Living in Boulder County, Ben Cort sees weed everywhere: Literally because it is.

Colorado is, arguably, the marijuana capital of America. Last year, more than $1.5 billion worth of marijuana was sold in the state, accounting for more than $200 million in tax revenue. (Nationwide, figures aren’t final, but economists estimate that roughly $16 billion was made off of legal marijuana at various state levels.)

If you live in Colorado, as Cort does, it’s big, it’s in your face and it cannot be ignored. A leisurely drive around town reveals just how much it’s become a part of the culture: A giant mural of Cookie Monster, the children’s character from “Sesame Street,” painted on the side of a dispensary … a “gas ‘n’ go” market where you can pull up, get fuel for your car and have marijuana brought out to you while you wait … resort advertisements in publications statewide advocating skiers and snowboarders to “get higher” while they take to the slopes … “back to school” coupons, social clubs and much, much more.

There are, of course, laws in place that prevent sales of marijuana to minors, but as with all things that have been hijacked by corporations, Cort — the author of the book “Weed Inc.” and one of the country’s foremost experts on pot, having gotten involved in the fight against Amendment 64 (the 2012 change to the state constitution of Colorado that legalized it) almost a decade ago — isn’t concerned with current sales to minors.

He’s concerned about the grooming of future buyers that this culture permeation is targeting. Not because he’s anti-marijuana; prior to getting clean and sober in 1996, he consumed more than his fair share of it, and for a long time, he felt like most Americans do: It’s far less harmful than alcohol and should be legalized.

Not so fast.

“If you haven’t smoked weed — and let’s change the vernacular, because that’s not what we’re talking about anymore — if you haven’t consumed a THC-based product in the last three years or so, you’re not talking about the same thing they’re consuming today, because what’s being consumed today is corporately produced and comes from the cannabis industry as opposed to the guys growing it out back,” Cort told me on Friday.

He was in town as a guest of Cornerstone of Recovery and spoke at a Friday lecture for area law enforcement, government officials and representatives of various organizations like Blount Partnership and the Metro Drug Coalition. And while he didn’t call it “Big Weed,” that’s exactly what it is: The wholescale commercialization of an industry that has brought cannabis into the same league as Big Pharma and Big Tobacco. Don’t believe me? Consider this: Colorado is the fourth largest exporter of fresh and frozen beef in the United States. The state’s livestock industry is valued at roughly $3.7 billion.

The beef industry has two lobbyists working state legislators in the capitol of Denver. The cannabis industry has 26.

Twenty-six lobbyists, for an industry that hasn’t matched beef sales yet but has the potential to lap it several times over. Big Weed, Cort points out, is most definitely a reality.

“Anybody who argues that just isn’t paying any attention whatsoever,” he said. “I don’t mean to be pejorative or rude, but if people argue that ‘Big Marijuana’ is not a thing or has not become a thing, then unfortunately they’re not paying attention.”

And while many Tennesseans believe that legalized marijuana will never come to pass in the Volunteer State, a bill is being introduced this legislative session to legalize medical marijuana sales. Cort has read it, and because it was drafted with the help of the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Trade Association — a lobbying arm for an legalization efforts — he believes it opens the door to what’s going on in Colorado: Cannabis proliferation through potent new delivery methods (“dab,” “shatter,” “distillates”) that have absolutely nothing in common with traditional “weed” except for one thing: plenty of the psychoactive ingredient THC, in levels so high that studies haven’t even been conducted to determine what effects it has on the human brain.

While it may seem like he’s anti-weed, it’s not legalization, per se, that Cort opposes: It’s anti-commercialization, and anti-legalization without studying the full ramifications of what may come. Unfortunately, where there’s money to be made, there’s often a willingness to throw caution to the wind, and consumers are the ones who end up being short-changed.

“If we can square up just how big this is, it allows for honest conversation,” Cort said. “Then, we’re thinking about corporations like Monsanto, Nestle and Walmart, and how can we keep these guys in check and keep these guys from doing bad things to make more money.

“I think the vitriol we have allowed to be interjected into this conversation has kind of taken away from a rational conversation about a mood-altering substance, and now a mood-altering substance that is produced on a large commercial scale by an industry with really significant means.”

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wild smithsteve@gmail.com.

Award-winning freelance columnist and entertainment writer Steve Wildsmith is the former WeekEnd editor at The Daily Times.

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