William Breathes on Being America’s First Marijuana Critic
Believe it or not, when an unemployed, 20-something, marijuana-loving William Breathes first got the chance to smoke pot for a living in 2009, he balked.
The alt-weekly Denver Westword was looking for someone to cover the recent boom in medical marijuana dispensaries around town, and Breathes was basically perfect for the job. He had a newspaper background and a degree in journalism, and he’d recently been laid off. He had a medical marijuana card to help deal with a stomach condition, and he had even grown his own cannabis before. Still, at first he dismissed the “Marijuana Critic Wanted” ad he found on Craigslist.
“No disrespect, I love my paper, but sometimes they can be kind of snarky about things, and I was concerned that they wouldn’t necessarily be taking the medical marijuana field as seriously as I hoped,” he says. “So I didn’t apply right away.”
It took “every single one” of his friends three weeks’ worth of dumbfounded nagging—“Dude, you have to do this”—for him to cave in and apply. Breathes beat out 350 other applicants, got the job, and became America’s first professional pot critic. And the rest is history—a really awesome, stoned history.
Breathes, now 32, writes the paper’s “Ask a Stoner” column, where he answers reader inquiries like this musing from March 21: “I’m a daily puffer, and I’ve got a drug test coming up that I probably would fail just by breathing on the test cup. Any advice on how to pass a pee test?” He also runs the blog Toke of the Town, covers local and national marijuana news, and writes once-a-week medical dispensary reviews—hence the Phish album-themed pseudonym, which allows him to continue using his medical marijuana card without giving himself away—that thoughtfully describe everything from the quality of the pot to how “scuzzy” the building looks.
As the countdown to 4/20 begins, The Daily Beast caught up with Breathes on his drive home last week and talked to him about Colorado’s newly legal pot scene, which strains he digs (and which he does not), and his advice for this writer, who ends up crying almost every time she gets high.
So I hear you wear a disguise when you review dispensaries.
No, not so much. I wear a disguise when I [appear as William Breathes] in public. The way it works for a restaurant critic, they can go and make reservations under a fake name and pay in cash and disguise themselves in that way. But for me to go into a medical marijuana dispensary, I have to show them my actual Colorado ID and my medical marijuana card that have my real names on it. So we do this in reverse. I write under the pen name because I have to show them my real name in person, and then any time I’ve ever gone and done anything publicly—like when I spoke at a High Times Cup and on a few TV spots on CNN and stuff like that—I either have them blur out my face or I wear a bandana disguise. I just know that if these places knew, if I went in there being like, “Hey! I’m Will, I’m the marijuana critic from Westword!” I’d be getting the tops of the buds. I’ve seen it with other people who review, who do work this way, so I just try to avoid that.
How many strains from a single dispensary do you review?
I try to bring home at least two strains of marijuana, at the very least. I also try to bring home a hash or some other kind of concentrated marijuana as well, but it’s mostly hash. I’m not a big fan of edibles. I’m trying to be better about it, I’ve found a few that I like. But mostly it’s hash and marijuana for me. I review those through the week, as well as the shop itself.
How many would you say you’ve tried in total now?
I just did a video on westword.com where I put every photo together of every review that I’ve done [Ed. note: Breathes photographs every strain he tries], and I ran them all in under three minutes. And I could tell you that I have three minutes’ worth of pictures at roughly a second apiece. I’d say it’s roughly in the 400s since I started this job.
Do you have a favorite or worst one?
I don’t so much have a least favorite. There are strains I won’t buy. Most of the time if there’s like a blueberry, for example, DJ Short’s Blueberry—it’s a great strain, it’s nice, but I wouldn’t seek it out for myself. I don’t really get a good buzz off it and the flavor isn’t to my liking. Some of my favorites, I’ve got a few. Right now I’m really enjoying Golden Goat, which originated in Kansas, but it’s really flourished out here. The breeder is a friend of mine. It has this amazing sweetness and tartness to it. Super Silver Haze is another favorite of mine that’s probably one of my favorites in terms of helping my stomach and help me build an appetite. And all sorts of OG Kush, all the different phenotypes of that variety—sorry if I’m being really nerdy! Those are some of my favorites right now.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in Colorado since you started the job?
The biggest change in the last three years is the landscape around Colorado. I’m driving down 22nd Avenue right now in Denver and I’ve passed, in the last four blocks, probably three dispensaries, and it’s normal. At first it was a little freaky, and people were really, really upset about it—and that’s not to say there aren’t people who still hate the dispensaries—but for the most part, it’s really accepted, you know? In just the tone of conversations around town, it’s not seen so much as negative. People may still be joking about it and the fact that, “Oh yeah, we sure love our weed here!” But it’s no different now to see a dispensary on the corner than it is to see a restaurant, a liquor store, or a music venue in this town.
What about since last November [when marijuana was legalized in Colorado]?
Since November, there really hasn’t been much that’s changed on the outside. But what I’ve seen is that people are talking about marijuana more. For example, the day after it passed, I was volunteering at a museum here and people that I wouldn’t necessarily expect to talk about cannabis in casual conversation all of a sudden were talking about it. And not just like, “Can you believe we passed it?” But actually discussing the merits of the ballot. I don’t know if it’s like this where you live, but usually when people talk about marijuana, it’s almost like when they’re talking about sex. They whisper. “Hey. Hey. Do you have any [whisper] marijuana?” You know what I mean? I feel like whatever veil or taboo that is has been lifted. It’s very much like a matured conversation about it.
The other thing I’m hearing is that more people are starting to grow for themselves or are considering growing for themselves. Why continue to pay someone if you have the ability and legal right to grow in this state now? I think that I’m seeing a bit more of that. But until we have recreational marijuana shops open up, or dispensaries switch over to the recreational model, you’re not gonna see too many changes yet. We’re not gonna have the pot tourism or pot clubs yet.
In that context, what do you feel like the value is of a column like yours is?
Someone asked me that recently and I hate—I mean, I don’t want to sound like some arrogant asshole. To be really honest with you, it’s still really strange and ... I’m still like, “It’s really fucking cool that I have this job!” But what I think the biggest role of my job or of anyone who has this position is that having a column that deals with marijuana in it every week normalizes it and puts it out there for everyone. They can go to westword.com to get news about the state legislature, or about education, about the prison system—and about marijuana. It’s not the old-school media approach to marijuana, where it’s like, “Let’s see how many pot puns we can cram into the lede and how many jokes we can make at the expense of marijuana smokers.” We definitely make jokes at the expense of marijuana smokers, but we also take news very seriously.
We’ve seen other news outlets come around on that. The Denver Post—and I’m not trying to pick on another news media outlet—but for the longest time, their pot coverage was shit. It just was. Every time it was just them making fun of the pot smokers. But in the last year, they’ve realized that it’s important, and it’s not just 20-something stoners tuning in to figure out what’s going on. People wanna know because it’s a viable, million-dollar industry. In the sense of the media, that’s been an important role for my job.
But I think the obvious one is that I like to think I’m helping patients find really good places to buy medicine. Whether it’s for price or quality—for some people, as long as it’s clean, that’s fine to them, they just don’t want to go somewhere scuzzy. That’s why I still focus on what the interior of these places look like. I always think about it like this: if my mom was to read this and she had a medical marijuana card, what would she get out of this? ’Cause it’s not just people like me, it’s not just 20-somethings. It’s also baby boomers [and older people, too]. Our average-age patient is 41.
I didn’t know that. Have you ever gotten hate mail?
I’ve pissed off a few dispensaries with reviews, and a few have sent back some angry letters. But I’ve also gotten a few who’ve thanked me for pointing stuff out. Someone said this to me once—I don’t know how true it is—but with most of these shops, some people go in there and are like, “This is the best weed I’ve ever seen!” ’Cause they’re trying to suck up to the owners and get better pot, or more pot for less. So I’ve been told that having honest feedback is nice, which I would hope. I don’t rag on a lot of dispensaries.
Do you remember your first time smoking?
I vividly remember my first time smoking. I was probably too young, I was 13—
Wait, no, I was 14. I’d slowly been building to it, I’d smoked cigarettes at that point. My friend’s older brother had gotten some marijuana and smoked it, and he was telling us about it. I’m from the D.A.R.E. generation, so half of me was like, “Why isn’t he dead right now?! He did drugs!” My friend bought a joint off him and we smoked in the park. We thought you always had to have roach clips, for some reason, so we were using tweezers to smoke it and my friend left the tweezers in a pack of matches in his pocket. His mom still did his laundry and the next day I went over there and his mom pulled us aside and was like, ‘What are these?!’ We were so busted, but we said we were burning bugs or something dumb like that that kids do.
Do you have plans for 4/20?
I do, I’m gonna be working on 4/20. It’s everyone’s pot day off but there’s the 4/20 Rally at Civic Center Park here in Denver—I’ll venture to say it’s the largest in the country at this point. We fill up Civic Center Park with cannabis smokers and speakers and music and entertainment all day, but it’s mostly great people-watching. So I’ll be out covering that and then there’s a bunch of parties that night, sort of in advance of the High Times magazine Cannabis Cup, which is gonna be over the weekend here. Saturday I’ll be mingling around the Cup incognito and that’s about it. Busy weekend.
A lot busier than a lot of other people that day.
Yeah, lots of other people are probably just gonna smoke a joint and have a few snacks. I’ll probably do the same—but still be working.
I saw that a reader submitted to “Ask a Stoner” recently, “If a mosquito bites you while you’re smoking a joint, will it get high?” What’s the best question someone has submitted so far?
Honestly, that’s one of my favorites so far. The minute I read it, it threw me back to being 18 in my friend’s backyard by the pool, slapping a mosquito and thinking that same thing. What I’m finding is I’m not getting the silly questions I was hoping for—I’m getting questions from people who really don’t know much about marijuana. Like this week I got the question “What is hash?” Trying to cram that down into 250 words is fun and challenging. It’s not what I expected, but I’ve found myself taking on this role of educating people who don’t know much about marijuana. The drug test question is also one of my favorites, though I avoided it for a while. But I finally got enough “How do I pass a drug test?” questions that I had to address it. That’s one of my favorites, and I hope I helped some people out with it.
I think you did. I’ve learned a lot from your columns, though I don’t really smoke. Whenever I try, it usually ends in tears.
That’s unfortunate! Well, it’s not for everyone. And that’s the other thing: cannabis isn’t for everyone, and if you recognize that, it’s cool. My whole thing is, we’re seeing more and more people who are like, “Yeah, it’s not for me, but I could give a shit if you do it.” Or “I think it’s fascinating that you do it,” as opposed to, “No, I don’t smoke marijuana and neither should you.” That’s fine, I think it’s great. That’s sort of the vibe out here.