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

April 12, 2018

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 a week from tomorrow 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.

It's estimated that in 2017 alone, retailers made $1.494 billion in recreational sales, up from 2016's 1.3 billion. Last year, the state also collected $247.36 million in marijuana taxes, license, and fee revenue, according to the latest data from the Colorado Department of RevenueAlthough 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, the legal cannabis market is projected to create a quarter of a million jobs by 2020.

Outside of the economic impact, the rest of the marijuana story has been somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to 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—last year, a Denver man who blamed an edible for causing him to murder his wife, was sentenced to 30 years in prison—there has been a steady uptick in fatal car accidents since legalization, although public safety officials can't say that the rising number of pot-related traffic fatalities are definitively linked to legalized marijuana. 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. Still, it looks like legal marijuana in Colorado and other states is here to stay (for the time being, anyway): President Trump recently told Senator Cory Gardner that he supports a legislative solution to protecting states that have legalized pot.

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) 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.