(Kathryn Scott Osler, Denver Post file)

Neal Pollack’s Reefer Roadtrip from Texas to Free America (aka Colorado)

The sun had already gone down by the time we crossed the golden border from New Mexico to Colorado. Rich and I looked at each other knowingly. For the first time in our lives, we could legally smoke marijuana in our home country. And all it took was driving a minivan through a mountain pass.

“I don’t have any weed on me,” he said. “But if I did, it would be O.K.”

I opened the window and breathed the sweet mid-December mountain air. Pueblo, the first place across the border where you could buy pot, was still nearly 100 miles away. We followed our Tom-Tom directions, getting increasingly excited as we headed toward a new and glorious future.

We had arrived in Free America.

CNN's Sanjay Gupta (Chris Pizzello, Invision/AP)
CNN’s Sanjay Gupta (Chris Pizzello, Invision/AP)

I was actually embarrassed it had taken me this long to get to Colorado. Of all the writers I know — really, of all the humans I know — I’m the biggest, most fervent, most frequent stoner. So it’s beyond pathetic that it took me a year to get to the Holy Land, especially because I have the time. All summer, I sat around and said, “I really should head up to Colorado for a couple of weeks.” And I could have done it, at pretty much any time. But instead, I just sat back and watched as unqualified CNN reporters got their tours of airplane hangars full of marijuana plants, as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, of all people, became pot’s biggest advocate. For Marley’s sake, Maureen Dowd went to Denver and got high before me, and she is not qualified. I was missing the revolution. Finally, I could wait no longer. The last person to the party still gets to attend.

In order to get to pot before closing time, we’d left Austin at 8:30 a.m., and that only worked because we gained an hour on the way. We drove the entirety of the Texas Panhandle, skirting Lubbock and Abilene and passing through the middle of downtown Amarillo, followed by nearly two hours of barren New Mexico high desert. It took forever and was almost unimaginably boring. Rich summed up the absurdity:

“You can go down the street and buy an automatic weapon whenever you want. But you have to drive 12 hours to get legal weed.”

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You’d think that Austin, the home of “Dazed And Confused,” would be a marijuana paradise. Maybe it was in 1977. But unless you’re Willie Nelson, good pot can be surprisingly hard to find here now, especially compared with its easy availability elsewhere. Marijuana still carries substantial criminal risks, particularly if you’re black or Hispanic. In this most enlightened marijuana age, Austin, and the rest of Texas, is often bone-dry and repressive. It’s no wonder that Texans are hauling ass up to Colorado as often as possible.

Pueblo is Free America’s stoner port of call, where the first dispensaries across the border are. It sits five hours from Amarillo, about 10 hours from Dallas and a flat 800 miles from my home in Austin. Soon, the town of Trinidad, Colorado, a mere 13 miles from the New Mexico border, will begin to sell pot. That will change everything, shaving 90 minutes off the journey, thereby flooding Trinidad with eager, glassy-eyed Texas bros. But for now, Pueblo is the crossing.

I figured the pot store would just be on a street, or in a strip mall. Instead, it was at least 15 minutes off the interstate. We drove through a dark, industrial area that was punctuated by brushy vacant lots. There were no other cars around. I later learned that marijuana sales aren’t actually allowed within Pueblo city limits, meaning that all pot has to be sold on the county outskirts. At the time, though, it felt like we were going to buy pot like we always had: In the skeeziest possible circumstance.

Pueblo West pot shop Cannasseur draws way more out-of-state traffic than it does local business. (Cannasseur)
Pueblo West, Colo., pot shop Cannasseur draws way more out-of-state traffic than it does local business, according to its owner. (Cannasseur)

But the similarities to the old ways ended there. At around 7:30 p.m., we pulled into a well-lit parking lot in front of a modest, but neat, brown stucco building. At the entrance to the parking lot was a little stone structure with a sign in it that read, simply, “Cannasseur.” We walked inside, into a high-ceilinged room that looked like an ordinary waiting area, except that there were enormous high-definition photographs of marijuana buds hanging everywhere. The pilgrims had arrived at the temple.

A smiling young woman sat behind the desk.

“Welcome to Cannasseur,” she said. “Can I see your IDs?”

We handed them over.

“We had lots of people from Texas today,” she said, examining them.

The budtender was busy with another customer, she said. It would just be a couple of minutes. We paced around the room like nervous dogs at the vet. Then the woman stood up, opened the door to the inner chamber, and said, “Enjoy.”

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The angels sang as we entered paradise. Along the black-painted walls sat dozens of jars of marijuana, of the highest possible quality and of every possible type, as well as candy bars, sodas, balms, tinctures, oil cartridges and sour gummies, in seemingly infinite varieties. There were joints under glass. The room smelled sweet and danky. It was amazing.

I had a medical card in California for years, so I more or less knew what to expect. But I was still walking around in there grinning, happier than Hank Hill at Home Depot. All artifice had been removed from the process.

Rich had never been to a dispensary before. His expression was even more gee-whiz. He was Richie Cunningham losing his virginity behind the malt shop. We were in an alternate drugstore from another dimension. This was legal!


A chill-looking guy wearing a straight-brimmed baseball cap looked up. He had a small shears in his right hand.

“Just doing my trimming,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“That’s cool,” I said.

“You’re in luck,” he said. “It’s happy hour. That means 20 percent off.”

Shopping commenced. You can only buy seven grams worth of marijuana, per dispensary, per day. We had a long weekend ahead of us, and drugs would be readily available, so we didn’t overextend. We just got our Friday-night starter kit: Two fat joints of a potent sativa called Blue Bastard, a gram of a really sweet-smelling sativa-dominant hybrid called Flo and a Skywalker OG crossjoint, the specialty of the house, two joints sewn together into a paper cross. It burns from three ends.

“Five people would be flying off that thing,” the budtender said.

“We’ll take it!” we said, eagerly.

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He put our purchases into a plastic bag with the Cannasseur logo on it. The bag sealed shut with a zipper, which then got inserted into a plastic clip. All weed sold in Colorado has to be in childproof containers. Some shops take care of this by distributing their goods in pill bottles. Others use these special sealed envelopes and charge up to $20 for them to clueless tourists. Cannasseur only tacked on a $3 bag surcharge. The zipper broke the first time it opened.

Regardless, we had plenty of excellent pot that we’d obtained legally at a reasonable market price, plus tax.

Now we had to go someplace and smoke it.

Fortunately, Pueblo offered that as well.

Weed-friendly lodging, on the interstate

The headline of a short article in the Jan. 7, 2014 edition of The Pueblo Chieftain announced “Local hotel smoker-friendly.” In the article, Heather Peralta, the manager of the Microtel off I-25, said that it was opening up nine of its 63 rooms to marijuana smokers. “We figure people are going to do it whether we let them or not,” she said.

Two nights before we left, I called the Microtel.

“I would like to order one of your marijuana-friendly hotel rooms,” I said.

“You mean our smoking rooms?” said the person on the other end of the line.

“Yes,” I said.

That would be no problem, she said.

We arrived at the Microtel after 9 p.m. on a Friday with plenty of legal weed in our Cannasseur-sealed bag. There were four preteens chasing one another up and down the halls. A guy walked through carrying a plastic milk-crate full of Christian textbooks. This was the most ordinary place in America. Except that you could get high in your room here, legally and without breaking any of the rules on the back of the hotel room’s door, before you hit the breakfast buffet.

There was a problem. Every smoking room was taken. The dinner rush had sucked them all away.

“But we reserved a marijuana room,” I said. “Ahead of time. Is the whole hotel sold out?”

“Oh, no,” the clerk said. “Just the smoking rooms. There’s always a ton of demand.”

She called her manager. A couple minutes passed. And then she handed me a key.

“A lot of times,” she said, “we’ll just convert another room into a smoking room. If the cleaning staff gives you a hard time, just tell them you had our permission.”

“Will do,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

“Of course,” she said.

It became clear to me that the smoking rooms were no afterthought. Stoners are out-of-state VIP guests at this Microtel.

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“A lot of professional people like you are coming here to smoke,” she said to me. “It’s not very ghetto.”

That last comment made me uncomfortable. What does it matter if something is “ghetto” or not? But modest racism aside, I’d arrived at a hotel, in America, where I could get stoned. And nobody could say a goddamn thing.

We opened the door. Our room was clean, but small, and very depressing. There were two queen beds, and no closet. Rich, thinking like a true stoner, went into the bathroom, grabbed a towel and stuffed it under the door.

“You don’t have to do that, man,” I said, while loading a bowl. “We have nothing to hide.”

“I’ve gotten high in hundreds of hotel rooms like this,” he said. “It’s habit.”

I did agree to open the window, though.

We got stoned for a while. Then we got more stoned. Soon, we got stoned again, and then a little bit more stoned and then we went to bed. It had been a long travel day, and we were old dads. We needed to preserve our energy.

But we woke up early, like before 7 a.m., as excited as 7-year-olds on Christmas morning. I opened the curtains to see our digs in daylight. On one side of the interstate was a Taco Bell. On the other side, a steel mill sent depressing plumes of smoke into the ash-gray sky. The Shire, this was not. But we had lots of weed, and we were going to buy lots more.

“Spark the Blue Bastard,” I said.

I smoked a joint in bed, still wearing my pajamas.

Read the rest of Neal Pollack’s Reefer Roadtrip from Texas to Free America (aka Colorado)