A customer selects marijuana strains at the 3-D Denver Discrete Dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cannabis in Colorado: The ups and downs of legalising highs

With more cannabis shops than branches of Starbucks and further liberalisation to come - why hasn't the trade in legal marijuana decreased the number of dealers on the street in Colorado?

There are now more cannabis shops in Colorado than there are branches of Starbucks. Since 1 January, it has been legal to sell cannabis for recreational use on licensed premises, three years after the drug was cleared for medical use. The recreational stores sprang up and 37 were granted licences to begin trading on New Year’s Day.

With the help of the Cannabis Map of Colorado, I find my way to the Native Roots Apothecary dispensary on the eighth floor of a soulless building in downtown Denver. The shop looks like a cross between a GP’s waiting room and a homoeopathic clinic. It is bare and painted white, apart from a coffee machine decorated in the Rastafarian colours.

Courtney Phillips is behind the counter, fielding calls from customers. “Lots of reporters from all over the States have been asking questions about this,” she tells me. “I think it’s great that Colorado is leading the way in being accepting of pot as both a medicinal aid as well as the fact that some people just prefer it to alcohol.”

Before being allowed a doctor’s prescription, patients have to apply to the state for a certificate of eligibility that costs between $60 and $100. On prescription, it is possible to buy up to two ounces a day per person. It costs between $150 and $400 an ounce, including tax at 8.5 per cent.

The price of weed when not buying on prescription can range between $400 and $500 an ounce, and all you need to make your purchase is a piece of ID to prove you are over 21.

Despite decriminalisation, there is still an illegal market for weed which sells the drug at half the price of legal retailers. According to one police officer I spoke to, the legislation could, paradoxically, lead to an increase in the involvement of criminal drug dealers. He believes the normalisation of weed-smoking will increase overall demand and that users will soon turn to cheaper black-market suppliers.

But the new law has found support in unexpected places. Steven Foster, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, endorsed the law, arguing that poor and black Americans are disproportionately targeted by drugs law enforcement. This is also one of the arguments taken up by the state chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers trade union, one of the largest in the United States.

The legal cannabis market is tightly governed. Until October this year, recreational marijuana stores have to grow almost all the cannabis they sell, a policy that will shortly be reviewed. Retailers can’t advertise in places where children might see it and must sell their product in opaque, child-resistant packages. They will be inspected regularly by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and surveillance cameras will track sales to identify each customer.

In the hour I spend at the LoDo Wellness Centre, another cannabis retailer in central Denver, at least 300 people come through the door, ranging from young men in pairs to older women on their own. There are carloads of tourists from as far away as New Jersey, California and Ohio, some of whom ask Elizabeth, the receptionist, which weed-friendly hotels she considers the best value. Elizabeth checks each customer’s ID and then directs the client either to the dispensing room or to the commercial storeroom.

I speak to Al (not his real name) who is a regular cannabis smoker. Al tells me that he has visited the store out of curiosity but will continue to buy his usual stash off his dealer. “It is much cheaper, quicker and easier.” Two grammes from the store, he tells me, costs him $37, “more than twice as much as I usually pay”.

Washington is preparing to liberalise its cannabis laws this year to bring it up to speed with Colorado, and activists in several other states are preparing to follow the Coloradan model. But federal organisations are trying to reverse the law.

Many Colorado businesses are cash-only, as the banks, controlled by the federal government, are refusing to open accounts for cannabis retailers. This makes them a target for organised crime, and the Internal Revenue Service is unhappy that such affluent businesses have no clear money trail.

In Colorado, however, many argue that the new laws are helping the state out of a bad recession. The Tax Foundation, a think tank, estimates that the state will raise almost $70m in new taxes this year.

Weed lovers and libertarians are united in their support for Colorado’s approach, but is there enough attention being paid to the lows as well as the highs of legalisation? One thing is certain: with more than half of all Americans supporting legal pot, this issue is unlikely to disappear in a puff of smoke.
 

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage