The Bong Next Door: Ambling Through America's Most Stoned Suburbs
“Should we smoke before we pray?”
Cynthia Joye asked, tapping the Bible resting on her lap. Joye had just arrived at her friend’s home in Centennial, Colorado, a suburb south of Denver, for the fifth or sixth meeting — it was hard to keep track — of Stoner Jesus Bible Study. “I think the plant is sacred,” said Joye, a 51-year-old mother who wore her gray hair in a ponytail, as a pair of pipes made their way around the circle. “It puts people in a frame of mind where you think of God.”
"By early October, the group had grown to include a Catholic, a Mormon, a member of the Greek Orthodox church, and a curious atheist."
“The Bible didn’t say you couldn’t smoke weed,” said Mia Williams, who had been raised a Southern Baptist. Someone cited Genesis 1:29 — “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed’ ” — and though no one smoked when they went to church, everyone agreed that Jesus wouldn’t mind if they did. “Jesus didn’t hang out with the Pharisees,” Joye said. “If somebody passed him a pipe, he wouldn’t say no.”
Stoner Jesus Bible Study is the creation of Deb Button, a 40-something mother of two who had never considered smoking pot until last year, when Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over 21. “I was majorly conservative,” said Button, who was wearing a navy cardigan and jeans cuffed at the calf. Earlier this year, while going through a divorce, she’d tried an edible on a friend’s advice. This had proved a revelation. “I expected to see unicorns,” Button said. “But when I started smoking I just got so connected to God.” Joye was the only person to show up when Button posted a listing on Craigslist for Stoner Jesus Bible Study; she arrived to find Button “so baked out of her head she forgot that she’d invited me over.” They talked for four hours.
By early October, the group had grown to include a Catholic, a Mormon, a member of the Greek Orthodox church, and a curious atheist. Button and Joye had gone to a dispensary that afternoon and loaded up on sativa, a marijuana variety said to boost creative thinking; indica, the other major variety, is supposed to be less conducive to lively textual analysis. (It’s also known as “in da couch.”) For discussion, Button had chosen one of the Beatitudes — “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” — and Joye started off the conversation by noting that though she typically fell asleep if she tried watching Game of Thrones high, reading the Bible in a similar state was a “transcendent experience.” “When I’m stoned, I can’t read fast, so I look at every word,” she said. “Like, what does each one of those words mean? Who’s ‘poor’?”
A High Plains chill crept over Button’s back deck as Stoner Jesus Bible Study entered its third hour, by which time the weed had pretty well circulated through everyone’s bloodstream. The atheist could barely keep his eyes open. Joye wrapped herself in a zebra-striped blanket and started giggling uncontrollably when another member said a particular biblical phrase came from a Greek word.
“When you think about physics and space and time, my favorite thing to think about lately is that we never, at any moment, actually exist,” Joye said, to a chorus of mm-hmm’s. “We are either remembering the past or anticipating the future, and to be in the now is where eternity is. Because it’s always now. But we’re always thinking in terms of the past — or the future.” She paused. “Sorry, I got off track.”
Centennial, Colorado, is, according to the local paper, “suburbia personified.” It has some of the state’s best schools, a midnight curfew for minors, and one of America’s largest Ikeas — along with, for what it’s worth, the regional headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Pretty much all anyone in Centennial can talk about these days is the ever-escalating price of real estate and the snarled traffic, both of which they blame in part, and with some rationale, on marijuana. People are moving to the state in droves, and over the last year, sales of recreational weed have doubled. Americans are getting high across the country, of course — nationally, pot use has doubled in the past ten years — but nowhere are they doing so more freely than in Colorado. The smell of marijuana warehouses along I-70 is now so strong that grateful residents report it has finally overpowered the stench from a nearby Purina plant.
Colorado hasn’t turned into a horde of stoned zombies, as some swore it would, but legalization has produced considerable social and cultural confusion in places like Centennial, which might as well be Bethesda or Montclair, except that, as one young mother said, the Saturday-morning sidelines are now a much happier place: “It used to be that everyone complained about the bottle of wine they drank on Friday night. Now, they just ate an edible.”
"‘Oh my God, I got so lifted last night while I decorated for Halloween.'"
Joanne Miller is a teacher’s aide in Centennial whose name is not actually Joanne Miller. She tried pot, briefly, when she was much younger, but the experience left her feeling “naughty.” As an adult, she struggled with anxiety, and during her “overwhelmed-mommy phase, when half of my friends were on antidepressants and the other half were on Valium,” Miller’s doctor prescribed her 90 Xanax a month. After legalization, the idea of something more naturally soothing was attractive, but the thought of visiting a dispensary, and being seen by someone she knew, was too much to bear. “I just couldn’t bring myself to do it,” she said.
Miller remained curious about pot, despite her hesitation, and one day this summer, her adult daughter, who was visiting from the East Coast, told Miller she wanted to go to a dispensary. “Well, I hope you’re gonna share, because I’ve been dying to try one of those gummies,” Miller told her daughter. A few days later, on a family camping trip, she ate half of one. “When I got up from the campfire and went in to get ready for bed, I couldn’t get my shirt on,” she recalled. “I couldn’t figure out the zipper on my sleeping bag. I was flailing.” She was determined to try a gummy again, and a few weeks later, after making sure to finish cooking dinner, she ate the other half while her husband drank a martini. She started feeling weird as they sat down to watch a movie. “Oh my God,” Miller told me a week later. “I can’t even remember what movie we watched.”
The bad early edible experience has become a common one in Colorado — Deb Button had one, too — so much so that Coloradans refer to it as simply “pulling a Maureen Dowd,” in honor of the New York Times columnist who ate an infused chocolate on a trip to the state and wrote about finding herself “panting and paranoid” in her hotel room. Easing new consumers like Miller into the fold is thus a matter both of education — Dowd had eaten many times the recommended dosage — and of branding. “Cannabis” not “weed,” “lifted” not “stoned.” “What if we were like, ‘Oh my God, I got so lifted last night while I decorated for
A number of dispensaries are competing to become “the Apple Store of cannabis” — a place where the “canna-curious” feel comfortable buying pot for the first time. “I want this to look like a place where 40-year-old people walk in and go, I feel at home,” said Tim Cullen, who runs Colorado Harvest Company, a dispensary near Centennial that has nine computers around a U-shaped table for people to browse the 20 different strains of marijuana on sale, which retail for anywhere from $20 to $40 for an eighth of an ounce — enough to roll about seven joints. For those still too shy to visit a dispensary, Healthy
"‘Where would I get weed?’ And I’m like, ‘Duh, my mom!’”
“Sorry, it’s not infused,” Lynn Honderd, a bleach-blonde Centennial-
“Did you dance with boys?” Honderd asked.
“No,” Lauren said. She and her friends had talked, instead, about the future. “We were all like, ‘What would we bring to a college party?’ ” Lauren said. “Charlotte would bring the guys, ’cause she’s very flirty, Jalynne would bring the drinks, and then Allie is like, ‘I’d bring the weed,’ but then she’s like, ‘Where would I get weed?’ And I’m like, ‘Duh, my mom!’ ”
“The reality is you’d probably have to ask me,” said Nicole Smith, who co-founded Mary’s with Honderd. Honderd had voted against legalization, but Smith, an experienced smoker, had convinced Honderd — they ran a branding agency together — there was a business opportunity in catering to weed newbies like Deb Button or Joanne Miller. “I think I’d smoked once,” Honderd said.
“And she didn’t inhale,” Smith said. Honderd now vapes for pain relief on occasion and uses Mary’s patches almost every day (each costs between $10 and $16), but she was initially ostracized by her social circle. Parents at Lauren’s school confronted her about bringing drugs into the community. “Some people aren’t going to change their mind,” Honderd said. “But, okay, you’re sitting there in the carpool line, you popped your Xanax last night to go to sleep, you popped your Prozac this morning to wake up, and you’re drinking vodka-and-soda out of your Starbucks cup. So, who’s going to hell?”
As Gallup examined the couple’s chocolate Lab to determine whether he had eaten a Nerf football, the neighborhood started to come alive. Nate, a truck salesman, walked over in a Nebraska Cornhuskers T-shirt and a Broncos hat, carrying a child in one arm. “I couldn’t figure out the Baby Björn,” he said, holding the child carrier in his other hand. His wife, Ashley, an elementary-school teacher, pulled up in a minivan a few minutes later and started recounting an experience with a pot brownie before stopping herself. “Is it okay?” she asked, nodding to the kids tossing a football nearby.
“You can talk freely,” Gallup said. “They know.”
“Okay, so that was fun, but I had to excuse myself,” Ashley said. She doesn’t smoke anymore, since having kids, but had used Honderd’s patches and creams and was curious to try more. (Honderd had recently given the couple a set of hemp seeds to try growing.) The cannabis industry is understandably averse to the term gateway, but Honderd’s patches are among the more common marijuana entry points: An elderly woman in the neighborhood who had once narc’d on some teenagers for selling pot out of their basement had tried one. It wasn’t hard to imagine a patch leading to a brownie, lollipop, or bottle of CannaPunch — edibles dominate the legal-pot business — then a vape pen, and maybe even a joint. Mary’s had recently begun selling vaporizers, two of which were sitting on a table in Honderd’s backyard, along with a bottle of milk for Nate and Ashley’s baby.
“I think some people function better when they’re high,” Ashley said.
“You do,” Nate said.
“Maybe I do,” Ashley said. “I hate cleaning the house.”
“Everybody’s in on it,” Diane Carlson whispered to me from behind a pair of sunglasses in the parking lot of a public library in Centennial. Carlson is the co-founder of Smart Colorado, a group of mothers who are doing their best to keep marijuana away from their kids. They had, for instance, recast the razor-blade-filled-caramel-apple myth in an alarmist billboard warning about potheads handing out infused gummies. (Studies have found potential negative health effects from heavy marijuana use, including developmental issues for teens, but the plant’s federal status as an illicit drug has so far limited the amount of available research.) Carlson saw herself as a cannabis Cassandra. “People are uncomfortable talking about it,” she said as she filled a picnic table with printouts of PowerPoint slides detailing the variable potency of different kinds of marijuana and the alleged effects on the adolescent brain. “There’s been a lot of silencing.”
Other mothers didn’t see mixing weed with parenting as a problem. “Three’s a hard age,” one told me early on a Saturday afternoon, her eyes noticeably bloodshot as she watched her 3-year-old daughter torture a cricket in the family’s front yard, which was decorated with pumpkins and a makeshift graveyard. “We have a lot of temper tantrums, during which I walk back into my room, close the door, and walk back out with a brand-new head.” She smokes every day, but never drinks, and her daughter had taken to confronting mothers she saw holding beers. “We don’t drink pop, we don’t use the TV very often,” she said. “We’re very healthy people.”
“The stuff is so much stronger than when I was in college,” Jim said. “We were smoking parsley.”
As for the influence on their kids, “the bigger concerns are still alcohol, pills, and sex,” one high-school science teacher in Centennial told me. He is the type of teacher who informs his students they can reliably pass drug tests by flushing their system with two Red Bulls, but he insisted the number of students showing up to class stoned wasn’t any higher than it had been pre-legalization. (If anyone is getting high at school, it might be the parents: A local middle-school bake sale had been scandalized when someone brought pot brownies.) The teacher reported a trend that might be of greater concern to the industry than to Diane Carlson. Now that their parents can legally get high, he said, “kids think marijuana’s for old people.”
“I’m starting to have hand tremors,” Chuck, a retired television cameraman, said as he struggled with a pair of gardening clippers. He was standing behind his two-story home, which looked generically suburban — attached garage, man cave in the basement — until you got to the three marijuana plants that had grown so tall they nearly touched the ceiling of his back porch. Chuck, who had a white beard and wore two fleeces, had been smoking for most of his life and never had trouble with the law — “No one’s gonna bother this old man with his pipe” — but even in Amsterdam, he found himself looking over his shoulder when he lit up. His stoner paranoia had extended to roofers, painters, and a fear that having his last name appear in this article would induce the subdivision’s teenagers to plunder his greenhouse. “A guy from Dish Network came here a couple weeks ago to run some cable in my neighbor’s lawn, and I could see him looking at it,” Chuck said. “I said, ‘I see you noticed I’m an avid gardener.’ ” The technician told him not to worry: He saw it all the time.
Still, legalization had brought some peace of mind. “It’s legal, so, if they don’t like it, screw ’em,” Chuck said of his neighbors. He glanced at his wife, Megumi. “I don’t know if my wife feels that way.”
“I’d rather stick with vegetables,” she said.
Chuck’s seeds had sprouted more plants than he could handle, so he’d given several to his wife’s friend Patty, a social worker; she, in turn, had given one to her son, about which she felt a little weird. For starters, her plants were growing even better than her son’s. “I found my neighbor with binoculars, looking at the plant,” Patty said. “I said, ‘It’s what you think! You can just come over!’ ”
Patty, Chuck, and Megumi, all of whom are eligible for AARP benefits, were sitting around a trash can with a pair of clippers in one hand and a branch in the other, trimming the non-psychotropic leaves from Chuck’s plants. Patty had gotten interested in pot after Chuck gave her a batch of weed cookies for Christmas, which she ate to help manage pain. (Megumi ate one and pulled a Maureen Dowd.) In exchange for trimming his plant, which he described as “a pain in the ass,” Chuck was offering Patty a free gardening lesson and hoped that “trim parties” like this one might become as common a way of socializing as book clubs or dinner parties. Colorado law still prevents consumption almost anywhere outside a private residence, and he had found the opportunities for socializing with weed, particularly for people of his age, to be limited. Stoned driving, which is illegal, is one obstacle, though the effects are different from alcohol: Locals say they know to steer clear when they see someone driving ten miles per hour under the speed limit. (One presumes such drivers are listening to Denver’s Smokin 94.1, which, the slogan goes, is playing “one hit — cough— after another.”)
Chuck and Megumi play bridge, but they doubted smoking weed would help their game. (One Denverite told me his mother’s mah-jongg group had recently tried to play after eating edibles, which hadn’t gone well.) “This is the downside of playing high,” said Steve, a retired pilot, as he tried to divvy up the pot after a hand of poker. “The math challenge.” It was Friday night in a living room off the 13th green of a golf course southwest of Denver, and he was sitting around a poker table with five other men, all over the age of 50 and dressed in the loose-fitting clothing of fathers who were done working for the week.
“Mike’s the only one who the more he smokes, the more he wins,” Steve said. “He gets more unpredictable.”
Most of the group had been playing poker together for more than 20 years, but marijuana had become a regular fixture only recently. Mark, the host, has a 14-year-old son — he echoed the science teacher’s remark: “Kids don’t smoke weed just like they don’t post on Facebook. Facebook and weed are for old people” — and had no problem with a pipe being passed around the table while his son hung out in the basement. But his guests knew that even in a world where smoking pot is legal, there are still taboos. When one player wanted to smoke a tobacco cigarette, he went outside.
“I’d much rather be high than drunk on the field,” Nick Sullivan told me as he and his softball teammates stood just off the first-base line of a diamond in a park near Centennial. The starting nine wore Broncos, Rockies, and Braves caps and passed a pipe as they dissected their performance. Sullivan plays third base and smokes before most games, though he and others acknowledge it doesn’t really help. “Let’s just say I didn’t get a hit,” Justin, the team’s pitcher, said of the only time he tried. He’s not against weed; in fact, Justin has an aquaponics system in his basement that he’s excited to start growing weed in. (He locks everything his kids shouldn’t have in that room: pot, booze, guns, and, most important, sugar.) I’d love to report that the tilt had been filled with more missed grounders than the usual rec-league game, but Sullivan’s team won handily and was undefeated on the season.
“There’s always gonna be somebody that judges you because they don’t do it,” Jessica said.
Statewide, pot doesn’t seem to be juicing Netflix usage to the detriment of hiking clubs. “You can be athletic and be high,” Tom Murray, a member of a 40-and-up men’s-lacrosse team sponsored by Mary’s Medicinals, told me. “That’s almost the Colorado way.” They had just beaten a group of recent college graduates, much to the surprise of both teams, and many of the Mary’s players were on the sidelines rubbing the company’s infused version of Icy Hot on their thighs. (For the active dog, Mary’s sells a pet-friendly gel.) Mary’s also sponsors a hockey league and soccer team, as well as Avery Collins, an ultramarathoner who eats 50 milligrams of an edible bar before training runs — 10 milligrams is enough to put the average person at the bottom of a Cheetos bag — and another dose halfway through. “It makes the runs much more spiritual,” Collins said.
After the lacrosse team went to a bar to watch the Broncos, I made my way to Centennial, where Gary, the president of Joanne Miller’s homeowner’s association, was having friends over to get high and watch the game. An olive-skinned lawyer turned winery owner with a big laugh, Gary had quit smoking during his law career but had lately taken it back up. Problems with pot hadn’t come up at any association meetings, although a neighbor had noticed the smell of marijuana coming from Gary’s house — a complaint that a number of citizens around Centennial have brought to City Council meetings, to which the council can only reply: This is now a part of suburban life.
“It’s hard being middle-aged and getting a weed dealer."
Gary’s basement was outfitted with a bar; two televisions showing different games; and a table topped with chips, salsa, and a container of infused gummies. Beer is still the football fan’s depressant of choice, but many said their game-day alcohol consumption had gone down since legalization. “I went into the bathroom at a Broncos game on a cold day, and it was like an opium den,” a friend of Gary’s said. In certain ways, the fans were just following their favorite players’ lead: Tim Cullen, who co-owns the cannabis Apple Store, had recently installed a VIP entrance for all the Broncos players who came in to buy pot patches, which don’t show up on drug tests, to help their aches and pains. At halftime, a young couple in Broncos jerseys each popped a gummy — the woman complained about the lack of dairy-free and gluten-free edible options — while the rest of the group stepped onto the front porch to smoke. Jim, a lawyer in a golf-club T-shirt, said he hadn’t smoked since college, but one recent weekend, when his wife was out of town, he went to a dispensary and bought a joint.
“The stuff is so much stronger than when I was in college,” Jim said. “We were smoking parsley.”
“Oregano!” Gary said.
The Broncos game stayed close into the fourth quarter, and everyone in the basement looked like they could use another hit to calm their nerves. “Everything will be better once every state legalizes it,” Gary said of the complications involved in being the first state to legalize pot, before turning his attention back to the screen. “I want a touchdown! Six points! Give it to me!”
Denver news outlets have lately been touting a ranking that anointed the Mile High City the country’s most sexually active metropolis in a survey that might have done well to include weed as a factor. “You want to get a girl in bed?” Cynthia Joye asked me, several days and more than a few digressions removed from Stoner Jesus Bible Study. “Get some red wine — a Pinot Noir — some dark chocolate, with 70 percent cocoa, and then smoke a joint.” She told me to text her a thumbs-up emoji if it ever worked.
Joye was back at Button’s house for a cannabis-infused dinner party catered by Mia Williams, from Bible study, who was a culinary student and had cooked up a pizza topped with butternut squash and infused olive oil, followed by similarly enhanced pumpkin-cream-cheese cake. Button set out a jar of pre-rolled joints as an appetizer and another jar with weed stems dried out to serve as incense. She had been mortified several years ago when she saw her teenage son smoking, pre-legalization, but was now encouraging her older son, who is 21, to consider a career in the industry. “When I told him I was gonna take edibles for my headaches, he was like, ‘That’s so great, Mom!’ ” Button said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m never gonna smoke.’ And he said, ‘That would just be so weird.’ ” She shrugged and took a hit from a joint.
“It’s hard being middle-aged and getting a weed dealer,” Joye said of pre-legalization complications. “I was so happy to have a store where I could pick and choose what I wanted.” She had avoided weed while raising her kids, whom the D.A.R.E. program had indoctrinated well enough that, when she started smoking, they called their mother a drug addict. “My own children were gonna narc on me,” she said.
"Be prepared to bend and blaze."
Among the dinner guests was Button’s friend Lisa, to whom Button had recently disclosed her new habit. “Debby,” Lisa replied, “I’ve been a stoner all my life.” Pot is becoming more normalized by the day, but most people in Centennial are still discovering the habits of friends through conversations like this one — Joanne Miller had taken to approaching people who “seemed happy” — or the sporadic events that bring enthusiasts together. “It’s usually 20 to 30 people getting high and making big plans they’re not going to keep,” Addison Morris, the founder of Colorado Rocky Mountain High Singles, told me at one of the group’s meet-ups in an art gallery downtown. Morris, who is in her 60s and wore black from glasses to boots, said the group had an older membership and that attendance was much better when they held events in the suburbs. Roger Gellert, a 61-year-old IT consultant, had moved to town a few months after legalization — “I dropped off my suitcases at the hotel and said I need three things: a Starbucks, a taxi, and a place to buy pot” — but meeting like-minded people had proved more difficult than finding weed. He had tried pretty much every dating app, including HighThere!, which targets the demographic the pun suggests — “I have a thing for hippie girls” — and had been going to Colorado Rocky Mountain High Singles meet-ups for several months. The group had yet to produce a lasting romance. “Maybe it’s me,” Gellert said.
Chuck, the TV cameraman turned gardener, wasn’t in the market for a partner, but he was looking for pot-friendly friends, and one Saturday night he went to the Puff, Pass, and Paint class led by Heidi Keyes every Saturday night in the attic of her Denver home. Chuck is now a regular attendee and was seated at a table with Megan and Jessica, two young blonde mothers from Littleton who had left their 10-year-old sons and their husbands at home. They had recently taken a Pinot and Painting class but hadn’t been happy with the results; marijuana seemed more likely to produce something suitably abstract. “I do have kids, so I can’t get high all the time,” Megan said.
“Do you feel like as a mother with kids that age, is anyone judgey about it?” Keyes asked as she walked around the room inspecting everyone’s canvases.
“There’s always gonna be somebody that judges you because they don’t do it,” Jessica said.
Chuck encouraged the younger smokers to be bold. “There’s a feeling from people like me who live their whole life in the closet of just — the hell with you.” He hoped the general population would begin to realize that “there’s normal people out there getting stoned, and they’ve been among you the whole fucking time.”
Early one afternoon, Joanne Miller called me from the school parking lot during Field Day. “Let me walk away a little bit to make sure no one’s around,” she whispered. She was calling to tell me she could no longer accompany me to a pot-friendly yoga class, despite an inviting email from the resident yogi, Shelly Jenkins:
Be prepared to bend and blaze.
But Miller had good news, too. “I think I found my happy zone!” she said. She had tried one of Honderd’s patches, and though she was still nervous enough about being discovered that she had covered the patch, which already looks like a Band-Aid, with a real Band-Aid, she liked how she felt. “This is way better than Xanax,” she said. When I suggested that her happiness might have less to do with the patch than the fact that her daughter had just come home to visit, she balked. “Oh, no, that just causes me anxiety,” she said. “I’m running around cooking meatballs, and baking zucchini bread, and making sure everything’s ready.” Miller thought it would take time for Centennial to fully acclimate to life with marijuana — “Suburbia is still suburbia” — but she was making personal steps in that direction: This time, she was going to face her fear and go inside the dispensary with her daughter. “I may just buy myself a pack for Christmas,” she said of the patches. “This is gonna be a good Christmas.”