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"For better or worse, he sort of hijacked the face of the movement," asserts Daurer, who says Gorman's tactics disenfranchised proponents of legalizing marijuana through diplomatic, bureaucratic channels. "He cranked it up a notch as far as the out-front, in-your-face approach. We all had issues with him, but it was hard to stay mad at him. The war on drugs made a lot of us angry, even crazy. Denver had never seen anything like this. He put a public face to it."
Gorman's ride came to an end after the election was over, however. The police, who were content to stand by during the race to avoid the exposure, wasted no time once the television cameras faded away. In May 1995, they set up a sting to catch Gorman selling pot to a seventeen-year-old informant. He was arrested with three pounds of what he called "medical marijuana" and charged with felony distribution to a minor. But the trigger word, "medical," which might save drug dealers from jail time now, was as useful as hemp monopoly money then.
Attorney Warren Edson says Gorman fired him the morning of his trial and then represented himself. "Ken fired me at least twenty times," Edson remembers. "It was part of who he was. We would agree to disagree, and I would be fired for whatever, and then the next week he would hire me back."
After losing in court, Gorman was sentenced in November 1996 to six years in prison. The only surprise to those who knew him was that it hadn't happened sooner.
With the absence of its soapbox hero, the marijuana effort trailed on with a new level of sophistication — one that marginalized the radicalism associated with Gorman and his disciples. Even Allen St. Pierre, the national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), lambasted Governor Pothead's tactics, calling for a new way. As the breadth of the Internet took hold and a new generation of voters emerged, proponents of medical marijuana found less obtrusive ways to effect change, eventually influencing a narrow majority of voters in 2000 to pass Amendment 20, which opened up medical marijuana for the chronically ill and their caregivers.
Dispensaries remained largely invisible, however, operating within the norms of the underground drug trade, for the next nine years. It wasn't until July 2009, when the Colorado Board of Health struck down a rule limiting medical marijuana caregivers to five patients each that the industry hit the strip malls. Today Denver boasts 235 dispensaries, many operated by Gorman's former pupils.
"He was a kick-ass, pull-no-punches kind of guy," says attorney Rob Corry, one of several leaders who represent those dispensaries and helped shape new statewide legislation approved by lawmakers last week. "I loved that about him. There are so many cold, logical people in my field, so it was refreshing to see someone with his passion. Ken Gorman was of an older school, an on-the-street, bare-knuckles activist who grabbed a bullhorn and went to the Capitol and said, 'Eff you, Governor Owens."
Corry notes that although the marijuana-legalization effort was moving away from Gorman, "he paid his dues more than anybody else in this movement."
Gorman spent nearly two years in prison before being released to the care of a halfway house, where he served the remainder of his time. But by 2003, he'd jumped back into the green rush, this time with a different angle that better fit the times.
In 2004, he and business partner Thomas Lawrence created the Colorado Compassion Club, which routinely held informational sessions, explaining how people could exploit the loosely worded medical marijuana law. Gorman and Lawrence later split, however, and Gorman created his own outfit, the 420 Compassion Club, which he ran out of his home.
Although it wasn't labeled as such, the club was an early underground dispensary. Gorman began moving pounds of pot each week, which he acquired from Mexican dealers, and he even began growing his own. His sole source of income, it had all the risks of any criminal drug enterprise; the only difference was that patients could flash their cards to police and get away scot-free. But unlike street-corner drug dealers, gangs or criminal syndicates, Gorman freely broadcast his business in social circles and on sites like Yahooka.com and kept his marijuana nursery in plain view: Exposure was the key to legitimization, he told his clients. With what many say was his inflated ego, he even dared to keep his door unlocked.
But Gorman was no amateur when it came to handling the streets.
Dominic Mestas, who was only fifteen when he found his "mentor and a father figure" in Gorman, says he and Gorman were the biggest pot dealers in the state before Gorman went to prison – and there was nothing medical about it. "We dealt tons of weed. That's what we did. We were the biggest dealers because of who Ken was," he says.
Mestas lived in the duplex unit adjacent to Gorman's; he says they used some of their profits to fund the rallies at the State Capitol. "Ken was just all about smoking pot. Then he heard about the medical aspect. The medical aspect took over for him."