A year into the experiments with legal, taxed marijuana sales, Washington and Colorado find themselves wrestling not with the federal interference many feared, but with competition from medical marijuana or even outright black market sales.
The 43-year-old war on drugs had never seen such a barrage of opposition as it did in 2014, with successful marijuana legalization initiatives in several U.S. states, California’s historic approval of sentencing reform for low level drug offenders and world leaders calling for the legal regulation of all drugs — all of which cement the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and offer unprecedented momentum going into 2015.
On July 8th Washington became the second state after Colorado to offer recreational pot-smokers a chance to buy weed legally at a local store. Marijuana is still illegal in most of America. But there are substantial activities towards more liberal policies. In 23 states the medicinal use of marijuana is allowed and more states are considering legalisation. Oregon and Alaska will vote on legalisation in November; Floridians will decide on permitting medical use. President Barack Obama has chosen to take a hand’s-off approach to the issue of legalisation in Washington and Colorado. Yet if a drug hawk were to succeed President Obama in 2016, a clampdown on pot could well be revived.
A Colorado marijuana innovation is changing the way lawmakers in even the most conservative parts of the country talk about cannabis and is poised to create a rapid expansion in the number of states that have legalized marijuana in some way. But many marijuana advocates view the new political campaign with skepticism, fearing it could halt their movement's momentum. Taken to its logical conclusion, medical marijuana could be a "box canyon" for broader legalization efforts.
Tens of thousands of people will attend Saturday's "4/20" rally in Denver, creating perhaps the largest collectively produced cloud of marijuana smoke ever at 4:20 p.m. But Lopez doesn't view this year's event as a celebration of Amendment 64, the pro-pot measure that voters passed in November. Instead, it is as much a protest against the measure. "It is still only a legislative act to create an economy and not to end a war that has destroyed thousands of lives." The people behind Amendment 64, likewise, are holding the rally at arm's length.
Colorado's under-construction plan for regulating recreational marijuana nearly came unglued when lawmakers questioned whether the agency that would enforce the rules is up to the task. The plan called for the state's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division — which regulates medical-marijuana businesses — to transition to the Marijuana Enforcement Division and be in charge of all pot enterprises in the state. But a scathing audit cast doubt on the division's fitness for handling the massive job.
State regulators charged with watching over Colorado's medical marijuana industry have fallen short on everything from tracking inventory and managing their budget to keeping potential bad actors out of the business, a state audit found. Often lauded as a national model, Colorado's so-called seed-to-sale system of regulating medical marijuana does not exist, auditors found.
The technology was supposed to efficiently track medical marijuana from seed to sale — the catch-phrase that came to define Colorado's efforts to regulate what had been an outlaw business. Field investigators could walk into any dispensary or grow operation and with a digital reader instantly collect data from tags attached to everything from newly potted plants to pot-infused lollipops in a regulatory system often held up as a national model and serving as the foundation for how the state will regulate recreational pot legalized by Amendment 64. (See also: Medical marijuana's unrealized regulatory goals)
In the summer of 2010, after legislators passed a law legitimizing dispensaries, there were 1,117 medical-marijuana businesses in Colorado. By the end of that year, as a "green rush" of cannabis entrepreneurs reached its apex, the total ticked up to 1,131. Today, there are 675. In terms of sheer numbers, Colorado's medical-marijuana industry has shrunk by more than 40 percent.
Vigorous regulation of a thriving medical-marijuana industry in Colorado offers the best glimpse of what is coming to Washington when it launches its voter-approved social-use market. With continuous surveillance, bar-coded plants and strict financial background checks, Colorado's rules allowed capitalism to be unleased, creating an instant $200 million industry. With retail prices — averagingabout $7.50 a gram — among the cheapest in the country.
The sequential strategy will look familiar to Coloradans: first, pass a medical-marijuana law; then put dispensaries in place; then go for recreational legalization. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is pushing medical-marijuana laws in New York, Illinois and New Hampshire, along with contemplating a ballot initiative in Idaho. The true test for marijuana activists will come in 2016, the next presidential election year. That is when MPP hopes to run legalization initiatives in California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maine.
President Barack Obama says he won't go after pot users in Colorado and Washington, two states that just legalized the drug for recreational use. But advocates argue the president said the same thing about medical marijuana - and yet U.S. attorneys continue to force the closure of dispensaries across the U.S. Welcome to the confusing and often conflicting policy on pot, where medical marijuana is legal in many states, but it is increasingly difficult to grow, distribute or sell it.
When people go to the polls two weeks from now they won't just be voting for candidates, in some states, they'll be passing judgment on social issues. In Oregon, Washington and the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado it's the legalization of marijuana. Part of this has to do with cash-starved governments looking for new things to tax for more revenue. But much of it has to do with the growing acceptance or at least tolerance for a drug that was once considered the devil's weed and a flashpoint for cultural and generational warfare.
Colorado's top federal prosecutor has ordered 25 medical marijuana shops located near schools to close in an escalating pot clampdown, as the state gears up for a battle at the ballot box over broader recreational use of the drug. Attorney John Walsh warned owners of the centers in letters that they have 45 days to shut down or "action will be taken to seize and forfeit their property," his office said.
Colorado has become the third state to ask the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana in a way that allows doctors to prescribe it as a medical treatment. The state asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana from Schedule 1, a category that includes heroin, to Schedule 2. The change would allow doctors to prescribe pot and pharmacies to fill marijuana prescriptions. The governors of Rhode Island and Washington have made similar requests.
While it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business. It has been legal since a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution in 2000, but the for-profit side only took off two years ago after the legislature allowed individual counties and towns more flexibility in interpreting the rules. Over a hundred have done so.
There are currently 16 states that allow some form of legalized medical marijuana, but only Colorado allows marijuana businesses to operate as such. It’s the first, and for the moment, only, for-profit marijuana marketplace in the U.S. Predictably, Colorado is in the midst of a marijuana boom. Between 2000—when Colorado voters legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes with Amendment 20—and 2008, Colorado issued roughly 2,000 medical marijuana cards to patients living in the state. By 2011 that number had jumped to over 127,000 paying customers, according to the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry, and at least 25,000 more have applications pending.