Marijuana: Civic Center's black market for pot is alive and well

In late December, right before marijuana made its loud and proud entrance into the Colorado retail economy, I walked down to Civic Center Park to see if you could still buy a nickel bag off a stranger, as I did when I first moved to town a decade ago. I was not surprised to find that you could -- and was equally unshocked last week when I returned to the park and found the black market just as busy...if not more so.

There were a few key differences between my pot purchase in Civic Center in late December and my post-legalization trip there last week, though.

Significantly more people were both selling and purchasing weed on the north end of the park -- I actually had to wait in line while one yoga-pants-and-cruiser-riding blonde gal made her exchange before me -- but that could be attributed to the warm weather.

I also received notably less flower for my $5 than before. The first time around I got a little less than a gram for five bones; this time it was around a half gram. It's not like the dealers pull out a digi scale and measure out your product during the seven-second exchange, though; they simply pull it out of a baggie and sprinkle it in your palm. But even at $10 a gram, this is a third the price you would pay at many of our fancy new legal operations.

But does paying more get you a higher quality high? To find out, I took my just-purchased Civic Center weed to Denver Relief owner Kayvan Khalatbari, whom I profiled for a Westword cover story on ganjapreneurs earlier this month, to discuss how the quality of this black-market bud compared to the standards he sets for his own store.

Kayvan Khalatbari
Kayvan Khalatbari

When I met up with Khalatbari at his home in the Arts District on Santa Fe, he was entertaining guests from Massachusetts who are opening a dispensary in that newly MMJ-legal state, and were in town checking out all the hyped-up extravaganja in Colorado. As Khalatbari broke up my black-market pot and observed it under a lamp, one of his guests informed me that earlier that day he'd purchased an eighth for $100 at Kine Mine in Idaho Springs.

Last month, when I spoke with store owners gearing up for the January 1 start of sales, they told me the aim was to keep legal prices in line with the black market in surrounding states. Though Khalatbari and I both have experience buying and selling pot in the Midwest (he's from Nebraska, I'm from Iowa), and while you could expect to pay around $55 to $65 an eighth there, that's still a damn sight cheaper than what his friend paid in Idaho Springs.

As Khalatbari gingerly loaded my illegally purchased weed into a bong, he and I reminisced about the atrocious quality of bud we used to sell in our home states. "It was this shitty Mexican brick-weed pressed into a pound smaller than your fist," he said, recalling how it would be cut into angular bricks that would fit inside of a tire to smuggle across the border. "They would press it into bricks while it was still wet, which would lock-in some really nasty shit."

When I would buy pot in Civic Center Park back in 2004, the quality wasn't any higher than what I used to get in Iowa. Today it's difficult to even find that kind of low-quality cannabis -- at least in Colorado.

After taking a rip off his bong, Khalatbari noted that the park pot was "better than what you'd find in Nebraska. There it would be considered 'kind-bud.' It's not a bad taste, kind of citrus-y." If that bud were to be sold medically at Denver Relief, he said, he'd price it around $25 an eighth, which is the lower scale price for an MMJ dispensary.

"It is a little harsh, which probably comes from an improper flush," he continued. "When you apply nutrients to the plant when it's growing -- things that help make it as large and lush as possible -- you want to stop for the last couple weeks while it's flowering and just run straight water through it to flush all of that out. A lot of people don't do that because they want to pump nutrients into the plant to make them as big as possible. A lot of people look at our grow and say, 'I could get more yield than that.' And we could, too, but we choose not to, because who wants to smoke something that has all of that in there?"

Khalatbari also suspected my Civic Center cannabis might have been dried too quickly, and possibly also had the keef shaved off to make hash with.

These were observations made by a marijuana aficionado with a very sophisticated pot palate -- the equivalent of a Great American Beer Festival patron facing a Corona Light. Khalatbari knows what shitty weed tastes like, but even with his criticisms he was reasonably impressed with my back-alley purchase. The park pot would get the job done, but was nothing to write home about.

Once the teeter-totter of legalized marijuana's supply and demand begins to balance itself, we'll likely see significant drops in the price of recreational cannabis. But for the time being, anyone selling decent quality eighths out of their kitchen will have a reasonable sales pitch for why their regulars should keep buying underground weed.

Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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