The landscape changed as we headed west out of New York. The verdant rolling hills of the east gradually flattened out during our drive through Ohio, becoming flatter and further between peaks. It had taken us into the wide open farmland of Indiana by the afternoon of our second day on the road. It hit me that I was on a new and different planet, having never seen the Midwest with my own eyes before. I had most likely never seen that far across a landscape in my life, each side of Route 80 lined with massive farm equipment, framing endless vistas in both directions. We would cross the Mississippi river near Davenport, Iowa, later that night – the river lined with mud and neon signs for sprawling truck stops. With every mile I felt the distance we were gaining from New York, where I had spent the last six years of my life. It was freeing, but also terrifying.
New York State has some of the toughest drug laws in the country, and legalization in other states hasn’t changed how this affects cannabis users. New York’s cannabis arrest rate of 525 arrests per 100,000 people (in 2010) is the highest in the country. Possession of more than 25 grams is punishable by jail time, with smaller amounts leading to possibly hefty fines. Repeat offenses of possession of small amounts can also lead to jail time. While not quite as heavy handed as laws in some Midwestern states, New York law continues to treat cannabis users as dangerous criminals. 2014 saw the beginning of medical cannabis in New York, but these laws were geared only towards those with a handful of severe, cannabis-treatable diseases, and even has made access difficult for those with such diseases. This intolerant and wrongheaded attitude towards cannabis is apparent in the cultural makeup of New York too, as cannabis remains private and taboo even among open minded people – bound to the past by draconian laws, culture can only evolve so far.
I grew up used to these attitudes and laws – for me, it what laid ahead on my journey promised to show a different way American culture can deal with cannabis. We planned to spend two nights in the Denver and Boulder area, before continuing on to our destination in central California. Both states share a history as pioneers regarding legal approaches to cannabis. California, despite having been one of the first states to ban cannabis in 1913, also made history in 1976 – when, with jails overburdened with marijuana arrests, California became one of the first states to decriminalize cannabis possession with the Moscone Act. This would set the stage for a cannabis culture to develop further in California, leading to the state being the first in the United States to make cannabis legal for medical use, through Proposition 215. This relatively open and tolerant culture has continued to grow in California, despite Proposition 215 ignoring marijuana’s federal classification as a Schedule I drug - possessing “no currently accepted medical use.” While this has led to some legal conflicts with the federal government, by 2015 the cannabis industry in California had grown to bring in about one billion dollars in sales annually, catering to roughly one million patients with a range of conditions treatable with cannabis.
With lifelong insomnia and occasional yet painful migraines, I was looking forward to becoming a patient in California. On the way however, our route would break off of Route 80 and go south through Colorado, the real hero of the 2010’s cannabis revolution. After a night in a truly dodgy Des Moines Motel Six we took off into the true prairie. The eastern Midwest I had seen last night before the sun went down was lightly industrial, a land of giant truck stops and gaudy attractions just off the highway. Western Iowa was nearly empty, golden with wheat, and dotted with giant wind farms. I grew up about 12 miles west of New York City, in northern New Jersey. For me, seeing endless farmland like this was something out of the past. My dad, a child of the fifties, had raised me with a classic American appreciation for the frontier period of the American West. Despite having grown up to re-examine that period of history and its mixed cultural legacy through a number of socio-political lenses, something in my gut still held western imagery alongside ideas of freedom and progress, less bounded to traditional ideas than the crowded cities of the east. As such, there was something fitting leaving behind what I knew, to look towards a more open future – including with regards to cannabis.
In the hours after passing through Omaha, the land turned from primarily farmland to much wilder looking prairie. The grass got taller, greener, and rivers and trees began to dot the landscape. Pulling into a gas station, I saw two men in dirty jeans leaning against a pickup truck, talking- wearing the first non-ironic cowboy hats I think I’d ever seen in my life. My amazement must have been noticeable, along with my Star Wars t-shirt with a diagram of the Millennium Falcon, and my road-trip pajama pants – because people stared at me like I was an alien as I walked in the store to buy some buffalo jerky. Everyone else looked as though they were on their way either to or from, work on the farm. As such, people seemed to move slower, or to move less in general. It felt that we had moved past “the Midwest” into a stranger, wilder, and almost foreign frontier. Soon after, Route 80 met up with the Platte river, and we stayed within the lush green river valley until we veered south off of 80 towards Colorado, into the high plains.
This was the point in the day of driving in which getting out of the car took on a certain urgency. Five or six hours in the car is annoying, but somewhere around hour 7 each day, I found I reached a limit. The hours in the car, the overwhelming flat openness of the land, and the gradual but steady increase in altitude combined to leave me anxious and dizzy on our final approach to Denver, as the sun set ahead of us. Dusk turned to night, but I could see short grassland in every direction. We must have moved gradually uphill for about 100 miles. As we approached Denver, this was no doubt the highest I’d ever been – the city is almost exactly one mile above sea level.
Despite my lightheadedness, carsickness, and general disorientation at that point – I knew good things were ahead. Colorado had made history in 2012 by passing Amendment 64, which legalized the recreational sale of cannabis to adults over 21 in Colorado. It had gone into effect January 1st, 2014 – about a year and ten months prior to my arriving in Colorado. By most accounts, this groundbreaking rollback of prohibition had been a success. Colorado has been considered one of the fastest growing economies since legalization, with tax revenue, tourism, and new private enterprise all contributing. Youth rates of cannabis use actually had dropped in Colorado by the beginning of 2015. Other markers, such as the rates of traffic accidents, and unemployment, have remained steadily low – mostly unchanged since legalization, rebuking the predictions of naysayers. As we sped into the high plains approaching Denver, uphill at sunset on a mostly empty road into town, I knew I was about to experience something that in my youth I never would have thought possible in America. This would be a demonstration of what I perceived as the west’s greater ability to accept breaks in tradition, and to find new, practical, and more humane ways of doing things in general.