The Marijuana Legalization Debate in Virginia: Lessons from Colorado

It’s a long way from Colorado to Virginia!

Elevated thinking.  I recently had the opportunity to do some skiing in Colorado. I hadn’t been to Colorado since the state legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014. I expected to see a Cheech and Chong movie played out on a vast scale high in the Rocky Mountains. That expectation went unmet.  Instead, I saw an American town where legal marijuana use has been incorporated into everyday life in a barely noticeable manner. Colorado has more pot shops than Starbucks outlets but you wouldn’t know that from a cursory visit. All of which got me thinking – what has been the marijuana legalization experience in Colorado and what lessons are there for Virginia?

Nil sine numine. “Nothing without providence.”  Residents of The Centennial State believe Colorado is guided by a “divine will.” After five years of “divine will” has legal pot turned into Rastafarian revelry or Puritanical perfidy? My unscientific poll of Coloradans riding various chairlifts and gondolas with me established a consensus of … “more good than bad”.

Timeline. Colorado didn’t jump straight to legalization of recreational marijuana use. The journey took years and came in “fits and starts”.

1975 – Colorado becomes one of 10 states to decriminalize marijuana based on The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse report issued by the Shafer Commission (during the Nixon administration).  The commission’s report favored ending marijuana prohibition. That recommendation was ignored by The White House and, apparently, the Virginia General Assembly.

Nov. 2000 – Colorado passes Amendment 20 allowing for the medical use of marijuana (54% support).

2006 – Amendment 44, a statewide measure for legalizing marijuana, fails with 58% of voters voting “no”.

Nov. 2009 – Breckenridge, CO expands decriminalization of pot to include no penalties for personal possession of less than one ounce.  (73% support)

Nov. 2012 – Amendment 64, legalizing recreational marijuana, passes with 55% support.

May 28, 2013 – Gov. John Hickenlooper signs a series of bills which specify how recreational marijuana will be regulated in Colorado. Stoners across the state immediately light up in celebration and spend the rest of the day slowly repeating the name “Hickenlooper.”

Sept 9, 2013 – Final regulations from Colorado Department of Revenue are adopted.

Nov. 2013 – Proposition AA passes. This proposition sets the tax rates for recreational marijuana. The 25% state tax targets the first $40  million for school construction. Summit County adds a 5% excise tax on top of the 25% state tax.

Jan 1, 2014 – “Green Wednesday” … legal marijuana sales commence.

5 Years After. After 5 years of legal marijuana use in Colorado there is no shortage of opinion on how the “green experiment” has gone. John Hickenlooper finished his second term as governor in January of this year and is now running for president. However, in April 2018, Gov. Hickenlooper said that he “wouldn’t rule out” making marijuana illegal again. He also said such a move was unlikely. In other words, the jury is still out.

The good. The money is coming in and the kids are all right. In 2018 marijuana sales in Colorado eclipsed $1.5 billion generating $267m in state revenue. The state and local taxes raised through marijuana sales were used to fund a variety of programs including the school construction program called out in the original legalization amendment.  A five year retrospective report looked at the non-financial impacts of legalized pot. There has been no increased use of pot by young people. Graduation rates in Colorado have increased over the five-year period. Total marijuana arrests dropped by half.

The bad. Stoned driving and the black market remain problems. Adult usage and marijuana related hospitalizations have risen. Approximately 7% of driving under the influence citations were for ‘marijuana only.” Fatal car crashes where the driver tested above the legal limit for THC were 56 in 2016 and 35 in 2017. Black market sales (as measured by plants seized on public lands) have increased 73% over the five year period.

The ugly. The technology of marijuana commercialization and increased potency of the plants themselves have greatly expanded the means by which cannabis can be ingested. Experienced marijuana users that I interviewed frequently told me that they had unintentionally overused cannabis. These long-time stoners have adjusted their behavior to meet the new realities of legal weed and have even coined some helpful catch phrases. For example, “indica will put you in ‘da couch” was a pearl of wisdom I heard a couple of times. Another concern is ease of use. Historically, smoking marijuana was a smelly and dirty business that required paraphernalia beyond the weed itself. Today’s legal market is based on disposable smokeless vape pens, edibles like cookies and gummies and carbonated beverages. Gone are the days of dank weed stinking up a car or the smell of marijuana smoke hanging over a stoner like smog in L.A. Anybody who wants to get surreptitiously high can do so without drawing any attention to themselves. Advances in the technology of THC delivery may turn out to cause more of an increase in usage than the mere fact that marijuana is now legal.

Lessons for Virginia. First things first – legalization is going to happen in Virginia. Michigan legalized marijuana last November and New Jersey and Pennsylvania have legalization bills in process right now. There may be other states. Meanwhile, Corey Booker is trying to make recreational marijuana use legal nationally while Tim Kaine is supporting national decriminalization. The dam isn’t about to break, the dam is breaking right now. The race is on for competitive standing in this newly semi-legal industry. While Virginia begrudgingly agrees to legalize hemp (see Steve Haner’s column) Colorado growers have 5 years of experience addressing the legal marijuana market which is expected to reach $146.4 billion by 2025.  Prohibiting Virginia farmers from participating in this market is short sighted and simple minded.

This is starting to look like the days of banking deregulation. While Virginia’s hapless state government slept North Carolina’s did not. The result? A whole lot of banks in Charlotte rather than Richmond. Virginia needs to accept that states like Colorado have made legal marijuana a success and move on. One possibility would be to restrict Virginia’s approved grow sites to impoverished rural areas. Implement an excise tax and spend that tax on education in those impoverished rural areas. Otherwise, when the inevitable legalization happens in Virginia, the stoners in NoVa and hipsters in Richmond will be vapeing Colorado grass instead of Virginia weed. And the fops and dandies in our General Assembly will still be scuttling about wondering what can be done to help rural Virginia.

— Don Rippert

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23 responses to “The Marijuana Legalization Debate in Virginia: Lessons from Colorado

  1. re: ” disposable smokeless vape pens”… probably works for whatever comes out of Hemp too, eh?

    also wonder how marijuana and opioids play together.

    On the distracted driving – the epidemic is not drugs or alcohol – it’s perfectly sober people screwing with their cell phones..

    I can understand someone knocking back a few beers or some “weed” and doing something stupid like getting into a car but I can’t figure out people who are stone cold sober – purposely messing with a cell phone at 55 mph… in traffic…

  2. We need to talk with some Colorado high school students. I’ve interacted with many over the past two years and they have told me they have observed an increase in disciple / drug problems in schools since legalization. It’s trickling down to the teens — where before it didn’t exist at the current levels.

    • The numbers are the numbers. Increased graduation rates since legalization for example. Surveys of children. I don’t think everything is coming up roses but the evidence says it’s not adding to the problems of children.

  3. It is important to note that legalizing marijuana doesn’t do much for farmers. Marijuana is an indoor activity requiring buildings, lighting, specialized irrigation and fertigation systems. The interior needs to be very clean and free from pest and disease vectors.

    This is an industrial activity that can require significant investment, if done on a large scale.

    Hemp is an agricultural crop, grown in fields over significant acreage. Special planting and harvesting equipment is usually required for optimum results.

  4. Geeze Tom – most of the nursery stock sold in the spring and quite a lot of the stuff in the produce section of the supermarkets is grown “inside”.


    I have a place near me – it’s HUGE and they grow dozens of different kinds of plants.


    I guess it would not be wrong to call it “industrial” but I’m not sure what the relevance of the term is when we also have poultry and other similar operations conducted mostly in rural landscapes.

    • Those are industrial ag activities too. A far cry from the pastured chickens raised by small landowners.

      The “farmers” are totally at risk. They must buy the baby chickens from the chicken company and the company’s feed laced with antibiotics. If they let the temperature get too high and they lose some of the huge flock, that loss is the total responsibility of the “farmer.” They also have to pay for the 1/4 to 1/2 million dollar chicken house that must be built to company specs.

      And they should wear respirator just to go to work, otherwise the high ammonia concentrations in the chicken house could make them sick, or worse.

      When it is time to get paid they cannot go to auction and get a market price. They must pay the cost on the current contract. The 4-5 big producers that control 80-85% of the market divide up the geography to keep prices low and avoid competing with each other.

      Early breast development and onset of menses in young girls has been connected to the high level of hormones in the feed to grow chickens with big breasts. Older men are affected too, as testosterone falls and the androgens and estrogens take over.

      Sorry. I guess I got on my soapbox again. I just want prosperous farmers and healthy people.

  5. One can make an argument that legalizing marijuana will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Where are the climate crusaders? More hypocrisy. It’s like AOC, arguing against having children while pushing for open borders.

    On the merits, I could support a reasoned legalization plan.

    • Cheetos are a very low carbon footprint food.

      • Sorry Don. Cheetos are made from corn, another industrial ag product. Most corn grown in the US is GMO requiring large amounts of pesticides (Roundup) and fertilizer (also from fossil fuels). Big ag equipment such as tractors, combines, sprayers, cultivators, etc. also burn lots of diesel.

        I will step off my soapbox now. My son runs the Pepsi/Frito Lay division for several states, including Virginia, so I hope he deosn’t see this post. This is not a topic in our conversations.

        • Yeah, always had my suspicions about them Cheetos, too, Tom. Thanks for the valuable tip. Won’t say a word ’bout where I got it, but I’ll be on look out for them Cheetos too, for sure.

        • Ok Tom. People gotta eat – whether pot is legal or not. Corn may cause greenhouse gas increases but it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef while it takes 127 gallons of water to grow 1 pound of corn. As long as the stoners are buying reefer instead of ribeyes I think we’re ok.

          Tell your son that Fritos are the best. Good old fashioned Fritos.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            That’s a fine, fair and informative article you wrote, Don. I had to resort to standard B/S leftist tactics in an attempt to flood the zone with exaggerated disinformation to unfairly counter your fair piece.

            There is however a Science Foundation study done around 2017 that suggests that a small percentage of the general population that in any case suffers from schizoid and bipolar disorders might well be pushed over the edge by their habitable use of weed. I am trying to retrieve that study. It was part of a book review of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, a very recent anti-weed book that has received mixed reviews at best.

    • TMC says:

      “One can make an argument that legalizing marijuana will increase greenhouse gas emissions.”

      Ah ha! The evil I’ve been searching for – green house gas emissions!!! Ban the Weed! Lock up them evil doers. Toss away the key. Feel the Bern!

  6. My mother spent many years bombarding me with the old saying “People in glass houses should not throw stones.” I’d like to know what is the carbon footprint and energy consumption for a big-scale, indoor pot grow. How does that compare to someone driving 10 miles each way to and from work? How does that compare to someone eating meat once day? Etc.

    And why aren’t the Climate Change freaks in the MSM investigating this?

    • Yes, it is an outrage! All that green house gas! Plus the second hand smoke that will be filling up the lungs of us innocents, and our children! Plus global warming everywhere, imagine that! The Pigs!

  7. I think there is an issue of “gas” here but not the greenhouse kind.

  8. DJR, you say, “Stoned driving and the black market remain problems. . . . Black market sales (as measured by plants seized on public lands) have increased 73% over the five year period.” Can you elaborate on that “black market” bit? I thought one of the strongest reasons for legalization was that it would reduce or eliminate black market activity within the US as well as illegal imports from Mexico etc. etc. — so, what’s this counter-indication?

    • My understanding is that this black market is more like moonshiners than Al Capone during prohibition. Guys planting hootch in a national forest and then selling the pot without paying any of the taxes.

  9. Reed – I heard there were issues with people who used high potency weed daily. Of course somebody who consumed a lot of 100 proof whiskey daily might go a bit batty too. My concern is hpow easy and cheap it is to get legally high in Colorado. It takes the average person 10mg of THC to get high. They sell gummies in Colorado that come 10 to a pack with 10mg in each gummy for $30. You can get legally high for less than it costs to buy a single beer in a bar. And you can sit around chewing those gummies all day long and nobody would know.

    I’d wager that kids who had a propensity to use marijuana will use more if they can their hands on things like edibles.

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