Ten years ago, adults from across the U.S. travelled to Colorado to take part in history: buying legal, regulated marijuana from the nation’s and the world’s first licensed recreational cannabis retailers. And the governor says his state has led by example over the past decade, informing the legalization debate that’s since seen nearly half of the states in the country end prohibition.
A lot has changed since that first day of sales on January 1, 2014. Colorado’s industry has evolved in a number of ways, with lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis (D) enacting a variety of reforms to build on the legalization law that voters approved on the ballot in 2012.
“Since Colorado voters legalized cannabis a decade ago, Colorado has developed one of the leading regulatory systems in the world and inspired countless others like it across the country and around the globe,” Polis told Marijuana Moment.
“The legal cannabis industry has created thousands of jobs and helped grow our economy and we have made important progress around equity, industry growth, banking, and utilized sales revenue to build schools around the state,” the governor said. “We continue pushing for a better, more efficient, and more just system that best serves the people of Colorado.”
By most accounts, the state’s legalization experiment has been a success, demonstrating to the rest of the country that replacing criminalization with regulation can effectively transition people to the legal market, mitigate youth access, promote public health and raise revenue to support programs and services.
To that latter point, Colorado has seen more than $15 billion in legal marijuana sales since opening day 10 years ago this coming Monday. The state has collected about $2.6 billion in cannabis tax and fee revenue, which has been used to support funds for public education, substance misuse treatment, law enforcement training, affordable housing, research, illicit market interdiction and more
Mason Tvert, partner at the Denver-based cannabis policy firm VS Strategies, who helped lead the Amendment 64 campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado, told Marijuana Moment that the state’s experience with legalization “has demonstrated that regulating cannabis works.”
“Its so-called ‘experiment’ with legalization has since been replicated in states around the country and inspired similar systems in nations around the world,” he said, adding that the “most critical aspect of Colorado’s cannabis legalization law is the flexibility it grants lawmakers and regulators.”
“The state can continue to make adjustments, learn from other states, and improve its effectiveness and efficiency over time,” he said. “This is the same path we’ve seen the states take with alcohol. While cannabis is still not on a level playing field with alcohol, it is moving in that direction.”
While the marijuana market might not be at a “level playing field” with alcohol, it has proved economically competitive. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff (LCS) released a report in August showing that Colorado generated more tax revenue from cannabis than alcohol or cigarettes during the last fiscal year
Another key marker of the state’s regulatory success is the effectiveness of youth access restrictions, with the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) recently touting an ID verification compliance rate of 99 percent at the state’s cannabis businesses.
“Ten years in, it is clear Colorado’s ‘experiment’ with cannabis has been a success. Colorado has stopped arresting thousands of people annually, produced tens of thousands of cannabis-industry jobs, and generated more than $2.5 billion dollar of tax revenue for the state,” Brian Vicente, founding partner of Vicente Sederberg and another official proponent of the state’s 2012 legalization ballot initiative, said in a statement.
“Colorado’s legalization law has had a lasting effect on the state, the country, and the world. With Colorado leading the way, we now have 24 states with legal, adult-use cannabis, as well as several countries around the globe,” he said. “Colorado’s leadership on drug policy is clear, and it is once again leading the way with its implementation of the initiative approved by voters last year to decriminalize and regulate psychedelic mushrooms and other natural medicines.”
Molly Duplechian, executive director of Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, told 9News that it’s “hard to believe 10 years have passed that quickly, and it’s hard to think back to what our mindset was back then, compared to where we are now.”
“It is just part of Denver and Colorado life, and kind of normal for everybody,” she said. “When we think back about our mindset 10 years ago, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty, and we can say now, 10 years later, we did the right thing. There were some fears in increases in youth usage, or increases in crime, and none of those predictions have been true. So I think we have a lot to be proud of.”
“A lot has changed in the last 10 years,” Duplechian added. “One of those things that has changed and is at the forefront of my mind is social equity, and ensuring those that were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs are now able to have equitable access to the industry.”
Even Colorado officials who campaigned against the 2012 ballot initiative to enact legalization have publicly recognized that their concerns didn’t materialize and that the regulatory model has proved successful. That includes U.S. Sen. John. Hickenlooper (D-CO), who served as governor at the time of the vote, and former Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (D).
Hickenlooper and Hancock celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the legalization vote alongside advocates and stakeholders at an event last year, with the senator advocating for federal reform to build on the state-level progress.
Polis, meanwhile, is proposing new cannabis tax revenue distributions at the state level to further promote equity and streamline licensing as he pushes for federal reform. And he said recently that his state should be at the “center” of the national and global marijuana trade once broad prohibition is lifted.
Polis reiterated that he “strongly” supports a congressional bill called the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act to help normalize the marijuana industry at the federal level. But he added that what really needs to happen is federal legalization, which he hopes will enable Colorado to lead the sector at the national and international level.
The governor recently applauded Biden after his administration’s top health agency recommended rescheduling marijuana—but he says the initial move must be followed with more action to address cannabis banking, immigration, criminal justice reform and federal enforcement concerns. To that end, the president did expand on his mass pardon this month, which Polis also touted as an example of the White House following Colorado’s lead.
Meanwhile, Polis has also called on lawmakers to take steps to allow him to issue mass pardons for people with prior psychedelics convictions after he signed legislation to implement regulations for substances like psilocybin and ayahuasca in May in line with a legalization ballot initiative that voters approved last year.
The governor also signed a bill into law in June that allows online marijuana sales. That reform went into effect in August.
He also recently approved legislation that will bolster marijuana-related protections for working professionals in the state—effectively codifying an executive order he issued last year.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.