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The finer points of pot from Denver’s cannabis critic

Jake Browne smells a strain of marijuana in a scene from “Rolling Papers,” a documentary about the Denver Post’s cannabis coverage. (Zachary Armstrong)

Jake Browne breathes in the aroma. “The smell of diesel is there, but there’s also enough chem in there to give it something resembling glue,” he writes. “What’s notably absent are the chocolate notes, instead it’s more of a stale coffee you’d get from a Starbucks cup discarded to a passenger-side car floor. … It’s a Christmas tree, but stripped of the bulbous ornaments.”

He’s not talking about wine. He’s talking about weed.

Browne, 32, is a cannabis critic for the Denver Post — a position that popped up after Colorado legalized the drug for recreational use in 2012. The state has since become a leader in the marijuana movement. Entrepreneurs are selling it — legally. A local university is teaching about it. And Browne is reviewing it, like an oenologist critiques a fine wine, albeit without the pretentiousness.

“Usually every week I go to a different shop and get [a strain] and review for structure — how it looks, how it smells, how it tastes. It’s similar to wine criticism, but I get to talk about how it makes me feel as well,” he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “I think it’s really essential with there being so many questions that people have these days.”

Browne said he has reviewed more than 30 different strains, such as the Red Headed Stranger, Afghan Haze and Bio-Diesel. He calls his columns “a field guild to weed.” In a piece about a strain called Granddaddy Purple, he wrote: “Forgive me for sounding like a stoner cliche, but this strain smells purple. … This is where the hunger pangs began.” And each puff of a strain called 303 Kush, he wrote, “elicited more of the tiny symphony, which smokers have attributed to everything from spider mite eggs to immature seeds to cocaine.”

Browne is more than professional pot-head; he has a method.

How should it look? Free from bugs, mold or mildew, he said. How should it smell? “There are a number of different notes that people are unaware of,” he said. “One can smell like fresh pines with tennis ball rubber smell to it, while others can have a fresh citrus smell like a tangerine.” What should it taste like? The taste should reinforce the smell, he said.

Legalizing marijuana in Colorado was supposed to help undermine the black market. Instead, it's had almost the opposite effect. PostTV brings you into the world of black market weed dealers to explain. (Video: Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Then he tries to get a feel for the “initial high,” which, he said, is different from the one that lingers. When was the last time he got high? “About 20 minutes ago,” he admitted.

[Rising marijuana sales leave pot shops flush with cash they can’t deposit]

You could say Browne’s career started when he was 16, riding around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in his buddy’s car with Ben Folds Five blaring in the background. That’s when he took his first hit of weed — from a makeshift sodacan pipe. “I always thought I was going to be a lawyer or go into political science,” he said. “Now I hope I don’t need a lawyer,” he laughed.

As a teenager, Browne dropped out of high school and moved to Italy to become a male model. When that didn’t work, he returned to Iowa to get his diploma. Then he moved to Colorado, where he attended a technical college. He worked as a bartender. And a rapper.

He broke into the pot business in 2009 when he went to work for a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado. Since then, he has worked in the industry as a consultant, social media manager and blogger, for which he said he has won several awards locally. Then in late 2013, the Denver Post’s marijuana editor appeared on the “Colbert Report” and mentioned that the newspaper had an opening for a cannabis critic. Browne said his friends pushed him to apply for the job. “I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for marijuana legalization,” he said.

“If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I don’t agree with it, but that’s their right," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said at CPAC on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. (Video: AP)

Browne is also a comedian for Sexpot Comedy, a blogger for the Cannabist, and co-host of the comedy game show Uncalled Four and the Whiskey and Cigarettes podcast. He is perhaps the perfect example of Colorado’s cultural landscape has been changing as cannabis has become a key issue across all levels — government, law, business and, of course, journalism.

The University of Denver last year announced a marijuana law class at the school’s Sturm College of Law to teach law students how to represent clients on marijuana matters. The class was taught by law professor Sam Kamin, who was given a “marijuana professorship” this week with help from Colorado law firm Vicente Sederberg.

“We at the law school are trying to work with people in the community to create a more expansive research center at the university,” Kamin said. He was a member of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) pot task force that has issued recommendations to state lawmakers on weed regulation. “We’re hoping that this professorship is a first step in that direction.”

[How D.C. pot legalization has become ‘the dealer-protection act of 2015’]

Also this week, the university announced a marijuana journalism class for the fall. The one-week seminar, called “Cannabis Journalism: Covering and Reporting on America’s New Normal,” will encourage students take a deep dive into weed, looking at the legalization of both medical and recreational pot in Colorado and across the country, according to the syllabus.

“We’re hoping to unpeel the many layers of this issue,” including policies and legislation, criminal justice and business, lecturer Andrew Matranga said. Indeed, cannabis coverage has become a journalism niche, especially in Colorado. A documentary, called “Rolling Papers,” unveils how the Denver Post has covered the marijuana legalization. Matranga said he proposed the special topics class because he wanted to teach students how to report on it safely and responsibly. “The stigma of the substance is changing,” he said.

Indeed, Browne said, and all eyes are on Colorado as it does.

“Other newly legal states haven’t taken this on with the same gusto,” he said. “It has become its own cottage industry in ways we never would have predicted.”

[The story has been updated.]