Yes, it’s legal (but the law’s still a drag)

The “bud tender” had shoulder length black hair, a deep well of patience and a connoisseur’s pride in his wares as he spread tray after tray of marijuana-based products on the glass counter top.

There were fruit gums, chocolate caramels, granola packets, medicated sugar to drop in your coffee or tea in the morning, Rosemary Cheddar Crackers for a savoury taste, a bath soak and even sensual oil for the bedroom, Charles Watson explained.

Then he moved on to his dozen jars of green, frosted-looking marijuana lumps for smoking, all grown legally in Denver and all named and labelled with a percentage breakdown of their chemical composition to indicate their potency and character.

How marijuana changed Colorado

Mr Watson, a salesman for the prominent Colorado marijuana chain Native Roots, explained that he had a higher tolerance than most users to his products’ effects. For a novice he suggested Harlequin, which would be similar to the cannabis you would have found in the Sixties or early Seventies. It was milder than something like Alien OG with its sky-high THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, content. “Even smoking a tiny bit of that can get you nice and elevated,” Mr Watson said.

Almost anywhere else in the world Native Roots would be considered an unusually well-stocked drug den and Mr Watson could be facing time in jail. In Colorado, where sales of recreational marijuana to adults over 21 have been legal since January 2014, he is one of more than 27,000 people licensed to work in a booming new industry with global ambitions.

“We’re trying to show the world you can sell and regulate it in a responsible manner,” Mr Watson said. His clients are not only stereotypical stoners — they include everyone from the healthy guy that’s just run a marathon to wheelchair users who are inhaling oxygen.

Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, opposed legalisation at the time of the vote in 2012 and subsequently said that he wished he could wave a magic wand and abolish it. In May, however, he changed his tune. “If I had that magic wand now, I don’t know if I would wave it,” he said. “It’s beginning to look like it might work.”

By the end of this year, if a series of state referendums fall in favour of legalisation, recreational marijuana could be approved in nine states, including California, whose economy was the sixth largest in the world last year.

Colorado raised $135 million from marijuana fees, licences and taxes last year, a fraction of the overall state budget of $27 billion but welcome revenue all the same.

Recreational and medical marijuana customers pay a 2.9 per cent regular Colorado sales tax charge and any local taxes. Recreational consumers are also charged an additional 10 per cent state marijuana sales tax and the price of their marijuana includes a 15 per cent excise tax paid by the retailer when purchasing his wares from the grower. The revenue feeds into a state schools building programme. If it is legalised in California, voters will decide whether a portion of the taxes from recreational marijuana sales will go towards tackling the state’s homelessness problem.

There are still marijuana-related crimes in Colorado, for example where the supplier is unlicensed or the customer is under 21 but there are far fewer than previously. The total number of marijuana-related prosecutions fell by more than 8,000 a year between 2012 and 2015, and was down 69 per cent among the 10-17 age group.

Violent crime fell by 6 per cent and property crime dropped by 3 per cent between 2009 and 2014, the first year of the experiment, debunking pessimistic forecasts made before legalisation.

The state’s senior law enforcement official, Stan Hilkey, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said he was surprised by the results. “During the debate there was a ‘sky is gonna fall’ mentality from a lot of us, including me,” he said. “I haven’t seen that.” He said, however, that after three decades as a police officer he found it difficult “to shed my cop glasses”. Asked if legalisation had brought any benefits to the public or to law enforcement, he said: “None that I’m aware of.”

In May the state’s county sheriffs, prosecutors and police chiefs wrote to Colorado legislators to complain about the extra workload foisted on them by legalisation. They called for a two-year break from the constant tweaks to the regulation of

medical and recreational marijuana. Their letter said that there had been 81 bills on the subject introduced in the previous four years.

They wrote: “Industry forces are working constantly to chip away at regulations put in place to protect public health and safety.”

Mr Hilkey added that legalisation had failed to defeat the black market, which continues to thrive because its product is cheaper and not restricted by age. It has also created new problems, including the illegal export of licensed and unlicensed marijuana to neighbouring states and almost certainly brought greater profits to organised crime activity in Colorado.

The ban on marijuana sales at national level means that officially at least, banks will not open accounts for marijuana growers or vendors, so the industry remained a cash business, he said. Therefore this made it ripe for criminals.

There were 2,538 licensed marijuana businesses in Colorado last December, many of which hire security to protect against armed robberies.

Last month a former Marine Corps veteran working as a guard at the Green Heart dispensary in Aurora, near Denver, was shot dead in a botched robbery, the first killing at a licensed marijuana business, though not the first robbery.

Two days later a small group of Republicans in Congress blocked a measure backed by both parties that would have effectively opened the banking system to marijuana businesses.

You get dirty looks if you smoke a cigarette in the street but people barely think twice if they smell weed

A spokesman for Blue Line Protection Group, one of the largest companies competing to provide security and compliance services to the new industry, said that it was a myth that there was no banking. In practice some local banks and credit agencies now feel comfortable offering services to the marijuana industry but the national chains are still waiting for approval from the federal government.

Andrew Freedman, the governor’s director of marijuana coordination, said that if California voters passed recreational legalisation, the federal government would feel compelled to step in to open up legitimate banking for the industry.

Mr Freedman, a lawyer who refuses to give a personal opinion on legalisation, said that Colorado had succeeded in creating a heavily regulated marijuana industry where consumers could safely buy a healthier product than was available on the black market.

He said that it was too early to answer many of the most pressing questions about legalisation, including what impact it had on alcohol, tobacco and opioid usage although he had been pleasantly surprised by how few tragedies there had been through marijuana overdoses.

His greatest worry is that over time people’s comfort with legalisation could make radically different patterns of marijuana use socially acceptable.

That may be happening already though. Evan Borman, 33, an architect who lives down the street from a medical marijuana shop, said attitudes in the state were shifting, though he claimed that he smoked “no less and no more” than he did before legalisation. He said: “You get dirty looks if you smoke a cigarette in the street but people barely even think twice if they smell weed.”

Source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/yes-it-s-legal-but-the-law-s-still-a-drag-j8rdh3nbj    August 22nd 2016

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