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William Breathes looks back on three years as the country's first pot critic

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This month I'll mark my third anniversary of reviewing medical marijuana dispensaries for Westword as the country's first MMJ critic. In that time, I've written about more than 150 dispensaries, smoked at least 546 grams of cannabis and tested out nearly two ounces of assorted hash, kief and oil. Not bad for a job that I originally thought was going to be a short-lived stunt.

That's not to say I didn't take the job seriously — I did — but back in the fall of 2009, the mainstream media wasn't taking the MMJ industry seriously, much less giving it the attention that 60 Minutes just did in its October 21 report. And while that was shortsighted, it was also easy to understand. Growers were opening up ragtag shops and selling anything they could move to patients pumped just to be able to buy legal marijuana. So many dispensaries popped up on South Broadway that the stretch became known as "Broadsterdam."

Three years later, everyone takes Colorado's MMJ industry seriously. Despite federal closures of nearly sixty dispensaries around the state, there are still hundreds of centers open for business. Yes, there are still some crappy, low-rent shops out there — but I've also seen an increasing number of shops doing things right. The most obvious change has been the constantly improving quality of cannabis available. While a lot of people like to make the blanket assertion that all dispensary meds are warehouse-quality and don't compare to the small grows of dedicated personal caregivers, that doesn't always hold true. While some centers have just mid-grade buds, an inexperienced caregiver may do no better. And there are definitely shops that turn out top caregiver-level cannabis, including Green Dream Health Services, the Health Center, Colorado Alternative Medicine and the Golden Goat.

A lot of the improvement is due to the increasingly complex genetics originating in Colorado gardens. The Golden Goat's Tierra Rojo has been mixing up the genetic pool of available kush and haze varieties by breeding them with the heirloom-vegetable equivalent: seeds originally sourced from Afghanistan. And while Colorado's original seed company, Centennial Seeds, has shut down because the law now prohibits cultivation by any entity other than a caregiver or dispensary, other seed companies have aligned with dispensaries and are flourishing. Reserva Privada, for example, has come out with a line of seeds that combines a number of strains from the Clinic with RP's fierce LA Confidential.

Prices have also become consistently better from a consumer's standpoint. When I first started reviewing MMJ, paying $50 or more for 3.5 grams of mid-grade buds was the norm at most shops. Higher-end buds would regularly sell for $60, and some places like Boulder's Greenest Green would go as high as $70 for an eighth of an ounce. Now patients looking for cut-rate buds will find many places selling herb below $200 an ounce. While a good amount of that is not worth buying if you're truly concerned about medical-quality buds, there are also quality grows with warehouses pumping out top-rate buds for members at $200 or below. Even Greenest Green has lowered the prices on its consistently chronic-quality herb to a more reasonable sub-$50/eighth level.

Another major development has been the increased availability and quality of concentrates like hash and hash oil. No doubt this is partly because of all the excess cannabis grown in the larger warehouses. But some dispensaries have begun looking at concentrates as almost an art form, hiring dedicated hash-makers to produce extremely potent, high-quality, delicious-tasting and skunk-stinking icewater extractions. A huge market has also emerged for all things solvent-extracted. Butane hash oil was known to only a few message-board weed geeks just three years ago, and now every dispensary carries grams of butter, shatter, earwax or whatever nickname they care to attach to it; the overall quality has improved from a general viscous, used-motor-oil consistency to see-through amber glass made of chemically extracted cannabinoids.

And it's gratifying to see that advancements aren't coming from professional or college labs with major funding, but from a few dedicated pot nerds who have come together through Internet forums and Saturday-night hash gatherings rather than peer-reviewed papers and university conferences.

As much as some things have changed, others remain the same. Despite my series of blood tests in April 2011 that demonstrated how THC DUI laws might harm sober medical marijuana patients, state senator Steve King plans to bring another proposal to the legislature in the next session. (Amendment 64 clearly states that driving under the influence of marijuana "shall remain illegal.") And on a personal level, I'm still plagued by the same painful stomach condition that gives me almost daily nausea and cramping.

But not everything that stays the same is as unwelcome: I still get excited checking out new dispensaries every week, and medical cannabis is still the best medicine to help curb those symptoms. And whether or not Amendment 64 passes next month, I'll still be able to get my meds in Colorado.

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