Colorado Ushers in a Decade of Legal Marijuana

Colorado Ushers in a Decade of Legal Marijuana

But how has ten years of this social and economic experiment affected the Centennial State?

In 2013: My excitement was tinged with mild apprehension as I pulled into the vast, dark parking area. Besides a smattering of cars scattered across the large paved business lot, it was ominously barren. Only a few glowing yellow parking lights illuminated the vicinity as I attempted to assuage my trepidation and pulled up next to the orange car I’d been instructed to contact.

As soon as I pulled up, a dark figure within the vehicle beckoned me to enter the car, and as I hustled toward the passenger side door, I nervously scanned the parking lot for police. 

After anxiously seating myself inside the car and exchanging mild pleasantries, the driver tossed a sandwich bag containing small green nugs into my lap, followed by the phrase, “Fifty bucks.”

The bag looked a little light, but being in no position to be picky, I handed over some cash, uttered a quick ‘thank you,’ and scampered back to my car. I shoved the small bag into my sock and surveyed the parking lot for law enforcement one last time. Convinced that my transaction had gone unnoticed, I set out to try and safely make it home with my bounty of mystery product.

That was ten years ago. Today, buying marijuana in Colorado can be as simple as popping over to the store on a lunch break. It’s a normal transaction carried out by professionals, and you know exactly what you’re paying for. But it seems like only yesterday that it wasn’t so easy. 

Getting into unfamiliar cars in sketchy parking lots or walking into a stranger’s home were common occurrences before marijuana was legal for recreational purposes. It was never pleasant, for the buyer or the seller, but that was how it was done. 

In 2012, the voters of Colorado approved Amendment 64, which amended the state constitution to allow for the personal use and regulation of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. In 2014, Colorado hosted the first legal marijuana sales for recreational purposes in the United States. After decades of legal persecution, adults using marijuana no longer had to fear legal repercussions for possessing it.

Colorado’s move to legalize marijuana was quickly met with sharp criticism from all across the country. While some praised Colorado’s bold action, many others claimed the move was shortsighted and reckless. They predicted the state would soon face a host of problems directly related to this “dangerous” amendment. 

As Colorado ushers in ten years of legal marijuana sales, what truly has been the impact on the state, and the people who reside in it? Were the fears of the doomsayers who opposed legalization realized? Did Colorado become a failed state?

The Wild West of Weed?

When Colorado committed to braving the uncharted territory of legal marijuana, many authority figures in other states entered a manic pursuit of proclaiming that Amendment 64 was going to be anarchy. Some people thought that Colorado had simply announced “it’s not illegal anymore,” and left it at that. That’s not at all what happened.

Over a year of planning went into hammering out the details of how Colorado would regulate the fledgling marijuana industry. The end result was heavy-handed regulatory oversight. 

Colorado’s has a seed-to-sale regulatory tracking system that requires cultivators to tag each plant they grow with a Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tag so it can be easily monitored by authorities. Commercial growers are responsible for tracking every plant they grow and sharing that information with the state government.  

Dispensaries are required to track and account for every gram of marijuana that enters their establishment. An ounce can’t just “go missing” one day, because regulators will see that and issue heavy fines, or shut the business down.

Every single sale of marijuana is accounted for, from seed to smoke.

Colorado may have pioneered the legal marijuana industry, but it’s far from the wild west where regulation is concerned. Legalization did, however, have an immediate impact on arrest rates. 

Decreased Arrest Rates for Marijuana

Probably the most obvious impact concerning Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana has been that people are freer in Colorado in regards to what they’re allowed to put in their bodies, and marijuana-related arrest numbers in Colorado over the last ten years show that. Between 2012 and 2019, the arrest rates for marijuana in Colorado plummeted.

To be clear, one can still be arrested for marijuana in Colorado. You can’t just walk down the street smoking a joint, and you can’t possess over a certain amount at any one time. It’s not anarchy; there are still rules.

According to the Colorado Department of Criminal Justice, marijuana-related arrest rates dropped 68% from 2012 to 2019. During the same time frame, marijuana-related case filings decreased by 55%. By and large citizens in Colorado are harassed by police about marijuana far less than they were ten years ago.

The rate of juvenile marijuana-related arrests also decreased during that same period, by 42%. One prominent criticism of Colorado’s legalization effort when it was introduced was that youth use would dramatically rise, but to date that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Are The Kids Going to Pot?

The Healthy Kids Colorado Study (HKCS) is a biennial study conducted by a team of researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and supported by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The study aims to better understand youth health and the factors that support healthy choices made by youth.

The 2021 HKCS indicated that high-school students’ 30-day use rate (considered current use) went from 19.7% in 2013 to 13.3% in 2021. The middle school rate dropped from 5.1% to 3.0% during the same period. Not only has youth use not increased, but it has decreased by a statistically relevant measure.

There may have been something to the ‘forbidden fruit’ adage, which maintains that youth will experiment with things that are illegal because they’re illegal. 

Youth may not be going out in droves attempting to try marijuana, but another fear that accompanied Colorado’s marijuana legalization was that there would be an increase in the number of impaired drivers on the road.

Is Driving More Dangerous in Colorado Because of Legalization?

According to statistics from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, impaired driving as a result of marijuana use has increased over the last decade. Colorado State Patrol officers identified marijuana or marijuana-in-combination as the impairing substance in 31% of DUI cases in 2020, up from 12% in 2014.

Citations for marijuana-alone offenses rose from 6.3% in 2014 to 8.7% in 2020. Marijuana in combination with alcohol or other drugs increased from 5.7% to 22.7% in the same time frame.

It should be noted, as it is on the Colorado Department of Public Safety website, that the presence of delta-9 THC is not an indicator of impairment. THC can stay in one’s system for quite some time. Someone could smoke a joint and get in an accident two weeks later, completely unimpaired, and test positive for marijuana.

It’s hard to compare these statistics with other states because many states simply don’t look for marijuana specifically as an agent of driver impairment, and they often don’t document it if they do. 

The overall number of fatalities while driving in Colorado has also gone up in the last ten years. In 2012, the total number of driving fatalities was 474, which increased to 745 in 2022. It is interesting, however, to look at the numbers from twenty years ago, when the number of driving fatalities was 743 in 2002. The stats show that fatalities consistently decreased from 2002 to 2011 and then began to steadily rise again in 2012, two years before marijuana was legally available for sale.

It’s undeniable that impaired driving has increased some after marijuana legalization in Colorado. The exact numbers may not be entirely correct because it’s difficult to accurately test for marijuana, but it does seem Coloradans aren’t complying with the rules of the road as much since legalization.

Some of the other negative aspects of legalization go largely unseen and unheard. One such case is the recent decline of marijuana businesses in the state, which is beginning to create new Colorado ghost towns.

Colorado Cannabis Entrepreneurs Witness Decline

For the first time since the novice industry blossomed from nothing, marijuana businesses in Colorado are seeing declining sales. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, marijuana sales fell by over 20% between 2021 and 2022. Though the official numbers have yet to be reported, 2023 is predicted to see another 10% to 15% drop in annual sales from the previous year’s numbers.

Many factors have contributed to this downturn, such as the decline of marijuana tourism due to competition from other states. Other circumstances, like too much supply and less demand, have also advanced the state’s drop in sales.

One of the elements that has been consistently challenging for cannabis entrepreneurs is the high business costs associated with the way Colorado, and the federal government regulate marijuana. 

Marijuana growers are required to use RFID tags to track every plant they grow. At an average cost of $0.45, the cost of RFID tags alone gets expensive quickly. Growers also pay a 15% excise tax on any product that leaves their facility, and federal law doesn’t allow these businesses, or any marijuana business, to deduct normal overhead costs from their taxes like other businesses can. 

Growing your own marijuana is legal, under certain restrictions, anywhere in the Centennial state. High taxes on retail marijuana may have encouraged many within the state to nurture their green thumb.

High Taxes and Inflation Have Created a DIY Trend

The way Colorado addresses and taxes marijuana is complicated. Some laws regarding marijuana legalization apply statewide, like being able to possess and grow a certain amount of marijuana for personal use. 

However, local communities still have control over how, and if, marijuana is sold and taxed within their jurisdiction. This means that a joint bought in Denver is likely going to have a different price if purchased in Vail. If you travel to Colorado Springs, you won’t have the option of legally purchasing recreational marijuana at all.

In the city of Grand Junction, buying marijuana will set you back a 6% Grand Junction retail marijuana tax, the city sales tax rate of 3.39%, and a special district tax of 0.37%. This is on top of a 15% state marijuana sales tax, and a 2% county tax on marijuana. In total, a whopping 26.76% in taxes gets added to your bill at a dispensary.

To put this in perspective, a $50 purchase of marijuana in Grand Junction will end up costing $63.38 at the point of sale. This is after the cultivator paid a 15% excise tax on the average market rate to get it to the dispensary.

Other ‘sin-tax’ commodities in the state are taxed far lower than marijuana. Beer and wine are taxed at $0.08 and $0.32 per gallon, respectively. Cigarettes carry a $0.84 tax per pack. Steep to be sure, but nowhere near the colossal tax applied to retail marijuana.

While some other states, like Washington, have much higher rates of marijuana taxation, Colorado still demands a pretty penny for the privilege of buying marijuana. 

Medical marijuana sales still go untaxed, but in recent years the state has taken steps to make having a medical card less valuable.

Recreational Marijuana is Lucrative for Colorado, But Medical…

If one has a medical marijuana card in Colorado, there are no special taxes on marijuana transactions. No excise tax for growers, no state or local tax specifically for marijuana, and no special district tax. The only tax is the regular 2.9% state sales tax that applies to all transactions within the state.

However, the laws regulating what you can purchase with a medical marijuana card, and how you acquire that card, have changed since recreational legalization. One of the most recent changes was limiting the amount of concentrates medical patients can purchase, dropping the limit from 40 grams to eight.

It may seem like a lot, 40 grams of concentrate, but this upper limit was designed to be high for medical patients who live in rural areas and can’t access dispensaries regularly. Now those patients will have to travel five times as often to receive the benefits of the medicine that works for them.

The state has also made amendments to the requirements for attaining a medical marijuana card in recent years. Additional steps in the process, and the additional paperwork required for getting a medical card, have been met with a decline in medical cards issued in recent years. 

These actions follow a trend of the state limiting the usefulness and accessibility of medical marijuana cards. It’s as if they would simply prefer everyone just paid the same hefty tax rate.

While state bureaucrats attempt to shake every nickel out of marijuana users like the Sheriff of Nottingham, some citizens in Colorado are still upset that marijuana legalization ever happened in the first place. They’ve never been on board with legal marijuana sales, and after ten years, it’s unlikely they’ll change their minds anytime soon.

Marijuana Still Carries a Negative Stigma in Colorado

Despite a lack of obvious negative consequences stemming from marijuana legalization, some people in Colorado never wanted it in the first place and still don’t. There are still towns, and even entire counties, in Colorado that do not allow for any kind of legal marijuana transactions. 

Grand Junction was one of the latest places in Colorado to permit legal recreational sales. Nearly a decade after the state led the way, Grand Junction finally followed suit. 

The city has never even had medical marijuana dispensaries. In fact, medical marijuana still cannot be purchased from a dispensary in Grand Junction over two decades after Colorado legalized medical marijuana.

The process of fine-tuning the city’s retail marijuana program took over two years after the initial decision from the voters, but marijuana dispensaries eventually began to materialize. Grand Junction will now venture into recreational marijuana sales, and the growing pains that come with it, much of the state has experienced for the last ten years.

Other counties, such as El Paso County and Custer County, still don’t allow for recreational marijuana sales within their jurisdiction. Towns like Hayden and Branson, which reside in counties that have approved recreational marijuana sales, still choose not to allow it within their city limits.

Colorado is Boldly Going Forward

With a decade of hands-on experience learning what legal marijuana looks like, and how it can impact a state and the people residing within it, there’s a lot of information to sort through about this novel social and economic experiment. But after sorting through all the data, and all the statistics, there’s one question that can be asked at the end of the day.

Did it matter? 

Did legalization make any difference in the day-to-day lives of people living in the state? If so, was that difference, on average, good or bad?

The unequivocal answer is a resounding yes. 

There are certainly negative aspects that accompany the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, but many of those negative aspects can be chalked up to the growing pains of the greenhorn industry. It should be expected that not everything will go perfectly, with anything, ever. But there are some statistics you can’t get in Colorado that should be considered. 

You can’t ask the person who never got busted with half of a gram of marijuana how it ruined their life. 

You can’t survey the person who never spent years in jail for growing a few plants for themselves about how that destroyed their family. 

You can’t question the person who was never able to access marijuana during their cancer treatment how that made their journey to recovery worse, or impossible.

Those people don’t exist anymore in Colorado.

By pioneering the way, Colorado created a road map for states that wanted to follow in their footsteps regarding marijuana legalization. The state has demonstrated that legalizing marijuana doesn’t bring forth the apocalyptic negative consequences some predict it will. It’s not all good news, certain negative situations did come with legalization, but Colorado isn’t filled with drug-crazed abandon, and the sky isn’t falling in the Centennial State. 

The way Colorado addresses marijuana isn’t perfect. The state makes a habit out of making it harder than it should be to run a marijuana business, and it consistently milks every ounce of cash it can out of marijuana users, but at the end of the day, people in Colorado are freer because of legalization, and that matters. You can’t put a price on freedom.

Rolland Judd

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