In just five days from the publication date of this column, if you are over 21 years of age, have a driver’s license and are able to find a retail store open, you will be able to purchase marijuana for recreational use in Colorado.
That’s right. Though it will take some time for most retail outlets to open, as more businesses clear zoning and regulations and obtain proper licenses, a retail marijuana business culture will begin flourishing in Colorado and Washington. We will go, in one day, from allowing several hundred thousand medical patients to several billion adults who now will be able to buy marijuana legally here.
International media are expected to descend on Colorado to cover the dawn of the legalization era, and the eyes of the world, as they say, will be upon us. Early reporters will likely go away disappointed, and the first flurry of photos and stories about Colorado cannabis legalization might be similar to coverage of the opening of heathcare.gov a couple of months ago, with long lines in front of the few retail outlets open and complaints of shortages of product. It will probably be more whimper than bang.
But make no mistake: There will be a bang. This moment in history is being compared to the passage of the 21st Amendment 80 years ago this month, which ended the American experiment on prohibition of alcohol, and in a sense it is. Cannabis was grown by the founding fathers and was legal in the U.S. until the 1930s, when a tsunami of circumstances led to it being declared illegal and demonized in a haze of lies and Reefer Madness propaganda.
But it was the Controlled Substances Act — enacted during the reign of Richard Nixon, who rejected his own commission’s recommendation that marijuana be legalized and instead made it a controlled substance with no known medicinal value — that led us to the current insanity and finally some reevaluation by American citizens about its illegality.
Colorado voters spoke loudly, and now the world will be watching our successes and missteps, mostly the latter. There is still opposition to legalization. Thirty-seven of every 100 voters voted against it, and we have witnessed pushback from city councils and county commissioners who have banned retail stores in their jurisdictions, which is legal according to Amendment 64, although some did it arbitrarily, without consulting their constituents.
For now, more cities will not be selling cannabis to adults than will be, and many, like Boulder, won’t have shops open until February or March.
This pushback will continue, I’m guessing, for awhile, but as legalization takes hold, cities will begin noting that cannabis customers in dispensaries are otherwise indistinguishable from anyone else. Those municipalities will also begin to notice that their jurisdictions aren’t sharing in the tax revenues generated by retail cannabis.
Voter support for cannabis taxes was strong.
Coloradans passed a statewide 15 percent excise and 10 percent sales tax, and Boulder voters approved a city excise and sales levy, too. A percentage of the state tax money will be shared with cities and counties that have retail shops, which should hasten the end of some prohibitions currently in place.
One of the smartest things about Amendment 64 was its strict timeline for the state to develop and adopt rules and regulations in advance of retail sales. Otherwise, those in the legislature still against legalization could have slowed or placed roadblocks into the process. It put serious pressure on the legislature, city councils and county commissioners statewide to enact regulations before retail shops open. So look for many adjustments and tweaks to those regs in 2014.
A major hurdle was overcome in late October when the Justice Department declared in a memo that it wouldn’t interfere with Colorado and Washington’s retail programs as long as businesses weren’t involved in criminal activities.
Governors John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee asked the federal banking czars for clarity on allowing banks to work with cannabis businesses, still the biggest obstacle to legalization actually working.
Jack Finlaw, Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel, said recently that federal guidance is expected in January that will give “maybe not a green light, but a yellow light” to allow cannabis businesses to take deposits, set up checking accounts, get small business loans and allow customers to use credit cards. Until then, be prepared to pay in cash for cannabis at any retail outlet.
The first legal hemp crop was harvested in the fall in Colorado, an early step toward ending the lunacy of the federal government banning a plant used for centuries in clothing, food, paper and building supplies because it’s a non-psychoactive cousin to marijuana. If you buy a hemp product made in the U.S. today, it was probably grown in China. Hopefully, as restrictions ease, American farmers will create a new hemp industry.
The Colorado legislature passed the first set of rules and regulations for retail adult sales that provide a framework for the cultivation, product manufacturing and sale of marijuana. It also passed a blood-level THC test for driving impairment. District Attorney Stan Garnett thinks it’s a good start toward implementing guidelines for cannabis impairment. I have my doubts, but let’s hope so.
Like all things marijuana at this point, we will begin to get answers (and ask even more questions) in the next few months. T-minus five days before lift-off. Ground control to Major Tom.
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