Colorado Feels Initial Impact of Recreational Marijuana Sales

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DENVER, Co. - As efforts to legalize marijuana in Missouri are trying to survive, Colorado is experiencing the direct impacts of taxing and regulating pot for recreational use firsthand.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2001, but voters passed Amendment 64 in November 2012. The amendment altered the state's drug policy on cannabis, making the recreational tax and sale of marijuana legal. On January 1, 2014 the new law took effect. All residents over 21 are now allowed to buy up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivate six plants of their own. Out-of-state residents are only allowed to purchase a quarter of an ounce. Much like alcohol, Colorado law prohibits consuming marijuana in public, driving under the influence and selling to minors. 

While the new laws have only been in effect for about three months, residents are already seeing the implications that come along with legalization.

Brian Ruden owns Starbuds, a marijuana dispensary in North Denver. The shop opened in August of 2012 and strictly sold medical marijuana. Ruden received his recreational license early this year and said he's noticed a dramatic increase in business. He said Starbuds sees from 100 to 200 customers a day, and one in four are from out of state.

"I was expecting back in December for our volume of business to maybe double," Ruden said. "In my wildest dreams I thought it would triple. For the month of January, it went up tenfold. It's backed off now that the hype has settled down a little bit, but we're still running numbers five times what they were last year."

All recreational sales are taxed and that money will go toward the state's education and infrastructure.

"Just over the course of January over $100,000 is going to the state, and I'm just one small store, so this is a huge economic boom for Colorado," Ruden said.

Ann Toney is a private attorney in Denver and a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. She said legalizing marijuana is something that would be beneficial for all states.

"It's just bringing it out of the closet and into the light," Toney said. "Let's all look at it. Let's regulate it, tax it, make sure it's quality, label it and control it. I don't know what state wouldn't benefit from that."

Based on her experience with clients, Toney said she hopes the overall attitude regarding marijuana will change for the better now that recreational use is legal.

"Most of [my clients] were so afraid that anyone knew they smoked pot," Toney said. "They were teachers, insurance salesmen, realtors. They would confide in me privately. Well of course they smoked pot, but they don't want anyone to know it because it might harm them. The social stigma, I think [legalization] will take the social stigma away from pot."

With legalization also comes concerns of increased use, especially among children. Gina Carbone is a founder of Smart Colorado, an organization working to protect kids from the harmful effects of marijuana use. Colorado law requires all marijuana facilities be located at least 1,000 feet away from a school. Denver has even tougher restrictions, requiring all shops be 1,000 feet away from schools, daycares, rehabilitation centers and public parks.

Even with these restrictions, Carbone said legalization has made pot more available to the youth of Colorado. 

"The messages surrounding marijuana from the industry have been, unfortunately, that it is a organic, natural, healthy product is kind of how they like to portray it," Carbone said. "Unfortunately in Denver, where we have all these facilities, even before it was legal we've seen youth use in Denver increase dramatically. It's higher in every single age group compared to the national average for Denver youth use."

Carbone said early use of marijuana negatively affects cognitive and mental growth of children.

"It's not a harmless, benign product for adolescents in particular, and that's the message that has to get out to people as the marijuana industry is rolling out their commercialization," Carbone said. "Unfortunately, the kids and the parents of kids, I think it's important to educate them."

While some residents like Carbone are upset about the new laws, some say legalization in other states would reduce concerns like taking the drug past the state line.

"Going in between state to state, transporting from state to state because right now that's a big issue," said Denver resident Mario Spensieri. "People can get into an awful lot of trouble for that, and I don't feel that some states should have the right and other ones shouldn't."

As for Missouri efforts, there are several house bills submitted in the General Assembly. On January 13, Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, filed two house bills related to marijuana. House Bill 1324 would legalize the medical use of marijuana in Missouri, while House Bill 1325 aims to decriminalize penalties for possession of pot. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, also filed House Bill 1659 in late January, which would tax and regulate marijuana in Missouri. Similar bills last year never made it past their committees.

Show-Me Cannabis, which has been pushing to legalize marijuana in Missouri, also announced it would not be moving forward with the November 2014 initiatives. In January, the Secretary of State approved 13 initiative petition proposals by the group. Each proposal differed in the number of plants a person would be allowed to cultivate and if marijuana-related crimes could be cleared from a person's record. Show-Me Cannabis Chairman Dan Viets said the group's polling shows only 45 percent of voters support the initiatives for 2014. He said he expects that number to increase by 2016.