When Jane West and her friends get together, the laughter rolls, trays of food and stories are passed around. But instead of splitting bottles of wine, these women like to unwind with artisanal marijuana.
West and her friends, some mothers with young children, are regular pot smokers who are unapologetic about getting high. Some, like West, have made it their mission to make smoking pot as socially acceptable as having a glass of wine.
“If other people were willing to talk about it, instead of saying, ‘Oh, my God, I was so drunk last night,’ be comfortable saying, ‘Oh, my God, I was so stoned last night,’ then more people would be talking about it just as openly,” West, 38, said.
Recreational pot use is still illegal in most parts of the United States, but Denver, where West lives, has become a mecca for pot lovers since Colorado legalized marijuana earlier this year, followed by Washington as the only other state where recreational use is legal.
West, a mother of two, is something of a pot aficionado. She says different varieties help her to be creative and focused, while others help her to relax and sleep. She said she spends about $40 every two weeks on locally-grown, organic weed.
West is the founder of Edible Events, a company that has found a niche throwing elegant, upscale, weed-friendly parties. West recently threw her biggest event yet, a huge, pot-friendly fundraiser for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at the famed Red Rocks venue that raised over $100,000 for the cash-strapped organization.
But working in this brand-new marijuana industry presents some unique challenges for West when it comes to her two sons, ages 4 and 6.
“I don’t think my kids should watch me smoke a joint, or consume any kind of combustible substances,” West said.
She keeps her pot stash locked up at the top of her office closet, far from their reach. West said she would never smoke marijuana anywhere near her children, but she doesn't draw a firm line about being high in front of them.
“I am hoping that people don’t have to answer this question anymore because no one gets asked this question about alcohol.” she said. “Marijuana is legal in this state, and I think women are being asked this question a lot more than men. Men that have kids.”
In the nine months since pot became legal in Colorado, moms like West have been navigating uncharted territory.
One of West’s friends, Britney Driver, has a 2-year-old son and believes she can still be a good mother and get high regularly.
“I know that what I’m doing is fine,” Driver said. “I see my son grow and he’s amazing and bright. That’s really all I need to hear.”
But the danger of being an open pot user is more than just being judged at the playground. Driver is also a columnist for a website called The Cannabist, where she recently wrote about the very real risk that, despite the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, the state’s child protection services can still take kids away from parents they believe are irresponsible pot smokers.
“Based on the fact that [marijuana is] just in my home,” Driver said. “It could be locked away in a jar, in a safe. If they want to take me in, they can, which is crazy.”
But some critics believe parents who smoke pot are putting their kids at risk, an accusation West and Driver say are based on old stereotypes.
"I have even gotten backlash from people who identify as stoners, saying that moms should not partake," Driver said. "I think a lot of that is based on bad experiences that people have had with people growing up."
When it comes to weed impairing their parental judgment, Driver said, like alcohol, it comes down to tolerance and “knowing what you can handle.”
But there are a lot of unknowns about the effects of pot use, a problem Dr. Margaret Haney of Columbia University’s marijuana research laboratory is trying to solve.
"Memory is one of the primary cognitive consequences of smoking marijuana... [loss of] short term memory and that lasts for a couple weeks if you're a heavy pot smoker," Haney said.
Haney agreed that marijuana does carry a heavy stigma for parents who use because it is an illegal substance in most states, but that could change with time.
"It's all a matter of degrees," she said. "I don't think anyone would object to a parent having glass of wine at end of day, similarly [with] the more acceptance of marijuana, I doubt people would object to half a joint before bed if you've been with kids all day... That's different from a fifth of scotch at breakfast and quarter ounce of marijuana throughout the day."
Pot use is not going away in this country. More states are expected to pass laws legalizing it in the coming years, and some economists predict the business of legal marijuana will exceed $10 billion within the next five years.
Which is why West founded a ladies networking group called Women Grow to encourage other women to get in on the ground floor of this budding industry.
“The end of [marijuana] prohibition is inevitable in this country,” she said. “There is so much potential for this industry and I am very concerned that outdated, uneducated stereotypes about cannabis users is going to prevent women from entering this market at exactly the time they should.”