Longform

Three years after his murder, memories of Ken Gorman -- Colorado's most vocal pot activist -- have gone up in smoke

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Gorman had a knack for comedy in these messages, which prompted Gregory Daurer, who now works for prominent Denver pot attorney Warren Edson, to record the weekly installments. Daurer, a self-proclaimed "archivist," wrote about Gorman for High Times magazine in the '90s and has worked to save as many relics and knickknacks of the movement as he can. Gorman, he says, left him with all kinds of treasures.

One of the better recordings Daurer provides is the one in which Gorman announced his candidacy for governor, an effort that led to the nickname "Governor Pothead." "Well, my time as a political prisoner at the Denver city jail for my horrendous crime of smoking a joint at the marijuana rally has given me a few things to think about," Gorman began. "We've offered a solution to the gang wars and the violence that grips our state.... Every time we offer our solution to the politicians, we're told to get fucked and harassed by the cops and the narcs.

"Well, now we're offering our solutions to the people of Colorado. I am hereby announcing my candidacy for the office of governor. There will be a smoke-in and a campaign kickoff at the State Capitol July 1, 1994. High noon, of course. I don't care how hung over you are: Be there. You might even get to see the future governor's ass hauled off to jail again. There's also some jerkoffs who have threatened to shoot me at our rally, so it should be exciting. Asshole of the week is Queen Elizabeth. She knighted George Bush, the biggest cocaine dealer in America."

Gorman's left-field run for governor predictably fell flat. But it wasn't about winning an election for him. It was about the attention from the public that his candidacy drew to the cause — a concept that many of today's pro-pot advocates see as key to their success. He became Colorado's first prominent marijuana media hound, paving the way for younger advocates, many of whom were his students or friends and are now in the news every day.

"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."

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J. David McSwane
Contact: J. David McSwane