May 14, 2015 7:05 AM EDT

For this week’s magazine cover story about marijuana’s effect on the developing brain, TIME sent New York-based photographer Danielle Levitt to Denver, Co., to photograph cannabis smokers in their early 20s.

Over the course of a weekend, Levitt met with more than 25 smokers, with whom she and her team had connected through a number of weed clubs, bars, as well as advocacy organizations in the Rocky Mountain state, after it became the first in the country to legalize recreational marijuana use of up to an ounce for adults.

But why would someone want to be the face of a national issue that not only draws heated debates but is federally criminalized?

“[Marijuana] is something that has improved their perspective. It is a life-changer for them,” Levitt tells TIME. “Any opportunity to share that with the greater public is a fantastic opportunity.”

In addition to pot activists’ enthusiasm, it is Levitt’s ability to connect with her subjects that enabled her to capture their unique experiences.

“I’m very bad at geography, but I’m good at people,” says Levitt, now in her early 40s, as she manages to bridge the age gap between her and her subjects. “Luckily, the kids think I’m cool.”

Originally from Los Angeles, Levitt has shot for major publications as a celebrity and fashion photographer and recently opened a bar in Manhattan frequented by the city’s fashion clan. Her continuous interest and distinctive style in documenting America’s youth has taken her across the country to focus on promgoers, football stars and urban outcasts.

Giving dignity to her subjects is the key to her photographic approach. “I want them to always feel human, present, respected,” Levitt says.

When photographing marijuana smokers, she asked them “to go at their [own] pace, and to smoke what they feel comfortable smoking, however much that is,” which meant the photographer and her team often had to be in enclosed environments with poor air circulation for long periods of time. “I don’t judge and I don’t manipulate,” Levitt says. “I let them be their true selves, and I think that when people can be celebrated for [being themselves], they can feel a certain ease.”

Danielle Levitt is a New York-based photographer and filmmaker. Her vibrant work on American youth as well as her fashion and celebrity portraits have appeared in various publications including The New York Times, Vanity Fair and GQ.

Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is an associate photo editor at TIME.

Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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