By Matt Leingang
Editors Note: This story includes discussions of drug use and may contain foul language. While it has been edited through Associated Press Guidelines, some readers may find this offensive. This story was submitted to The Advocate through Chris Walker’s Digital Storytelling class, it is part of a ten-part series of stories examining Minnesota’s legalization of Marijuana. Each story investigates the background and implications that come with the legalization. The series, which began on April 28th, will run until May 5th.
Photo illustration by Abby Makay
A spectral haze has settled over Seattle. The smoke, ushered in by ongoing wildfires, has come to define the Pacific Coast during the waning weeks of summer. A 90-degree day seems suspiciously tolerable as the sun’s rays cease to fully penetrate the atmospheric murk. The day recedes, yielding to an ominous harvest moon, seen as a red orb in the leaden sky.
In a quaint two-bedroom apartment in the Ballard neighborhood on the city’s north side, another kind of vapor bellows from unchaste lungs. Smith offers a slight cough and pauses for a moment before taking a sip of a 24oz can of Rainier, the region’s premier American-style Lager.
“I was late to the game, senior year of high school. I used to buy it in the band room,” she says, an ear-to-ear grin forming on cue. “I’d give him money in the morning and he would put the horrible brick weed in my trumpet case. You could get anything in the band room. Weed, booze, pills. We had a nice little racket.”
Smith graduated from a public high school in Lawton, Oklahoma, before moving north to Norman where she attended the University of Oklahoma. It was here she first discovered high grade marijuana, though the product came with a steep price differential. After marrying, she moved with her spouse to Mankato, Minnesota, where her wife pursued a college degree. The move came with additional benefits.
“I felt like I could walk around and smoke [in Minnesota], but in Oklahoma you will get sent to jail,” she said. The decriminalization of marijuana factored heavily in Smith’s decision to relocate to Minnesota. But even in a state where laws are lax, use of the drug is seemingly steeped in racial nuance and simultaneously rife with consequence. She recounts a run-in with law enforcement after moving to Mankato: “Luckily there was a white dude driving the car so they let us go, but they drilled me. It wasn’t my car and it wasn’t my weed.”
Smith spoke candidly about how her experience as a black woman who uses the drug is inherently different from that of a white user. In Minnesota, the racial disparity concerning marijuana arrests is significantly higher than the national average. According to the ACLU, Black residents are 5.4 times more likely to be arrested for an infraction than their white counterparts.
In unfortunate congruence with Smith’s opinion and the aforementioned statistic, it was the social uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd by former officer Derek Chauvin that drove her to leave the state. She’d moved from Mankato to Minneapolis several years prior after the dissolution of her marriage. She watched, in anguish, as riots erupted across the metro. After weeks of clashes between protestors and police, a trail of scorched structures and debris lined many of the main thoroughfares of south Minneapolis. The gas station where she worked was one of the only fuel stops left standing. Feeling mentally and emotionally vanquished at the current state of affairs in the city, she made the trek to Denver in Summer 2020.
“Leaving from Minnesota and going to Colorado, I wanted to be closer to my family, but also wanted to be in a legal state,” Smith said. “In Denver, the cops didn’t care about weed. They had other crimes to deal with.”
She tightens her grip around the neck of the bong. A meticulously ornate pattern of multi-colored swirls accentuate the numerous ridges and ribs of the ostensibly delicate piece. A curious but resolute ritual ensues. As methodic and aurally-soothing as a fisherman’s cast and jig. The flower ignites. Smoke is drawn into the water chamber, cooling the hit. The stem is removed. The fumes are filtered through the percolator and flow fervently into the lungs. The distinct bubbling sound, characteristic of this method of intake, dances in the air like a babbling brook. The hit is held momentarily then exhaled.
The vapor in the room grows again to resemble the ghastly gray wall of Seattle’s night sky. The key difference being that weed smoke will dissipate in a matter of minutes, while wildfire smoke can persist for weeks. An NFL game plays lazily in the background. The Minnesota Vikings versus the Green Bay Packers. Less an homage to where she has lived, but a contextual indicator nonetheless.
Smith’s final act in her geographic journey led her to Seattle. Having exhausted a temporary living situation in Denver, she headed to the Pacific Northwest in late 2020. The calculated migration resulted in a practical application of her two-decades long use of marijuana. She landed a much-desired job as a sales associate at a dispensary. An occupation known colloquially as a “budtender.”
“Originally I didn’t want to go back to a gas station, but I didn’t realize how much money you could make at a dispensary,” she said. Akin to the job of a bartender (and numerous other service industry professions), a budtender is paid a base wage plus a share of customer tips accumulated each shift. The position enabled Smith to secure a multi-room rental unit – no small feat in one of the country’s most competitive housing markets.
She swiftly made Seattle her home. A visceral accomplishment considering the city’s reputation for indifference towards transplants. A marginal homecoming, as her mother’s side of the family had previously lived here in the 1960s and 70s. Her dwelling is located one block from her favorite bar. A place wrought with the informalities associated with some of Wisconsin’s most notorious dives. Her trajectory is unique in the fact that it was forged by the varying lawfulness of a plant. From a state where it was illegal, to one where it’s decriminalized, to places where it’s fully legal.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, “Everyone talks about ‘my rights, my freedom.’ You have the right to smoke weed but you’re letting these old white dudes, these old dinosaurs, tell you what to do.” Smith is steadfast in her belief that federal legalization would lead to a more equitable society, with a better quality of life for many.
She spoke mindfully about non-psychoactive cannabinoids, used medicinally to remedy a variety of ailments. CBD, assumedly the most well-known, can be used to treat chronic pain, inflammation, depression and anxiety. CBG has applications in the treatment of cancer, glaucoma and IBS. A more in-depth look at clinical utilization requires specialized knowledge of an ever-evolving glossary of terms that will soon necessitate its own dictionary.
The base of the bong rests firmly on the coffee table as Smith finishes the last of her libation. A steady buzz has been attained. She steps out of her apartment to commence the short jaunt to her local watering hole. Its frequent inhabitants are surely half-crocked by this time on a Friday evening. The layers of fog from indoor to out blend seamlessly as the aroma of terpenes leisurely shifts to the miasma of smoldering timber. She seems to float into the misty twilight, with negligible condescension and devoid of formidable circumstance.