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America's Stoned Kids

Producer/director Chris Alcock on the making of America's Stoned Kids.

We’d been in Denver for several days now trying to arrange a meeting. The people we were trying to meet were producing a very lucrative product that, if they were filmed doing the same in the UK, would very probably be facing long prison sentences.

We suddenly got the OK and were given an address in a run down part of town. As we drove to the rendezvous, the only sound floating across the wasteland was the hoot of the train as it pulled it’s impossibly long trail of trucks – one of the iconic sound of Midwest America.

We pulled up outside a warehouse – surely this wasn’t the right place for a multi-million dollar operation? Next to us was a run-down car workshop with an assortment of rusting chassis littering the forecourt being picked over by a guy who was far more interested in us than the dilapidated Chevys. There was even a battered camper van, the same used by Walt in the hit US TV series Breaking Bad. My crew looked at each other with the same thought – is this for real?

But then the door opened and out stepped a man in smart shirt, pressed chinos and loafers - dressed more in keeping with an office than a down town lock up. But it wasn’t the guy who gave is us the real shock - it was the smell wafting out of the open door behind him, hitting you in the face like a sledgehammer.

“You’d better come in quick”, he said as he ushered us into the warehouse, “We don’t like to advertise our presence, and nothing does that better than the smell of the bud”.

Stepping through the door we swapped the frigid Denver winter air for the humid, marijuana-infused atmosphere of a cannabis factory.

Radical experiment

We’d come to one of the hundreds of ‘industrial’ marijuana grows which are located all over Colorado, the state that, along with Washington, legalised the recreational use of marijuana last November (the vote was taken on the same day as the US Presidential elections and more people in this state said yes to cannabis than to Barack Obama).

It's the most radical experiment in drugs policy for generations and the world will be looking to see what happens, particularly to drug use amongst teenagers among whom rates of cannabis use are the highest they’ve been in years.

Just inside the doorway and past the plastic sheeting, hundreds of plant pots were lined up with young cannabis plants taking root.

To the left, the relentless industrial cycle of cannabis production continued in two hot, humid rooms, where hundreds of maturing plants were housed. The growing rooms were well lit and insulated. The hydroponic lamps suspended from the low ceiling shone so brightly that the plants seem to glow.

Apart from a narrow path to let Dan get to his crop, every inch of floor-space was filled with plants. I can’t tell my indicas from my sativas (the two major types of cannabis plant), but I know cannabis well enough from the clichés: the thick, earthy scent; the unmistakably shaped leaves. Peering closer, you could see fat buds encrusted with the THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) crystals, the most potent psychoactive chemical in cannabis and the part that gets you high.

Addicted to marijuana

We had come to Colorado’s state capital, Denver, to assess the likely impact of legalisation on a country already suffering an epidemic of teenage marijuana use.

And nowhere was this more graphically illustrated than earlier in the filming trip at a teenage rehab center situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It was here that we’d met a group of youngsters, aged 14 – 17, who were trying to get their lives back together after becoming addicted to marijuana.

One of my fears about this project had been not getting to talk to the kids who were in the front line of the marijuana epidemic. Drug use is a sensitive subject, especially when it concerns young people. But Aaron, the centre’s coordinator was almost evangelical in his views on the dangers of the drug and only too keen for the kids to share their experiences with us.

More young people in the US enter rehab because of marijuana abuse than any other substance and the stories they shared with us over a couple of days – separation from the family, failing at school, brushes with the law - did beg the question why is this drug being made legal to anyone 21 and older.

The supporters of the measure argue that legalising marijuana will make it more controllable, taking it away for the street dealers and into regulated stores, making it harder for young people to get their hands on. An argument not bought by Aaron, who thinks that as more marijuana outlets open for business, so more of the drug will find its way into the hands of the kids. He’s also worried about the strength of today’s cannabis, which over the past twenty years of so has almost doubled. As he told us, ‘If you think about it, what these kids are smoking five to seven times a day, the THC levels are off the chart’.

Back at the growing facility, Dan guided us down a row of maturing plants, their buds so heavy with THC crystals the plants are in danger of toppling over. The intense light is doing crazy things to the camera’s picture but nothing can take away from the almost surreal scene of this former banker talking proudly about the strength of his drugs.

And as we left the growing room and stepped back into the cold Denver air, the question of what will happen as a result of this legalisation hung over us like the warm fog we’d just come from. And the only way to answer it at this stage was to revert back to that old TV cliché... only time will tell.