Above: Robin Poley, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, studies outside the library. According to UNIGO, 31,945 students attend UC Boulder.
BOULDER – “Got a joke for a smoke?” a random passerby asks Clarence and his friends as they sit outside Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe. The small bookstore is in a bustling section of town that locals refer to as The Hill.
This Rocky Mountain town in north central Colorado is known for its appeal to the arts, unique restaurants and, of course, the widespread availability of cannabis. But Boulder is also home to a variety of opinions on the legalization of weed, a drug that - whether residents like it or not - has become a part of Boulder’s culture in the wake of Colorado’s 2012 legalization of pot for recreational purposes.
Not all young residents are on board with the new law. Students like Clarence are not 100 percent in favor of the legalization of weed for recreational purposes. Neither is his friend Jack Christie. But even in cases when they oppose legalization, some residents say they will smoke cannabis every now and then.
It’s legal now, after all.
Christie, an English and philosophy major at the University of Colorado Boulder, turns to the greasy-haired stranger.
“I don’t have a joke,” he says, extending the cigarette resting between his thumb and forefinger. “But I have a smoke.”
Christie has lived in Boulder since 2011, and said the legalization of marijuana hasn’t changed his life drastically, nor has it given him a major desire to consistently smoke pot.
“I’m not for the weed culture,” Clarence said. “I’ve smoked less weed since it’s been legalized here.”
Clarence may not be the embodiment of Boulder, Colorado, but then, no single opinion can define residents’ complex view of the issue. Nationwide, people are becoming more receptive to the idea of legal marijuana.
According to Pew Research’s “In Debate Over Legalizing Marijuana,” 53 percent favor the legal use of marijuana, while 44 percent are opposed. The opinion represents a dramatic shift from 2006, when only 32 percent supported legalization and nearly double that amount (60 percent) opposed.
And while the overall attitude toward marijuana appears to be shifting, Boulder residents’ views are undergoing a sort of hyper-evolution.
Suzanne Jones, a member of the Boulder City Council, said Amendment 64, an initiative to end marijuana prohibition and regulate marijuana like alcohol, has been successful thus far.
The crime rates have decreased, municipalities have established efficient zoning laws and some might say that there has been a slight increase in revenue from the sales tax with marijuana, but Jones said that it was nothing too substantial. In terms of sheltering the many homeless on Boulder’s streets or making the price of living adjustable to the middle class, initiatives are still in the works.
“One of the things about Boulder is that it’s very progressive,” Jones said. “The people are expecting us to make changes that will improve their life in Boulder.”
Jones said she does see some problems with the legalization of marijuana in terms of health risk and that cannabis should be thoroughly researched to provide the public the most information possible. Something like the federal government officially prohibiting marijuana for recreational use would, in Jones’s mind, cause an uproar in Boulder.
“The ideas about marijuana have evolved so much within Boulder,” Jones said. “Since the people have already decided, I think the major issue would be that the people will feel that the federal government has ignored their thoughts.”
As far as Jones is concerned, she said her hope is that progress continues and life improves in Colorado, independent of the marijuana debate.
“It will be interesting to see what’s going to happen in Colorado,” Jones said. “I hope it all works out.”
An experiment that’s working
The “hippie” town stereotype of Boulder might be confirmed by a five-minute stroll through town and the skunky smells one encounters, but the perception doesn’t seem to bother residents.
Rachel Joseph, a third-year film student at CU-Boulder, said the legalization of marijuana hasn’t necessarily affected her life on campus or her education.
“It’s just not a big deal as people would think,” Joseph said. “It’s funny, because ever since it’s been legalized, I smell less weed on campus.”
For the Boulder Police Department, the social experiment has seemingly worked in their favor - at least in terms of reported crime. As population has increased from an estimated 99,069 in 2012 to 103,163 in 2014, total reported crimes have remained stable while traffic accidents and fatalities have decreased.
Laurie Ogden, executive administrative assistant for Boulder’s police department, said no concerns have arisen with regard to rising crime following legalization. Public safety has remained intact even as more people have begun consuming the drug.
“To my knowledge, we don’t have major issues with minors other than at the beginning of the university school year where we deal with issues for Minors in Possession, but those are usually adults between the ages of 18 and 21 who possess or consume alcohol,” Ogden said. “This is commonplace every year with students who are new to the area and testing their independence.”
Both the University of Colorado Boulder and Naropa University in Boulder are considered dry campuses, where the consumption of marijuana is prohibited.
Regulations in Colorado continue to prohibit alcohol and marijuana possession by minors.
CU Boulder spokesperson Ryan Huff said campus liquor and drug violations have decreased in recent years.
In 2011, the numbers of liquor violations dropped from 767 to 394 in 2013. Also, drug citations decreased from 442 in 2011 to 199 in 2013.
Huff said the legalization of recreational weed has not affected the enforcement of minor consumption.
“A state law’s a state law,” Huff said. “There’s really nothing to be for or against, but its just something we abide to and educate those who may be confused with these policies.”
Jason Farrell, an environmental engineering student from New Jersey, said he didn’t come to school for the weed, but to experience what he truly enjoys: the outdoors.
“I came out here to try different things,” Farrell said. “There’s so many different outlets where you don’t have to be a part of the party scene.”
A friend of his, Chase Cleveland of Clifton, Virginia, agreed.
“Coming out here and experiencing the outdoors was something I wanted to do,” Cleveland said. “It wasn’t like I was coming here just for the weed.”
International students said marijuana didn’t factor into CU-Boulder’s lure. Some were discouraged from trying the drug.
Second-year international student Fadzil Ashraf, who is from Kedah, Malaysia, was primarily attracted to the mountains. Like his home in Malaysia, Fadzil appreciated the aesthetics of nature and the outdoor attractions within Boulder. In regards to his education, Ashraf was looking to try something different. When he was entering the mechanical engineering program at UCB, the issue of legal marijuana was addressed, but he wasn’t deterred.
“My mum said ‘oh you’re going to go to a country where they legalized these things?’,” Ashraf said. “Then she started saying, ‘Try not get involved with it.’”
To his right was first-year biology student Amirah Arselan. There’s one thing that they miss from back home.
“Food!,” they both exclaimed simultaneously.
Despite the lack of authentic Malaysian food, they are generally content with their life in Boulder, Colorado. Both have claimed that they themselves do not smoke weed, but they have seen it in their home off campus. To put it bluntly, it wasn’t a concern.
“My neighbors, they smoke weed, but it hasn’t been a problem for me,” Ashraf said. “I mean, the smell kind of, but that’s because I’m not used to it.”
Cannabis has wafted into the academic community too. Assistant Evolutionary Biology Professor Nolan Anderson has been researching the specific genetic makeup in cannabis to understand the different strains within the plant. Such research could help cannabis farmers understand how to grow a variety of marijuana plants more efficiently.
“We’re trying to get a better understanding about the basics of the different varieties of cannabis,” Anderson said. “We currently have 600 different DNA samples we are studying.”
Anderson said other professors are also on board with the cannabis research projects. Some examples he gave were chemistry professor Robert Sievers and psychology and neuroscience professor Kent Hutchison.
Anderson said that they all must follow federal regulations in terms of the level of THC in their sample studies, but he does not have to apply as an individual to obtain cannabis for his research.
“Because it’s legal in the state, the university provides a blanket for me,” Anderson said. “It’s nice to be able to work on this material here when it is harder to obtain in other programs within the U.S.”
After a year’s work, Anderson said he has much more to learn, but he sees a change in attitudes toward cannabis research: acceptance.
Head to bustling Peal Street, and it becomes clear weed tourism is not Boulder’s only draw. Far from it, residents say.
Heading east on the busy stretch peppered with restaurants and street performers, an onlooker may pass by an elderly contortionist who goes by the name Ibbachi-i. Originally from the Caribbean, Ibbachi-i has performed around the nation. He has four kids who live in the area and currently resides on Broadway Boulevard. Ibbachi-i has been a Pearl Street performer for many years. There are many videos of him on YouTube. His flippant philosophy does not seem to involve politics, economic capital or religious freedom. He just cares to perform for people who may or may not really notice him from a bamboo mat, shimmying his entire body through a bottomless bucket.
“It’s the people here (whom) I love,” Ibbachi-i said. “I have been doing this for 24 years and I just love to inspire people to do something that they enjoy.”
Jody Evans, a citizen of Boulder since 1984 and owner of Disco Hoops of Boulder doesn’t go out often - unless someone is willing to dance with her. On the grassy green lot outside the courthouse, Evans and her group of Silent Disco dancers wear headphones tuned to a playlist she compiles, and each chooses from a colorful assortment of hula hoops.
Evans didn’t express any concerns about the legalization of marijuana in Boulder.
“We just have a lot of fun here,” Evans said. “It’s a place that has a lot going on, and if people want to come out and dance with me, they can.”
Back on The Hill, outside Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe, a stranger’s glazed eyes fix on Christie, who’s got a smoke, but not the kind the man is looking for. The stranger says no and thanks him anyway. He tells a crude joke and walks away.
“Weird,” Christie thinks, rolling his eyes as the nameless stranger wanders away aimlessly on The Hill.