I’ve been an unapologetic pot smoker for my entire adult life.
I’ve never tried to hide it and, thankfully, never had a run-in with police prior to 2008, when possession became decriminalized in Massachusetts. When they were alive, my parents knew about it and, if my mother was vaguely exasperated, my father (from whom she was long divorced) didn’t mind if I sparked a joint at the dinner table once coffee was served, because he enjoyed the smell. It’s worth pointing out that my father was a heart and lung surgeon.
These days, marijuana is on everyone’s minds—or at least in everyone’s newsfeeds—now that the first few dispensaries have finally opened in the state. I can’t possibly go into all the claims and counterclaims regarding its safety and efficacy. Let the scientific and medical community continue squabbling over that. I’ve just always felt that pot enhanced and heightened experiences like going to a movie or a concert—and anyone sitting near seat N19 at Symphony Hall during a Thursday A-Series concert for the past 30 years could probably detect a whiff of weed as I sat down. So is it a social or psychological crutch? Maybe. But so are alcohol, Xanax, yoga and praying to God when the flight gets turbulent—all of which I’m equally guilty of—and, personally, I’ve got nothing against using a crutch when one of your ankles is twisted.
Imagine my delight in 2012, when Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana use. A brave new world of legal cannabis—with its prerolled joints, scientifically grown flower, vaping cartridges, ointments, edibles and tinctures—was available to me. Of course, California and Colorado had long since legalized medicinal use by then, but while I had heard about the wondrous Willy Wonka-like pot shops out West, I never visited one. Throughout these transitions in pot’s accessibility, three things changed materially for me: First, the quality of what I could get my hands on went from chuck roast to Kobe beef. I could have smoked a whole joint of the Mexican grass-clippings I was accustomed to in my 20s, but the potency and purity of these new scientifically bred strains made it unwise to take more than a few hits unless I wanted to sit on the sofa drooling. Second, the technology of vaping made quantum leaps—from the giant tabletop setups that looked vaguely like jellyfish and took a place of pride on my stoner friends’ coffee tables at parties to oil pens so sleek I often mistook them for ballpoint pens while fishing around in my breast pocket. I can’t count the number of times I tried to write something down at a cocktail party using a marijuana oil stick. And third, the variety of edibles—everything from pastilles to chocolate bars to jars of honey—made traveling with weed less dicey. I remember giving a seasoned Rasta on a Caribbean island his first pot-infused chocolate and warning him not to eat more than a bite or two at a time. He returned two days later saying he’d spent the previous afternoon “on another planet.” Another time, my luggage was being inspected by customs officials, one of whom took out a Ziploc bag containing weed gummies. “Gummy bears are my absolute favorite!” she squealed in Spanish, and while I told her to help herself, it’s probably best that she didn’t.
At this point, all I needed to do was procure my medical use of marijuana license. I love my psychiatrist. In fact, I often joke that even after seven years, I’m still in transference with her. There’s just one small problem: She’s super old-school. When I asked her to write me a prescription for medical marijuana, she refused.
“But you’re the one who diagnosed me with anxiety disorder,” I said.
“I also prescribe you medication for it,” she countered.
Like many highly respected physicians in every specialty, there’s still a strong current of resistance to prescribing marijuana. Fortunately, though, for every Ivy League-educated clinician, there’s someone with a valid M.D. but less—shall we say—rigorous standards. I made an appointment to visit one whose office was in a strip mall over a D’Angelo sub shop. I showed them my driver’s license, filled out a bunch of paperwork and had a Doogie Howser wannabe take my vitals and explain all the regulations and responsibilities. Then I was ushered into a depressingly impersonal office, where I presented documentation that I was a Mass General cardiac patient being treated for anxiety disorder, while also throwing in that I had a bit of arthritis and occasional gastrointestinal distress, too. In a slightly sinister Eastern European accent, he assured me that I’d come to the right place and wrote me a prescription, for which I paid him $200.
Next, I had to deal with the state’s Medical Use of Marijuana Program, which proved infinitely more user-friendly than the RMV. I filled out some online forms, swore a slew of oaths and forked over $50.
My temporary license issued by the doctor was authorized, and my permanent one arrived a few weeks later in the mail.
Initially, I was like a kid in a candy store. Going to the dispensary is akin to having security clearance and getting into the world’s coolest speakeasy. You have to flash your license and I.D. to a camera. Then you’re buzzed into a holding area where an employee registers you and, finally, the click of another door signals you can enter the Promised Land, chock-a-block with the good shiz in every form imaginable. I’ve visited several dispensaries in town, and each has a distinct vibe. Garden Remedies, in Newton, feels homeopathic and clinical. Liberty, in Union Square, is like a super chic skin care boutique, while nearby Revolutionary Clinics has the feel of your cool cousin’s house where people hang out, learning how to “dab” or enjoying a cannabis paint night. Sira, between Central and Harvard Squares, has a sleek, subterranean, science lab gestalt, while going to NETA, in Brookline, is like making a withdrawal from Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Each has its own strengths with respect to strains of flower, edibles, oils and more. I prefer low-dose edibles, as ingesting weed increases both its potency and duration. For example, a weed strudel my friend baked nearly took out the entire town of Lake Placid a few winters back, and a 10-milligram lozenge has turned a gorgeous beach day into a panic attack. On the other hand, a lower-dose shipment of cookies from La Vida Verde kept a weekendlong lakeside birthday bash in New Hampshire on a very pleasant keel.
At other dispensaries, the flower selections are more interesting—an important point for me, since my preferred delivery system is vaping out of an elegant little device known as a Pax 3. Widely viewed as the gold standard in vaporizers, it retails for about $200, and it’s both reliable and discreet. (The limited edition Pax 3 Fuchsia, which is available only for the holidays, is at the top of my wish list.) But what is truly astonishing is the amount of weed each medical patient is allowed to purchase: 10 ounces per month. Even Snoop Dogg would be hard pressed to smoke all that. Although with Martha Stewart’s help? Maybe.
Speaking of convicted felons, the overarching problem with the legalization issue is a question of social justice. Presumably, a bunch of predominantly rich white guys stand to make a fortune from selling cannabis, while the number of people of color who are still behind bars for smoking or selling it is staggering.
Interestingly, two of the most visible people in the emerging cannabis market in Boston are both black: former Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral, who runs Ascend Wellness, and former city councilor and mayoral hopeful Tito Jackson, CEO of Verdant Medical.
“There’s no question there’s an inequity,” Jackson says. “Unless we make a concerted and deliberate effort, we’ll end up like Denver, which has one black-owned shop out of more than 700 dispensaries. But there are ways municipalities can exact equity on the process. In Boston, there’s been a conversation about requiring half of the city’s dispensaries to be owned by economic empowerment candidates. And personally, I’m working with a company called Tilt to help cannabis entrepreneurs of color. The biggest roadblock is money, so we’ve set up a program to help them get funding for startup costs, consulting and legal fees.”
From 2008 to 2014, Jackson says incarceration rates for people of color were disproportionately higher for distribution and possession. When asked how we start to right that wrong, he says, “All cannabis charges should be expunged,” and that his company’s goal is to employ a work force that includes 20 percent of individuals who have convictions. Says Jackson, “A criminal record stands for not getting a job, and I want to change that.”
“In any other state,” he jokes, “those convictions would be considered transferable skills.”
Fast-forward to Nov. 20, when—two years after the people of Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational use—the powers that be finally authorized two stores to start selling. One, a sibling to the aforementioned dispensary in Brookline, is unsurprisingly located in the western town of Northampton, also known as Crunchygranolaville. The other, Cultivate, is in Leicester, a town that can best be described as somewhere near Worcester.
Despite the fact that recreational pot is being taxed at as much as 20 percent (whereas medical marijuana isn’t subject to taxes and license holders can skip the line at recreational facilities), I had to experience the next evolutionary step in this bold experiment from a civilian’s perspective. I left Boston on a frigid Tuesday morning, hoping to avoid long wait times, but the place was mobbed even during the middle of a weekday. Parking was relegated to a closed-for-the-winter garden center, while shuttles ushered eager customers a half-mile to Cultivate.
Once there, I stood in line outside for 38 minutes and 46 seconds, part of it in a semi-heated tent, where a speaker in the corner blared lowest common denominator pop music. There was camaraderie and a barely suppressed giddiness in the crowd that persisted, even when customers finally got inside and saw that the line resembled an airline baggage counter on the day before Thanksgiving. After 22 more minutes, I finally reached the counter. I had already studied the menu and knew what I wanted: an ounce and a half of flower. I was told I could only buy a third of that because of supply issues.
On the upside, they carried my favorite varietal, a pure sativa called Durban Poison, while the 5-milligram fruit chew that I ate that night at a blues concert gave me a deliciously modulated buzz. Still, I won’t be going back to Cultivate anytime soon. Between the taxes and the cost of gasoline to get there, I could buy enough Doritos to satisfy the munchies of everyone standing in line.
Things will undoubtedly improve, though. And when the first top-flight pot department store finally opens on Newbury Street, I’ll probably be a regular. ◆