Dude, Where's My Careful Examination of Legalized Marijuana?

April 20, 2017

In case you haven’t turned on a TV or radio, logged on to a news or social media site, or looked out your window (especially if you live near Denver’s Civic Center Park), you may not be aware that today is April 20th—the official holiday for all things marijuana. Although it’s tough to separate the myth from the reality of where 4:20 (and 4/20) became synonymous with the drug, it turns out it started—extremely unsurprisingly—with some teenagers in the 1970s, and became widespread with a little help from the Grateful Dead.

Of course, marijuana remained solidly within the counter-culture from the ‘60s all the way to the ‘90s, when California became the first state to legalize its recreational use in 1996. Colorado took the next step in 2012, when 1.3 million people (60,000 more than voted for President Barack Obama, who won the state’s nine Electoral College votes that year) voted to legalize recreational pot. At that point, marijuana became mainstream virtually overnight.

According to figures provided by the Colorado Department of Revenue, retailers sold $1.1 billion in recreational pot in 2016. That’s a little less than half of the $2.4 billion in other crops sold by Colorado farmers, but nonetheless, marijuana is clearly big business. Although the business aspect of legal weed may not be the biggest factor driving changing attitudes about the drug, it is creating some unlikely bedfellows—like aligning marijuana retailers with law enforcement and advocacy groups to promote safe consumption on 4/20. Plus, with any brand new billion dollar industry comes employers looking to hire. In fact, marijuana businesses created 18,000 new jobs in 2015 alone.

Outside of the economic impact, the rest of the marijuana story has been a mixed bag of less-than-stellar news, and an unclear picture of the societal effects of legalization. Aside from the nuisance of marijuana odors at Red Rocks—which, let’s be honest, was already happening years before pot was legal—there are some very real and less-than-stellar impacts. Though some of the stories have been anecdotal—most recently, a Denver man who blamed an edible for causing him to murder his wife, was sentenced to 30 years in prison—there was an uptick in emergency room visits for children (no bueno). Plus, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has been spending some of the tax money raised from marijuana sales on public awareness campaigns targeted, among other things, at encouraging pregnant and breastfeeding moms to pass on grass. A study released last year found that, although youth pot use hasn’t increased since legalization (yay!), about 20% of teens reported smoking marijuana in the past month (uh-oh).

As Colorado’s cannabis experiment continues, more and more data will become available, and hopefully a less hazy (sorry, we had to get at least one weed pun in there, folks) picture of the impact of legalization will emerge. But, until then, Coloradans will grow even more accustomed to their popular new cash crop, and weed enthusiasts will almost certainly continue to crowd into Civic Center Park every third week in April.