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On Colorado’s cannabis trail | Financial Times

It’s a Saturday morning in November, and, beyond the enormous picture window, the first snowfall of the season is delicately dusting the Colorado Rockies, which stretch out in the distance. Inside, I’m sitting cross-legged in a circle, a small sprig of dried cannabis in my palm. I’m being told to talk to the “sacred plant”, to ask “her” a question, and to listen to what “she” has to tell me. My principal question is what on earth I’m doing here, at this “Ganjasana” ceremony — a cannabis-themed yoga and mindfulness session. I don’t even like yoga, and have similarly ambivalent feelings about cannabis. Glancing round at everyone whispering into their hands, I’m forced to suppress a sudden surge of the giggles. And we haven’t even smoked anything yet.

It’s day two of my trip to Colorado with Hi-Curious, a new company set up to offer luxury weekend breaks for small groups of cannabis amateurs, like me, to gain knowledge and experience in a safe, controlled environment. In Colorado — the first state to legalise, in 2014 — cannabis tourism is already big business, drawing millions of dollars to the state each year. Colorado’s department of revenue estimates that 6.5m cannabis tourists visited in 2016, the most recent figures available.

Marijuana tour companies have mushroomed, offering private limousine tours of dispensaries (where cannabis products are sold) and marijuana “grows” (the facilities where the plants are cultivated), and classes on cooking and cocktailing with cannabis. In California, where recreational sales became legal in January, there is already a burgeoning trade in “wine and weed” tours, combining visits to both vineyards and dispensaries. There are also plenty of people doing DIY cannabis tourism, of course — with mixed results. A friend who rents out part of her Denver home on Airbnb has had guests visit a dispensary on Friday, and then not emerge until Monday, having seriously overcooked it on night one and spent the rest of the weekend too paranoid to leave the apartment.

That is exactly what I’m afraid of. I happily smoked the odd spliff at university, but have had little to do with the drug in 20 years. The last time a friend offered me a puff on his “blunt” (a joint with no tobacco — the common, potent way to smoke cannabis in the US), I spun out on the street in Brooklyn, fell mute, and had to be escorted home.

© Carl Bower

I’m not actively looking to pick up another vice, but the tide of pro-cannabis hype in the US is impossible to ignore. It’s touted as a miracle treatment for everything from anxiety and depression to arthritis and insomnia, and as a healthy alternative to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Even in non-legal states, there’s a rampant trade in products made with CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, which, when made from marijuana’s cousin, hemp, is legal. I’m keen to understand how I might enjoy this brave new world.

Rachael Carlevale, the yoga and mindfulness teacher who instructed me to speak to the plant in my hand, certainly knows her weed. She has a degree in soil and plant sciences from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and, in spite of my scepticism, is striking a good balance between spirituality and science.

She passes around two joints, and, after just one hit on each, I am very, very high. I have a rush of self-conscious, twitchy paranoia — a feeling I am familiar with from previous run-ins with weed. Then, I realise, I’m in leisurewear, in a beautiful eight-bedroom house in the mountains of Colorado, with like-minded others, a private chef to cook our meals, and a driver to chauffeur us around — there’s really nothing to worry about here. So, instead of talking to the weed, I have a word with myself: to relax and try to enjoy the experience. And, as Rachael leads us into a yoga and mindfulness class, for the first time in my life, I feel, as the yoga lot say, “present”. Instead of clock-watching and writing lists in my head, my body takes over and my mind is, for a rare moment, quiet.

A Saturday morning meditation session led by Yoga instructor and cannabis enthusiast Rachel Carlevale © Carl Bower

But smoking weed is, these days, only a tiny part of the marijuana menu. In the legal states, there is a mind-boggling array of products and potions, to be eaten, drunk, vaped, dabbed and rubbed in.

I’m eager to try some “edibles” — the umbrella term for the myriad cannabis chocolates, sweets and drinks that have become hugely popular, but I have precisely no idea where to start. Fortunately, Hi-Curious does: at the Denver factory of 1906, a high-end cannabis chocolate company.

Peter Barsoom, a former New York financier, set up 1906 (named after the year of the Wiley Act, which essentially began the prohibition of cannabis) three years ago, after seeing how poor most of the products on the market were.

Varieties of cannabis © Carl Bower

Aside from the fact that most edibles tasted terrible, there was no indication of how they would make you feel, he tells me, as he walks us through the high-tech factory, where hair-netted operatives are lasering a THC stamp [Tetrahydrocannabinol — the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis] on to tiny, shiny, chocolate-covered coffee beans. The other problem was the delay between ingestion and effect, often leading to people taking far too much. “You don’t want to play Russian roulette with an edible,” he notes. “So we started the company for people like us — high-functioning adults for whom cannabis can be an alternative to pharmaceuticals and alcohol, but who want to have control, and feel a particular way.”

The product range at 1906 is based around five simple, descriptive “experiences”: Go for energy, Chill for relaxation, Midnight for sleep, High Love for arousal and sex, and Bliss for overall euphoria. Soon to be added is Genius, for cognitive focus. Containing caffeine and natural botanical stimulants including galangal and bacopa, along with cannabis, Genius could be taken to boost your concentration before sitting down to write an essay.

The single-dose artisan chocolates, containing a regulated, consistent dose of THC, are also designed to be fast-acting. The effects should be felt in about 20 minutes (instead of 60-90 with most edibles), and last about two and a half hours, rather than six.

Feeling suitably schooled, and loaded down with a vast goody-bag of samples, I devour a Bliss Cup — a dark chocolate peanut butter cup that looks like a large Reese’s Pieces — as we hop into our chauffeured SUV and head into Denver for lunch. It’s delicious, but I don’t really feel any discernible effect . . . until, after lunch, at a presentation by a representative from Pax, the Apple of the vaporising world, when I am so utterly blissed out, I can’t concentrate at all.

Rachel Carlevale guides participants through the history and practice of cannabis use before combining smoked and edible marijuana usage with Yoga and meditation © Carl Bower

I learn two lessons: one, that edibles work most effectively when there’s food in your stomach for the active ingredients to bind to — so you’ll get higher faster after a meal — and that Bliss Cups are not advisable before a talk involving technology.

In truth, I’m a tough sell on vaping. For reasons I cannot quite articulate, I find vaping — of nicotine and cannabis — ridiculous and deeply uncool (perhaps it’s all the special equipment, which smacks of nerdery). I say as much when we arrive at The Clinic, one of Denver’s 169 recreational dispensaries — more than the city’s Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. I’ve been curious to visit a dispensary, but have always been too intimidated. And, to be honest, the first few minutes are intimidating. You need valid ID to enter a dispensary, which are strictly over-21. If you’re an international visitor, that means a passport; UK driving licences won’t be accepted. Your details are then entered on to a database, to ensure you don’t buy more than the permitted amount in a day: one ounce for recreational, two ounces for medical use.

Once inside, however, there’s nothing to be nervous about — all pale wood and glass cases, it feels like a cross between a jewellery shop and a make-up counter in a department store. The “budtenders”, as servers are known, are friendly, knowledgeable and more than happy to answer my many, lengthy questions. There is a vast array of types and flavours of “flower” (as dried, smokable cannabis is known), along with resins, vape pods and cartridges. There’s a fridge full of cannabis drinks, including coffee and root beer, and an extensive array of edibles, including lollipops, chews, gummies and toffees. The strength, and specific ratio of THC to CBD, is displayed on everything. There’s also a range of transdermal products (absorbed through the skin), including bath salts, creams, patches, and a product called Foria, formulated to heighten female sexual arousal and pleasure. Maybe cannabis really is a cure-all.

Attendees on the Hi Curious cannabis tour spend the weekend at a large house in the forest outside Granby, Colorado © Carl Bower

Back at the house, after dinner, we sample some of the products from The Clinic. I test out a cannabis “cigarette” (all cannabis, no tobacco) called Toast. I’d been sold on the elegant black and gold packaging, but it’s disappointing — dry and harsh, and not particularly pleasant. I ditch it after a couple of puffs. A 1906 Midnight chocolate, however, quickly gets me off into a delicious sleep.

Part of Colorado’s appeal for cannabis tourists is not simply the abundance of outlets (the state has 518 recreational dispensaries) but its outdoor activities too — hiking, biking and snowy pursuits. When we head out to Red Rocks Park the next morning, to walk among its huge sandstone outcrops, I try a Go from my 1906 stash, but don’t feel anything. We stop for a picnic lunch; still nothing. Perhaps, another member of the group speculates, I’m not feeling anything because I already have a lot of natural “Go”. While the ingredients and doses of the edibles are all standardised, everyone’s physiology is different, and so, too, therefore, will be everyone’s individual experience.

Later that day, I am persuaded to have a try on the Pax vape pen we’ve all been given. The sleek black device can be set to a specific temperature, as well as delivering a very specific dose at very specific intervals. The penny drops: sophisticated equipment like this allows you to control precisely how you want to feel. You’ll never get, like I did in yoga, uncomfortably, anxiously high (unless you want to, of course) — you can go straight to your mellow sweet spot.

1906 founder Peter Barsoom shows the group around his factory © Carl Bower

By the end of day three, I feel infinitely more confident about cannabis and its products, and have started to understand what I do and don’t like. When Barsoom brings a box of Bliss Cups to our final night’s tasting dinner at River and Woods in Boulder, I have no hesitation in enjoying a pre-prandial high. It will take longer than a weekend, though, to dispel the thrilling sense of transgression that still comes with enjoying cannabis in a smart restaurant.

Ultimately, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel about weed the way that I feel about red wine, but it is no longer mysterious or terrifying. And, who knows, when it is finally legalised in my home state of New York, I might even take up yoga.

Jane Mulkerrins was a guest of Hi-Curious. It offers three to four-day weekend breaks from $2,800, including meals, accommodation and activities.

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