On January 1st, 2014, Colorado, the “Highest State”, became the first state in the U.S. to remove its ban on recreational cannabis, allowing for legitimate businesses to begin selling marijuana to the public within the restrictions set by the state government. With the most liberal cannabis laws in the country, both sides of the debate on the decriminalization of marijuana are anxiously watching Colorado, looking for ways to further their respective causes in other states. Is Colorado simply the first domino to fall in the country as pot is decriminalized elsewhere, or will prohibitionists soon have an example of failure to further sell their argument?
The state of Colorado has long since had a progressive view towards cannabis, with the drug being approved for medical use in 2000 with the passing of Amendment 20. As this new law is the nation’s first to allow recreational marijuana, many are concerned that this liberalization could lead to increased incidences of underage consumption or driving under the influence. If this turns out to be the case in the coming months, the state government may well need to once again reform its laws. However, Colorado is taking serious measures to ensure that cannabis is regulated and safely consumed now that it is legal.
Those who purchase cannabis in Colorado must be over 21, residents can only buy up to an ounce from licensed stores, and it is illegal to smoke while driving, in public, or anywhere where tobacco is forbidden such as hotels or restaurants. Residents of Colorado can grow up to six plants of their own, but they must be locked up. Similarly to alcohol, Colorado has set a strict limit on the level of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) allowed in the bloodstream for driving. In addition, stores that sell the drug must have a license to do so, and some cities (such as Colorado Springs) have decided that they will not allow for pot shops. For the moment, the only vendors legally allowed to sell cannabis are those that formerly sold medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescriptions, but many more stores have pending requests for licenses.
As cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level – placing it alongside heroin and a bracket above cocaine – the conflict of state and federal laws is somewhat complicated. Attorney General Eric Holder of the Justice Department has stated that the government will not intervene in the legal sale of marijuana in Colorado, and only a few days ago issued a statement that would “give new latitude to states experimenting with the taxation and regulation of marijuana.” This electronic cigarette benefits loosening of federal restrictions is a blessing to weed salesmen, who until now could not put their profits in the bank, as the banking system is federally regulated. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not be regulating cannabis, as the crop is still considered illegal to them. Regulation by the USDA can only improve the situation in Colorado, as it would further legitimize the industry and ensure safer consumption for users.
Since 2011, Gallup polls have shown that over 50% of Americans nationwide now favour the decriminalization of cannabis, and later this year states such as California, Alaska, and Oregon are expected to consider legalizing recreational marijuana. If these states go through with the laws and set restrictions like those of Colorado, then this may just be an improvement on the status quo laws regarding marijuana. The current system is simply not working, and in 2011 alone 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana across the United States, many of them for low-level possession. As many studies have shown that pot is no more harmful to yourself and others than tobacco or alcohol, this high number of arrests may actually be hurting the users more than the drug itself, as the social stigma of having a police record can prohibit them from getting proper jobs in the future. Furthermore, it has been found that cannabis is no more causally linked to harder drug use than tobacco or alcohol, and not all users are stereotypical ‘stoners’ – from Morgan Freeman to Michael Bloomberg to Barack Obama, many successful people have admitted to using marijuana.
Regardless of your position on the issue, decriminalizing cannabis makes financial sense. It will save the state of Colorado millions per year in police fees, and will actually make the state money. The annual tax revenue from the sale of weed is expected to be $67 million dollars a year, with $27.5 million of this new revenue already allocated for building schools. Of course money isn’t everything, and if these new cannabis laws make Colorado money but prove to be harmful to society than I believe they should be changed once again. However, if Colorado’s experiment of regulating the sale of this drug that is already widely used and is no more dangerous than currently legal substances turns out to work the way it is supposed to, then this may be a reform other states should consider making.