As it currently stands, Colorado's legal weed program is a model the rest of the world seeks to follow. We've set a good example, and now other states — even other countries — come to us, seeking our expertise when it comes to implementing their own laws in their own neck of the woods.
It makes sense that they would — our system has been hyper-successful. Recreational pot has flooded the state's economy with nearly a billion dollars in beneficial tax revenue, created hundreds of thousands of new jobs, decreased crime rates, saved thousands of people from unjust criminal punishment by decriminalizing pot, and given millions of people access to alternative forms of medicine that have been proven time and time again to be light years safer than legal prescription drugs. Meanwhile, there have been no changes in marijuana usage among teens since legalization, schools have been able to finance better educational programs with pot taxes and the diversity of marijuana careers has created new opportunities for Coloradans in business, cultivation, education, sales, entertainment and advocacy. Long story short? It's been good.
Yet, the truth is while Colorado sure looks like a pot utopia of heavenly proportions, there's still room for improvement. We haven't perfected the system just yet, but, as we're about to explain, that might actually be a good thing.
As nine other states seek to reform their own marijuana laws this November, Colorado's legislative trash could become other states' treasure — our regulatory pitfalls have set precedents for what works and what doesn't, and these might be important for states like California, Nevada or Arizona as they navigate their own newfound worlds of legal weed.
Here are some areas of improvement other states can learn from:
Better edibles labeling
When weed was first legalized in Colorado, the rules for edibles labeling were kinda piss-poor.
The only requirements the state had of edibles labeling was the package clearly list the ingredients (and whether it contained THC), and that they state the edible's potency. However, potency isn't so easy to test. As an independent investigation by the Denver Post discovered back in 2015, some edibles were found to contain up to 30 times less THC than the packaging claimed. Some had much more.
Unsurprisingly, emergency rooms got used to people calling about such mythical things as "weed overdoses." Maureen Dowds, those guys!
Except, the problem was that many of those "overdoses" were children. Last year about a fifth of the 911 marijuana calls involved kids 8 or younger, all of whom accidentally consumed edibles thinking they were regular ol' diabetes candies. That wasn't good. Neither was the fact that nearly 50 percent of those calls were for adults who had purposely ingested edibles, but got their asses handed to them by poorly labeled edibles whose concentrations were much higher than the maker was aware of.
Physicians also found that the rate of emergency room visits possibly related to marijuana doubled among out-of-state travelers in the first year of recreational pot sales. The rate went from 85 per 10,000 visits in 2013 to 168 per 10,000 visits in 2014, suggesting that customers either weren't buying what they thought they were, or that dispensaries and edible makers didn't exactly know what they were selling.
That, and many edibles were designed to look exactly like real vending machine specialties:
It wasn't until late September of this year that any sort of extensive labeling was required for edibles.
Now, there's a new rule that requires all edible marijuana products to be stamped with a diamond shape containing the letters T-H-C inside it. This stamp has to go not just on the packaging but on the edibles themselves. In addition, the rule requires that all edibles be packaged in childproof zip-lock bags or in containers with kid-unfriendly lids, along with warnings that the product should be kept away from children and not eaten before driving or while pregnant or nursing.
“We want to ensure that people genuinely know the difference between a Duncan Hines brownie and a marijuana brownie, just by looking at it,” said state Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat who sponsored the law requiring stamped edibles.
Moral of the story: Come out swinging with exhaustive edible labeling requirements if you want to stop people from the thoroughly un-cool — and impossible — assertion that they're overdosing on weed.
Logical public consumption laws
Colorado, for all its progressiveness around weed, is also a hilariously backwards place when it comes to how we enforce the marijuana laws we've invented.
In fact, during the first year of legal weed alone, public consumption tickets soared to a stratospheric 471 percent. At $100 per public consumption ticket, that's a lot of money for law enforcement. Doesn't make a lot of sense in a state where consuming weed is legal, does it?
Still, to this day, you can buy it in public. You can possess it in public. You can fondle the living shit out of it in your pocket while you nervously scamper off to a private underground missile silo where it's safe to smoke … but you can't consume it anywhere, other than indoors, on your own private property.
For a state that's worked so hard to legalize marijuana and to both maintain and regulate that legality, this is the very definition of stupid. No one's' saying smoking weed should be a public free-for-all (though that would be nice), but Coloradans should be allowed at least some degree of freedom when it comes to public consumption. Otherwise, it's not truly a legal substance. And people get criminal charges for a thing that was meant to be decriminalized.
These backwards regulations have also stunted the growth of entities like marijuana clubs and social houses where people could smoke in public, something that would ostensibly create even more jobs through service industry professions and tax revenue that goes straight back into stoking the eternal flame that is Colorado's burgeoning economy.
Weed advocacy groups like NORML are currently working to change Colorado's public consumption laws so to allow limited use in approved social spaces, but so far, no dice. We're still in legal limbo, where our public consumption laws keep us in a perpetual one-step-forward, one-step-backward zone of "This is legal, but you can't smoke it!"
Moral of the story: Consider limited public consumption as a viable way to create additional revenue and jobs … and realize that fighting for legal weed doesn't count unless it's truly legal.
Figure out how to better constrain interstate trafficking
Remember when Nebraska and Oklahoma — lovingly referred to by us as Nebraskahoma — tried to sue Colorado because our weed was mysteriously ending up in the hands of people on their side of the fence? That was so cute! The Supreme Court laughed off the lawsuit, calling for Nebraskahoma to "reconsider their approach" and deal with the issue themselves, but, the interstate drama did highlight an important issue: states have widely varying marijuana laws, and the ones that border pot-friendly states want to keep it that way.
Without a doubt, Colorado, and other states for that matter, could use better interstate trafficking regulations; practices put in place to ensure that legal weed stays in the place where it's legal.
The problem — obviously — is that these kinds of laws are hard to enforce. Short of stopping every car passing from one state into the next and conducting an exhaustive search of the vehicle, or opening every single package at the post office to see if it contains pot, it's pretty impossible to track where weed goes after it's purchased.
That doesn't mean law enforcement isn't trying, though.
According to USA Today, a task force from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area reported 360 seizures of Colorado marijuana destined for other states in 2014. At around 1,000 pounds of bud, it was a nearly 600 percent increase in the number of individual stops in a decade. But, those seizure reports are only from statewide agencies, not smaller police departments that also make seizures during traffic stops, so it's likely that the amount of seized weed is much higher.
However, when compared to the monumental amount of cannabis that's produced in Colorado every year, 1,000 pounds per year is pretty minimal. It's clear that law enforcement is doing something to control the flow of weed outside our borders, but there's no real way to know how well it's working.
Interestingly though, as time has gone on, less and less legal weed has been trafficked out-of-state (or, at least less seizures are being made). The Washington Post's data and drug policy writer Christopher Ingram believes this could be due to "legalization reducing demand for black market sales," but, again — no one really knows for sure.
Moral of the story: While it's really hard to control trafficking of recreational weed across state lines, the law enforcement resources a state does have would best be allocated to state borders where they can intercept as much weed as possible … not at monitoring stupid things like public consumption.
Address racial inequalities to create more equal employment opportunities
An unfortunate and unexpected side effect of Colorado's legal weed is that it marginalizes minorities looking for employment in the marijuana industry.
This is because in Colorado, one of the requirements for getting a license to sell medical or recreational cannabis is that you don't have a controlled substance felony conviction on your record, including any that involve pot. The irony here is that is minorities, particularly African Americans, are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug offenses, meaning they're also less likely to be able to work with weed. In Colorado specifically, black people are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites despite contributing to only 3.8 percent of the state's population.
This trend holds true not just in Colorado, but nationwide — according to the Drug Policy Alliance, 37 percent of Americans arrested for drug crimes are black, despite whites using drugs at similar rates.
This has real effects in dispensaries, where just one of Colorado's 424 certified legal marijuana dispensaries is confirmed to be owned by an African American, a woman named Wanda James.
"When you start to look at the number of white males making billions off of this plant, and black males still serving time because of this plant, it does not make sense that in America, your zip code determines whether you're a millionaire or a felon," James told Mic.
It certainly does not.
Moral of the story: Update requirements for dispensary workers so that even applicants with limited drug offenses may be considered for a position … and learn to recognize how institutionalized instances of racism like this continue to marginalize minority communities.
Figure out marijuana DUI technology
In Colorado and beyond, weed DUI technology is uproariously misguided.
Currently, there exists no roadside test capable of accurately assessing a driver's marijuana impairment level, and while several models of cannabis breathalyzer have been invented to do just that, they can't accomplish much more than read whether a smoker has smoked recently. Not whether they're actually high … just whether they might have smoked sometime in the past few hours.
Law enforcement's confusion on how to accurately measure marijuana impairment at roadside stops is reflected in the strange patterns of weed DUIs since legalization.
In 2014, the Colorado State Patrol began collecting information marijuana DUIs, finding that the charge rate for that crime fell 1 percent between 2014 and 2015. But then, the Denver Police Department, which started keeping track of these numbers a year earlier, found that weed-related DUI citations doubled between 2013 and 2014 (from 33 to 66), then rose in 2015, from 66 to 73.
Well … which is it, boys and girls?
The same problem affects interpretation of traffic fatality numbers. CDPS reported that “fatalities with THC‐only or THC‐in‐combination positive drivers increased 44 percent, from 55 in 2013 to 79 in 2014.” It’s not clear how much of a role, if any, marijuana played in those accidents though, since, like we said, unimpaired drivers can easily test positive for THC and impairment is not defined by the mere presence of THC in blood.
What does all this mean? Although many drivers are actually high as fuck when pulled over, many aren't, and some Coloradans are being charged with marijuana DUIs in the absence of intoxication. This is actually such a problem that Colorado juries have been hilariously infuriating prosecutors by refusing to return with guilty verdicts for people charged with stoned driving.
Well, no duh. Without an accurate way to measure impairment while driving, data will continue to show conflicting results and present an unclear picture of just how serious a problem stoned driving is … and people aren't going to take that laying down.
Moral of the story: Don't subject drivers to shitty technology when it comes to marijuana DUIs, okay? Okay. Good talk.