BOULDER, CO. 17 April, 2015 — The sky did not fall. It’s more than a year since Colorado legalized cannabis sales. Pot shops have sprung up all over the map, medical dispensaries have added recreational cannabis to their inventory and watched sales skyrocket, the state has collected taxes of $58 million.
Like gay marriage rights, legal cannabis has not unwound the social fabric or unleashed a “lifestyle” irresistible to people who might otherwise refrain. There was no sudden surge in straight dudes proposing to their beer buddies. Equally, folks not interested in getting high are still not lining up to buy weed. Since legalization began, 18% of adults have tried cannabis. That’s the same figure as before. Increased consumption of an alleged “gateway drug” is supposed to herald a sudden spike in serious addictions; isn’t that how marijuana made it to Class I of the schedule to begin with? Colorado, along with the other states that have legalized cannabis this past year, is fast producing the data that will finally discredit this thesis.
From my vantage point as a Boulder resident, not a lot has changed. People are going about their business largely unstoned, maybe with the exception of the guys who waxed my car the other day. I noticed an extra appreciation for detail as they obsessed over door rims and steering wheel leather, giving valid meaning to the question, “What are you guys smoking?”
Most of my friends and neighbors proudly see Colorado as leading the charge in a 21st century gold rush, beta-testing a new industry that promises massive rewards for its entrepreneurial visionaries as well as the little guy. As in the gold rush, ancillary businesses attract much of the smart money. Companies “selling shovels” can prosper with minimal risk by helping others pursue their sometimes far-fetched dreams. As we plunge headlong into history, many native Coloradans have come to terms with legalization in the context of a proud legacy, laying claim to the steely nerve and stubbornly independent thinking that characterized our Western forerunners. However, for most of the country ours is simply the guinea-pig state. Lawmakers considering legal cannabis have descended upon us since day one, seeking a roadmap.
So far the model has its imperfections. Colorado’s regulators do not have standardized testing for contaminants. An influx of interstate drug traffickers have set up illegal and often dangerous grow operations throughout the state. Lawmakers in neighboring states are not happy with the flow of cannabis across their borders. Legalization seems to have made some people complacent–hospitals and veterinarians report a climb in the number of admissions for cannabis poisoning.
The pros still outweigh the cons. Law enforcement and the judiciary can rethink priorities, given the massive savings in costs of possession cases alone. Over the past five years possession accounted for 84 percent of all marijuana arrests in Colorado (National Incident Based Reporting System). In 2010 alone, 30,000 possession charges choked the system, costing around $300 each to adjudicate. In 2014 that figure was down by 95 percent, and arrests for cultivating and distributing cannabis also dropped by 90 percent.
Police can no longer use cannabis prohibition as an excuse for searches and other intrusions on the lives of law-abiding civilians. Instead, law enforcement can focus on whether an imminent risk to public safety is being caused by cannabis-related activity. Police resources can be deployed for serious crimes and the kind of community policing that helps prevent them. So far, cannabis arrests in 2015 mostly involve public use and dangerous grow operations. Colorado saw a three percent drop in traffic fatalities, continuing a 12-year-long downward trend in the state. Naysayers argued that this trend would be reversed by cannabis legalization, another prediction nullified by emerging statistics.
Some business leaders feel cannabis is casting a long shadow that undermines Colorado’s credibility. Documentaries like CNN’s High Profits could be seen as painting a picture of the state as the Wild West all over again, they bemoan. There’s a lot more happening in Colorado than the cannabis industry, however titillating it may be for the media. Technology is a boom sector, with many Californian companies relocating to the less expensive and equally innovative state. Widespread fracking has pushed Colorado’s energy sector into overdrive. Industry giants are now bringing lawsuits against small towns like Longmont, whose voters rejected ballots permitting fracking operations within 300 yards of schools and homes.
Colorado’s medical marijuana industry has been transformed to fully-regulated retail industry. The state intends to use the significant tax revenue generated by this sector for public health and drug abuse prevention initiatives, especially targeting young people. A slight decline in youth drug use has already shown up in statistics.
Would-be president Chris Christie deemed the war on drugs a failure and the Colorado experience bears this out. Confounding the logic of his own argument, Christie has promised he’ll “crack down” on Colorado and other states that have legalized cannabis. That ship has sailed, and by the time another flurry of ballots are voted through in 2016, states late to the party will be joining Colorado in one of America’s great traditions — entrepreneurship and innovation.
America is the new global epicenter of the cannabis industry. Love it or hate it, there is no going back.