(Kathryn Scott Osler, Denver Post file)

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

Exploring free America

Pueblo, we quickly learned, isn’t much of a vacation spot. It’s a depressed steel town, of slightly more than 100,000 residents, in the middle of some of the grayest, least-attractive landscape in North America. Mountainous beauty abounds — 50 miles in either direction. Pueblo has few good bars and no real nightlife. One of the town’s major claims to fame is “The Slopper,” a cheeseburger smothered in hot chili sauce that has been eaten several times on The Food Network. Everything was smothered in hot chili sauce. I ate a boatload of the stuff with my tamales at a Mexican restaurant, while next to us an enormous family celebrated someone’s graduation from the police academy. It was wholesome to the point of absurdity.

“It’s like you drove to Texas for vacation, but ended up in Waco,” Rich said. “No one goes on vacation to Waco.”

A decaying and segregated industrial prairie pit full of kind and helpful Christians seems like a strange place to host five dispensaries that sell legal marijuana of the highest possible quality. But there you have it. Marijuana is legal in Pueblo, Colorado, the pulsating heart of revolutionary Free America.

We drove our minivan to an exurban strip mall to an outlet of Maggie’s Farm, which sat next to an auto-title place. Maggie’s Farm is a mini-chain that got its start in the medical marijuana business, with outlets in several cities. This one had a bit of a mountain hippie aesthetic. It has another outlet, too, on the depressed eastern industrial edge of the city. We visited that one, too, later in the weekend. The weed was just as good.

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On the rear wall was a map, full of stickpins to show where the customers had come from. “Pueblo is a crossroads for all kinds of travelers,” the Maggie’s Farm weed clerk said as we purchased several grams of excellent legal marijuana. Many of the stickpins were in Texas. There was a huge clump around Austin. We weren’t the first.

And we certainly weren’t the last. In the lobby were five young McConaugheys, plus a Cool Girl, sitting in chairs, waiting their turn. They were in their early 20s, maybe slightly older than that, and they were beaming like happy kindergarteners.

“You guys from Texas?” I asked.

“Yessir!” one of them said. “Dallas. We drove all night to get here. Started at midnight.”

“We got a cabin up in the woods,” another one piped in, eagerly. “It’s our first time stopping for weed.”

They were eager young Americans, bright-eyed, happy, rich and free.

Getting behind the scenes

I’d arranged for Rich and I to have a tour of the Cannasseur facilities. We met the manager there at 10:30 a.m. First, he took us into the laboratory, a small room full of shiny-new cooking equipment. A young dude in a hoodie was busy making shatter using a butane extractor and a pressure oven. There was also a refrigerator where he was draining all the lipids out of the marijuana leaves, leaving only the pure, untrammeled THC oil. This is done using Everclear. Cannasseur sells their own product, and they also make it for other dispensaries. They have four guys working full-time in the lab.

“How did you learn how to do this?” I asked. “Are you a chemist?”

“No,” he said. “I learned from a friend. And Internet forums. It’s hit or miss.”

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This was “Breaking Bad,” but very legal. Shatter is the consistency of glass, but it has the pot strength of Hercules. It is the crack of weed, anywhere between 67.8 and 80 percent THC. “It will shatter your mind,” the chemist said. “People spend their entire seven-gram limit on this stuff.”

The tour was very enlightening. On the one hand, Cannasseur was sparkling clean and extremely professional. The store manager proudly showed me a thick binder of manufacturing standard operating procedures, which the owners had put together with great care. On the other hand, everyone who worked there was a massive pothead. The manager told me he likes to bathe with THC-enhanced salts every night. A budtender said, “I like to layer. Leaf on the bottom. Wax in the middle. A little leaf on top. It’s all good. It gets you very high.”

The stoners are running the asylum. And they’re making a lot of money.

Next, we got to see the grow facility, which hides in plain sight behind the showroom. There was a lovely room full of budding marijuana plants, which was a lot of fun. We took photos of the buds, which glistened back at us, winking out their possibilities. There were some other rooms with pot plants in various stages of development, but the money shot was a 9,600-square-foot greenhouse out back, where the pot was growing six feet or higher. The greenhouse had a blackout rooftop, as well as humidity and temperature controls. It put any garden center to shame. The whole thing cost $450,000 to pull together. They paid the electrician alone $60,000, and another $90,000 went to a lighting company. There was an identical greenhouse, the manager told me, only two blocks away. All the plants in the greenhouses were set to have their first blooms in a couple of weeks.

“Having too much product is not our problem,” the manager said.

I thought I was going to have to scrape Rich off the floor. He was taking panorama shots of the greenhouse.

“All this pot,” he said. “It’s all legal.”

We went back into the store, where four young people, three dudes wearing cowboy hats plus a Cool Girl, were gleefully looking at tinctures under glass.

“You guys are from Texas, right?” I said.

They were from the town of Snyder, right in the middle of Midland oil country. They’d driven all night, more or less, to get to legal marijuana.

“This is insane,” said one of the dudes.

“80 percent of our revenue is from out of state,” the manager said to me. “And 40 percent of our total revenue is from Texas.”

Pot shop owner: “80 percent of our customers come from out of state”

The shop door opened. In walked all the guys from Dallas who we’d seen at our last stop. They were going to every dispensary in Pueblo to load up on supplies. On the back wall, the bud room was lit
up behind glass, tantalizing us all with delicious possibility.

“Did you guys just get a tour?” the lead McConaughey asked.

“Yessir,” I said.

“Man, I would pay big money for that,” he said.

The manager shook his head.

“Just look at all this revenue Texas could be getting,” he said.

“There’s so much money on this end. But they’d rather incarcerate people.”

Leaving the promised land

Rich and I drove home on a Sunday morning. We’d seen about as much of Pueblo as we wanted. “Besides,” he said, “it’s not like I’m never coming back.” He was already hatching plans to return, even talking about buying vacation property in Trinidad and renting it to Airbnb stoners or, alternately, sending his daughters to summer camp up in the Rockies, which would be very convenient. I already had two 2015 Colorado trips planned, and was trying to figure out how to make it six. In the meantime, though, it was back to Texas, where if you want pot, you have to wait for your friend to call his guy. If his guy is out, then you’re shit out of luck.

I know a guy who regularly ships $500 worth of marijuana products from Denver to his Texas home. Another friend, when he heard that I was going to Colorado, offered to give me $2,000, plus shipping costs. I declined that opportunity.

Yet we all know that what happens in Colorado doesn’t always stay in Colorado.

A friend in Austin told me about a co-worker of his who’d run into some trouble coming home from Free America. I gave him a call to get his story. Let’s call him Gary. That isn’t his actual name.

Over Labor Day weekend, Gary went up to Colorado from Austin for his first vacation in eight years. His sister and her husband had rented a cabin in the mountains, 45 minutes south of Denver. Family that Gary hadn’t seen in a long time was going to be there. But he got sick. He went to the emergency room four times. There was some sort of nausea, and dry heaving. “It was the worst pain I have ever been in in my life,” he says, “and I’m 63 years old.” He had a CAT scan, ultrasounds and blood work. It all came back inconclusive.

Only one thing helped his nausea: The marijuana he’d legally bought. After his vacation ended, he hit the road with his weed. In retrospect, he admits, this was probably not the best decision.

“I was back in Texas, outside of Brownwood,” he says. “A speed limit sign snuck up on me. I was doing 45 in a 40 and got pulled over.”

The police officer said the car smelled like weed. “It was in my hair,” Gary said. “I have long hair.” That, the officer told Gary, was “probable cause” for a search. Cop versus hippie is a classic Texas struggle, but the outcome is always the same.

The search revealed a lot of pills, which got the cop all excited, but Gary had the paperwork. It also unveiled three “good-sized buds.” The cop asked Gary if he’d bought the weed in Colorado.

“I told them that was where I’d been,” Gary said. “They know what’s going on in Colorado.”

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The cop called a towing company to have Gary’s car impounded. He cuffed Gary and threw him in the back of the police car. It was only a possession misdemeanor. Gary knew that. But he also knew that he was about to spend the night in jail.

It was an eight-mile drive back to the station. The cop drove it real slow. He played one song: AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell.”

Gary was in jail for more than 24 hours, until his son’s girlfriend finally came and bailed him out. He’s still waiting for the next step. “I called the county attorney in Brownwood. She said they get 100 of these cases a week. They’re not even going to file any more cases until the first of the year. I’m hoping it’ll just keep going and they’ll lose it in the shuffle.”

Texas impounded more than 800,000 pounds of marijuana last year. Most of that was seized on the Mexican border. But there are risks on the north side as well. “It’s awesome to be able to go the store and just buy it,” Gary said to me. “You’ve got so many choices and different ways to go about it. It’s pretty cool. But getting back home is a real problem.”

That said, there was no dragnet at the border. We didn’t see a single cop for hours, until we got to Brownwood County, two hours outside of Austin, the same place that Gary had gotten arrested. There, in the right-hand lane of a two-lane section of U.S. Highway 87, a police cruiser was trolling, 15 miles under the speed limit. That’s an old cop trick. If you’re unwilling to pass, then you must have something to hide. We whizzed on by.

We weren’t in Free America anymore.