Last week, a family wedding occasioned a visit to Colorado, marijuana capital of the nation. I'd been wondering how our northern neighbor's bold legalization was playing out. So far, the feared consequences haven't materialized, but some unintended consequences have.
Observation No. 1: There is no big uptick in teenage marijuana use. As my youngest brother explained, "If your mom can smoke weed, it isn't cool any more."
Observation No. 2: It's been great for the state's economy.
Colorado approved medical marijuana in 2000, and it's now a $200 million industry that pays more than $5 million a year in state sales taxes. The state and cities are now salivating over potential revenues from recreational marijuana sales but must find the equilibrium between a "good tax" and one that drives cannabis sales underground.
The new law requires adjustments large and small. Police drug dogs are trained to sniff out marijuana and other drugs; now they either have to be retrained or police have to ignore marijuana when they find it.
The law allows everyone to have 1 ounce, the equivalent of a joint. Unlicensed sales are illegal, and the licenses are not only costly (five to six figures, plus security requirements), but growers must open their books. Regulators say this will prevent growers from selling to underage customers because they have so much at risk. And while you might expect a host of backyard hippie growers, the first entrants into the business were Colorado's commercial greenhouses and big florists.
One of the major unintended consequences is that the growers have no place to bank. Colorado banks won't take marijuana money because they fear punishment by federal regulators. This is one of those problems that will resolve itself eventually out of sheer demand.
Another unintended consequence is that anybody with Colorado license plates can expect to be stopped in Texas. Law enforcement in the Lone Star State had a fine time interrupting the youthful cavalcade making its way to Austin for the music festival South by Southwest. Texans now warn their Colorado pals to not be carrying if they come visit.
A looming question is what the Justice Department will do, and despite formal inquiries from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the U.S. Attorney General hasn't yet said. He may be waiting to see how Colorado and Washington regulate themselves. The federal government could raid the big growers and dispensaries but hasn't. Meanwhile, Colorado busily adds more regulations to the books and considers itself ahead of Washington state, which has the same law but has been slow to regulate.
I saw a bit of the new law in action during my visit, which is to say, there wasn't much action. My niece rented the upper story of a popular downtown club for her evening wedding. I wondered if people would toke up during the reception. Nope. Some conventions still hold.
I wondered if wedding guests or the club's customers would light up outside. Nope. The law forbids public use, although that didn't dampen Denver's big public pot party in April. One of my nonsmoking brothers said he recently attended a rock concert and had to leave because the fumes were overpowering.
For a micro-economic view of medical marijuana's impact on business, there is my youngest brother, who launched a caf in the depth of the recession. Down the street is a marijuana dispensary whose customers pick up their "product" and then come into the caf to eat.
The macro view: Imagine the stimulus of more than 700 warehouse growers, 500-plus dispensaries, and 150 processors statewide. In Denver alone, the industry leases a million square feet. And Colorado's tourism trade is rising on the leafy attraction.
Marijuana, says my 76-year-old stepmom who would never touch the stuff, "has saved Denver's economy."
Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico journalist who began her career in 1976 and has served as assistant business editor and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, editor of New Mexico Business Weekly and business editor of the Albuquerque Tribune.