Welcome to Denver — a ‘hellhole’ of drugs

By Wayne Laugesen

Friends and family arrived for a graduation in May at the University of Denver. We forgot to warn them.

Once a cosmopolitan utopia of clean, safe, family-friendly neighborhoods and parks, Denver now looks and feels like a drug orgy. The stench of marijuana wafts through neighborhoods where a small percentage of family dwellings have transitioned into pot farms. Walking through much of Denver and other Colorado cities, one becomes accustomed to stepping over and around growing numbers of full-time drug users living on sidewalks, parks, medians, and lawns.

The broad-based degradation started when voters approved Amendment 64 in 2012, which established the civilized world’s most lenient marijuana law. Critics argue legalization, problematic on its own, became a “gateway policy” that lowers political resistance to other illicit drugs. Indeed, in 2019, the Colorado Legislature and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis essentially decriminalized all schedule 1 and 2 drugs — including fentanyl, the nation’s leading killer of people ages 18-45.

Post-2019, law enforcement saw drug dealers flock to Colorado, where possessing up to four grams of any drug poses the risk of a low-level misdemeanor without arrest.

Mass transit buses and light-rail trains are daylong shelters for addicts. A transit union leader recently described Denver’s Union Station as a “hellhole” of dealers, addicts, and associated crime.

Denver International, the third-busiest airport in the world, remains relatively safe and accommodating. It is also the epicenter of car thieves in a state that leads the nation in auto thefts and bank robberies. As explained by law enforcement, drug dealers steal cars and rob banks. They find the cars at DIA.

A few blocks from the UD campus, graduation guests rented a spacious bed and breakfast. The old neighborhood surrounding the university remains moderately upscale. A two- to three-bedroom bungalow sells for $700,000 and up. Residents are educated and affluent, with about 22% enrolled in graduate or undergraduate programs. Yet they are surrounded by a drug scene one expects on skid row.

Following the graduation, a dinner and cocktail party went well at the B&B. Then came the morning. Guests awoke to strangers passed out on the driveway leading from the alley to the B&B garage and parking lot. One had a spent needle in her arm. No one could leave without running them over.

An out-of-town guest called 911, expressing concern for the people on the pavement. A dispatcher asked if they were breathing. Affirmative, said another guest who checked their pulses. The dispatcher said authorities and medics might respond, but if all were breathing, it would take a long time.

My brother finally awakened a man and woman, politely nudging them and asking them to leave. They moved to the edge of the alley.

One man would not wake up, so two guests resorted to dragging him off the driveway and onto a patch of grass.

This story surprises no one in metropolitan Denver. A visit to nearly any part of the city involves scenes of people passed out in public and private spaces amid drug paraphernalia.

“These were not what you would consider typical homeless people out of work, down on their luck, perhaps mentally ill and unable to find shelter,” my brother said. “This was an obvious drug scene — the morning after a binge in the alley.”

A lawyer practicing in St. Louis and Kansas City, my brother knows typical urban landscapes. Other guests came from cities in Texas, the Midwest, and the East Coast. Guests acknowledged their cities were far from perfect, but none had seen anything like Denver’s open atmosphere of drugs.

“What I’ve seen in Colorado Springs and Denver, you almost never see in St. Louis or Kansas City,” my brother said. “Sure, you see homeless encampments and occasional tents under overpasses or in parks. In Colorado, addicts on the sidewalk are common.”

In the 1990s and the first decade of this century, Colorado provided a reprieve from big city problems one associates with Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. From Fort Collins to Boulder to Denver to Colorado Springs to Pueblo and Grand Junction, Colorado offered safe, family-friendly communities. Hippies, cowboys, soccer moms, rock stars, and Harvard MBAs lived harmoniously without a remarkable drug culture or crime problem. Homeless encampments were few and far between.

Then came legalization. Unlike decriminalization, Amendment 64 legalized the possession, sale, cultivation, and transportation of marijuana. Politicians on the Left and Right — representing the state, cities, counties, and towns — facilitated the launch of a marijuana industry that would push the drug and generate tax revenues.

Upon taking effect, the law created a new race for profits not seen since the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the mid-19th Century.

Within months, marijuana growers purchased or leased homes and warehouses for startup marijuana farms. Marijuana retail proliferated in strip malls and small-town storefronts. Urban and rural gas stations with names like “Gas and Grass” began selling pot. A popular phrase became “we have more pot stores than Starbucks” — an understatement of fact in a state replete with Starbucks shops.

Marijuana retailers displaced dozens of antique and specialty stores along a section of Broadway Boulevard through Denver and Englewood. It became a marijuana tourism strip known as “The Green Mile” to visitors and “Broadsterdam” to fed-up locals.

By competing for homes in which to grow pot, the industry exacerbates a housing shortage that has Denver’s average home prices higher than New York’s. Substance abuse rehab centers buy up old resorts and hotels to contend with the growing addiction crisis. A large bowling alley and fun center in my family’s mountain village became a growing operation.

By 2018, five years into legalization, Colorado hosted more than 500 recreational retail dispensaries and more than 700 licensed growing operations. That doesn’t account for hundreds of “medicinal” marijuana shops that sell tax-free to locals with medical “red cards” purchased from marijuana doctors.

Data show legalization corresponded with a surge in Colorado’s drug-related traffic fatalities. Educators tell of children getting high throughout the day on pot-laced candy and other edibles.

The low risk of possession lured Mexican cartels to Colorado’s national forests. From armed plantations hidden in the trees, they ship pot to Latin America. A ranking forest official said the entire budget of any given forest could not make a dent in clearing out the cartels.

Correlation is not causation. Yet, the new look and feel of Colorado correspond directly with the legalization of marijuana. Opponents warned of this. The sky would not fall moments after the law kicked in. Instead, we would see an insidious erosion of culture and public safety that would be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. They were prophetic.

Welcome to Colorado, one of nature’s greatest creations. Just try to ignore the infestation of drugs.

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