At midnight on January 1, Colorado will become one of two states in the nation to open legalized retail marijuana stores. The “dot-bong era” will be messy, chaotic, and potentially lucrative—one projection has the American marijuana market growing faster than the smartphone sector in 2014. But no one knows exactly what this revamped reality will look like (and if they tell you they do, they’re probably stoned).
To make sense of it all, we’ve put together this A-to-Z guide to the legalized marijuana marketplace—from fun facts to some of the perks we can expect, as well as the hiccups, speed bumps, and setbacks we’ll most likely face as we wind our way through this more enlightened era. Colorado voters passed this law to grant our state’s adults some groundbreaking rights, and how sensibly we address the responsibilities these budding freedoms bring will reveal whether marijuana’s advocates have been clear-eyed all along—or just blowing smoke.
Rates of U.S. marijuana use
past-month marijuana users in the United States
daily or near daily users of marijuana in the United States
percent of people age 12–17 in the United States who currently use marijuana
percent of people age 18–25 in the United States who currently use marijuana
percent of people age 26 and older in the United States who currently use marijuana
percent of people age 12–17 in the United States who said it would be fairly or very easy for them to obtain marijuana
change in regular marijuana use from 2007–12
change in past-year heroin use from 2007–12
percent of Americans who support legalizing marijuana in 2013 (up from 41 percent in 2010)
percent of Americans who think we spend more than it’s worth to enforce marijuana laws
Last summer, Denver auditor Dennis Gallagher’s office released a scathing report revealing serious shortcomings in the city’s oversight of the medical marijuana (MMJ) industry. Among many problems cited were spotty record-keeping, inconsistent licensing, and poor coordination with the state Department of Revenue. The damning audit emboldened legalization opponents, who argue that Denver’s inefficiencies with MMJ oversight bode ill for its ability to run the legalized market, and it was a primary reason the city has been so deliberate about setting up the new rules.
One of the MMJ industry’s biggest headaches has been the difficulty dispensary owners have had finding banks that will accept any aspect of their business. Because banks are federally licensed, they risk running afoul of RICO laws, which were designed to combat organized crime and prevent banks from handling money earned from illegal activities. (In October, Governor John Hickenlooper and Washington Governor Jay Inslee formally asked the federal government to grant legal marijuana businesses complete access to banking services, and as of press time, the feds seem amenable to finding a compromise that might allow certain banks to begin working with the industry.) Keeping the rules as-is could result in security risks. “If they’re going to let these [legalized marijuana] businesses move forward, they shouldn’t be known as people who have large amounts of cash on them at all times,” says Christian Sederberg, a partner at the law firm Vicente Sederberg LLC. (Two months ago, Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel Jack Finlaw revealed that the state has been allowing dispensaries to keep firearms on their premises—contrary to federal guidelines—because of the risks associated with running a cash-only business.) Simply exempting certain banks from the current regulations would likely result in even more potentially dangerous activity. “Unregulated banks would just be an invitation to launder money,” says Annmarie Jensen, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP). “But we still have all this cash floating around, so there’s no way to solve this without the federal government changing something.”
Neutralizing the stranglehold cartels have had over illegal drugs for the past several decades often is the first thing marijuana activists cite when arguing for legalization. But because weed remains illegal federally, businesses that have been sanctioned by Colorado still can’t access the banking system (see “Banks”) or tax deductions that “normal” companies enjoy. The cash-only corner they’re painted into could sustain the influence of organized crime; others have argued that overtaxing legal marijuana could produce the same result because black market prices will be cheaper (see “Taxes,” page 98). Moreover, if the industry, working with the state, can’t establish systems that can thoroughly track the amount of weed grown and sold, the incentive to skim product and sell it illicitly will remain.
A cigar that’s been hollowed out and refilled with marijuana. The rapper Snoop Dogg has claimed that he smokes about 80 of these per day, which seems a little excessive. (Also known as: dutchie.)
The substance created when marijuana is cooked with butter or oil, which is then used to make pot brownies, candy, and other edible concoctions. If you’re just throwing buds and leaves into the mixing bowl, you’re doing it wrong. (Also known as: weed butter, green butter.)
The groups that, by and large, have been charged with determining whether and how legalized marijuana will be allowed into their towns. Some councils, such as Denver’s, have opened their doors; some have already banned recreational marijuana outright—regardless of whether or not their voters supported Amendment 64 in 2012. Most are taking wait-and-see approaches. Denver’s city council has drafted extensive rules around where, when, and how pot shops will be able to operate; in October, it also debated further restrictions on the public consumption of pot, similar to open container laws for alcohol. Boulder, of all places, has proven to be one of the most stringent cities so far. “While embracing legalization, Boulder has also been very strict about regulating and enforcing it,” says CACP lobbyist Jensen. “They’ve made it clear to the marijuana community that you can come here, but you better play by the rules, and they’ve kicked out some people.”
A letter released in June 2011 by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole that stated the government would not use its “limited federal resources” to prosecute medical marijuana providers who were following their respective states’ laws. Cole’s office released a second memo in August 2013 stating that—in the wake of legalization in Colorado and Washington state—federal law enforcement priorities would focus on, among other things, preventing the redistribution of marijuana to children, drug cartels, and other criminal enterprises, or on enforcement in states where the drug has not been legalized. Although some marijuana advocates say they see the announcements as an assurance that those who comply with state laws won’t be prosecuted over federal statutes, the feds are remaining open-ended enough to allow the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and others to resume prosecutions if too many people or businesses flout the new regulations.
Controlled Substances Act (CSA)
Passed in 1970, the CSA is the federal law that lists marijuana alongside drugs such as heroin, LSD, and MDMA (ecstasy), classifying them all as Schedule I drugs—substances that have a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.” By virtue of this designation, weed is officially considered to be more harmful than Schedule II drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, opium, and oxycodone, but extensive medical research—along with good ol’ common sense—contradicts this. Many have suggested that moving marijuana into a more appropriate category would enable the federal government to reprioritize marijuana prosecutions without drastically changing its existing laws.
Denver police make about 3,200 DUI arrests per year, and about 100 of them are for driving under the influence of drugs (DUID). Officials expect that number to rise by about five percent once legalization goes live. However, in 2011, researchers from University of Colorado Denver and Montana State University found that traffic fatalities declined in states where medical marijuana had been legalized, a fact they attributed to more people choosing marijuana over alcohol. (Other research has shown prescription drug use among American teens during the past few years to be declining as well.) DUID testing also has been imperfect so far because THC lingers in your system long after the buzz is gone. If police start handing out tickets today to people who were high yesterday, the resulting costs and legal snafus could create an entirely new set of problems.