Is Pot Losing Its Buzz in Colorado?: A backlash is growing in a state where marijuana has quickly become a $1 billion legal business
By Jennifer Alsever
July 1, 2016 Issue
For months, Paula McPheeters and a handful of like-minded volunteers have spent their weekends in grocery-store parking lots, even in 95° F heat. Sitting around a folding table draped with an American flag, they asked passing shoppers to sign a petition. Inevitably a few sign-wielding young protesters would show up to argue that McPheeters’s group was dead wrong. With the two sides often just yards away from each other, shouting matches erupted. “We’re peaceful people,” one woman yelled. “You’re drugged out,” countered an angry man. Threats and phone calls to police became the norm.
The wedge dividing the people of this small blue-collar city of Pueblo, Colo.? Legal marijuana.
Colorado gave the green light to recreational marijuana back in 2012, when it passed a law to make nonmedical pot sales legal starting Jan. 1, 2014. But now opposition is rising in communities across the state. Colorado has become a great social experiment, the results of which are still not clear. “The jury is still out as to whether this was a good idea,” says Colorado attorney general Cynthia Coffman.
What’s undeniable is this: Legal marijuana is in high demand in Colorado. Only three other states—Alaska, Washington, and Oregon—plus the District of Columbia currently permit recreational adult use of cannabis. (It’s legal for medical use in another 19 states.) Of that group, Colorado led the way in 2015 with $996.5 million in licensed pot sales—a 41.7% jump over 2014 and nearly three times the figure in Washington State. Recreational sales made up nearly two-thirds of the total.
Now, as citizen groups attempt to put the brakes on the growing industry, a heated debate has emerged about the drug’s societal impact. Doctors report a spike in pot-related emergency room visits—mostly due to people accidentally consuming too much of potent edible pot products. Police face new cartel-related drug operations. Parents worry about marijuana being sold near their homes and schools. And less affluent communities like Pueblo struggle with the unintended consequences of becoming home to this emerging and controversial industry.
Amendment 64 decriminalized marijuana statewide, but Colorado’s cities and counties still decide if the drug can be grown and sold locally. At least 70% of the municipalities in the state have banned commercial operations, either by popular vote or board decisions.
Many other communities have begun pushing back. Last fall, controversy arose in the small western Colorado town of Parachute when an antipot group attempted to recall members of the town council who had welcomed pot shops. (Voters defeated the recall 3 to 1.) Debate has since emerged in Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Littleton, and Rifle over the number, location, smell, and mere existence of retail and cultivation facilities. Citizens in the San Luis Valley, in the southern part of the state, say their schools and social services have been overwhelmed by a flood of newcomers coming to grow cannabis on cheap land, despite limited water. And just this spring officials in Colorado Springs and Englewood opted to ban pot social clubs, which are akin to lounges in which people can legally smoke weed in public.
“I’m getting calls now from people who voted for legalization thinking it wouldn’t affect them,” says Kevin Sabet, co-founder of national antimarijuana legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “They’re surprised to see these are sophisticated businesses opening up next to their schools selling things like marijuana gummy bears. And they’re angry.”
Officials in Denver, which is home to one-third of the state’s cannabis market, moved this spring to rein in pot capitalism. The city passed an ordinance capping the number of dispensaries and grow facilities at the present level. But discontent continues to fester in poorer communities, where many of these operations inevitably land. “We were told that legalization would take drugs out of our community,” says Candi CdeBaca, a community activist who grew up in the mostly Latino and poor Denver neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea. “The drugs stayed—and the drug dealers changed.”
CdeBaca points to, for example, an increase in school suspensions related to marijuana. And unlike the meatpacking plants and refineries that once dotted the area, CdeBaca says, this new industry hasn’t brought her neighbors jobs. Instead, the money is flowing to outsiders.
“It’s the Wild West, and the well-funded marijuana industry has dominated the regulatory process, and people are finally speaking up,” says Frank McNulty, a lawyer for Healthy Colorado, which plans to put a measure on the November state ballot—an easier task in Colorado than in many other states—that would limit the active drug ingredient THC in cannabis candy and concentrates and require health warnings on packaging. The marijuana industry has objected to the proposal, and the issue is now before the Colorado Supreme Court.
Cannabis backers bristle at the pushback, calling it a back-door effort by prohibitionists who simply disagree with the legalization of the drug. Mason Tvert, director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which leads legalization efforts nationwide, cites studies showing minimal impact on society and no harm to Colorado’s growing economy. Says Tvert: “Anyone who says it’s caused an increase in this or that [problem] is full of shit.”
What plays out in Colorado may influence what happens across the nation. Pot remains illegal under federal law. But legalization of recreational marijuana for adult use will be on the November ballot in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada, and likely in Arizona and Maine too. Voters in Arkansas, Florida, and Missouri will be voting on whether to approve it for medical use. The growth of the cannabis industry has begun to attract the interest of big companies. Microsoft announced in mid-June that it has developed a software product to help states track marijuana growth and sales.
In a recent appearance on CNBC, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper offered this advice to other states considering legalization: “I would suggest wait a year or two and see how it goes.”
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