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Sousa: Expanding our minds

I've learned there are a lot of unexplainable trends in Aspen: suburban ski-bros dressed like they're "Straight Outta Compton" wielding $800 skis; men in jean shorts in winter; the odd frequency that the expression "for sure" is used; Peyton Manning jerseys and fur coats on the hill — but I digress. Let's talk about our town's main fixation right now — a hallucinogenic excursion to the Carbondale dispensary.

When a visiting friend from Nantucket suggested I write about the shop, I quickly agreed. Dude? Totally, man. My glaucoma is killing me, and what's a better "34 and 1st" topic than a national rite of passage? With Obama recently admitting that marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol, the drive downvalley was now an event with lasting cultural, political and societal significance. Watershed change on the same level with the end of Prohibition — we're not talking about smoking a joint under the bleachers anymore (as Obama also has acknowledged). We're talking taxation evaluation of an intoxicated nation, history being revised with Colorado leading the charge. And here I am, a writer from Boston, lucky enough to end up here in Aspen to reap, sow and sample the benefits.

There we stood, two college buddies from Boston College and Dan's fiancee, giddily waiting in line for cosmic revelation: our first "legal" pot venture. A mix of expected jam-band, dreadlocked clientele slouched under walls adorned with giant harvest bags and posters, but there were also suavely dressed, middle-aged women discussing the workweek as they would over glasses of cabernet.

Stoned was the way of the walk to the front of the line, where choices abounded. There was even a grateful consultation: Did we want something mellow, good for anxiety? Something that would provide energy, fuel creativity? Dude, both? It was a cross between a coffee shop and liquor store, and both "servers" were good-natured, if overwhelmed, as they used chopsticks to pluck selections from enormous jars.

I've been to Amsterdam and Nimbin, Australia. I've seen Peter Tosh's call to "Legalize It" in action before. But this was psychedelically surreal, as if I were trapped inside a Cypress Hill song. On our way out into the dusk, we tucked purchases into pockets; it still felt forbidden. Maybe this was how bootleggers felt at the end of prohibition: still a little wary of tapping the keg.

While delivering skis this week, I've met many people who are more interested in new laws than mountain powder. It's a point of cultural curiosity, and it's already sucking in more tourism. A few 40-something vacationers from NYC I met hit up the dispensary immediately after landing, citing their reason for choosing Aspen. "Then, we went to the grocery store," one guy joked. The ramifications are obvious: This is a rapidly budding business, one that's stoking the flames of a blazing economy. However, the resulting smoke requires the infrastructure and planning to handle heady profits.

To that point, the city of Denver reported $5 million in profits in the first week of sales, it projects $600 million annually, and tax-wise, $40 million of the first $70 million will billow toward the construction of schools. All of this seems like an adept model for the rest of the country, a welcome reversal to money wasted on prison terms for small-time pot offenders, another of Obama's longtime concerns. So what's the key to success for this entire trend? Balance, dude. The business model has to remain poised, focused and ready to evolve evenly.

Yet balance might be one thing I've found to be lacking in the sunny bubble that is Aspen. We get so obsessed with the snow, our conversations all start sounding similar: "Did you get out today?" There's a difference between escaping the outside world and ignoring the outside world, just as there's a difference between mellowing one's anxiety with a toke and passing out under the table.

Unlike other ski towns I've visited, there's a fantastic sense of culture here: writing, art, music. But I wonder if we get lost in the false sense of security the mountains bring and forget about the plethora of national and global issues — global warming, financial inequality and womens' reproductive rights, to name a few — so integral right now. One of the reasons the legalization of marijuana is refreshing is it gives us the chance to debate more crucial issues, an idea that I bet was behind Obama's aforementioned quip the other day.

As Tom Petty would say, "Let's get to the point" Now, more than ever, should be the time for thought, for debate, while walking these heated sidewalks, taking a few runs or driving to the dispensary for some anxiety relief, with a little help from our friends.

Brian Sousa writes about transplanting from Boston to Aspen and all the crazy new experiences the move brings. His column appears every other Sunday in The Aspen Times. Reach him at sousabr@gmail.com.