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Marijuana’s Growing Pains

After helping pioneer this groundbreaking business, Colorado must focus more smartly on its future.

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As Colorado’s recreational marijuana market moves away from its start-up phase, it’s experiencing some of the struggles you’d expect from any evolving industry.

More than two years into non-medical legalization, we’re witnessing some concerning developments that show how much work is left to do to make this business as safe, effective, and—yes—profitable for those who are doing it right.

But too often supporters, critics, and observers of legalization are quick to draw blanket conclusions about whether or not legalization is working. It’s far more complex than that.

First, there are high-profile incidents such as the recent murder of a security guard at an Aurora dispensary, an ex-Marine and father of three who was gunned down during an attempted robbery. The tragic killing underlines the need for the weed business to rethink its security practices, but it also shows why we still need to address the restrictive banking regulations that make these businesses a bigger target for criminals than they might otherwise be.

There’s also a possible issue brewing around what Mayor Hancock calls the “urban traveler” phenomenon. These are young people who supposedly drift into Colorado around the 4/20 celebrations and then linger among the homeless through the summer. These people may or may not be responsible for a few recent violent incidents along the 16th Street Mall, but the mayor was quick to indict marijuana as a co-culprit despite little hard evidence of that.

Regardless of whether urban travelers are an actual thing, no one who visits the Mall should have to worry about being accosted in the street. At the same time, Denver’s increasingly visible homeless population is at risk of being victimized by law enforcement sweeps that don’t have or take the time to figure out who the actual troublemakers are.

Then there’s Amendment 139, a proposed ballot initiative that would limit the THC content of pot products to no more than 16 percent and “constitutionalize” labeling and packaging requirements that are already in place. Given that THC concentrates currently range from about 17 percent in smoked products to about 62 percent in some extracts and edibles, the amendment, by one estimate, could outlaw about 80 percent of what’s currently legal. Proponents of 139 are currently gathering enough signatures to make it onto the November ballot and should know sometime in August if they’ve crossed that threshold.

But while such limitations might seem sensible to some, in addition to creating economic chaos for this billion-dollar industry, 139 also would likely drive consumers right back to the black market that legalization sought to eliminate in the first place.

*Update: Backers of 139 have withdrawn the proposed amendment.

If California passes its adult recreational legalization proposal this fall—it was polling at 60–37 percent in favor as of late May—an additional 10 percent of the U.S. population would flip into the “legal” category overnight. Three other states, including Florida, will definitely have similar votes on their state ballots, and at least a half-dozen other states are in the signature-collecting process for getting such measures to the polls in 2016.

In other words, if legal pot hasn’t arrived yet, it’s well on its way. That’s why it’s up to Colorado and other early adopters to move beyond prohibition and mitigation tactics that would be more wisely expended on much more grave substances such as meth, heroin, prescription drugs, and even alcohol. What we need to have instead are deeper discussions about how we can make the marijuana industry more safe, efficient, and productive for proprietors and consumers alike.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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