An excerpt from Colin Hogg’s new book The High Road: A Journey to the New Frontier of Cannabis, in which he and his mate Bruce travelled to the US for a tour of legally available dope.
Today’s big event is the Budz and Sudz Grow and Dispensary Tour. There’s a big neon noticeboard behind the reception counter advertising the current price of cannabis. Flowers, depending on grade and potency, run from $150 to $250 an ounce, $12 to $22 a gram. Back home, illegally, you might pay NZ$400, maybe more, and not even know what you’re getting.
Our transport is a bus – a bus of attitude, smaller than a big bus, but big enough and black with tinted windows, like it’s full of trouble and behaviour that must be hidden from the public gaze. Bruce and I settle ourselves in window seats opposite each other at one of two four-person tables. I’m comforted by the array of canned craft beers sitting in chilled recesses in the table between us.
We’re going to visit a growing facility out in Boulder and then a dispensary where we can do some shopping. “On our way, you’re welcome to light up,” says our guide. “We’ve supplied you all with rolling trays.” He whips out a fat joint, lights it up and passes it straight to our table.
We’re seated with the second-oldest couple on the bus. They’re from Nebraska. Steve’s a farmer, a big guy in a baseball cap. He doesn’t say much and the little he does say I can’t understand. I don’t think he can understand me either, but that barely matters in the circumstances. Brenda’s in real estate. Things are slow in real estate in Nebraska, she says.
Now the young guys sitting at the table across the aisle from us start passing their joints our way too and next thing the doobies are coming round in both directions and everyone, us at the tables and the rest of the crowd down the back in a circle on big sofas, is disappearing in a funky fug.
After an hour maybe — who knows any more? — we’re all off our nuts, us four at the elder table and all the young ones, babbling and grinning while the bus plays music to groove us on our way. It’s about then I notice the glitter balls in the ceiling.
We reach our first destination, a warehouse of weed, where the plants are separated into vast growing rooms according to age. First we visit a “bedroom” for the baby plants, then a more brightly lit teenage dorm, home only to girls of course, the boys having been weeded out. Finally in a hot, hallucinogenically bright room and all ready-to-harvest are the big mama plants, drooping under the weight of their ponderous, variously hued flower heads.
We’re encouraged to get in among them and fondle them if we want, and they’re as sticky as honey and heady with perfume. The whole place is a little overwhelming. They grow around 10,000 plants here, five or six times a year. All sorts of variations on a cannabis theme. The strands have names like Wookie, Chem Dog, Cookie Wreck and Kush Dawg. I even spot an old-fashioned Maui.
They vary in colour — some are gingery, some purple-blue — and in the hang of their many heavy heads.
The growing of such things is so heavily regulated by the state marijuana authorities that each plant here wears an individual tag around the base of its stem, bearing a barcode and the name of the weed family it belongs to. Every single plant is thus known to the authorities and will be tracked and measured right through its life cycle: growth, harvest, use, even the eventual disposal of the vegetative remains. This crazy new business provides a lot of jobs on both sides of the track. Inspectors come by regularly and scan the thousands of barcodes.
Weed people are as obsessed and intense and nerdy as craft beer people and wine bores. The guy in charge here is on a higher plane altogether as he talks about how he’s tweaked and cross-bred his weed up to cosmic, not to mention karmic, levels. He’s kind of entrancing though, as he passes out his business cards to all of us and says he wants to “share the knowledge”, pass it on, make the world a better place. Or more stoned at least.
“Ring me any time,” he tells us. On the stairs on the way out I ask him how high the THC levels can get with all this tweaking. “We can hit 30 per cent,” he says. And much higher with one of the precious by-products of this place. It’s called kief and it consists of the trichomes, or resin glands, of the cannabis plant, found in the form of a powder or shake that comes off the dried flowers. We’re shown a plastic baggie of some, a golden-brown powder, pretty much pure THC.
The next stop is a marijuana dispensary that dispenses, among other things, the fine products of the growing facility we’ve just left. It’s not far away, in a bedraggled backlot, looking, from the outside, like a doomed motel. Inside is a little more promising, except we all have to mill about waiting while they let in one set of customers at a time.
There’s a young guy in the corner with a colourful little stand hustling some high-end, hand-painted cannabis chocolate assortments. Hand-painted? “Each one’s completely individual,” he chirps.
They’re showing some of the products for sale, with prices, up on a screen. All of us on this tour are getting a 25 per cent discount.
Bruce and I are called for our turn in the dispensary’s inner shop. “We’re in the market for some ready-rolls,” I tell the hipster behind the counter. His beard has been combed recently, but that’s all right and he’s helpful, pointing me at some of Willie Nelson’s product, which comes in two sizes: half-gram joints or cigar-proportioned gram-sized numbers.
I get six assorted half-grams, two each of the Willie’s Reserve Island Sweet Skunk, the Willie’s Reserve Pineapple Express and the Willie’s Reserve Clementine Kush. They are packaged in pairs in cardboard tubes, like cigars. With our discount, each two-pack costs just $9.
Back on the bus in the car park in the gritty back blocks of Boulder, the sun’s starting to hit the horizon. We break out some of our purchases and light up, as does everyone else on board.
Steve the farmer has drunk his and Brenda’s share of the beer and I can see him eyeing what’s left of mine, which I’ve been going easy on, what with the limited restroom access and being stoned anyway, not to mention more stoned now. At one dizzy point, there are so many joints going round the bus that I’m holding two and, not wanting to be impolite, taking a puff on both. Everybody’s melting as we hit the freeway back to Denver.
Somewhere south of Boulder, the demons strike. I can see them flapping around out there as I gaze at the darkening sky and I suddenly feel that my end is nigh. It’s something to do with the babbling maniacs on the bus, the huge silent farmer sitting next to me, his enormous side resting against my more insubstantial frame.
They’ve lowered the lights in the bus and turned on the fucking party lights, so when I try to talk to Bruce or Brenda across the table they have alarming colours playing across their faces and upper bodies. Just looking at them is spinning me out.
I turn to Steve, but he’s monosyllabic, so I give up trying to be interesting. I think he went off me a bit after Brenda asked me what I did for a job and she came over all fascinated that I was a writer. I have to stare out the bus window, but the sun’s going down and the landscape is relentlessly flat, brown and outstandingly dreary.
I’m not a happy traveller. All that THC inside me is peaking in an awful relentless surge. Any moment I might leap up and run gibbering down the aisle, or just turn and bite Steve suddenly on his huge cheek, which is right next to me. So close. Too close.
On tighter examination, his cheek is a rough and stubbled thing. So I turn back to the fading view out the bus window. We’re caught in a mass of vehicles, two lanes to the left, two to the right. This surging freeway traffic has to stop regularly at crossings to let commuter trains pass. I look down at the nearest car, just below us; there’s a woman driving, maybe her daughter next to her. She has blue hair, is 12 or so. She leans out the window and looks right up at me, it seems, despite the tinted windows, and blows a big bubblegum bubble.
That might be what steadies me because by the time the bus gets us back to the 420Tours office, I’m relatively sane again. We say our farewells to Steve and Brenda from Nebraska. Brenda’s very happy. The guy out at the growing facility shared lots of his secrets with her and she says there’ll be no looking back now.
Back downtown, it’s only seven o’clock or so, though it feels a lot later after what we’ve been through.
The High Road: A Journey to the New Frontier of Cannabis by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins, $37) is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.