Why Legal Weed is Working in Colorado

Inside the debut of the world's first retail marijuana market

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Jamie Chung for TIME

The center of the movement to legalize pot is in a red sandstone building a few blocks from Colorado’s state capitol in Denver. The activists who work there call it the marijuana mansion. Sprawling and a little shabby, with stained glass and dormer windows, it houses some of the country’s top cannabis lawyers, as well as a policy group that advocates for the reform of pot laws and the industry’s growing trade association. On the first Friday in January—Day 3 of Colorado’s grand experiment with retail pot sales—Christian Sederberg, an attorney who helped implement the law, was lounging in a room off the mansion’s foyer, exulting in the success of its debut.

“The rollout’s gone amazingly well, and we knew it would,” he said, leaning back against a brown leather sofa as sunlight streamed through the windows. “We’re on the right side of history.”

It may be too soon to say that, but Colorado has certainly made history. On Jan. 1, it became the only state in the world to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone over 21. At 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day, as most of the country slept off their hangovers, smokers were lined up in a light snow for the grand opening of Denver’s retail pot shops. Customers were happy to wait for hours and pay high prices for their chance to legally purchase taxed, tested and locally grown strains like Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel. Businesses say they banked $1 million on the first day, even though only a few dozen stores were ready to open their doors. And despite warnings that it would unleash reefer madness, the opening days went off almost without a hitch.

The early success of pot’s pilot program was ushered in by a phenomenon almost as rare: a government working as it should. Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in Nov. 2012 with 55% of the vote—a mandate that belied a lack of institutional support. The healthy margin was driven by a grassroots campaign that cast marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, tapping into the electorate’s libertarian streak and attracting young and new voters to the polls in a presidential swing state. But only two state legislators endorsed the constitutional amendment. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper opposed it, as did Denver’s mayor, and newspaper editorial boards shied away. “Don’t break out the Cheetos and Goldfish too quickly,” Hickenlooper snarked after the vote, noting that marijuana remained illegal under federal law.

But then something strange happened. At a time when Washington is crippled by partisan squabbling and state governments are more polarized than ever, stakeholders in Colorado set aside the divisions of the campaign and set to carrying out the public’s will. “Regardless of what their viewpoint was, everyone wanted to make this work in the best way possible,” says Barbara Brohl, Colorado’s top marijuana regulator, who won’t say whether she supported the law. “We kind of took politics out of it.”

Despite his reservations about the idea, Hickenlooper set up a task force to make it work, chaired by Brohl and Jack Finlaw, the governor’s top lawyer. “The governor came along quite reluctantly,” says Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver and member of the implementation task force. But once the amendment passed, Kamin adds, Hickenlooper “did nothing to stand in the way. The governor said we’re not going to relitigate this.”

The task force held meetings all over the Front Range, seeking input on issues ranging from advertising restrictions to child safety. The Democratic-controlled legislature, working with the support of law enforcement officials, passed measures to heavily tax sales and earmark the first $40 million in revenue toward school construction. A passel of legal and policy experts hustled through the process of building a regulatory framework, borrowing heavily from a 2010 measure that regulated the state’s existing medical marijuana market. And marijuana activists made pragmatic concessions—from product caps to packaging restrictions to perks for existing medical-marijuana businesses—that helped smooth divisions. “They were able to persuade their brethren in the medical marijuana industry to come on board with those reforms rather than to be oppositional,” says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

As they scrambled to iron out the kinks ahead of a Jan. 1 rollout, known here as “Green Wednesday,” Colorado officials had the heady task of anticipating the potential pitfalls of an untried experiment. If it succeeds, it could mark the beginning of the end of the era of pot prohibition; if it flops, Colorado could become a cautionary tale. “This was uncharted territory. We were definitely the first in the world,” Brohl says. And activists and regulators were conscious of how their perch as pot pioneers carried responsibilities. “We are in a fishbowl,” Brohl says. “We know that everybody is watching and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

The Centennial State isn’t the only one that is experimenting with looser drug laws. After decades of failed drug policy, and with nationwide support for legalization rising to 58% in one recent poll, 20 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, now allow medical marijuana sales. Some municipalities have decriminalized possession. Washington State is preparing to roll out its own retail cannabis shops, likely sometime this summer, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is reportedly preparing to announce later this week an executive order to allow limited use of medical marijuana in the Empire State. Measures to legalize pot sales will be on the ballot in several more states in 2014 and 2016, including possibly California. Representatives from Uruguay, Britain, Chile and Brazil have all consulted Colorado experts how to assemble a regulatory framework. Sederberg was among several Colorado marijuana experts who traveled last fall to Montevideo for days of meetings with Uruguay’s cabinet before its legal cannabis market debuts.

It seems inevitable that some problems will materialize. Supporters of Colorado’s marijuana industry fret about heavy taxes and high prices, the potential of dwindling supply, overregulation, and the specter of intervention from the federal government. A car accident involving a stoned driver, use by minors or pot tourists carrying their product across state lines could all tarnish the rollout. Then there is the biggest concern: a lack of access to banking services that has forced legal pot businesses to operate mostly in cash, both a legal and safety hazard. “We’re not going to get it 100% right the first time,” Kamin cautions.

But a few days into Colorado’s big experiment, there are few, if any, major failures to point to. And so, as darkness descended on Jan. 3, a few dozen industry insiders gathered at a Mexican restaurant in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a marijuana fundraiser. Business owners and lobbyists sipped margaritas, hobnobbed with state legislators and swapped tales from a wild opening week.

“This isn’t primarily a political movement anymore,” explains Taylor West, the incoming deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “It’s becoming a thriving industry.”

35 comments
EdwardGivens
EdwardGivens

When I think of the possibilities posed by National legalization of marijuana I get real excited ,it has so many uses as many pointed out during the years it wasn't legal . Rope ,clothing , fuel , etc....  And the best part is  IT WILL CREATE JOBS. Never thought I would see it there is a GOD and thank you.

davidboykin
davidboykin

Thank you Colorado. Thank you Washington. President Obama has the authority to end the failed war and usher in a new era.

IndiggoHaze
IndiggoHaze

The only people against it are the people who are making the most money from it. The more illegal it is the more profit for those who are not getting caught. The power of CBD has brought medical cannabis out of the dark and into the light. The children are exposed to more harmful drugs and sketchy people. Seeking out a drug that has not been tested for mold, mites, and other contaminates. People will smoke if they want to regardless, its time to make the logical choice. Denver got it right but a long ways to go.

catmad
catmad

As usual some governments feel they are above the law.  Colorado voted to legalize medical pot and now we are selling legal pot for recreational use.  I do not remember there being a vote for this.  But hey,  why not just slip it in there like so many others slip stuff in.  Medical pot could not  be sold to out of state people but recreational pot can.  Talk about a double standard.  I always believed our government officials were suppose to uphold the laws of the country not make up their own and for the sake of money.  Let's not care about the harm it can do,  or the fact it is against federal law which 

Colorado and California and Washington are now breaking.  Your telling everyone it is ok to break the law as long as you can say we are your government and we make our own laws.  Now they are looking into maybe allowing it to go across country in airplanes.  There goes any hope of stopping the drugs being smuggled in or out?  We are no better than they are any way now.  I can not see where Colorado, California or Washington are any better than any other drug dealers out there.  It's all about the money and drugs are the easiest way they see to make a lot of it.  You have hurt the law enforcement community, the children, and lost a lot of respect in the eyes of many.  I hope one day soon you wake up and do what is right.

Paulpot
Paulpot

Thank you good people of Colorado. You are proving that there never was a need for police state, military reprisals against cannabis consumers. 

If that had not been proven already by 20+ years of decriminalization and medical marijuana. 

Billions have been spent on a law that doesn't stop anyone from smoking recreationally but does stop marijuana getting to people in great pain. 

The drug war saved no-one and destroyed millions of lives. 

Colorado, Washington and Uruguay are leading the way and there will be no stopping other nations from following and reforming their drug laws.

thewalker
thewalker

While the cannabis rollout is great news for the industry and even the state government's coffers thanks to the high taxes, it is definitely important to remember that this is trial period of sorts that will be seriously scrutinized all over the country and world. We especially need to consider the effect legalized pot has on car accidents - http://personal-injury.injurylawcolorado.com/car-accidents.html. The true test is not being the state that sets the bar for legalized cannabis (Washington is doing that with us anyways), but implementing it safely in society. Keep Colorado roads safe. Don't blaze and drive. 

MikeParent
MikeParent

Prohibitionists are in a panic, as all their lies and propaganda, their Doom and Gloom rhetoric has been ezposed as a hoax. 

jurgensgc
jurgensgc

Durban Poison Durban Poison smoked from da mango leaf on youTube za

jurgensgc
jurgensgc

Hi can you get Durban Poison Thar if not can i export it   Effects: Very euphoric effect in the beginning. Started to wear off after a long time, still felt high 2 hours later. Didn’t leave me groggy after it wore off, and I actually felt very creative. Definitely a smoke a go kind of strain. I originally found this strain because it won 3rd place at this year’s High Times Medical Cannabis Cup I can see why the Durban Poison placed.

therealdude
therealdude

It's "working" because marijuana is something that never should have been illegal to start with. It isn't a big-deal like meth or crack and some people even find medical value to the stuff. It's ridiculous that it's still classified as a Schedule I.

maze321
maze321

12,300+ arrests would have been prevented in the last 6 DAYS, if it were decriminalized across the nation! (1/42sec) Free the people & tax payers from this unnecessary burden. It's long overdue.

BenBoomer
BenBoomer

'Why Legal Weed is Working in Colorado'...because people love to get high?

KelleyDavis
KelleyDavis

I would Looove to see a behind the scenes documentary like Weed Wars on the first days of Legal Weed. I hope someone is working on that.  

birdie0021
birdie0021

Great move by Colorado!  BUT, ''watch out for  government'', and here is why.   I live  in NJ, many years ago they wanted to bring legal gameling to Atlantic City.  I was opposed to gambeling and I still am for myself.  What made me vote in favor of it was the statement from the state that the tax revenus woulg go the education and older state citizens.  Hey you can't go wrong with that I said to myself.  I wanted education and seniors to get more funds!  Boy was I fooled by those state crooks.  Yes, the taxes went to schools and seniors, but the money the state WAS giving to them STOPPED so the education and senior DID NOT increase as we expected.  They also did the same false promotion with legalizing the lottery.  BOTTOM line you cannot trust the state to do the right thing almost always they do the WRONG thing when given the chance.  

BillDonnelly
BillDonnelly

The cheerleaders for failure (of everything)....the GOP

obummer
obummer

Now - If Obamacare could have such a "roll-out"...

JoeyIsmail
JoeyIsmail

Of course it's going great. The loons who thought the sky woukd fall are the same idiots that fought against legalization. Morons, the entire lot of them.

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

" Customers were happy to wait for hours and pay high prices for their chance to legally purchase taxed, tested and locally grown strains like Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel"? Really? People may be standing in long lines for hours and paying the high prices but they are complaining about having to do both.

sacredh
sacredh

God created the earth and all of the plants and animals on it to be enjoyed by mankind. Don't fight the Lord's Will, fire up.

gobbledeegook
gobbledeegook

WHEN WILL THEY TREAT POT LIKE OTHER MEDICATIONS? DO DOUBLE BLIND STUDIES. USE PLACEBOS FOR SOME. FIND OUT HOW TO GROW, SO EACH DOSE IS THE SAME. STUDY WHETHER SMOKING IT OR TAKING A PILL OF IT IS MOST EFFECTIVE. LABEL THE SIDE EFFECTS AND POSSIBLE INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER DRUGS. WHY DOES POT GET A PASS ON BEING TREATED LIKE ANY OTHER DRUG?

JeffBrown
JeffBrown

Colorado isn't the first to legally sell pot in the world, you idjits.

revraygreen
revraygreen

#1, because cannabis consumers are the most patient, peaceful, civilized people in the world....

CarlLegg
CarlLegg

@catmad  Sorry, I have NO idea what you are trying to say. Really, I can't understand you. 

Duffman
Duffman

And I hope you get locked up for a victimless "crime". I'm sure you have never done anything wrong or illegal in your life. You'd make a great Nazi though. As long as it's the law you'd probably turn in your neighbors & friends for drinking booze. You're a great example of an unthinking fool. P.S. I don't smoke. I just don't think it's smart locking somebody up for it.

CarlLegg
CarlLegg

@Paulpot  Half of the inmates in Federal prisons are there on non-violent drug offenses, mostly for using (not dealing). Our laws are in desperate need of reform. Users should be left alone, and most drugs decriminalized. This would immediately put the drug cartels out of business, and (as proven) would NOT create more "drug addicts".

JoeyIsmail
JoeyIsmail

This is about recreational use, not medicinal. Reading comprehension grade = F

senseandsarcasm
senseandsarcasm

@JeffBrown  Actually, they are absolutely correct. Colorado is the first place to sell pot legally for recreational use.

There are plenty of countries that have decriminalized pot, but the laws on the books still don't allow full legalization. Even in the Netherlands (where "coffeehouses" sell pot), it is merely tolerated. It is not strictly "legal".

Uruguay will become the first nation to fully legalize pot, but that doesn't go into effect until April, 2014.

lkim65
lkim65

@JeffBrownThat's not what the article stated now is it.  I believe reading comprehension is in order:


"On Jan. 1, it became the only state in the world to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone over 21."