Where’s the Weed? Mile-High City

Like the modern day gold rush of the 1800s, fortune seekers are fleeing to Colorado due to the legalization of recreational marijuana. Although many believe this is where its penned “Mile High City” nickname was derived, it actually comes from the State Capitol building steps measuring exactly 1 mile above sea level.  On a recent trip to Denver, many of my preconceived notions of the city were dispelled. I was most surprised by the landscape. Of all the pictures I’d seen of Colorado’s lush, green mountains and wild, flowing rivers, I was, instead, greeted by barren, dry, flat land as far as the eye could see. Off in the far distance, you could see white-capped mountains, but the city itself sits on very flat topography. I would later learn that, the sporadic patches of smoke I witnessed from the air were wildfires burning in nearby Boulder, likely due the drought plaguing this area for quite some time.

Instead of taking the $9 commuter train from the airport straight to downtown Denver, I grabbed a Lyft since I always get great insight into a city from the drivers.  My driver, Ryan, told me how the city was growing by nearly 2,000 people monthly, causing unprecedented development and skyrocketing property values.  He told me how his monthly rent went from $400 to almost $1,500 in less than 2 years, evidenced by the rising frames of new apartment buildings and cranes covering the skyline.  Although many had moved here because of weed, many were also drawn to its artistic vibe, proximity to the mountains, and booming economy.  He told me stories of how he was able to take his girlfriend on a day trip to Vegas, costing him only $60 round trip. He spoke of how he used to work at a weed dispensary, but, after a few years, quit when the owner, who had become a multi-millionaire overnight, purchased several homes, boats and took his girlfriend on a 1-month vacation to China, yet refused to offer health benefits to his employees citing “he couldn’t afford it.” He was now studying to acquire his real estate license and take advantage of the thriving real estate market.

As I explored the streets of Denver the next morning, I expected to be inundated with the scent of pot everywhere. Surprisingly, it was nowhere in sight or sniff.  Why wasn’t I seeing the children of the Bohemian 70s or the Rastafarian tokers or even the college kids smoking on every corner? So I did my research and present you with the following Denver marijuana laws as of this posting:

  1. You must be 21 to purchase and must provide ID.
  2. You can’t go toking on the streets. Although this law is evolving over time, the following is true, “Discretion is appreciated, usually required,” Amendment 64 does NOT permit the consumption of marijuana “openly and publicly.” There are some “private” cannabis clubs where you can buy a day membership to consume, but many are new and not at the caliber they should be. Although many will look the other way if you hide away for a quick smoke in an alleyway, you can still be cited by Denver Police for public consumption. To be discrete, edibles or a portable vaporizer can be your best friend.
  3. You can smoke at hotels, where up to a quarter of rooms are allowed to be designated as cannabis zones.
  4. As of October 1, 2016, the following rules took effect in regard to purchasing limits:

Since concentrates and edibles have a much higher level of THC than flowers, the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) issued the following guidelines:

  1. 1oz Flower = 8g of Concentrate (Shatter, Wax, etc.)
  2. 1oz Flower = 800mg of Edibles

You can still mix and match, but it gets confusing. For example, you can purchase 2 grams of concentrate, but then you will be limited to buying an additional ¾ oz of flower (as 2 grams of concentrate is now equivalent to 1/4oz flower). One important thing to note is these restrictions only apply to retail sales, not possession. You can legally possess up to 28 grams of concentrates or THC as defined in the Colorado Constitution.

  1. You can’t pay by card. US banking laws prohibit the use of credit cards for buying drugs and so, for now, cannabis can only be purchased with cash.
  2. You can’t buy weed all hours. Shops cannot open before 8am and must shut before midnight. Having said that, cities are allowed to establish their own rules. For example, Denver stores must close by 7pm.
  3. You can’t take the marijuana you buy outside Colorado, bring it on the plane or post it home to yourself. Sorry guys…..
  4. Colorado law sets a legal limit for the amount of active THC in your system while driving as 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood.
  5. The “open container” law in Colorado makes it illegal to possess marijuana in the passenger area of a vehicle if it is in an open container, a container with broken seals, or if there is evidence of consumption.
  6. Your right to possess marijuana in CO does NOT apply when you are visiting national parks, national forests, monuments, or other federal properties such as courthouses. Also be aware that many ski areas are located on Federal land. Possession of marijuana on Federal land is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000 on the first offense, along with a 15-day mandatory sentence that can be extended to two years in prison for a second offense.
  7. The law allows residents to cultivate up to 6 plants, 3 of which can be in flowering stage in an enclosed, locked space.

As I quickly learned, the city’s laws prevented people from getting high on every corner, so don’t expect a scene from Woodstock once you exit the plane….bummer.

As I worked my way down the 16th Mall Street, there were a plethora of cool shops, restaurants, department stores, a Jazz club and a movie theatre.  All were easily accessible by the FREE Mall Ride bus that runs up and down the street daily. In addition to the many pedestrians enjoying the sights and sounds of this bustling area, I also noticed many homeless people on every corner.

The next morning, I went jogging along a nearby river and noticed sleeping bags and a handful of tents strewn waterside where people had slept overnight. I wondered if many were transients who migrated from other states seeking a quick fortune, only to find they couldn’t afford the high licensing costs of nearly $25,000 to open a weed dispensary. A resident later told me that many of the homeless were being displaced by the ever increasing rent costs and that the industrial buildings, where they previously sought refuge, were being torn down and rebuilt with high-end apartments and lofts. They went on to say that the homeless shelters would not allow anyone in under the influence of alcohol or drugs, causing many to seek shelter on nearby city streets.

If it’s on your bucket list to have dinner in a bank vault, I have just the place – The Broker Restaurant at 821 17th Street. What was previously the basement of a former Bank, it has been serving up complimentary bowls of peel-and-eat shrimp and mouth-watering steaks to crowds for generations.  Their red leathered seats and mahogany wood booths transport you back to the bygone era of the 20s and 30s.

All in all, I enjoyed my trip to Denver and highly – get it? – recommend.  Should my next trip not be for business purposes, I will carve out some time to hit the nearby slopes or enjoy a hike in the mountains.

Coming Full Circle

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Traveling with your family can be super stressful, yet also make for the BEST stories. Recently, my parents, brother and I finished a 3 city tour in France: Paris, Jouy-lès-Reims & Lyon. There were two main reasons for this trip: to visit my family’s ancestral hometown of Jouy-lès-Reims and to return, for the first time in 20 years, to Lyon where I studied abroad my Junior year in college. First off, let me introduce you to my “special” family. My mother, Pat, a retired English Literature teacher of 35 years, a Sharon Osbourne look-a-like and a woman who still corrects my spoken grammar to this day (I’m 40 year’s old..sigh), is an expert on world religions. This comes in rather handy when visiting centuries old churches and especially helpful when visiting Greece last year and its many religious sites, but I digress.

My father, Larry, a retired insurance agent, unintentionally creates his own language of what we lovingly call “Larryisms”. My brother, Braden, 5 years my senior, well, let’s just say he spends more time on his hair than I do.

Being the Matriarch of the family, my mother, Pat, expects to be catered to when traveling. Having survived Cancer, comments like, “Alicia, please carry my bag. I had Cancer” are not uncommon or out of bounds for her. She has also become more forgetful with her things over the years, perhaps due to her vast knowledge of intellectual subjects leaving little room for common sense.  On the FIRST DAY of our trip, she lost her Paris Pass which provides entry into all of the museums. 5 hours later, I discover it hidden in my bag where she stuffed it, UNBEKNOWNST to me, but it was my fault according to her…SHOOT ME NOW. Subsequently, having left her cell phone in the Louvre bathroom, her bag with her passport on a TGV train car in Paris and having locked herself into a bathroom in Reims leaving her screaming for help (forever engrained in my memory is the French bathroom attendant yelling back “Attention, attention!” while trying to break her out with a screwdriver), I threatened to latch a child leash on her so as to keep an eye on her throughout our trip.

Then there’s my poor Dad, Larry, who still struggles with the English language and, I might add, his FIRST and ONLY language. Comments like, “Pat, we don’t live in a second world country,” or saying “jigsaw” when meaning “hacksaw” or “kilimonators” vs. “kilometers,” sent my mother, brother and I into gut wrenching fits of tearful laughter.

My brother, Braden, seemed to think if he put a French accent on English words that it magically made them French. “Zaynk you for ze Coke. I like eet very much.” “Ze man on ze street smellz like armpito.” “I need zome poudre de ball sack.” Every time we approached a door with a sticker that read “Poussez”, my brother and I couldn’t help but snicker.   

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Paris

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While staying in adjoining rooms in Paris (men in one room, ladies in the other), I plugged my Mom’s hairdryer in the bathroom, turned it on & it quickly sparked fire causing the lights & ALL POWER to go out in BOTH rooms. It was fried.  The hotel hairdryer in our bathroom never recovered so I was forced to use the one in the men’s adjoining room bathroom. My brother and I, having sibling rivalry wars since childhood, quarreled over the hair left on the bathroom toilet after my blow drying session. Did I mention the hotel bathrooms were so small that I could brush my teeth while I pee?  Let’s not even get into the fact that it’s nearly impossible to find a public restroom in France that doesn’t require you to pay a fee. Again, I digress.

If a French person didn’t understand them, my parents seemed to believe that if they spoke English more SLOWLY, enunciated EVERY WORD and spoke more LOUDLY, that this would suddenly make others English speaking….smh. Being a Southern gentleman, my father would frequently attempt to start conversations with strangers while waiting to cross the street at intersections. “How you doing today?” “So, how long have you lived here and what do you do for a living?” Needless to say, he got a lot of blank stares. It took him a while to learn that the French, especially in large cities, do not make eye contact nor rarely speak with strangers on the street.

Jouy-lès-Reims

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Our 2nd city tour brought us to the small commune of Jouy-lès-Reims (0.72 sq mi & population 185), the hometown of my Great, Great, Great, Grandfather many generations back, Jean Baptiste Barras dit le Blon, who emigrated to Louisiana in 1719 at the young age of 19, and settled in the small Louisiana town of Newroads (previously Pointe Coupee) where settlers were promised free land. Having no known, living relatives in Jouy-lès-Reims, my parents had previously reached out to the Mayor’s office and arranged to meet up with some of the locals during our trip. Odile Crooke, a sweet and jovial local who teaches professionals how to speak English and married to an English man, served as our own personal tour guide; taking us on the most incredible tour of our ancestral hometown. Nestled in the Champage region of France, Odile arranged a private tour of the Cooperative Jouy Pargny where many of the Vineyard owners produce their own champagne.  The Co-Op President, Christophe, gave us a personal tour of the entire facility where we learned every step of the process from picking grapes in the vineyards, to adding sugar and yeast, to the (2) fermentation processes to degorgement (removing sediments) to corking. We also learned that Champagne bottles are thicker than wine bottles so as to withstand the increased pressure and that, with wine, the deeper the indentation at the bottom of the wine bottle, the longer you can keep the wine after opening before it goes bad. The Champagne tasting at the end was icing on the cake!

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Following the Champagne tour, we met up for a delicious, French lunch at nearby La Garenne restaurant with the Mayor, Sylvie, her assistant, Christine, the Assistant Mayor Jean-Bernard, and Odile’s husband, Phil. We had a lovely conversation talking about our families and family dynamics, about Jouy-lès-Reims, about our professions, about politics and about life. After gifting them with Atlanta Braves’ hats, Georgia T-shirts and Cajun Zydeco CDs, we said our heartfelt goodbyes and knew we would meet again. This was definitely the day we made new, lifelong friends and when our family came full circle.

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(L to R: Phil, Jean-Bernard, Christine, Larry, Sylvie, Pat, Odile, Alicia & Braden)

Lyon

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Being the typical, excessive Americans with 8 bags for 4 people, the rental car company gave us a large Renault Trafic van that seats 8 people for our drive from Reims to Lyon. It took me 5 minutes to figure out that you had to lift the manual stick up and then push left to reverse (completely backwards from American vehicles). After a 4.5 hour drive and a few rest stops later with holes in the ground for bathrooms, we arrived in Lyon.

I was like a child on Christmas morning overtaken with excited anticipation. It had been 20 years since I had last step foot in this city that was so life-changing for me in my early 20s. As a student at L’Université Jean Moulin Lyon III during my Junior year in college, it was the toughest, yet best year of my life. It was the first year I had lived away from my family, my first time in Europe, the year I quit my sorority and the year I came out to my family. This was the year I fell passionately in love with traveling and took off on frequent adventures with my Eurorail pass in hand. Stepping out of the car upon arrival in Lyon, it brought me back to my 20 year old self along with a wave of emotions. Over the next few days and being the Gastronomic capital of the world, I would eat the most amazing French food, would visit my old apartment building, my old University and my old restaurant and bar haunts. There were so many new buildings, modernized structures and even a new Tram line. The city was more beautiful than I had remembered and allowed me to rediscover it with my family alongside me.

In more ways than one, I had come full circle on this trip, rediscovering humanity, myself and my family…