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Colorado's landmark marijuana experiment

April 10, 2014
by Marvin Ventrell, JD
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Marvin Ventrell, JD

“Yes, about 20% of the U.S. population chooses to smoke marijuana regularly, legal or illegal, and very few of them will develop a problem,” he said. “Marijuana has been readily available, and rarely does someone need addiction treatment solely for marijuana. I encourage you to focus your valuable service on real problems, such as alcoholism and opiate addiction and the prescription pill epidemic.”

I left, and I glanced back at the office building. Yep, that just happened.

Amendment 64 in Colorado

May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese proverb. We certainly do here in Colorado and in the addiction industry. On Jan. 1, 2014, approximately 37 authorized stores opened in Colorado and began selling marijuana to anyone 21 and older who wanted it and was willing to pay for it—no other justification required.

Colorado became the first state to approve the sale of marijuana for recreational use, following a period as one of several states that had implemented medical use of marijuana. The Colorado marijuana shops are, in fact, the first stores in the world licensed to sell marijuana legally (overseas, Amsterdam actually tolerates only the sale of marijuana).

The marijuana shops were authorized by Colorado legislation following passage of Amendment 64 by state voters in November 2012. In the months and years to come, it is anticipated that many more such stores will be licensed across the state, and that marijuana shops and the selling of marijuana for recreational use will become commonplace. In addition to stores selling marijuana over the retail counter, retail marijuana growing is also authorized and controlled by the new legislation.

The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division has been created to enforce the regulations of the new law and to monitor the system. The division is implementing an inventory system for sellers that requires shops to attach radio frequency ID tags to plants and log them into the state database called Marijuana Inventory Tracking Solutions. The division is growing its workforce: The Denver Post reported that according to Boulder marijuana shop lawyer Jeff Gard, “They are really going to staff this, put boots on the ground.”

One recent development: The legal profession in Colorado had been restricted from providing legal counsel under the state's lawyers' ethics code, which prohibits lawyers from assisting clients in unlawful activity (this business remains illegal under federal law). But in late March the Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling authorizing lawyers to advise clients under the Colorado marijuana laws.

Under the new marijuana law, if you are 21 or older, you can buy up to an ounce of marijuana with a Colorado ID. Nonresidents can buy a quarter of an ounce. One can also share an ounce with another person 21 or older, but no money may be exchanged. One cannot smoke in public, including a pot shop or other establishments governed by the state's Clean Indoor Air Act. Smoking is limited to private properties, with the owner's permission.

Communities and counties can choose not to allow recreational marijuana stores in their jurisdictions; Colorado Springs took this action. One can grow up to six plants at home, but the pot patch must be enclosed and locked. A motorist in Colorado can be ticketed for impaired driving if his/her blood shows more than 5 nanograms of active THC. Law enforcement agencies are developing marijuana impairment detection procedures and are training officers on them.

The Colorado legislation also provided for significant tax revenue from marijuana. Initial projections for fiscal year 2014-2015 show marijuana sales from both medical and recreational marijuana generating $777 million, placing marijuana as the third largest Colorado crop, just behind corn and hay and ahead of wheat, barley, potatoes and onions, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture Legislative Council. Estimates of tax revenue exclusively from recreational sales range from $50 million to $134 million annually.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose office projects revenue closer to $134 million in recreational sales tax in the first year, proposed that annual uses of tax revenue be distributed according to the following six priorities, according to Colorado's Joint Budget Committee:

  • $45.5 million for youth use prevention;
  • $40.4 million for substance abuse treatment;
  • $12.4 million for public health;
  • $3.2 million for law enforcement;
  • $1.8 million for regulatory oversight; and
  • $0.2 million for statewide coordination

An additional $40 million is designated for school construction through a separate 15% excise tax.

Also, as part of the law, the state launched a website to answer common questions about marijuana and the health impacts related to marijuana use. The website,, includes answers to questions such as: