concerned with image and more with the bottom line. A survey released in March from Mountain States Employers Council, which represents nearly 3,000 businesses in 11 Western states, found that employers were taking a tougher stance against workers’ drug use in the wake of Amendment 64.

Eight months later that stance is eroding.

“In non-safety-sensitive occupations, we’ve seen a bit of a shift,” said Curtis Graves, a staff attorney with the employers group. “In fact, just last week a national company asked us to review their drug policy because they’re going to try to suppress the results of marijuana tests for a year and see what happens.”

Graves declined to name the company but said it was a matter of practicality.

“It’s in an industry where they’ve got to hire a large number of people and they probably tend to be on the young side,” he said. “They know that if they rule out everybody who tests positive for marijuana, they’ll have a staffing issue. And they’re not the only ones.”

John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, or

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