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What's It Like to Be a Medical Marijuana Critic?

Rob Reuteman,|Special to CNBC.com
Tuesday, 20 Apr 2010 | 12:04 AM ET

As the nation’s first medical marijuana critic, William Breathes takes his work seriously, but not too much so.

“I'll never get used to collecting a paycheck for taking bong hits,” wrote Breathes, who uses a pseudonym.

After all, he’s the opposite of a restaurant critic who tends to eat his meals anonymously and review them under his given name. Breathes must show his medical marijuana card—with his real name on it—before he can gain entrance to one of the 400 or so dispensaries in the Denver area. Then he pens his review anonymously for "Westword," Denver’s alternative weekly since 1977.

Last fall, Westword editor Patty Calhoun decided to hire a freelance marijuana-dispensary reviewer to keep pace with the booming sector. She didn’t anticipate the response.

“I'll just post a blog and we'll get someone,” she recalls. “ Within a month, we'd had several hundred responses. We quit counting at 250. The applications keep coming in. Pot fans are not always punctual. They also tend to forget punctuation.”

The job posting also attracted the attention of late-night talk show hosts, who joked about it for weeks and a variety of national and even international media.

“I pulled William Breathes from the pile because he's not only a great writer—with a sincere love of pot—but he also is a strong journalist, and I realized that there would be many, many more stories in this subject,” says Calhoun.

That said, here's some samples of his writing. You be the critic.

*The Early Girl was done well—flushed of fertilizer, dried and cured properly—and had a light, fresh taste. By the time the joint had turned brown, I was over any lingering pain and nausea and was ready to destroy a turkey sandwich.

*Overall, Walking Raven is a convenient place to get quality herb and meds quickly, but not much more. The casual approach is great if you're a no-frills patient, but those who are new to the medical-pot scene might appreciate a more involved staff—and a space that looks less like Kevin Pickford's bedroom in "Dazed and Confused".

For the record, Breathes is a 29-year-old grad student, who lives in Denver with his girlfriend and two dogs. He’s been on the job for a few months now and sat down last week to answer a few questions about it.

CNBC: How did you get the job?

CNBC: How did you get the job?

Breathes: Someone sent me an email of the Craigslist ad, saying ‘Dude, you gotta do this!’ I was unemployed, but my first thought was, ‘No way.’ Knowing that "Westword" could be kind of snarky in its coverage, I didn’t think they’d treat it with dignity.

Over time, I had five, six friends sending me emails, even from Houston, telling me it sounded like the perfect job for me. I thought, ‘Whatever.’

On the second-last day they were taking applications, I sat down and wrote a cover letter to go with my resume and clips. They had asked for an essay on ‘What Pot Means to Me.’ I thought it was a little corny, so I wrote more about how I have benefited from smoking pot over the years. I told them that I have smoked pot recreationally for a long time and had no problem with that.

I sent it in and forgot about it, figuring I’d never hear back, like every other job I’d applied for. About four weeks later, I was in southern California with my girlfriend when I got an e-mail that said I was a finalist for the job.’ They wanted a sample review of a dispensary, so I did one, sent it in, waited a couple weeks. They asked me to come in and talk, and they told me ‘We think we want to go with you.’

CNBC:What are your marching orders?

Breathes: Our idea was to have me visit dispensaries and do it like a restaurant review. Of course, I’d never done those. It’s been an interesting experiment, and we’re still trying to figure it out. I try to describe the atmosphere of each place to give patients an idea of what’s out there. I take suggestions from patients on where to visit. I don’t really look to label dispensaries as good or bad. If I hear a place is bad, I’m not going to go review it any more than a restaurant reviewer would go to a McDonald’s.

On the flip side, I heard this place was great so I went there. They were charging people $70 for an eighth of an ounce. I was disappointed. They didn’t weigh it out right. My friends got shorted. If that’s the way the visit turns out, I’m not gonna’ hide that. I could easily get into a thing where each week I find a place to trash, but I’m not interested in that. I wasn’t a critic before this. A friend who’s a critic told me the best reviews are when the writer tells you a story and takes you somewhere, and you don’t even realize it’s a review till the end. But I’m still working my way into this.

CNBC:How did you get your medical marijuana card?

Breathes: I have stomach problems. I’ve seen four gastroenterologists, and have been seeing a specialist in Virginia for years. I got a card last June from a doctor at a dispensary. I brought along ten years of medical paperwork.

I’ve sometimes used Vicodin in the past couple years and have a strong anti-nausea drug that dissolves under my tongue when I can’t swallow. There’s a tradeoff, though. It gets rid of the nausea but it dulls me down and I get migraines. Smoking pot makes me feel a lot better, and the reality is that there is a medical benefit for me to get the munchies and keep food down.

CNBC:Some dispensaries promote themselves as wellness centers with massage, herbs etc. Some are more basic marijuana dispensaries. Which do you prefer?

Breathes: Places that offer wellness make some people feel better about the process, makes them more comfortable. Maybe they still have a bad association with marijuana. They can say ‘I go to the dispensary for pot and a massage.’

But I don’t think you need to do wellness at all to be a good dispensary. If you don’t offer wellness, some people think ‘Then you must just be selling pot.’ That’s not the case. It’s enough to sell good organic medication at good prices.

I haven’t been to too many sleazy dispensaries. The biggest turnoff to me is the people charging $25-$30 for a gram of pot. It just doesn’t seem honest. One place had a big guard dog with a doghouse. That didn’t say ‘wellness’ to me.

One place I like had employees in their late 20s, easy to talk to, played good music. It was very comfortable. Some are so slick. I walked into one that was like an Ikea catalogue, light-wood, paneled counters. It is cool to see that kind of face on pot after so many years of tapestries and Grateful Dead. One place has a mini-market with edibles made in a special kitchen there.

In the end, you have to find out what your customers want and move toward that.

CNBC: What about smoking marijuana vs. the edible items?

Breathes: I worry about lung health to some degree, but I have nausea, I can’t eat it. I’ve discovered some tinctures; you put a drop under your tongue. I’ve done it before bed, slept really well and felt pretty good in the morning.

Older people who come into this, they won’t think about smoking it. Personally, I don’t like the vaporizers. It feels less authentic. I’m a pot nerd, I like the way it tastes. It’s just how I grew up, smoking recreationally.

CNBC: What downsides have you observed with medical marijuana?

Breathes: I don’t want to sound naïve but I haven’t seen much downside. Other people may. I don’t know anyone who has gone out and spent all his money on pot, like a crack addict.

CNBC: Do you think medical marijuana is a sort of Trojan Horse for full legalization?

Breathes: That perception has always been there. It seems to be moving quicker in that direction than anybody thought it would. My father, a textbook GOP businessman, says it makes perfect sense to him, in terms of a huge economic benefit. There’s a lot about it that makes sense to the generation that knows pot isn’t going to kill you. There are a lot of lies about pot.

A lot of people feel that recreational smoking gives medical marijuana a bad name. But be real about it, a very large number of patients enjoy smoking pot.