Marijuana: Colorado's legal pot sales rollout is succeeding, new report says

Since the January 1 launch of legal recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, there's been debate aplenty about the wisdom of this civic experiment -- and a new report from the Brookings Institution's Center for Effective Public Management on view below won't end it. But the findings of the study, unambiguously entitled "Colorado's Rollout of Legal Marijuana Is Succeeding," cheer cannabis advocates, who see the paper as more evidence that the catastrophes predicted by policy naysayers haven't come to pass.

See also: Marijuana: John Hickenlooper, Mason Tvert react to feds' Amendment 64 decision

At the outset, author John Hudak, a Brookings fellow in governance studies and managing editor of the FixGov blog, stresses that the report "takes no position on whether the legalization of retail marijuana was the correct decision. Instead, it takes for granted that Amendment 64 and its progeny are the law and should be implemented successfully, per voters' wishes. The report examines what the state has done well and what it has not."

Hudak summarizes the findings like so:
• It's too early to judge the success of Colorado's policy, but it is not too early to say that the rollout -- initial implementation -- of legal retail marijuana has been largely successful.

• The state has met challenging statutory and constitutional deadlines for the construction and launch of a legal, regulatory, and tax apparatus for its new policy. In doing so, it has made intelligent decisions about regulatory needs, the structure of distribution, prevention of illegal diversion, and other vital aspects of its new market. It has made those decisions in concert with a wide variety of stakeholders in the state.

• Colorado's strong rollout is attributable to a number of elements. Those include: leadership by state officials; a cooperative, inclusive approach centering on task forces and working groups; substantial efforts to improve administrative communication; adaptive regulation that embraces regulatory lookback and process-oriented learning; reorganizing, rebuilding, and restaffing critical state regulatory institutions; and changes in culture in state and local government, among interest groups, and among the public.

• Regulations address key concerns such as diversion, shirking, communication breakdowns, illegal activity, and the financial challenges facing the marijuana industry. However, some regulations were also intended to help regulators, as they endured rapid, on-the-job training in dealing with legal marijuana.

• Despite real success, challenges involving edibles, homegrown marijuana, tax incentives, and marijuana tourism remain, and the state must address them in a more effective way.
No surprise that Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert -- the former co-director of the campaign for Amendment 64, which legalized limited marijuana sales to adults 21 and over -- is enthusiastic about the study. After Brookings unveiled the paper, he released a statement arguing that Colorado is proving "there is an alternative to marijuana prohibition. The state is generating millions of dollars in new tax revenue, and hundreds of millions of dollars in marijuana sales are taking place in legitimate businesses instead of in the underground market.

"Opponents' fears have proven to be unfounded," Tvert adds. "Since Colorado began regulating medical marijuana in 2010, it has experienced major economic growth, the real estate market is flourishing, and tourism has reached record levels. Officials have not found one instance of marijuana businesses selling to minors, and rates of marijuana use have remained steady. There has been no increase in crime linked to the new law, and law enforcement officials are no longer spending their time punishing adults for possession."

Also weighing in is Major Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). In his own statement, he writes that "the Brookings Institution proved what many of us have known for a long time: that legalizing and regulating marijuana and other drugs can be done thoughtfully and responsibly to the benefit of our communities. As legalization spreads across the country, regulatory models will only continue to improve, crime continue to drop, and public understanding of drug addiction as a public health problem, not as a matter for law enforcement, continue to expand."

Thus far, neither Smart Colorado nor Project SAM, among the highest-profile organizations fighting marijuana legalization on a local and national scale, have posted any response to the Brookings report, and the same is true of Project SAM affiliate and anti-pot crusader Dr. Christian Thurstone. However, the most recent post on Thurstone's website cities statistics showing that Denver's crime rate is up 7 percent and hints heavily that legal marijuana sales are a factor in the rise.

Here's the complete Brookings report.

Brookings Report on Colorado Marijuana Rollout

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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