Shawn Russ and I were judges in the same category for the 2014 Denver Cannabis Cup. In the deliberation, we found we had two of the same strains in our top three. Once the numbers were in, we chilled on the couch and smoked those strains. During our conversation, I learned that Shawn is famous for an unusual reason -- I had heard of him but had no idea he was sitting in front of me. Shawn’s name was once Gregory Kingsley. Back in 1992, at the age of 12, Shawn took legal steps to divorce himself from his parents so that he could live with a family that wanted to adopt him. This happened back in 1992, and it was huge news. After an immensely difficult childhood, Shawn’s life was all over the papers and TV. After the story subsided into '90s lore, Shawn’s struggles continued, and weed seemed to be (as Homer would say) the cause of, and solution to, all of his troubles. 

When he heard about recreational legalization in Colorado, he picked up shop and went to the one place in America where he could do what he loved without being persecuted for it. Denver is the oasis in Shawn’s grueling desert trek, and he’s finally found some peace there.  

HIGH TIMES: Describe your involvement with cannabis in all aspects, personal, professional, etc.
Shawn Russ: I use cannabis both for medical and social reasons. Due to a difficult childhood I found myself prescribed a plethora of medications for depression as I came into my teenage years. I personally never found satisfaction in the type of "normal" these medications were supposed to make me feel, not to mention the many unwanted side effects. I started using cannabis socially, but upon further experimentation, I found that I much preferred it over pharmaceuticals. It relieved my symptoms without all the nasty side effects. I continue to use cannabis to this day to help with my mood, but now also find true relief in back pain and many other minor body aches. Probably the highlight of cannabis in my life, a mix of personal and professional, was getting the honor to be a 2014 Denver HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup Judge. Shout out to Danny Danko and Bobby Black. 

I have also experienced the negative side of cannabis, mainly due it its illegality and the skewed perception of weed. My adopted family is of the LDS or Mormon faith. It’s a true blessing to be part of a big family, but unfortunately Mormons are very against weed. This made for tumultuous teenage years, with constant battles about my cannabis use with parents who loved me, but truly believed all cannabis use was bad. 

I also had some legal trouble -- a few small misdemeanor possession charges which hindered me for years until I moved to Colorado. One of these incidents happened when I was attending college. I lost my license and wound up on probation. Worst of all, I couldn’t continue going to college. According to the law, any student receiving any federal financial aid who is convicted of a drug charge is ineligible for financial aid for two years. 

I moved to Colorado in February of 2013, expressly after the passage of Amendment 64. I relocated with the purpose of working in a licensed medical marijuana facility. The great state of Colorado offered relief from all of my troubles. I obtained a job in an extremely large MMJ facility, managing the harvest of about 300 plants a week. I learned a lot about weed from my coworkers and can now identify strains by smell alone. 

It truly was a rewarding and interesting experience to work and make my living legally with the plant I had loved so long. 

How is state-level legalization affecting your cannabis-related activities?
I am blessed enough to live in Denver, Colorado. Simply put, I no longer feel like a criminal for using my medication. I no longer felt the paranoia and panic associated with doing something illegal. Without realizing it in my own conscious mind, I had classified myself as a criminally mischievous person simply because I was a cannabis user, and after living in Denver for a short time I actually felt better about my cannabis use and respected myself more, because place didn't view me as “bad." 

What are some of the victories of state-level legalization in your area?
Freedom is a beautiful thing -- the Colorado community embraces the mentality of "be you, do you, as long as it's not harming anyone else." This state celebrates personal expression and that now includes the freedom to use cannabis openly. While quality everywhere isn't always the best, it is amazing to stop by a great dispensary on your way home from work and pick up some nice cannabis flowers before you stop at the grocery store for the milk.

What are some of the failures of state-level legalization in your area?
I have to say clearly over all I am proud of Colorado in its efforts to repeal cannabis oppression nationwide, but with that said: overall, I am proud of Colorado’s efforts to repeal cannabis oppression. However, in my opinion, with state legalization came in my opinion a drop in the quality of cannabis statewide. Thankfully, this is on the turnaround. Also the obvious failures with the cannabis businesses themselves and the federal banking system with regards to deposits and tax generating revenue for the state. By forcing the business to operate mainly in cash they create a system that's endemic to fraud. Add to that the failure of the way the tax money gathered is going to be spent, with the least amount going to education. If I recall, education was supposed to be where the most money was to be allotted.

Do you believe the federal government is making progress towards decriminalization or legalization?
I will have to take a wait and see the approach, but I certainly hope that legalization will be the national model, if there ever is a national model.

How long, do you predict, before weed is completely legal in America?
I sincerely hope within the next 10 years cannabis will be fully legal nationally, but am only cautiously optimistic in this regard.

What is the biggest challenge facing legalization on a state level?
The biggest problem right now that Colorado faces is that they were the first. Any mistakes or flounders made are only blessings to the other legalization movements of other states. As the other states come to terms with legalization they may use Colorado (and probably Washington) as a template, keeping what works and disregarding what did not work.

A national level?
The biggest challenge to legalization on a national level is two fold. One is breaking down the long held prejudices against cannabis -- -that it is a "drug" in the same context as heroine or methamphetamine. It's all about context. Secondly, helping people who already feel there is nothing wrong with cannabis to be comfortable enough to come out and talk about it with their friends and relatives. 

The global level?
One can only hope that the US could lead by example and show the world that cannabis is not a sinister, harmful substance, and that we have hardly explored the therapeutic effects this miraculous plant can have.