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Marijuana critic William Breathes looks back on a year of Mile Highs & Lows dispensary reviews

It's been exactly one year since we kicked off our Mile Highs and Lows dispensary reviews. Since he's a sentimental guy (we think it might be the marijuana), William Breathes gave us the following look back at a year in pot reviewing:

Believe it or not, Westword staffers aren't potheads. Drunks, maybe. But a year ago, when this whole thing started, the Westword staff writer who wrote the early reviews didn't even puff. (He probably gets a contact high just walking past me in a hallway.)

Writing under the pseudonym Mae Coleman -- after one of the stars of the marijuana cult classic Reefer Madness -- the staffer did a great job describing what he saw inside the places, but that's about as far as it went.

"I always tell people it was like having a restaurant critic who didn't eat the food," the still-somewhat-anonymous Coleman tells me. "I wasn't very passionate about it; I was basically describing the locations and the prices. I wanted to get a Lester Bangs -- someone who is passionate about marijuana, so that it would come out in their writing."

So not long after Coleman got things started, the now-infamous search began for someone a bit more cannabis-centered to write the reviews. There were tongue-in-cheek news stories about the hunt on media outlets ranging from Denver's CBS4 to the BBC.

Admittedly, it's an unusual kind of newspaper hire -- especially when few newspapers are hiring at all. But as editor Patricia Calhoun explained, there was an actual growing need for this type of service -- the same sort of service a food critic offers in a town with a thriving restaurant scene.

In November 2009, just as all of the people who made a big deal of the job search were moving on to the next weird news story of the day, the Wildflower Seed and I were hired to bring some semblance of order to what several politicians were calling "the wild West" of the medical marijuana industry.

Looking back at our first reviews, it's easy to see that neither of us had a clue as to exactly what we were doing. Having only been to a dozen or so dispensaries before doing my review of Walking Raven, I didn't have much to compare it with. I also didn't focus as much on the medicine as I do in my current reviews. The Wildflower Seed's first review was much the same. In short, both of us had a lot to learn. It's fun to look back on those reviews and see how much has changed in a year.

And what hasn't. Soon after former Rocky Mountain News business editor Rob Reutemann published an interview with me on CNBC's new site, I found myself teaching Jason Jones how to light a bong on The Daily Show and stinking up Poppy Harlow's car with Cough on CNN.

Our reviews came into their own as well. My first "bad" review ran in February. Though all I really did was call out Greenest Green for selling $70 eighths, the comment section blew up. But I also was finding more and more of what I was looking for in shops: comfort, intelligent employees and, most of all, quality-grown medicine. At the same time, the Wildflower Seed was finding more and more quirky, off-the-beaten-path boutique shops and giving amazing detail of their ambience.

In July, things really changed for both the industry and any pot critics. For better or worse, shops must showcase the herb they grow -- which means we can now focus on what they can produce rather than what what they can purchase from a vendor.

And now, here we are a year later, still changing. The Wildflower Seed is no longer writing reviews (though she plans to run a series of pieces on grow operations), so I'm now bringing you my take on the dispensary scene every week. I'm sad to see my cannabis cohort go, but I'm excited for the opportunity to visit even more dispensaries.

Our nostalgia kick continues with this week's review. I headed back to the first place Mile Highs and Lows reviewed, the former Peace in Medicine Center -- now Budding Health -- to see how much it's grown in a year. Read it here.