William Breathes's Greatest Hits and Reasons for Moving on as Pot Critic

That’s William Breathes (left) with Jason Jones.
That’s William Breathes (left) with Jason Jones.

Time flies when you’re having fun. Time flies even faster when you’re half-baked and have the greatest job in the world. But after five and a half years as the country’s first cannabis critic for the mainstream (sort of) media, I’m ready to slow things down. So I’ve decided to hang up my bandanna, sunglasses and Rockies hat, and put down my critic’s pipe.
It’s gone by in a flash.

As I look back, though, great times stand out that will stick with me forever. My first cannabis cooking class with chef Scott Durrah, for example; it was Durrah’s discussion of Jamaica that inspired me and my future wife to visit the island and get married there (the course itself inspired a Westword cover story you can still read online). Trying not to lose my shit laughing while the Daily Show’s Jason Jones fired off hysterical questions; at one point, he had me high-fiving him about Hitler’s Germany. I’ve written an op-ed for the Times of London, gotten name-checked by Rolling Stone, been interviewed on both NPR and Playboy Radio, and pissed off Dan Caplis. I was slated to speak at South by Southwest about being a pot critic — only to get sick and wind up in an Austin hospital with the same nausea that, ironically, had made me a medical pot patient in the first place. And then there was the time CNN’s Poppy Harlow interviewed me about being a cannabis critic. She tried to keep my identity a secret — since I had to use my real ID to buy MMJ, I’ve always written under a fake name — but my unsuspecting in-laws happened to be watching CNN that morning and immediately recognized the back of my head. That prompted quite the conversation about my medical cannabis use — something they now accept and even endorse.

I was lucky to never get called out by budtenders who recognized me, but I did get plenty of notes after my visits from dispensary owners who put two and two together and realized they’d just been visited by William Breathes.

As a critic, I’ve seen the best and worst medical pot imaginable, had hash explode in my face, and watched the rise of concentrates from something only pot nerds cared about to the proliferation of vape pens and dab culture, with hash oil and shatter now the focus of city council discussions. And along the way, I contributed to cannabis coverage that won numerous awards, including NORML’s Hunter S. Thompson Award for Journalistic Excellence.

Politically, I was privileged to have a front-row seat to changes in the industry — from the Wild West days when anyone with a turkey bag full of pot could sell to a dispensary to the system we have today, in which all pot is tightly regulated (or so officials say). And I even got to help influence some of those changes. To test a controversial proposal that would have put THC intoxication at five nanograms per milliliter of blood, I took blood tests while sober and while stoned to get baseline readings. But even after abstaining from pot for more than twelve hours and being being deemed sober by a doctor, I still had more than three times the legal limit of active THC in my blood. Those results came in right as the legislature was about to debate that proposal — and they put an end to the discussion. For then, at least: The measure eventually passed, putting thousands of patients and cannabis users at risk of getting a pot DUI when they aren’t even impaired.

Breathes busted on CNN.EXPAND
Breathes busted on CNN.

There have been plenty of other proposals, both good and bad, on the local and state level, and the pace of those proposals has only intensified now that recreational marijuana is legal here. While Colorado definitely enjoys more freedom than ever before, there is still lots of room for improvement — both in product and policy. Public consumption needs to be addressed, and soon: People should have places where they can legally smoke pot outside of their homes. There’s also the ongoing attack on the medical pot community by the greed heads in the legislature who lick their lips like hungry wolves at the thought of getting more tax dollars by diverting patients into the recreational system. They want to regulate other behavior, too, but bills proposing that pregnant woman be warned not to smoke pot are knee-jerk and unnecessary. Our lawmakers need to quit spending so much time on pot issues and instead deal with the real issues facing our state: Overpopulation, rapid growth and a crumbling infrastructure would be a good start. And our police (especially in Denver) should focus on real crime (like rising gang violence) instead of ticketing pot smokers for having a puff on the street or in a park.

Although I’ll continue to follow all these important matters facing the cannabis community, I won’t be following them as a cannabis reporter. Or a dispensary critic, for that matter.

While there will continue to be shops worth visiting and shops worth avoiding, I’ll leave the official assessments to the next cannabis critic. The things that were most important to me as a reviewer will remain important to my successor: dispensaries that treat customers like humans and not walking wallets; knowledgeable staffers who don’t steer patients and rec-users in the wrong direction; and, most important, clean and well-grown cannabis. I reviewed hundreds of dispensaries over the years, and I see more quality cannabis these days than I ever did in 2009. But some shops still need to work on it. If they want to keep customers coming in the door, they need to take a good look at the growing competition rather than fool themselves into thinking they’ve got the best bud in the state. There’s always some dispensary working harder. And there will be a new reviewer working hard, too, to tell you who’s doing the best job out there.

There are several reasons I’m bowing out, but in the end it really comes down to time. I just don’t have the time to devote to cannabis coverage that the beat deserves, and I find myself wanting to spend more time with my family. With two toddlers at home, that time rarely involves pot.

Upcoming Events

Am I done with cannabis entirely? Not at all. I’ve been in love with Mary Jane for more than twenty years, and she’s still going to be a part of my life. I just won’t be telling you about the ripe, pungent, rubbery tartness of my Sour Diesel or answering your crazy questions about cannabis. But I’ll still be nerding out over amazing cannabis, growing a few plants and enjoying the freedoms we have gained over the last few years to the fullest. Hell, I’m (legally) smoking a joint as I type this.

Moving on is bittersweet. This has been a great home for me, and I’ve always felt lucky to write for a publication that I’ve admired for as long as I can remember. It’s hard to leave home. But even as I go, I remain proud of what we built over the last half-decade at Westword, westword.com and in the Chronicle. I’m proud of what Colorado has done: We’re a model for the rest of the country, and tourists come here from around the globe to experience the best marijuana anywhere. Colorado has helped change the world, and I’ve been fortunate to help tell that story. And above all, I’m thankful to all of my readers. I’ve been a lucky man to be able to be a part of this community, and to keep it informed.

It’s been the time of my life.

WHO WANTS TO BE A CANNABIS CRITIC?
We’re on the hunt for William Breathes’s replacement. This is an extremely part-time job, and it’s open only to Colorado residents. Think you have what it takes to be the next toke of the town? Then tell us, in 420 words or less, why you think you should be our next cannabis critic, and describe your favorite marijuana dispensary — recreational, medical or both. Send your answer ASAP to marijuana@westword.com.


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