Legal weed has unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit across the USA and holds the potential to reshape communities, but voter-approved relaxation of drug laws may bring consequences we don’t yet understand as we soften the war on drugs.
A USA TODAY Network investigation into marijuana legalization reveals increases in marijuana-related car crashes and in hospitalization of kids who steal their parents’ pot, of black-market smuggling rings and the challenges of running cash-based businesses that can’t use traditional banks because of federal regulations.
But we’ve also found heartwarming stories of parents who credit cannabis with helping their children overcome chronic illness, of towns seeing their tax bases rise and entrepreneurs forging new identities in an American-made green rush.
Eight states and the District of Columbia now permit adults to use recreational marijuana, and 30 have allowed medical use of some kind. That means 205 million Americans live in a state where marijuana use is legal in some way although cannabis remains entirely illegal at the federal level.
Smuggling persists despite pot’s legalization
Marijuana smugglers are growing and shipping vast quantities of illicit cannabis across the USA.
They’re mailing it, driving it and, in at least one case, flying it around in skydiving planes. They’re hiding it in truck beds and trunks and vacuum-sealing it to hide the smell as they pass police officers patrolling the interstates.
Many are starting in states where growing marijuana is legal, such as Colorado, and sending the drug elsewhere.
What’s the big deal with legal marijuana?
How legalized marijuana is affecting our society has no clear answers, scientists and public health experts say — mainly because we don’t have enough information yet.
In Colorado, state-sanctioned sales to any adult have been legal only since Jan. 1, 2014. Massachusetts, where voters approved a ballot initiative last year, won’t see retail sales until July 2018.
Studies have shown both increases and decreases in youth and adult use, unreliable law-enforcement data about crashes and uncertainty about whether medical marijuana does what its backers claim.
In the last frontier, weed shops aim for tourists
ANCHORAGE — Marijuana store manager Will Ingram’s eyes light up when he thinks about thousands of cruise ship passengers pouring off shuttle buses a block from his newly opened shop.
With money to spend and a few hours to burn, Ingram, whose shop is on the main street of this Alaskan city’s tourist district, thinks visitors from the Lower 48 are primed to become his customers in one of the few states where any adult legally can buy pot.
After navigating the souvenir shops selling ivory carved by Inupiat natives and chuckling at the rabbit-fur bikinis that furriers are offering, those tourists can’t help but wander past Alaska Fireweed, where state-regulated cannabis sells for $22 a gram. The store used to sell snowboards to tourists visiting nearby Alyeska Resort until warm winters drove them away.
How police chief, grower made peace
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — This windswept hamlet in the California desert 100 miles east of Los Angeles markets itself as a spa town — a laid-back complement to neighboring Palm Springs.
Regionally, its reputation includes low rents and high crime rates although residents with deep-seated community pride are quick to point out that the crime rate dropped 18% last year.
In October 2014, Desert Hot Springs became the first city in California to allow the commercial cultivation of marijuana and s flurry of land speculation began on the 1,400 acres open for growers. The city, on the brink of insolvency in 2013, boasted that it could double its $14 million budget on cultivation tax revenue alone.
Boutique cannabis shop puts high in high end
LOS ANGELES — Customers on a clean, airy sales floor browse shelves lined with cannabis-infused lotions, bath salts, protein bars, pet treatments and, of course, a variety of buds.
A uniformed 30-something staffer at Buds & Roses cleaned a smudge from the glass while another talked a customer through the how-to’s of vaping. Outside, a valet in this Studio City neighborhood fetched cars.
“It’s definitely not your big brother’s weed shop anymore,” said Cynthia Erland, a medical marijuana patient and cannabis marketing consultant. “In the last two to three years, the cannabis retail experience has become more high end.”
City to use pot shops to fight racial inequities
OAKLAND, Calif. — Convicted marijuana dealers are getting help to go legal under a precedent-setting system here.
The city’s “Equity Applicant” system aims to help poor, longtime Oakland residents — including those with convictions for illegally selling marijuana — get started in a business that otherwise has remained stubbornly white, male and middle class across the USA.
City officials designed the system to help rectify what they see as longstanding, provable inequities in how the war on drugs was prosecuted against the poor and communities of color.
County cops remain at odds with legal weed
YREKA, Calif. — A month before more than half of his county voted to legalize recreational marijuana, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey opened up about the plant in his office.
The day before, his team had seized $1 million worth of processed pot, which seemed to both alarm and impress Lopey.
“I think that they’re angry because we’re taking a lot of high-value marijuana away from them,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is impose some reasonable control.”
Pot workers continue to face banking hurdles
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Amanda Woods, a compliance officer working in one of the fastest growing industries in one of the most economically stable states in the union, tried to get a car loan last year.
The result was immediate.
“I was instantly denied,” said Woods, 26, while sitting in an office she shares with two co-workers, a work arrangement not uncommon for a startup or warehouse.
Cannabis is cottage industry in nation’s capital
WASHINGTON — Stuck between Congress and voters’ will, residents of this politically charged town are becoming urban gardeners, turning closets and living rooms into tiny cannabis farms while politicians dither over whether it ever will be legal to sell marijuana in the nation’s capital.
They’re also ignoring a ban on sales and illegally buying cannabis from a myriad of delivery services that “sell” $60 cookies that come with a free gift.
“D.C. is so weird,” said Chris Washburn, who owns a marijuana growing supply store. “We look at some of the people around us and wonder, ‘How on Earth are you getting away this this?’ ”
Pot farmer faces life in prison
LORETTO, Ky. — On a cool, rainy day, more than 200 people crowd under a tarp in the parking lot of Big Mama’s Restaurant, bidding on marijuana posters, bicycles and air rifles to raise money to support a jailed local legend.
They have a lot of work to do because Cornbread Mafia leader Johnny Boone, captured in Canada and returned to Kentucky after eight years on the lam, faces life in prison if convicted on his third strike, this time for growing 2,421 marijuana seedlings on a farm.
The federal government, while giving a virtual free pass to growers in states where marijuana is legal, continues to seek long mandatory minimum penalties against defendants like Boone in states like Kentucky where it is not.
‘Free’ marijuana comes with high delivery fee
PORTLAND, Maine — Logan Martyn-Fisher checks his phone’s GPS one more time and pulls up at the Portland Amtrak station, thousands of dollars of marijuana concealed in a pair of colorful beach totes sitting on the back seat of his BMW SUV.
He’s looking for a guy who’s looking for pot.
Maine doesn’t yet allow legal marijuana sales, so Martyn-Fisher, his girlfriend and their BMW have carved a niche for themselves in a state where possessing, growing and consuming cannabis now is permitted. This past fall, Maine voters legalized marijuana as of the start of this year, but lawmakers still are developing a system of state-regulated stores to sell it.
Rules to buy legal cannabis become law
BOSTON — Marijuana entrepreneur Jaime Lewis breathed a sigh of relief at the red tape, delays and legislative infighting as Massachusetts lawmakers fiddled with the state’s cannabis legalization plan.
In the haggling, she said she saw progress.
The legislative sausage-making might not have looked or felt like progress. But pot shops are coming: In July 2018, Massachusetts will join a growing number of states where adults can buy, sell and smoke marijuana legally.
Mining town straddles Wild West, pot culture
ELKO, Nev. — Don Knight keeps a “hard times” stockpile in the basement of his turn-of-the-century bungalow.
Dozens of tightly sealed ammo cans are stacked in the corner, each packed with a handful of shotgun shells, a 2,000-calorie vacuum-sealed military food brick, a stash of water purifying tablets and a nugget of his favorite marijuana strain: Gorilla Glue #4.
“That’s the good stuff,” said Knight, a 32-year-old gold mine engineer who grew up in this northeast Nevada town that relies heavily on gold mining.
Beach, weed in sync on Cannabis Coast
NEWPORT, Ore. — Some 2½ hours southwest of Portland, Eddie Biggar owns the sidewalk.
Just like a sign-waiver might promote a local pizzeria, The Weedman boasts $5 grams, urging customers from as far away as China and the Dominican Republic to head down the street to CannaMedicine.
The state has licensed pot dealers in every Oregon county bordering the Pacific Ocean, with the highest number near the beach here in Lincoln County, state data show. But so far little suggests that marijuana is changing the coastal economy, which tourism already largely fuels.
Sick child converts minister into ‘pastor for pot’
ABBOTTSTOWN, Pa. — When Annie’s parents came to the Rev. Shawn Berkebile three years ago, they had a confession to make.
They were about to break federal law. But their then-9-year-old daughter, who has severe epilepsy, had run out of legal pharmaceutical options, had been hospitalized twice and was in danger of major organ failure.
Now she’s not healed, but she’s better. And Berkebile has become a missionary with the credo that medical marijuana is about compassion.
Pot boosts city where timber had been king
SHELTON, Wash. — Not long ago, this swath of industrial park at the Port of Shelton was buried under piles of lumber.
As the timber industry declined and forest-products businesses contracted, legal marijuana producers filled the gaps.
Crossing the yard bordering his indoor marijuana farm, Steven Fuhr stopped to point out a wood pellet manufacturer to the right and a recently shuttered power-pole mill to the left. In the field between the two, Fuhr could pick out a half dozen marijuana production facilities, most hidden inside nondescript metal buildings.