Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

In Colorado, Results of Legalization are Still Hazy

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper details the highs and lows of the first six months of marijuana legalization

Brett Levin / Flickr

“Have you been partaking?” The governor offered a small smile and a long pause, complete with a jokingly nervous drink of water before replying with a laconic “no.” The interaction, between Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, perfectly captured the mood of the session. Coinciding with the half-year anniversary of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, the retrospective on the past six months always teetered on the silly, without losing the important policy overtones of this revolutionary change.

There have already been a few findings from the grand social experiment currently underway in Colorado. The state has earned $11 million in tax revenue – through wholesale, retail and licensing taxes – since the implementation of legalization in January, and conservative estimates by the state government place the projected yearly revenue for 2014 between $60-$80 million. Less conservative estimates place potential revenue over $100 million. There has also been no noticeable spike in marijuana usage in adults, indicating that usage is not penetrating outside those adults who used the drug prior to legalization. And, apocryphally, it has been reported that applications to the University of Colorado have increased by 400% over the past year.

Not all the findings have been positive, though. According to the New York Times, drivers under the influence of marijuana have accounted for approximately 12.5% of all citations for DUIs since January. Beyond Maureen Dowd’s infamous editorial, there have been numerous reports of recreational users underestimating the potency of edibles, which have not yet carried dosage information, and being hospitalized as a result. Additionally, and in contrast to the data on adult users, there has been a noticeable and troubling increase in youth consumption of marijuana.

In discussing both the positive and negative findings of the past six months, Governor Hickenlooper emphasized the incredible novelty of the situation Colorado is in. Six months is not enough time to identify prevailing trends, he said, and it would require at least another 12 months before any significant trends could be identified. However, he did make particular mention of three key areas where he was keen to see development: youth risk education, financing for sellers and growers, and high-quality medical research into the potential risks and benefits of marijuana usage.

The governor made it clear throughout the session that his first responsibility was ensuring that legalization does not adversely affect Colorado’s youth. In speaking about the incoming revenue from marijuana, he repeated that, “the first priority of [the money from marijuana revenues] should be to make sure that we don’t have kids slipping off the rails.” Although the first $40 million in revenue is earmarked for school construction, as mandated by the amendment, Hickenlooper emphasized that the primary destination for further funds would be to risk education for teenagers and other school children. As an example of such education, Hickenlooper referenced a forthcoming public health campaign targeted at teenagers, asking them whether they want to risk potentially losing IQ points in the pursuit of a high.

On the business side of things, the governor mentioned the problems associated with securing financing for the new class of marijuana entrepreneurs. Due to continuing regulations at the federal level, any banks that offered financing to growers or sellers could risk losing their federal charter – a risk most banks are unwilling to take. This regulatory hurdle is ensuring that the marijuana business remains a cash business, which puts employees in physical danger and increases the chances of corruption. Hickenlooper mapped out the possibility of creating a credit union for the marijuana-business community that would help alleviate this issue.

A final source of concern for the governor was the complete lack of definitive scientific research into the effects of marijuana: “One problem we have with marijuana is that is have been illegal for so long…that you can’t get it to do tests on it…there’s an amazing paucity – just a lack of good studies of marijuana…” Hickenlooper declared that his government would partner with any and all scientific institutions to carry out the high-quality marijuana research that the scientific community has been lacking up to this point. Such research, he said, would be instrumental in understanding marijuana’s effect on children, the sick, and public safety.

The overwhelming theme for the session was that legalization in Colorado continues to be a huge experiment – and one that is still without precedent in the world. Washington State, despite continuing regulatory hurdles, is expected to join Colorado in offering legal marijuana at retail outlets to recreational users, and together the two states should provide plenty of data for other states that are watching from the sidelines. With over 50% of the U.S. population in favor of legalization and New York State joining as the most recent state to allow medical marijuana, citizens and governments alike are anxious to see what emerges from this laboratory of democracy. Whatever the results, it’s already a powerful reminder of the power that the American citizenry can still wield.