DENVER, Colo. -- Coming to the Mile High City this weekend was the perfect 65th birthday present for Karen Stevenson. She and her husband drove out of the Bible Belt to experience, for the first time, what it's like to buy and smoke weed legally.
She wore a T-shirt featuring an image of María Sabina, a late-Mexican shaman, puffing on a joint -- a shirt that, until this day, she never dared to wear outside her Cape Girardeau, Missouri, home.
"It's kind of like being a part of history," she said Saturday, while waiting for a bus in front of a marijuana-themed sandwich shop. "I used to want to go to Amsterdam. Now I don't have to."
The Stevensons are among the tens of thousands of visitors -- by some estimates 80,000 -- who've come to Denver to mark 420 (April 20), a date that's emerged as a holiday among those steeped in cannabis culture.
Though the date has long been observed in Colorado, this is the first celebration since recreational sales of marijuana became legal here on New Year's Day. (Recreational use became legal in late 2012.)
Replete with the Denver "420 Rally" in Civic Center Park, the High Times Cannabis Cup -- an expo and a competition sponsored by the magazine -- and a 420 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre headlined by Snoop Dogg, the weekend has drawn the trappings one might expect. Dreadlocks. Tie-dye. T-shirts brandishing phrases like "Cheech & Chong for President."
Those predictable, or stereotypical, images, however, only tell part of the story.
They don't speak for the white-haired Mississippi man who looked like he'd walked out of a law firm on casual Friday. They don't reflect what drew a Crohn's disease patient from Missouri. Nor do they represent three older Texas women, one with her nails perfectly manicured in hot pink and her hair done just so, who advocate on behalf of seniors and are working to reform marijuana laws.
"We're not trying to force people to smoke pot," said Dawn Brooks, 62, of Austin, the one with the bright nails. "Cannabis is merely a plant. That's all it is. And more and more seniors are coming out of the closet."
This is a weekend that draws people of various backgrounds and with different needs and desires.
That said, for many of those who turned out Saturday, the vast majority it seemed from out-of-state, it was all about the smoking. And for some of them, it was in a frenzied way -- a mad rush to try everything because they couldn't take any of it home.
Kate, a 30-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, was waiting with her boyfriend, Scott, for a free bus ride to the Cannabis Cup expo at Denver Mart.
"It's like his Super Bowl," said Kate, who, like many people we spoke to, didn't want her last name used. "He's been giddy about it for weeks. ... Super stoked is an understatement."
Bus to Show, a nonprofit that works to reduce intoxicated driving, partnered with High Times to offer transportation this weekend. It set up a downtown location for pickups and drop-offs outside Cheba Hut, a marijuana-themed sub shop.
Besides the free shuttles to and from the expo, the organization sold out a $20-a-day hop-on, hop-off shuttle tour of what it called The Cannabis Freedom Trail. The CannaBUS, as the tour shuttles are called, have been shepherding as many as 200 people a day to various cannabis dispensaries around town.
On one tour we joined, smoke wafted out windows. Strangers shared pipes and exchanged samples of weed and wax, a concentrated form of marijuana. Canisters of buds bearing names like "tangerine haze" and "strawberry cough," were passed around to smell. Nutella pancakes came up in conversations at least three times.
Wearing a neon green wig and green Power Ranger mini-dress, Teri Starbird, 50, who lives outside Wichita, Kansas, lit up some "Bruce Banner." It is one of the contenders in this year's Cannabis Cup competition.
"Oh, that's very smooth," she said, passing the pipe to her friend. "But I'll tell you what, there are some mad scientists in this town. Some of this stuff makes you plain stupid."
While other groups actually visited dispensaries on the tour, no one in this crew bothered to get off the bus. Two guys from South Jersey sat dazed, staring out their windows.
"I'm too f**king stoned to get out," said a 22-year-old from New Mexico, who donned a Captain America baseball cap and heroically bounded over bus seats to take a hit of what others were smoking.
Back at the sandwich shop, the final stop on the tour, he and the others had no choice but to stumble off the bus.
Inside Cheba Hut, where 12-inch subs are called "blunts," drinks are listed as "cotton mouth cures" and desserts and chips fall under "munchies," a woman from Brooklyn, New York, stared up at the menu board -- her eyes as wide as her smile.
"Oh, my God, that bread's crazy," she said loudly to no one. "Oh, my God, they have Kool-Aid here! What?"
Outside, bus driver Jody Stonebraker called us on board for the free ride to the expo. She offered lighters and bottles of water to her passengers as she drove them to Denver Mart, where tens of thousands gathered for the High Times Cannabis Cup. With bus windows open to keep her sober, she moved us on.
A guy from San Francisco struggled to roll a joint; when the bus stopped short, his weed went flying. A man from Florida looked around at the peaceful, smiling faces of his fellow passengers and wanted to know where else people were this happy. And a conversation across the aisle between two people began and ended like this:
"What was your favorite?"
Stonebraker, 54, said she's met people this weekend from all over the country, even the world -- including Germany, Japan and Mexico. She can't stop singing the praises of her cannabis-loving passengers.
"It's been so fun, and I'm getting paid for this," she said. "I tended bar for 16 years, and they were all jerks. Every other person, you wanted to shoot. You guys are awesome!"
That sort of comparison to drinkers came up time and again. People who waited three hours to get into Denver Mart boasted that there were no fights, screaming or pushing.
A couple from Kansas City, Missouri, was among those who waited for hours to get in, but Sam, 58, and Joyce, 53, couldn't have looked less put out. They were draped in Mardi Gras beads. He wore a jester's hat; she a crown made of plastic marijuana leaves. They were simply thrilled.
"Nobody's tripping. Nobody's acting like you're from Mars," Joyce said. "There's freedom to smoke. You don't have to hide in a basement or under a blanket."
The couple, married for 32 years, raised children successfully. Sam spent 35 years working his tail off in the commercial roofing business.
"So don't tell me it makes me lazy," he said.
In hallways outside the exhibition hall, people sat on the floor, tossing back small bags of Cheetos and Doritos. A man was hunched over in a corner, taking a nap. Another guy greeted people just inside, offering patriotic-looking stickers that resembled those handed out on Election Day -- except these said "I Smoked."
A stroll past the booths in the packed hall offered a head-spinning glimpse into the big business that is cannabis.
There were hydrocarbon extraction machines, easy at-home growing systems, and high-powered leaf trimmers. There were academies offering certification courses, products to detoxify the body, and tips and tools to make edibles. There were cannabis-themed clothing companies, glass pipes available in all shapes -- including that of Mr. Potato Head -- and people sitting beneath lights and in front of cameras for a segment of The Plant Channel.
There was even an agency called Hemp Temps, to meet the staffing needs of the growing industry.
Behind the building, in a fenced-in outdoor area where 21-and-over wristbands were checked before entry, the smoke was thick.
Attendees crowded couches beneath tents, sampling wares. A grown man, dressed as an Oompa-Loompa, walked by as another guy inhaled smoke from a three-foot-long bong. An emergency medical team tended to an older man who passed out, his head bleeding from when it hit the pavement after he smoked a dab, or high-grade hash oil.
The young woman who gave it to him cried, her hand trembling as she held a cigarette.
While some pulled out cell phones to take pictures of the man on the ground, others flocked to the shaken woman.
"It's not your fault. It's not your fault," they said. "He chose to take a dab."
Amid this scare, and across town, there were reminders of the good that many say cannabis does when people are educated and use it responsibly.
At The Giving Tree of Denver, a dispensary, one of the managers prepared to close for the day. Dina Compassion marveled about the people she'd met so far this weekend.
They'd come from all over the United States. They were people suffering from PTSD, seizures and arthritis. They were cancer survivors. They were parents worried about their sick children. They were residents of other states who are thinking of moving to Colorado so they can "manage pain in a safe way and not be carted off to jail," she said.
Compassion, 29, understands the benefits as much as anyone. After a serious car accident left her with nerve damage along the entire right side of her body, nothing seemed to help her regain feeling and movement -- until she tried cannabis.
"It was a huge game changer," she said. "I'm now planning a rock climbing trip for this summer."
What she sees in her dispensary, what she sees in the crowds of people who've descended upon Denver this weekend, is a growing sense of community, a feeling that's expanding nationwide.
So even though some might think the 420 fight is over in Colorado, now that it's legal, Compassion says rallying behind the cause is as important as ever.
"It's now a statement to other states, to the United States, a way to support the community," she said. "This isn't going away."
While medical marijuana use is legal in 21 states and the District of Columbia, Washington is the only other state that has legalized recreational use.
For those afraid to speak out themselves, she said, what happens in Denver "gives them a voice."