Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Rocky Mountain high: Colorado’s legal pot experiment

How the state is determined to prove that you can regulate marijuana without destroying the world

Topics:
U.S.
Colorado
Marijuana

DENVER — Neal Pepper didn’t spend New Year’s Eve partying, clubbing or counting down the minutes until 2014. He and two friends spent it on the road, driving 12 hours nonstop from his home in Arkansas to Colorado’s capital. They pulled into town around dawn on Jan. 1 in spitting gray snow. Rather than head to a hotel for some much needed rest, they drove to an industrial office park near the airport to join some 50 others lined up in the gloom to wait.

The line that formed that morning, outside a marijuana outlet called the Medicine Man, looked, from afar at least, like those that precede an iPhone release. But the people in the crowd were far more subdued, even though they were making history. They were here to do something that no one ever had: legally buy marijuana from a state-licensed retail store, one of the first to open anywhere in the world, in full view of the police.

Though Colorado voters legalized marijuana in 2012 with the passage of Amendment 64, the system through which this federally banned substance may be taxed, packaged and sold to anyone 21 or older is new, as of Jan. 1. The day marked the final milestone for the state’s creation of a legal pot industry: the ability to walk into any of the (now) 51 licensed marijuana retail outlets in the state and buy up to an ounce of Bubba Kush as easily as if it were a six-pack of Fat Tire at a liquor store. Stores are opening every week, and by summer there will be more than 100.

“I just felt like I was coming out of the closet,” Pepper told me around 10 a.m., after winding through the DMV-like line to make his purchase. He was a little bleary from his all-night road trip. And he had no idea what sort of marijuana he’d just bought. Smokers in Arkansas — where marijuana is still very much illegal and where the quarter ounce of pot in his  hand could result in a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for a first offender — usually can’t afford to be picky about such things as which strain they’re buying.

“I just asked the guy to suggest something,” he said. “I don’t even know what I’ve got.”

Rocky Mountain high: A pot primer

Although it’s legal to buy, sell, possess, smoke and grow marijuana in Colorado, it’s not a free-for-all. 

• Only adults 21 or older may buy or possess marijuana.

• Only state-approved stores may sell it; until October, only existing medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed to convert to recreational sales.

• Colorado residents may buy up to an ounce of pot per transaction; out-of-state customers are limited to a quarter-ounce.

• It’s illegal to smoke or display marijuana in public.

Pepper and his friends staggered away in the sort of dumbfounded awe that I would come to know well by the end of the day, especially among those who don’t live in Colorado. Out-of-towners, who accounted for at least half of Medicine Man’s customers that day, some from as far away as New Hampshire, seemed to be waiting for someone to throw a net on them and haul them away. 

This new reality created the expected international fuss. For several days before and after the Jan. 1 grand openings, you couldn’t turn a corner in Colorado without tripping over a TV camera. Reporters filled the spacious building at 3D Dispensary to record the moment when the world’s first legal marijuana customer, Iraq War veteran Sean Azzariti, paid $59.74, including taxes, for an eighth of weed and a cannabis truffle. Then they lined up to make their own purchases. 

From some of the reactions, it was easy to get the impression that Colorado had invented pot and sprung it on everyone. Opponents of marijuana legalization, in particular, have been busy reviving arguments that pot is a public menace and that legalizing it will lead to increased use, particularly by teens who risk stunting their brain development. They worry, too, that Colorado’s move will embolden other states to do the same, cracking what had been a unified front among governments that marijuana is too dangerous to tolerate.

While Washington state also legalized marijuana in 2012, all eyes have been on Colorado, which moved more quickly to regulate its sale. Officially, the nascent industry employs 6,593 people statewide who work directly with marijuana (as growers, trimmers or “budtenders”) and who must apply for an occupational license with the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division. Those numbers may well be dwarfed by the tangential jobs that serve the industry — security system installers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and scores of other skilled workers needed to get it off the ground. Within the first few days of retail sales, the state’s dispensaries were collectively selling $1 million per day of marijuana products; the state expects to collect about $70 million in tax revenue by year’s end.

By every indication, the launch of retail sales has gone even more smoothly than many had hoped. But Colorado remains a schizophrenic patchwork of conflicting attitudes that pingpong between horror and elation, depending on which communities have barred retail sales and which have embraced it. Lingering questions of how to deal with the continued federal illegality of marijuana affect everything from banking to running the airports. And of course, there are those who predict that a looser attitude about pot will destroy the social fabric of the state and lead to a health crisis among its youth.

But the only people who seem to be wringing their hands are those who were skeptical of marijuana in the first place. Advocates are too busy working to iron out the wrinkles and prove to the world that Colorado can regulate this controversial substance without wreaking the sort of havoc their detractors predict.

SLIDESHOW: INSIDE COLORADO’S NEW MARIJUANA INDUSTRY

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Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

The city of Greeley — an agricultural hub of 95,000 people on Colorado’s northern plains whose largest employer is an industrial slaughterhouse — didn’t allow liquor to be sold within its jurisdiction until 1969, 36 years after the end of Prohibition. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Greeley is not on the leading edge of change when it comes to marijuana laws. The city prohibited not only medical marijuana dispensaries (Colorado legalized the sale of medical marijuana in 2000) but also retail sales of recreational marijuana. Marijuana laws allow local jurisdictions a lot of leeway in implementing them, including the power to outlaw dispensaries in the same way some cities outlaw strip clubs.

Arguments against marijuana stores raised at public hearings — before the city council unanimously voted to ban them — were “probably pretty much similar to what people heard during Prohibition,” says Becky Safarik, Greeley’s assistant city manager, such as “‘it’s got some potential to be abused and cause some public safety issues’ and ‘it’s a threat to children’ and ‘it doesn’t need to be easily accessible in the community.’”

Greeley Police Chief Bob Gardner.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Police Chief Bob Gardner, for example, is worried about everything from the potential for violence from Mexican drug cartels that may edge into the legal market to increased instances of drugged driving. While he allows that time may prove him wrong — and that he doesn’t have any statistical evidence that recently increased availability of marijuana has led to an increase in crime — he echoes the concerns of people around the country that legalizing marijuana is to open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.

“There are just so many uncertainties right now,” Gardner says. “One of the things a police chief is paid to do is worry about things. I worry about tornadoes. But I also worry about what effects marijuana is going to have on my community.”

Repotting at Nature’s Herbs and Wellness Center in Garden City.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Pot: Behind the numbers

• Pot is saddled with a hefty tax, including a 15 percent excise tax when it’s sold from the manufacturer to the retailer and a 10 percent special tax at the cash register. That’s in addition to the regular 2.9 percent statewide sales tax and other local taxes.

• The first $40 million in annual collected excise taxes are earmarked to be spent on school construction, per Amendment 64.

• Colorado estimates it will collect some $70 million in tax revenue annually from recreational pot sales.

Dozens of counties, cities and small towns throughout Colorado have followed Greeley’s example. Even Boulder, long stereotyped as hippie heaven, has delayed retail recreational sales until late February, at the earliest. In some instances, the delays are to wait and see what happens or to give city leaders time to analyze the experiences of other communities with an eye toward tweaking local regulations, if needed. But other communities flatly barred selling for recreational use because they say it doesn’t fit in with their values.

The result of such decisions is large swaths of the state where even the most determined pothead can’t find a store to score some grams, punctuated by pockets of acceptance. Northern Colorado is particularly barren, but Greeley residents don’t have far to travel — the 12-acre enclave of Garden City, population about 300, lies nestled within Greeley’s city limits and has rolled out the green carpet for retail cannabis.

Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America
Tucker Eldridge of Nature's Herb and Wellness.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

At first glance, there isn’t a garden in sight in Garden City, which is dominated on one side by the Royal Crest Dairy factory and on the other by a highway bypass. But this little city is home to four medical marijuana dispensaries; each is planning to convert its operations to recreational sales in the coming months. Their gardens are filled with marijuana.

Tucker Eldridge, the 25-year-old horticulturist and grow-operation director for Nature’s Herb and Wellness, leads me on a tour through a greenhouse that’s about the size of a small airplane hangar. We stop at his pride and joy, a 5-foot-tall purple-leafed specimen of L.A. Confidential. It’s an indica strain, meaning its effects are felt in the limbs and muscles as much as between the ears; it has a surprisingly piney aroma. In total, there are about 2,000 plants in the greenhouse, representing 85 strains.

Once these growers all open their doors to recreational customers, Garden City will probably have the most pot shops per capita in the world — one for roughly every 75 residents. The small town is dealing with altogether different concerns than next-door Greeley: Will there be enough parking for all the customers? And how will it spend all the revenue it collects from legal pot?

Brian Seifried
Garden City Mayor Brian Seifried.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Mayor Brian Seifried is fond of telling reporters that there’s not a single pothole in the entire town. He estimates that taxes from marijuana account for about a third of Garden City’s revenue, and he has come up with some inventive ways to spend it. The town recently trimmed every tree within its borders and removed about 50 sick ones. Residents can apply for matching grants to fix their fences, get new windows or improve the facades of their homes. Businesses can do the same.

This bonanza is a result of just the revenue from medical marijuana sales, for which the customer base is fairly small. Once the town’s dispensaries all convert to recreational sales — one of them, Cloud Nine Caregivers, did so just last month — the market includes every adult from the Nebraska border to the mountains, because surrounding communities have opted out of retail sales.

“There’s very little impact on our community in a negative way,” Seifried says. “I hope all of us are able to prosper a little bit.”

Betty Aldworth
Legalization advocate Betty Aldworth.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Teri Robnett, a legalization advocate who uses marijuana to ease the symptoms of her fibromyalgia, says it’s inevitable that prohibitive communities will eventually drop their opposition to retail sales once they see that “the only sky that’s falling is snow.”

“What we’re seeing right now is going to be totally different a year from now,” she says.

Robnett says the naysayers often overlook some of the immediate benefits of legalizing marijuana. Since the passage of Amendment 64, arrests for possession in Colorado fell 81 percent during the first nine months of 2013 compared with the same period the year before. The Colorado Center on Law and Policy estimates that the state has saved anywhere from $12 million to as much as $40 million simply by not having to enforce the old marijuana possession laws.

“We’ve arrested an average of 600 fewer people every month in Colorado in 2013,” says Betty Aldworth, a longtime legalization advocate who worked to help pass Amendment 64. “That’s 600 people a month who are not becoming part of the incredibly shameful incarceration statistics in our country. That is going to be one of the biggest differences, when we stop filling our prisons with people who were first introduced to the criminal justice system through a marijuana charge.”

That fact isn’t lost on Eldridge, the horticulturist, who was in school to be a pediatric surgeon until he was busted at age 19 for growing and selling marijuana to help pay the tuition. No longer able to afford the high cost of medical school, he eventually got a two-year horticulture degree from a community college. Even though it all worked out in the end, he recalls his legal troubles ruefully.

“Marijuana didn’t ruin my life,” he says. “The thing that ruined my life was getting arrested.”

Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

It’s easy to forget that even though the U.S. Justice Department said it would take a hands-off approach to regulated marijuana in Colorado and Washington, Eldridge and the operators of Nature’s Herb and Wellness are committing so many federal felonies that they could be locked away for decades if the DEA suddenly decided to bring down the hammer.

This fundamental conflict between state and federal laws is what makes the situation in Colorado and Washington so novel — and so perplexing for those who are elected or hired to make sure Colorado is properly plugged into the national infrastructure.

Take aviation, for example. Now the primary portal for marijuana tourists, Denver International Airport prohibited all marijuana possession on its property and imposed a system of fines for violators, up to $999 for repeat offenders.

But the airport has no drug dogs to sniff out violators, for one thing, meaning that the onus for discovering your stash falls on Transportation Security Administration employees. TSA policy is to refer minor drug possession to local police. But local police in Colorado have no laws under which to charge adults anymore.

And what about those fines? Airport spokeswoman Laura Coale says they’re assessed only after an administrative hearing. But when, exactly, would the hearing take place? Would accused pot holders be required to return to Denver?Coale couldn’t say.

Teri Robnett, right, a marijuana legalization advocate, and her husband, Greg Duran, a fellow activist.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

“I really don’t think it’s going to happen,” she says of the possibility that a traveler would be determined to be a legal guinea pig over a few grams of weed. Travelers who are carrying will first be asked to simply throw their pot in the trash. “It’s a unique situation that Colorado faces right now. We’re dependent on federal grants, and we don’t want to put our funding in jeopardy because of marijuana.”

Industries across the state are facing the same types of tests. The Colorado Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case of a quadriplegic medical marijuana patient who was fired from his job answering telephones for Dish Network after he tested positive for pot. The case could affect thousands of employers with zero-tolerance policies toward drugs.

Banks could theoretically face federal racketeering charges for laundering the proceeds of a federally prohibited substance, which is why few of them are willing to risk doing business with marijuana retail stores. On Friday the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued a long awaited guidance memo for financial institutions telling them it’s OK to do business with marijuana operations, as long as they conduct detailed due diligence on the pot shops and report any suspicious activity to the feds. While that may be reassuring, it’s only temporarily so.

“Since the guidance issued (on Friday) could easily be reversed by a future administration, it may not provide all the protections that people in the marijuana and banking industries need to feel comfortable moving forward,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, based in Washington, D.C. It’s hard to fault the banks for taking a cautious approach, given that the federal government has a long history of making examples of pot smokers and the people or institutions that enable them.

The result of this uncertainty, though, is that pot shops are bursting with cash. A million dollars per day in sales is a tempting target for thieves.

But adversity also breeds opportunity. On opening day at the Medicine Man, customers like Pepper made their way through a virtual gauntlet of heavily armed guards from Blue Line Protection Group — the first marijuana-specific security company in Colorado, says spokesman Benjamin Little. When the stores opened for business Jan. 1, the company was contracted with 12 dispensaries and employed about 50 people, mostly veterans and former cops.

Like the industry it oversees, Little says, the firm is expected to do nothing but grow.

Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

When I mentioned Blue Line to one of the state lawmakers who had shown up at Medicine Man to witness the rollout of retail sales, he seemed pleasantly surprised by such a professional and entrepreneurial response to the question of security, as if he’d expected a biker gang with pipes and Glocks to be providing the muscle.

He can be forgiven. One of the reasons January’s grand openings were so successful is that Colorado had already gone through its birthing pains, around the time Robnett began advocating for legalization in 2009 after taking a job at a medical marijuana dispensary. That’s when the state’s medical marijuana law, on the books but largely unused since 2000, exploded into prominence seemingly overnight. With barely any rules or regulations governing the sale of medical marijuana or the sudden proliferation of dispensaries, it seemed every half-baked pot grower in the state rushed to invest in lurid neon pot-leaf signs and started peddling weed out of any storefront they could find.

“It was a crazy time,” she says. “It really was the Wild West. We had people bringing in (marijuana-infused) brownies they cooked in their kitchen and wanting to sell it to the dispensary.”

Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Recognizing the potential for a backlash that could have inspired lawmakers to put the screws to the fledging industry — regulations in some other medical marijuana states are too tight or complex to let the market flourish as freely — activists worked with lawmakers to help design the regulatory structure. Not everyone was pleased with the resulting framework for allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to operate. The strident marijuana “whacktivists,” as they’re sometimes called, wanted fewer restrictions, while the “reefer madness” crowd wanted more. But it seems to have laid the groundwork for a smooth rollout of recreational sales.

“If anything surprises me about where we are now, it’s that we managed to get our collective asses together and get this done,” Robnett says.

Now pot advocates are working to make the industry an example of what can work elsewhere. Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which spearheaded Amendment 64, is focused on similar initiatives in Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Montana, Nevada and Oregon (as well as in states where the legislature is proposing legalization or decriminalization measures, such as Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont). 

Matt Brown
Matt Brown of My 420 Tours.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Matt Brown, another architect of the new law, operates a company called My 420 Tours. While it’s easy to imagine the business as a cartwheeling Cheech and Chong–style cannabis safari around Denver, complete with clouds of smoke rolling out of the open windows of its limousines, he says it’s actually more of an educational excursion to grow rooms, dispensaries and cannabis cooking classes. The tours are to introduce visitors to how the industry works. The hope, he says, is that they will return home to spread the word that Colorado’s system is not the free-for-all depicted by critics but a responsible, hardworking industry.

Robnett, for her part, is back at the Capitol on a regular basis, making sure state legislators don’t wreck the experiment.

“There’s still a lot to work on,” she says, pointing as an example to a new drugged-driving law that many think makes it too easy for people to be charged with DUI, considering that marijuana can be detected in the bloodstream long after its effects have worn off. She’s worried about a rash of drugged-driving arrests that could not only be unfair to the drivers but also provide ammunition for marijuana’s critics. Robnett and the others are all too aware that opponents are ready to pounce on the first marijuana misstep.

“They want to believe we’re a bunch of stoners who came out this one time because we wanted to legalize weed and now we’re all going back to our couches,” she says. “That’s crap.”